The meat and the future » Tech T100

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My column this week in Invertia is titled «sins of the flesh» (pdf), and tries to separate questions in which controversial statements by the English consumer minister, Alberto Garzón, to The Guardian. Basically, it’s trying to differentiate what he said, which I unequivocally agree with, from the medium in which he said it, which was clearly a mistake.

If a English minister goes to an important and prestigious British media outlet, a medium in which journalism has been very careful for many years and in which it is not particularly expected that they distort what you have said, and affirms that his country is exporting meat of low quality from mistreated animals, what it achieves is to generate a bad reputation that, like an umbrella, tends to extend to all meat products in the country. The European consumer who reads that interview begins to associate English meat with macro-farms and with animal abuse, regardless of the actual origin of the meat and the process used in its production. The specific phrase that generates the problem is

“Extensive farming is an environmentally sustainable means of cattle farming and one that has a lot of heft in parts of Spain such as Asturias, parts of Castilla y León, Andalucía and Extremadura. That is sustainable; what isn’t at all sustainable is these so-called mega-farms… They find a village in a depopulated bit of Spain and put in 4,000, or 5,000, or 10,000 head of cattle. They pollute the soil, they pollute the water and then they export this poor quality meat from these ill-treated animals.”

The minister’s concern with the macro-farms is completely legitimate, and the fact that the English livestock industry is scandalized by this is unjustifiable: the environmental impact of this type of facility is insane and should never be authorised, the treatment of animals does not allow for any type of consideration ethics, the use of disinfectants and antibiotics to avoid the effects of overcrowding exceeds all permissible limits, and the quality of the final product is clearly inferior to that obtained with traditional livestock. The fact that the industry intends to take advantage of a terminological disquisition in the form “ours are not macro farms because they are very small compared to those of other countries” is completely absurd: the term macro farm does not refer to a certain number of head of cattle, but to a production method that we all know.

If you raise animals in dramatically less space than they need to move freely, in highly crowded conditions and in a completely industrial way, what you get is a substandard product. It can be argued that traditional farming does not allow obtaining the necessary amount of protein and at the price that the demand admits, and that there is a segment of the market that wants to eat meat at a price that can only be obtained with the costs of this type of facility, but that leads us to admit that we are willing to do anything – in environmental, ethical or health terms – to obtain those proteins.

English macro-farms, therefore, are unsustainable from any point of view, and in the future they should tend to disappear, not expand. If the minister detects, as is the case, a tendency of the English livestock sector to create more facilities of this type, what you have to do is not complain bitterly in a prestigious British media and create the image that all English meat is like that, but propose, together with other competent ministers, legislation that limits macro-farms. Legislation that, on the other hand, already exists, and is simply being ignored.

Although countries such as the United States or, above all, China, have made enormous advances in the field of macro-farms, they have incorporated technologies of all kindsfrom facial recognition to traceability through blockchain – and have obtained very high levels of productivity that allow them to supply protein to their population, in practice we all know that in the future, these types of facilities are doomed to disappear. The future of the meat industry it is not in the macro farms, but in the cell culture in the laboratory. It is estimated that more than 60% of the meat consumed in 2040 will not come from slaughtered animals, but from this type of farming process. Obviously, this will not mean that the impressive ribeye, the rib eye or the strip roast will disappear, but that different market segments will be created depending on whether we seek to supply ourselves with quality and cheap protein, or access a whole gastronomic experience of an animal of a specific breed, raised under certain conditions.

On the production of meat in the laboratory, a process whose future, in reality, does not correspond to laboratory-type facilities but to large bioreactors in industrial facilities, and about the one i have written in several occasions, we have to apply the considerations that apply to the vast majority of technological processes: in a short time, we will be talking about very high productions, which will start with products with little differentiation such as Nuggets or hamburgers, but that will manage to reproduce complex structures and synthesize tissues that will give rise to products of a very satisfactory quality. Again: we are not talking about the disappearance of traditional livestock, which will continue to supply certain market segments, but we are talking about the future disappearance of some macro-farms focused on the production of a lower quality protein, which can be obtained in a more sustainable way, more ethical and more reasonable through such processes.

Therefore, the ideal would be to see a English meat sector focused on this type of process, not on creating more unsustainable macro-farms. In Spain there are sufficient workforce and resources to make a solid commitment to this type of technology. If the minister of consumption wants to open this enormously interesting debate and influence the development of this process, limiting, in addition, the obvious problems generated by the macro-farms, he should try to develop legislation in that sense, instead of going to a British media and risk spoiling the image of English meat.

This article is also available in English on my Medium page, «The sins of the flesh«

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