Will Factory Farming Go the Way of the Whaling Ship?

New Bedford, Massachusetts was once known as the “City that Lights the World.” In the 19th century, the now quiet quaysides of the town were the bustling epicenter of the whaling industry. The trade in whale oil, which Americans used every day to light their lamps, made New Bedford the wealthiest city per capita in the United States.

In 1857, the New Bedford whaling industry reached a high-water mark. The city was the home port of more than 320 ships whose value surpassed $12 million and provided jobs to some 10,000 men.

Consumers at the time especially sought products made from liquid spermaceti wax, derived from the skulls of whales. This type of whale oil was cleaner than the ordinary variety, yielding brighter-burning candles and higher profits. Its value went as high as eight times that of regular whale oil. With whales a seemingly inexhaustible natural resource, who could say no to a product that, in the case of one typical company in 1850, reached a value of $9 million in today’s dollars?

Despite the fact that environmentalists of the day publicly urged saving the whales, the profit motive unsurprisingly won out.

Fast forward to the 21st century, when at least in some quarters, the environmentalists’ message has been heard. If you visit New Bedford today, the whaling industry is extinct, its artifacts now showcased in museums and historical sites.

What happened? There were many factors — including the devastation of the Civil War, disastrous losses of ships and cargo in the Arctic, and modernized methods practiced by competitive Norwegian whalers — but what really did in the American whaling industry was the widespread adoption of kerosene, a cheaper way to light our homes.

Our modern-day factory farming problem

Today, we still face sustainability problems connected to our commercial use of animals. In our case, the issue isn’t scarcity, but overabundance. We simply have too many animals bred for human consumption. The United Nations reports that farming of animals for food emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire global transportation industry — more than all our cars, buses, planes, and trains combined. Skyrocketing demand for animal meat is also degrading soil and water quality and inexorably destroying the earth’s rainforests.

Not only is this dangerous; it is a highly inefficient way to produce food. It requires hundreds, and sometimes close to thousands, of gallons of water to produce one pound of meat. This hidden water usage footprint accounts for about two-thirds of all human water use.

Western diets and the growth of consumer-oriented middle classes in countries like India and China are driving higher levels of meat consumption. The rate of world population growth and increasing demand for Western-style, meat-based diets at a time of accelerating climate change are already unsustainable. Our planet simply cannot sustain billions more people eating a meat-centric diet.

So, what’s the solution? Can we have our meat and eat it, too?

The clean meat revolution

Innovations in technology are providing a way forward in what you might call a clean meat revolution. Cellular agriculture, which uses animal cells to grow real animal meat, can alleviate the inhumane slaughtering conditions, high greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental degradation associated with factory farming. Cellular agriculture is a more humane, sustainable way to produce the meat so many of us crave — and note that it produces real meat, not a meat alternative.

One start-up, Good Meat, has already used tiny cell samples from chickens to produce tasty, edible chicken nuggets. Other companies are taking a different path, growing biologically identical animal proteins from the molecular level up. These same techniques are also capable of producing real eggs, dairy products, and even leather goods.

The innovators building out this sector are backed by major investors like Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates. Meanwhile, conventional agribusiness multinationals are trying to beat the clock by developing their own animal-free agricultural revolutions.

Uma Valeti, a cardiologist and co-founder of Upside Foods, calls this the “second domestication,” as it’s an evolution of our ancient ancestors’ domestication of wild animals and plants. By “domesticating” a single animal cell instead of the entire animal, it’s now possible to grow enough meat to feed entire communities.

Greener, safer, better

While the term “cultivated meat” is more popular these days, “clean meat,” initially popularized by the Good Food Institute, is meant to be taken literally. When we grow our own clean meat, we’re growing only the edible parts of an animal, omitting, for example, the intestines that can harbor dangerous bacteria like salmonella. Clean meat doesn’t spoil as rapidly as slaughter-based meat, it harbors far fewer dangerous pathogens, and it causes less damage to the air, land, and water.

And, if you’ve had the pleasure of sampling any of the clean meat products developed over the past few years — which include beef, chicken, duck, and even liver — you’ll realize that they offer an appealingly natural taste. Maybe this sounds surprising, but it shouldn’t. These products are natural, after all.

Compare that to the factory-farmed meats we still eat. This meat comes from animals typically languishing in their own feces in small cages or overcrowded warehouses, seldom if ever allowed to roam outside, and pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones. That’s definitely not “natural.” Neither is it humane nor sustainable.

Industries replaced by innovation

If clean meat still sounds a little too futuristic for your taste, let’s gain some perspective by returning to the 19th century. Back then, the international “frozen water trade” worked by harvesting large chunks of ice from lakes and ponds on the coasts of Norway and the United States, then shipping them in insulated boats where they were in demand. The advent of 20th-century refrigeration decimated this industry, making it possible for humans to produce ice almost anywhere, using local water sources.

The outraged “natural ice” industry tried to scare consumers into thinking freezer-made (“artificial”) ice was somehow unnatural and even dangerous. Yet the new innovation in ice production, because companies boiled or filtered the water before freezing it, actually resulted in cleaner, safer ice.

Today, of course, we all have freezers in our homes that make ice for us. We don’t think twice about whether this is natural or not — it’s an expectation of modern life.

A similar paradigm shift will change the way we get our meat. And it will happen in years, not centuries.

Supplementing this clean meat future, plant-based meats continue to offer clean, safe, and increasingly delicious options and will continue to be popular. But for those who still want to enjoy animal-based beef, pork, chicken, and more, cultivated meat will one day offer another solution to multiple problems of taste, safety, and sustainability. Just like we need clean energy to compete against fossil fuels, clean meat can become a viable competitor to and eventually supplant factory farming.

The startups and innovators driving the clean meat revolution can bring us to this more sustainable, kinder future of food production. Perhaps someday, museums of agriculture will feature slaughterhouse knives as reminders of a past we’re glad to have moved beyond — just like the whaling harpoons that now hang on the walls of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Paul Shapiro is the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.

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