I am an ardent opponent of factory-farmed animals. I care about food and agriculture, the latter I sometimes fear was our original fall from Eden. The beastly way we have turned animal production into a heartless row of cages and confinement displays our belief that we are somehow above the animal kingdom—we are now masters of the universe.
Is it possible that our next play at masters of the universe—genetic engineering— is a solution to factory-farmed animals?
What’s at risk as we search for the next solution to feed a hungry world?
Cheap Meat = Big Costs Down the Line
Chickens, swine and cattle now long since domesticated have taken center stage on our plates and farms. Most of them are raised in factory farms creating vast quantities of seemingly cheap meat, milk and eggs. They are cheap because many of them live in deplorable conditions.
Raising animals in factory conditions also requires huge amounts of water and energy, generating significant greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention soil, air and water pollution. Industrial factory farming is carbon and resource-intensive and costs the public billions of dollars in diet-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity.
We end up paying later in unseen consequences.
Is the Solution Found in a Petri Dish?
Enter the scientist with the ability to genetically engineer organisms such as yeast, algae or bacteria to produce compounds that mimic those derived from real animals. He produces something that looks tastes, smells and even feels like meat, eggs or milk as it passes across our plates.
A virtual cavalcade of companies has jumped onto this meatless wagon, developing lab-grown meat and animal-replacement products as an answer to our factory-farming woes. Their proposals and sustainable claims are attracting widespread media attention and generating great interest in the investor community.
The meat-alternative food craze has taken the natural foods market with a force. Vegans, vegetarians and those like me who are appalled by factory-farmed animal products are flocking to plant-based alternatives such as soy-based bacon, chicken and turkey. The meat-substitute market could be worth close to $6 billion by 2022.
These genetically-engineered products are coming to a store near you soon.
Impossible Foods is now offering the Impossible Burger with a genetically engineered “heme” that gives it a blood-like red color. Clara Foods and Perfect Day are genetically engineering microorganisms to produce proteins that mimic animal milk and egg whites, without milking a cow or cracking an egg.
This horse has left the stable without a rider.
Are these highly-processed, multi-ingredient, hi-tech, meat replacement products the long-term answer for better meat or vegetable-based proteins?
The answer is that we don’t fully know, and what we do know raises important questions that must be considered before these products enter the market and our diets on a larger scale.
These products, while bold in their goals to reduce factory farming, have not been fully assessed for sustainability of the resources needed to produce them. How much energy, water, fossil fuels, feedstocks, chemicals, and plastics will it take to mass manufacture or engineer 15 to 20 ingredients?
These products are racing from lab development to store shelf without being reported to the Food and Drug Administration. They enter the market via the voluntary “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) process. This allows a manufacturer to decide for itself, without the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) input, whether or not a product is safe.
There is currently no mandatory regulatory oversight for these new genetically-engineered organisms to be adequately assessed for health and environmental impact.
We may soon be ingesting things never before found in nature without knowing their long-term effects.
What’s the alternative then?
Spending billions to manufacture genetically-engineered protein and meat-replacement products in labs as an alternative to farms is a theory that requires further assessment before it can be regarded as a sustainable solution.
Perhaps we should eat less meat and shift to buying organic animal products that foster cleaner water, promote healthier soils that can sequester more carbon, release fewer toxins and improve biodiversity and pollinator habitat.
We can also enjoy the myriad of organic plant-based meat and dairy-replacement products currently on the market without resorting to untested and unregulated genetic-engineering methods.
Instead of investing in potentially risky new food technologies, we should be investing in transparent, proven, beneficial alternatives such as truly plant-based protein, regenerative agriculture and organic food that is good for us and the planet.
Eating more organic plant-based proteins and smaller quantities of certified sustainable and high-welfare meat and dairy can improve our health, support animal welfare and reduce our impact on the planet.
Animal-replacement products derived from genetic engineering take us away from the proven solutions provided by a sustainable, organic, humane, just and transparent food systems.
For more information on this subject view Friends of The Earth issue brief.