Will Food Tech Make Us More Ethical Eaters?

New technologybicycleshelped grease the wheels of social progress for women. Will new food technology also help pave the way for food sustainability?

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Susan B. Anthony, the famed women’s suffragist, told a reporter in 1896. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Anthony went on to describe how late 19th century women were liberated from reliance on the men in their lives once they were enabled to ride bikes, empowering them to enter the workforce and lead less domestic lives. While bikes had existed for decades for daredevils and circus acts, it wasn’t until the 1880s that “safety bicycles” were invented, allowing for widespread use of the new technology, including for those whom 19th century Americans knew as “the fairer sex.”

When Tech Makes Us More Moral

While of course technology can cause socially negative outcomes (e.g., when the cotton gin made slavery more lucrative), history is also replete with stories of technological advancements ushering in much-needed social change.

Bikes aren’t the only invention that drove women’s entry into the workforce forward. Much has been written, for example, about the impact of devices like washing machines for women in the 20th century. In 1900, in fact, the average American woman spent 58 hours a week performing household chores. By 1975, thanks to new in-home appliances, it was just 18.

Furthering the point, industrialization of the Northern states increased the possibility of legislatively ending slavery, whereas war was required to end it in agricultural states still far more economically dependent on the deplorably “peculiar institution.”

Similarly, the plundering of the world’s oceans for whale oil in the 19th century was largely ended not by environmental sentiment, but by the invention of kerosene. And so on.

Will Food Tech Advance Food Sustainability?

Today, among the most pressing problems humanity faces is our reliance on raising and slaughtering billions of animals for food. Ample evidence confirms that this seeming addiction is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, antibiotic resistance, pandemic risk, animal welfare concerns, and more. It’s also simply inefficient to funnel crops through animals as opposed to eating the plants directly. And on a tiny planet with an ever-growing human population, we’re going to have to get a lot wiser about how we feed sustainably ourselves.

Diagnosing the problem is easy. Prescribing an effective antidote, not so much. Meat consumption is rising in the US and globally, and new research shows that two-thirds of Americans say they’re likely to maintain or increase their meat consumption in the next year.

So, can we have our meat and eat it, too? Might there be a technology that, like bikes, can help transport our society forward to a better future? Just maybe, if scientists in the food industry succeed in their quest to remake meat.

Making Meat Great Again

In the same way kerosene helped free whales from harpoons, new food tech may help free chickens, pigs, and cattle — as well as humanity — from industrial animal farming.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of investment are now fueling startups that are turning plants into meals that really do look and taste like animal-based meat, eggs, and dairy.

One need look no further than the proliferation of oatmilks, soymilks, almond milks, and other popular alternatives in the dairy case to predict what may soon happen in the meat aisle, too. Already, fast food chains like Burger King, White Castle, TGI Friday’s, and Carl’s Jr. have added plant-based meats to their menus, indicating that such options aren’t intended for vegetarians, but are now primarily enjoyed by meat-lovers. Even KFC is exploring plant-based chicken now.

And just as we need many alternatives to fossil fuels (think wind, solar, and more), there’s more than one alternative to factory farms, too. Whereas many companies are making meat-like products from plants, some are now growing actual animal meat, simply without the animals. These “clean meat” startups are growing animal cells — the same muscle and fat cells we currently eat — outside of the animal, using vastly fewer resources to produce equally delectable burgers and nuggets made of real meat, slaughter-free. They haven’t yet commercialized their products, but they aim to change that as soon as the next year or two.

Making the Right Choice More Palatable

Merely knowing the facts about the problems posed by overconsumption of meat is usually insufficient to change our behavior.

What if, however, food technologies like plant-based meat and clean meat could play a major role in making it much easier for us to do the right thing at mealtime? That’s the promise of the new alt-meat revolution: making us more ethical eaters without forcing us to totally change our ways. In effect, maybe we’ll be able to have our meat and eat it, too.

Susan B. Anthony’s bicycle declaration raises questions about what she may have thought of her life’s work after decades of staunch advocacy for women’s rights. Did she really believe bicycles had done more for women than the movement she helped ignite and to which she devoted her life?

Assuredly Anthony’s work was critically important, as anti-slavery work was, and as is environmental, public health, and animal welfare advocacy today. But just as technologies like bicycles helped accelerate social progress, sustainable food science is part of much-needed social change today.

When technology makes the better choice the literally more palatable choice, the wheels of change will certainly be spinning faster than ever.

Paul Shapiro is the author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World and the CEO of The Better Meat Co.

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