Meet Cultured Meat *

* meat produced by in vitro cell culture of animal cells rather than from slaughtered animals

Most consumers don’t have the opportunity to see inside slaughterhouses, and most consumers are probably grateful for that. The hard fact about eating meat is that the animals need to be killed. We have learned in the making of Farm and Red Moon that there is no easy way for an animal to go from being alive to being meat. They need to be slaughtered.

A lamb at a small farm in Massachusetts waits to be loaded onto a truck headed for the slaughterhouse.

The appeal of cultured meat is that consumers don’t need to face the moral question of killing animals. Yet, economic and environmental considerations will always be around lurking in the background as the unintended consequences of the “death of animal agriculture” as we have come to know it.

Students learn how to butcher a lamb at the SUNY Cobleskill Meat Lab.

In Farm and Red Moon, we worked on understanding the distinctions between industrial agriculture and the farm to table movement in which consumers concerned with animal welfare seek to purchase their meat from local, small farms. So, what happens if you take it one step further and avoid the killing of animals completely? This recent article in The Guardian weighs the costs and benefits of producing meat products from the cells of living animals in a laboratory. Yet, when cells are obtained from animal fetuses, another ethical question emerges. Live animals are still involved and the question about the morality of the scale of exploitation emerges. In Farm and Red Moon we wondered if small-scale animal agriculture is more focused on animal welfare than large-scale industrial agriculture, and we discovered that the question introduces a false dichotomy. I look back at my experience seeing 100,000 heads of cattle at the Kuner Feedlot in Colorado that does the “fattening up” for cattle destined for the large JBS meat packing plant in Greeley Colorado where they slaughter 400 an hour (over 5,000 per day).

And then I think about the contrast I felt when I saw turkey poults at White Oak Pastures in Georgia. This small organic farm had a palpable tenderness.

All in all, the question about “cultured meat” is extremely complex and cannot be simplified into neat little ethical, environmental or economic categories. The BBC recently posted this short video featuring companies seriously invested (financially and professionally) in producing meat products in laboratories. In regard to the cost, there is literally, THE COST: $18,000 for a pound of beef! In addition to taking killing out of the meat equation, benefits include reducing greenhouse gases produced by animal agriculture and protecting our oceans that are now stressed from the amount of over-fishing.

Although we did not address the question of cultured meat directly in the film, these issues are fundamentally related to the web of associations involved once one brings up the issue of humane slaughter.

Temple Grandin and Slaughterhouse Transparency

Dr. Temple Grandin and Audrey Kali review footage from slaughterhouses

The North American Meat Institute just released a series of videos featuring Dr. Temple Grandin, the world’s leading expert in humane handling at meatpacking plants. The meat industry has realized that they must embrace transparency. The videos feature lambs, cattle, pigs, chickens, and turkeys from the moment they get off the trucks to when they are slaughtered on the kill floor. It is enlightening to see this perspective of industrial meat plants since most of what people see are undercover videos depicting mistakes and abuses.

In Farm and Red Moon, meat industry transparency is a focal point since without transparency consumers cannot learn about how their meat is processed. It’s not just about “seeing what happens” behind the walls of slaughterhouses, but about exploring the changes that need to be made in regard to both animal welfare and food safety. Dr. Temple Grandin explained some of the issues about humane slaughter with me when I visited her in Colorado.

The American Meat Institute, in a recent publication, does a good job explaining how meat processing plants stay out of public view, not because they are hiding something, but because the animals become very stressed if they see visitors in their field of vision.

Paul McCartney said that “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” While he has been a very important advocate for animal welfare and animal rights, I disagree with his position that people would necessarily stop eating meat if they saw how farm animals were slaughtered.

The New York Times recently published a feature about transparency in the meat industry. An interesting discussion addresses how meatpackers have “created the necessity for undercover investigations by blocking consumers from seeing how their food is made. . . . [and] the only remaining window into the food system is the lens of an activist’s camera.”

This is exactly how Farm and Red Moon is contributing to the mission for more transparency – by going beyond the activists’ undercover cameras and accessing slaughterhouses with a camera legitimately.

Dairy farmer, Terri Lawton, and Audrey Kali take a video camera to a slaughterhouse in Rhode Island.

Back from Malawi!

Classroom at the University of Malawi.

It’s good to be back in the United States and to start working on the film again. Living in a developing country gave me a lot of perspectives that I can bring to Farm and Red Moon, the most important of which is the realization that developed countries eat too much meat.

In Malawi, subsistence farming of fruits and vegetables constitutes most of the agriculture, with a small component of that being farm animals raised for meat. So, the basic Malawian diet has meat as a “relish” rather than a main part of the meal.

I started this film as a vegan, got to know many farmers (both local and industrial), and was eating animal products regularly by the time I went to Malawi. But I ate so much less meat there and had a marvelous amount of fresh produce available to me from the markets daily. Most of the meat sold was from smaller live animals like chickens and goats since electricity and refrigeration are very sparse.

At the market in Zomba.
Not a frequent sight on the roads, but what few larger animals that are raised still need to be slaughtered.
Seeing live cows on the roads in Malawi is a common occurrence.

Fish is also a popular food choice since Lake Malawi cuts through most of the country.

Fishing village on Lake Malawi

Our work on Farm and Red Moon raises important question about humane methods of slaughter, and in so doing brings many other connected issues into the fold. The landscape of our eating choices is complex and goes beyond “To eat meat – or Not to eat meat.”

I am reminded of Michael Pollan’s book from 2009, In Defense of Food, where he investigates how our Western diet has become more about nutrients than food, and how we are consuming not “actual food” but the products of “food science.” Pollan’s simple solution is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This is exactly what eating in Malawi was like for me. I never had so many fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis in my life, and felt amazingly healthy.

This is me in 2010 when I was a vegan. Every meal was a struggle and I never knew if I was getting the right “nutrition.” I spent a fortune on supplements and vitamins trying to stay healthy, and wish I would have adopted Pollan’s philosophy at that time.

Going to Teach in Malawi!

I am very excited to have been granted a Fulbright Scholar Award to teach at the University of Malawi from January – August 2016. As a teacher, I look forward to experiencing a very different culture and bringing new insights back into my classroom. An article in the Metrowest Daily News recently covered my plans.

While I’m delighted to be able to accept this opportunity, Farm and Red Moon will need to be put on hold for a while. I hope that my absence does not set us back too far with our timeline for completing the film, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn firsthand about one of the poorest countries in the world and to contribute to the mission of international higher education.

I look forward to getting back on board with the film post-production as soon as I return. In the meantime, it will be interesting to observe how people in this culture manage animal agriculture. While I will not be officially filming or interviewing people about humane slaughter or other animal agricultural practices, I will surely be able to see an animal-products food system that is quite different from our own.