In Channel’s 4 documentary Apocalypse Cow, which aired in the U.K. earlier this month, journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot takes on the farming industry, arguing it’s an inefficient extravagance that it’s destroying the planet. Conversely, Monbiot hails cultured meat, which is slaughter-free meat produced by in vitro cultivation of animal cells, as one of the technologies that may potentially revolutionize our global food production system, providing high-quality proteins at at an affordable price but consuming a fraction of the natural resources required by animal farming. As Monbiot wrote in a Guardian opinion piece that teased the documentary’s release, innovative food technologies like cultured meat are “our best hope of stopping what some have called the ‘sixth great extinction.’”
Animal farming has certainly a devastating impact on the planet. It’s a major contributor to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and a leading cause of water depletion and deforestation (more than a football field of Brazilian rainforest is cut down every hour to produce livestock feed and meat for Europe). It’s also an inefficient industry, especially when it comes to red meat: producing one kilogram of beef requires 25 kilograms of grain and around 15,000 litres of water. Land (ab)use is another distinctive trait of animal farming: as Monbiot highlights in the documentary, “51% of the surface of the U.K. is used for raising livestock and for growing grass” (for comparison, all the U.K. built environment amounts to a paltry 5%).
Despite the ominous title, Apocalypse Cow offers its viewers a glimmer of hope exploring how cultured meat and other sci-fi sounding technologies (one segment is dedicated to Finnish startup Solar Foods and their single cell protein "made out of thin air") may overhaul the food industry, making it more sustainable.
Monbiot brands these new technologies "farmfree food," a term he uses multiple times in the Guardian article. The British journalist doesn’t recognize much value to farming. When in the documentary a farmer tells him that her cattle represents a history of family heritage of which she’s proud, he dismisses her feelings saying that to him the cows are just “big carbon releasing machines.”
Asked what farmers should do had they to give up their jobs to save the planet, Monbiot’s master plan is that they keep their governmental subsidies but use them to do something else, like planting trees. For Monbiot, farmers have hardly any role in the future of meat.
Predictably, the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales (NFU) reacted pointing out that “farming is not just an industry [...] it’s the lifeblood of Britain’s rural heritage.” But Monbiot has no doubts. “It’s time to throw away our storybook view of farming and turn to something that looks like science fiction,” he urges, hinting at cultured meat and similar technologies.
On the one hand, it’s admirable how Apocalypse Cow decided to focus his critique on extensive farming, a practice that it’s usually perceived as more sustainable than intensive farming but, under many counts, may be equally, if not more, environmentally damaging. On the other hand, one of the documentary’s main limits is failing to recognize the pitfalls of this uncompromising approach.
Thing is farmers are still likely to play a crucial role in the future of food. Yes, if alternative meat technologies take hold, the farming industry will probably collapse, factory farming will disappear and extensive farming will provide negligible amounts of food. Nevertheless, a small number of farmers may still be key to pave the way for the public acceptance of cultured meat.
Cor van der Weele, a philosophy professor at the University of Wageningen, has been studying the cultural and social impact of cultured meat for years and her most recent research project tackles precisely how cultured meat can be an opportunity, rather than a threat, for farmers.
During a focus group conducted for a study she co-authored with Clemens Driessens, participants were asked to express their thoughts and feelings about a meat production scenario called “the pig in the backyard.” In this speculative production scenario, cultured meat is made in small, local factories using cells from animals kept in small yards. This hybrid process, which combines rural traditions and advanced technology, thrilled the participants in the focus groups, especially those who previously expressed doubts about cultured meat’s unnaturalness.
The study highlighted an important issue and hinted at a possible solution. To succeed, cultured meat needs to be publicly accepted and perceived as a good, healthy and “natural” option, not as a lab-grown, sci-fi and artificial abomination. Otherwise, the risk is a publicity fiasco akin to the one that smeared GMO crops.
In the “pig in the backyard” scenario, micro-farmers (and “the storybook view” with which they’re still connected, as Monbiot notes) facilitates the perception of cultured meat as a “good, natural” product, acting as repositories of rural traditions.
Admittedly, this scenario sounds “too good to be true” (as several of the participants involved in the focus group remarked). McKinsey estimates that the global meat market is worth approximately $1.7 trillion so it’s difficult to imagine that cultured meat will be produced solely in small-scale, pig-in-the-backyard style production facilities.
However, this just means that not only micro-farmers but also larger meat companies are likely to be pivotal in shaping its future. As highlighted by sociologist Neil Stephens on The Conversation, “the cultured meat community has been careful not to exclude farmers entirely, with some insisting that cultured meat can broaden the ‘protein portfolio’ alongside livestock.” For example, Stephens writes, “some entrepreneurs suggest [...] that farmers could rear animals (potentially from rare breeds) as cell donors.”
The bottomline is that Apocalypse Cow is a compelling documentary about the necessity to revolutionize our meat production systems and George Monbiot is a zealous advocate of how cultured meat technologies may help us doing just that but the “farmfree” label he attaches to this vision isn’t probably going to stick. Farmers may actually turn out to be crucial albeit unlikely allies for cultured meat startups.