Farms Before Space

Or “Grassfed Musings in the Time of Fake Meat”

Summer’s in full splendor, farmer’s markets are teeming, and it’s time to blog again. Once mud season finally surrendered to the riotous, fern-rich green of Vermont in the spring, I jumped headfirst into as many outdoor pursuits as possible. I explored. I hiked. I foraged. I fished. I hunted. I didn’t even stop to write about it until now, because some things, like finding my first edible wild plants and hearing a turkey gobble at dawn, cannot be captured in words.

I’d like to rant talk about two topics that are always on my mind: conscious eating and the fake meat industry. It would seem…and I can’t believe I’m writing this…that the very definition of meat is being challenged. In some states, it is or may become illegal to use terms like “meat,” “burger,” or “hot dog” to describe products that do not contain the flesh of slaughtered livestock. Meanwhile, the two most popular fake meat companies are leading a wagon train of fake meat pioneers tackling everything from beef to bacon to chicken and fish (more on that later). It feels like the start of a very polarizing war between the meat industry and the fake meat industry, which will divide eaters worldwide. The last thing we need is more discord.

These developments evoke the points I made in “A Lot on Our Plates.” We’re all becoming aware that we’re facing health and environmental crises directly related to our broken food system. Our dangerous disconnection from what we eat must be addressed, and any productive dialogue about solutions is welcome. But again, it would seem that we are wasting valuable time and energy (and most of all, money) on cutting-edge experimental “solutions” when in fact, we have other, more natural solutions already in place. We’re overlooking them.

First and foremost, I respect the fake meat (plant-based or lab-grown) companies’ intentions, whether they are moral or monetary, to get our food habits and food system to change. I can only hope that their motives are always just. Admirably, much of their products’ target audience is not vegetarians or vegans, but meat-eaters (including “flexitarians”) who want to eat less meat. Riding on the back of recent high-profile studies proposing that we drastically reduce our meat consumption, I can’t think of a cleverer time for fake meat to appear as deus ex machina.

But not everybody wants fake meat. It’s not welcome in my kitchen or my body, personally. If I had a choice between eating a fake meat burger or not having a burger at all, I’d gladly go without the burger. I fall into the “flexitarian/humaneitarian” category, as I try to eat meat 2-3 days a week and always from the best possible sources. When you reduce the quantity of meat in your diet, increasing the quality becomes a viable option. There are choices out there that are not only good for the eater but for the eaten, too, and even the land it lived on: organic, grassfed, pastured, local, sustainable, wild, and humanely treated. Sadly, not enough food sourcing education currently exists, and navigating the veritable maze of meat labels discourages many people. Not everyone has access to pastured, properly-raised meat, and it can be even harder to find it when you go out to eat. Fake meat, it seems, comes to the rescue once again – popping up everywhere from fast food chains to fancy restaurants.

But at what cost? The fortunes going into the pockets of fake meat company executives could be going toward food studies education, regenerative agriculture efforts, and support for small-scale operations serving the needs of their communities: local food networks, diversified family farms, and CSA programs. These people and organizations are the true miracle workers, who are not trying to fool the time-tested human palette, defy nature, or play God. They are merely trying to mitigate the damage now that our attention, as Wendell Berry put it, has “shifted from the place to the technology.”

These are dark times for the eater when the CEO of a company worth billions promises children they won’t be eating dead animals by 2035, yet seems to insist that the “healthy” alternative should be highly processed, fabricated products offered by his company. I’m not a scientist, but playing with protein and unfamiliar ingredients seems like a recipe for a monster movie or zombie apocalypse. I can’t help but feel like nature did not give us a dazzling array of ingredients so we can warp and combine them and try to make our version better than the real thing. With all the funding for this kind of technology and space programs, it seems we’re determined to abandon this planet and its gifts in the the name of progress. I think we should put farms before space.

Again, anything we can do to get people thinking about food and the future is a good thing. But I don’t believe fake meat products deserve to be worshipped as miraculous panaceas. How does relying on ingredients like imported cocoa butter, coconut oil, and barely-edible additives speak to our concerns about health, sustainability and the conservation of endangered resources? I also don’t understand how millions of dollars are being spent so we can one day eat petri dish pork, when millions of years have been spent consuming real, natural meat. Our minds and diets should change, yes, but we’re still animals. Animals are designed to eat what nature provides them.

A startling comparison has been made between the two most popular fake meat burgers and a brand of dog food. Not only are the ingredient lists disturbingly alike, there’s a laughable parallel here between the fake meat craze and the raw pet food trend. People are starting to realize that maybe they shouldn’t feed their carnivorous cats and dogs processed pellets from a paper bag. They’re shelling out good money for high quality meat, organs, and bones so their pets can eat their natural diet. Meanwhile, the “latest advancement” in food technology, the savior of the human diet, is in fact a processed filler-laden product. What about the plethora of whole, natural foods that nourish our species? Shouldn’t we be returning to a more natural diet, too?

