I remember my first chicken harvest, as it was euphemistically called. It was 1999 and I was 12. In a video of the event, you can see me in my denim work jacket, gripping my neck in vicarious horror. There was a performative aspect to my reaction. But despite this, the slaughter was the first real instance of violence I had ever seen, so far as I can remember.
And it was horrifying. Undoubtedly I had witnessed schoolyard scuffles, but nothing like this. Nothing that resulted in a bucketful of the lopped-off heads of living individuals, blinking in their apparent last moments of consciousness. When it was over, I remember lying in the grass with my friends, publicly vowing to become vegetarian. This oath, of course, lasted a few days tops.
I think many people recognize there is something wrong with our treatment of animals. What they might not be aware of is an emerging technology that will make aligning our values and actions easier. I’m talking about cultured meat, which is grown from cells, without slaughter. It’s better for the environment, public health, and, of course, animal welfare.
This may sound like science fiction, but it’s not. Cultured meat has already been granted regulatory approval in Singapore, and is even available for home delivery. Meanwhile, an Israeli company has reduced production costs for a quarter pound of cultivated chicken to less than $4.
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The environmental benefits of this new protein are manifold. The land, fresh water, and greenhouse gas emissions required to produce it are a tiny fraction of those necessary to raise animals. Meanwhile, there is no runoff of agricultural waste into rivers and oceans, since cultured meat is produced in a closed system.
The public-health benefits of cultured meat are very important. It doesn’t require artificial growth hormones and unnecessary antibiotics. Since animals are removed from the process, the danger of zoonotic viruses making the jump to humans is eliminated.
The animal-welfare benefits offered by cultured meat should be apparent. We kill over a trillion aquatic and land animals every year for food. The amount of suffering this represents is impossible to comprehend. To put it in perspective, only about 107 billion humans have ever lived, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
By my third harvest, in 2001, I was thoroughly desensitized to the violence. Together with a girl I briefly dated, I wrestled a turkey into a large bucket with a small slit, just big enough for its neck to stick out from. I pinned the animals’ writhing body to the ground after its head was cut off with an axe, until the poor creature bled out.
From there, we brought the carcass through the methodical process of boiling, plucking, gutting and cleaning. Somewhere, there’s a photo of me smiling, holding the corpse upside down, waving to the camera with a glove-covered hand smeared with blood. While most people don’t participate in slaughter, I think many undergo a similar desensitization to animal suffering.
I think we learn the rationales for non-human exploitation in fits and starts. This education — or more accurately, miseducation — probably takes place throughout our lifespan, with different answers formulated to meet our ideological needs at different times and places. There’s nothing particularly nefarious in the process. Human violence against animals is just the way it’s always been.
I want to live in a world where this self-deception doesn’t feel necessary. I don’t think our food system needs to accelerate global warming, heighten our pandemic risk, or be so cruel. Cultured meat can help address all these problems without noticeable dietary change.
That’s why I want the federal government to fund open-access research into cellular agriculture. Despite great progress in the private sector, there’s so much more work to be done in order to reach price parity with slaughtered meat and develop whole-cut products, like steaks and filets. I hope legislators will support this effort.