An easy way to get a real feel for how events are trending in business — or politics — is to simply scan the headlines of news stories via any of several so-called “aggregation” services.
When similar stories get re-run time and again, it’s clear that they’ve captured a development that will impact whatever industry is involved, or whatever aspect of our modern lifestyles is affected.
Such is the case, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, with the incessant media coverage of the alt-meat entrepreneurs, the developers of artificial shamburgers, pharm-fresh chickn and all the other faux-food products masquerading as alternatives to the animal foods that currently sustain 99% of the world’s population.
To judge by the frequency and volume of these stories, you’d think that these test-tube-to-table concoctions have taken over the meat and dairy cases worldwide, which isn’t remotely true even at upscale retailers such as Whole Foods.
Yet animal activists are running with the notion that actual factories will soon replace factory farming as an alternative source of sustenance (we’ll still be subsisting mostly on soybeans and salad in their future world, of course). They aren’t necessarily thrilled with the idea that our meals will come from sterile laboratories, but they’re darn sure enamored with a development they can leverage to demonize animal agriculture and its environmental and health-related negatives.
As they see it, anyway.
It is difficult to argue a hypothetical situation, and so activists are capitalizing on this futuristic scenario by asking a tantalizing question: If (and that’s a big-time “if”) all animal husbandry globally could be replaced with clean, sanitary, odorless, low eco-impact cultured food production, with end products indistinguishable from the “real” foods and costs controlled by technological wizardry that supports efficiencies of scale, wouldn’t that be a wonderful development?
Yeah, and wouldn’t it be equally great if that miracle “exercise” belt really could make you nice and slim while you watch TV and eat whatever you like?
A Grim Scenario
In debating the merits of a faux food future, proponents always tout the prospective benefits of synthetic food production, and if all the alleged benefits were to be delivered by this techno-revolution, it’s near-impossible to argue otherwise.
But the one outcome of such a vision that never seems to be considered is the issue of centralized control of our food supply. Anti-industry activists and their ideological sympathizers love the fantasy of a world without livestock, but they loathe the notion that consumer choice would be constrained, that small-scale family farming would be devastated, that agriculture and food processing would end being controlled by the same multi-national corporations that are already in charge of so many other aspects of life.
Mention GMOs, and activists start frothing at the mouth about the horrors of corporations controlling the seeds required to grow our most important food crops, a position with which I can empathize; it’s a concern.
But the same folks who rail against the corporations that have the means and the money to invest in the high-tech systems needed to produce genetically engineered crop varieties seem oblivious to a similar development almost certain to occur with faux food production.
If the supposition is that “science and technology will someday make cultured foods competitively priced,” the inevitable corollary is that only the biggest of companies would be able to manufacture such food products on a scale necessary to replace the billions of tons of meat and dairy foods currently being consumed by people worldwide.
Is it remotely realistic to pretend that replacing the calories and the nutrition provided by some 4.46 billion food animals now alive on Earth (not even counting chickens or turkeys) could be accomplished with a bunch of mom ’n pop shops churning out test-tube foods, like a craft brewery operating out of somebody’s three-car garage?
Even the boutique beer business has quickly expanded beyond the scale where anyone with a zany brand and some exotic recipe can launch a start-up and carve out significant market share. A couple years ago, the Brewers Association, a trade group representing smaller, independent craft brewers, was delirious about the fact that boutique beer sales finally hit double digits (11%) market share.
Even at just over 11% of market share — and for a discretionary product that, unlike food, nobody has to purchase — the “little guys” have been marginalized and relegated to the sidelines of the boutique beer industry.
That same end game would be played out in exponential fashion if at some point this century the faux food manufacturers scaled up to a production volume sufficient enough to replace a significant percentage of meat and dairy foods.
And one final note for activists who are motivated to obtain fraudulent jobs, sneak in mini-videocams and capture footage that reveals what really goes on inside meatpacking plants, “because the public needs to know:” Good luck with that action once the staples of our food supply are manufactured in gigantic factories that will not only have intense biosecurity but the closed-door capability of a nuclear power plant.
Guess what, activists? Those food factories of the future aren’t going to be swarming with workers toiling away on production lines; the actual manufacturing will be done by robotic systems controlled by technicians sitting in sealed offices watching computer screens. You won’t be able to walk in wearing your hidden video ballcap and get hired on the spot.
And there won’t even be the possibility that federal inspectors could be stationed on production lines to catch any “bad actors” producing substandard or contaminated products — because there won’t be any people at all on those lines.
That’s the future activists thoughtlessly embrace, and by the time they wake up to the reality that their rose-colored replacement of animal agriculture would create a scenario equally problematic, it’ll be too late to turn back.
Chew on that, haters.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.