Then there’s the question of production. Where are all the vast fields of soy and peas going to go to provide fake meat’s heme and protein isolates? What will we tell our children about the billions of animals poisoned and crushed when their crucially beneficial ecosystems are destroyed to make way for fake meat components? Are these creatures inconsequential? Is their environment (also ours) just collateral damage? Couldn’t it be put to better use? Isn’t there a better way to save the world than by cramming Frankenpatties down our throats?

There are places where crops just can’t be grown. But  very often, these places can be grazed – by animals that can be eaten. They take land we cannot use, and material we cannot digest, and turn it into food that can nourish us. In so doing, these animals can rejunate soils, enrich environments, and even help offset climate change. We don’t need another reason to corrupt and deplete our soil, but that’s what fake meat will have to do to meet the demand it seeks to create. It’s counterproductive to destructively grow crops to produce fake meat.  How is that any better than growing crops just to feed livestock – when instead we can graze livestock on the free grass that comes from the earth and heals it?

If the average American doesn’t care, know, or want to know where their meat comes from, and they consume it on a very regular basis, then they might as well be eating plant-based or lab-grown meat. It’s the voracious appetite of the daily meat eater that’s driving the commerical meat industry. And it’s not just our health, but the welfare of the animals and the environment that suffers. But if you’re a person that does care and know and works hard to make sure others know where meat comes from, you don’t want big flashy companies touting their fake meat conglomerations in your face. Personally, after spending the last several years meticulously researching the food system, sourcing food, shaking farmer’s hands, looking into the eyes of their animals, taking hunter eductation and food choices courses, and drastically changing my diet, I find fake meat perturbing and “clean meat” (lab-grown) unnatural.

Clean meat. I resent that term. I get that it’s a marketing tactic, becsuse “lab meat” just doesn’t have the same…appeal. But calling it “clean meat” implies that other meat is somehow dirty or impure. Some of it definitely is. The majority of meat we consume in the US comes from factory farms – seething, horrific confinement operations that are as Wendell Berry puts it, “a vision of Hell.” Contaminated by bacteria, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals, dubious feed, stress, and fear, meat from these sources is definitely not clean, physically or morally.

But I challenge any meat eater to eat a fresh grassfed steak from a cow they personally witnessed grazing an idyllic hillside, on which no chemical was ever used, and tell me that isn’t the realest, cleanest damn thing they ever ate. If you’ve ever had Vermont maple syrup, you know how terroir adds nuances like that of wine. It’s the same for pastured meat – I swear, you can taste the sunlight and healthy earth in the muscle, the grass in the fat. It tastes like something you should be eating, that your body is grateful to receive: a perfect parcel of taste and nutrients from an animal that ate its natural diet and lived happily its whole life, doing its part to nurture us and heal the land we stand on. That can’t be replicated in a lab. We need farmers, not carno-mancers.

The world is not going to go vegetarian. Much of the world’s diet and economy is always going to revolve around dead animals. But with so much money and branding image fueling fake meat’s momentum, they can certainly focus less on trendy evangelism and more on compromise. Perhaps fake meat companies will take it upon themselves to remove factory farms from the picture and boost local economies with jobs in their own facilities. Likewise, perhaps entrepreneurs of the fake fish frontier can take on the task of restoring our brutalized fisheries while respecting the livelihood of fishers and fish eaters worldwide.

But these companies are currently busy figuring out how to make fake meat cheaper and more delicious than the real thing, and how to make stem-cell steaks appealing. Meanwhile, in the background, there is a different and quieter story being told. It’s unfolding in places like the lush, rugged foothills of northern New England, where farm families pour their hearts and souls like so much rain into the land, and their blood, sweat, and tears into animal husbandry, land stewardship, and a profound presence in the natural and local ecosystem.

Here, you can see real magic at work, world-saving wonders done at the level of soil, vegetation, and air. As long as places like this exist, and I will do all I can to see that they always will, I see no reason to give a single cent to fake meat. If you want to eat less meat, just do it. Can’t find or afford “good” meat? Go without it. With the money you’ll save, you can certainly buy a grassfed steak or pastured eggs every once and a while. If you don’t want to eat meat anyway, why support an artificial imposter? Take nature’s gifts as they are and shun that high-tech Frankenpatty. Learn how to make your own damn burgers from ingredients you understand and trust. I promise, whether they’re meat-made or plant-based, you can make them the best you’ve ever had.

 

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