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Don’t Turn Cultured Meat into a Culture War

It must be palatable to carnivores.

Impossible burgers made from plants (Impossible Foods)

Reducing dairy and meat consumption is the easiest thing Westerners can do to slow down climate change and improve the lives of animals.

Livestock farming causes 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. We could quit fossil fuels tomorrow, and animal agriculture would still push us past 1.5˚C of global warming.

Environmentalists feel guilty about flying, but eating meat and yoghurt every day causes more pollution. And no animals are harmed in building airplanes.

We should eat more seafood and vegetables anyway. Europeans eat twice as much meat as the rest of the world. Spaniards top the list with 100 kilograms per year, which is about the same as Americans. Nutritionists recommend between a quarter and a third of that.

Meat is a source of iron, protein and nutrients, like vitamin B12 and zinc. But most can be found in fish and vegetables as well. Eating too much — especially red — meat can cause bowel cancer and raise cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Even carnivores who care little about animals or the environment should give that vegaburger a try for the sake of their own heart.

(The Good Food Institute has more facts and figures.)

Unfortunately, vegans are tyrants

The case for cutting down on meat seems reasonable to me, but when activists or politicians recommend it, the reaction can be anything but.

I reported here last month what happened when left-wing politicians in France and Spain advised eating less meat: they were called “mad” and accused of doing “severe damage” to farming. Not even the far right, but the mainstream right in France denounced the Green party mayor of Lyon as a “totalitarian” for introducing a vegetarian lunch menu in primary schools.

Sausage offends customers

Americans can always do one better.

We got a preview in 2019, when some Democrats proposed a “Green New Deal” and the right seized on the plan’s mention of methane pollution from cows to argue the left would ban meat. Serious media ran headlines like, “Do Democrats want to take away Americans’ hamburgers?” (No.)

Now Cracker Barrel, a chain of Southern cuisine restaurants, has stepped on meat eaters’ very long toes by adding a plant-based sausage substitute from Impossible Foods to their menu. The Washington Post has some of the reactions:

Cracker Barrel has gone woke!

This is not what Cracker Barrel was to be all about.

If I wanted a salad, I would in fact order a salad.

Backlash against “woke” food

The good news is that 71 percent of Americans have tried a plant-based burger or other meat substitute. Almond, oat and other nondairy products make up 14 percent of milk sales in grocery stores.

The worry is that conservative backlash might be the reason refrigerated fake-meat sales fell 10 percent in the last year.

Deloitte surveyed 2,000 Americans and found a decline in the belief that plant-based meat is healthier and more environmentally sustainable than meat from animals.

Deloitte also suspects that the addressable market may be more limited than previously thought with a growing cultural resistance to its “woke” status.

In Europe, even liberals oppose novel food

Europe is not so polarized that conservatives would refuse to try novel food just because progressives buy it. Researchers in the Netherlands blame a 5-percent reduction in plant-based meat sales on inflation.

But that also means our social democrats and liberals aren’t necessarily supportive.

Pedro Sánchez, the center-left prime minister of Spain, has said, “A medium-rare steak is hard to beat.” When Singapore legalized the sale of cultivated chicken meat, Emmanuel Macron’s then-agriculture minister, Julien Denormandie, tweeted, “Meat comes from life, not from laboratories.” France won’t allow plant-based dairy and meat substitutes to be sold as “dairy” or “meat”.

“Lab meat” spooks some

I have high hopes of cultivated meat, which is made from animal cells grown in brewery-style bioreactors: animal meat, but without the slaughter. I look forward to eating bacon without remembering the sad eyes of caged pigs. (99 percent of Dutch pigs are kept indoors. Exceptions included the cloister pigs of the Abbey Lilbosch in Limburg, who make the Netherlands’ only “organic” pork meat, and Hamletz, which is a compromise between intensive and organic pig farming.)

But I worry it’s all the same to reactionaries. When I mentioned cultivated meat as an alternative business model for Dutch farmers on Mikhaila Peterson’s podcast a month ago, the reactions on Twitter were not encouraging:

I think meat production has been pretty well done for hundreds of years!

Keep your cricket burgers and keep your beyond meat. It’s poison to the human body.

Perfect for the smarter-than-God crowd.

Lab meat can be a form of bioengineering, they can inject any kind of chemicals and control the biology of the population.

After I see a lengthy study of the effects lab-grown meat can have on the human body, and said study concludes that there is no discernible difference between the nutritional value of lab-grown and cultivated meat… I still won’t eat that.

Food innovators can still make a first impression

The silver lining is that few people know what cultivated meat is. It’s not “poison”. It’s bioengineering in much the same way 90 percent of corn, soy and sugar beets grown in the United States are genetically modified. And the way we’ve been rearing animals and producing meat in the last half-century — factory farming — bears little resemblance to how it was done for “hundreds of years.”

The instinct is to fight ignorance, but that allows the opposition to set the terms of the debate. Food innovators must be proactive, not reactive, especially while there is still time to make a first impression.

I attended a conference on alternative proteins organized by KindEarth.Tech in Amsterdam two weeks ago, where all the smart speakers emphasized this: don’t make a (negative) case against traditional meat, make a (positive) case for the alternative.

Animal welfare is more compelling than climate change

The Good Food Institute Europe presented the results of a survey at the conference, which found that between 50 and 60 percent of consumers in France, Germany, Italy and Spain had reduced their meat intake. The main reasons were concerns about animal welfare and personal health.

Yet advocates of cultivated meat and plant-based substitutes often stress the advantages for climate change, deforestation and land use. Consumers associate those arguments with environmentalism, which many associate with the left, which means they seldom resonate on the right.

To change people’s minds, you have to speak their values.

Offer the right portion of change

Tania Luna, a psychology researcher, writes that people are the most likely to form a new opinion, or change their opinion, in areas where they have few existing biases. It’s hard to have an opinion about something you don’t know. But once you’ve formed an opinion, it’s hard to change.

She adds:

The most influential messages invite an opinion shift that’s neither too small nor too extreme relative to the recipient’s current beliefs.

“Just a little less meat” is not compelling. “Meat is murder” is not persuasive.

Cultivated meat could be just the right amount of change: big enough to massively improve animal welfare, human health and the climate without requiring people to radically change their behavior or beliefs.