The Meat of the Matter

This week, much to my surprise, I’m not coming to you with new music or a book or anything of the kind. I’m coming to you with real news! Last week, the FDA approved a cultured meat product in the United States. It was on my mind this week as I (and much of America) cooked up a big turkey on Thanksgiving.

In addition to animal rights activists who call for a shift to cultured meat (meat grown in a lab), some climate activists do as well. This is because livestock account for ~14% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions globally. Cultured meat represents an opportunity to significantly reduce emissions.

This regulatory milestone for cultured meat has me thinking about why this news affects people so deeply. Of all the changes that people are asked to make in this unprecedented time, changes to our diet seem to be the most divisive. I think this is because, as this time of year emphasizes, there is little that is more central to our culture and our identities than the food we eat. This is particularly true for me, since I grew up on a farm, in a community where meals were a shared appreciation of the harvest (Wendell Berry is practically religion). Furthermore, the Republican Party has also led a concerted effort to make climate action more divisive by spreading false claims about liberals trying to take away your meat (no one is doing this…).

Needless to say, there were a lot of feelings about this development. Some people think that cultured meat will never take over the market, even despite recent successes. It is true that there is a long way to go. Others think that it is silly to be putting money into creating cultured meat when we could just eat more plants to the same effect.

I don’t know enough to know who is right; I don’t think anyone does. I do know; however, that the climate crisis is worsening. I know that cultured meat is a potential path to emissions reductions, particularly for people for whom meat is an important cultural tradition. For that, I am happy.

This is not a prescriptive column, though. I’m not here to tell anyone what choices to make with their diet, but I do think that the rise of options is a good thing. Our diet is a deeply personal choice — for instance, despite devoting my life to climate action, for a wide variety of reasons, I still eat meat. At the moment, I take action in different ways. The switch to cultured meat is not something that really factors in my decision either, because, for me, the cultural aspect of meat is about the farming and not the eating. Nevertheless, our personal choices affect our global reality. So all I ask today (and everyday for that matter) is that you think about what you eat and where it comes from.

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