"Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." - Winston Churchill, 1932
Would you eat a lab-grown hamburger? It's not a question you have to worry too much about today, unless you have a lab of scientists in your basement and $330,000 burning a hole in your pocket. But according to researchers, it could be a real option on menus of the future. That is to say, according to researchers from nearly a century ago.
Throughout the 20th century, synthetic meat was the ultimate goal for food scientists. If we could just produce meat in the lab, we would solve one of our more perplexing agricultural problems: How do we create more meat for an ever-growing population without destroying the environment?
Meat production is incredibly energy intensive, but its 20th century history in many western countries is closely tied to ideas of affluence and success. So any 20th century proposals that Americans should simply eat less meat (and yes, there were many) weren't seen as pragmatic, but rather a direct attack on what it meant to be an American.
In his 1930 book about the year 2030, The Earl of Birkenhead predicted that artificial meat grown in a lab was the wave of the future. Why raise an entire animal and kill it, using only the parts you want to eat? Science, it seems, would remedy this wasteful behavior:
It will no longer be necessary to go to the extravagant length of rearing a bullock in order to eat a its steak. From one 'parent' steak of choice tenderness it will be possible to grow as large and as juicy a steak as can be desired..."
Two decades later, in their 1953 book The Road to Abundance, Jacob Rosin and Max Eastman laid out their case for synthetic production of everything. Rosin and Eastman argued that it was time to remove the "cloak of holiness" from so-called natural foods. It was time for artificial foods to get some respect. They insisted that society must begin to see "natural foods" for what they really were: "a poorly assorted mixture of chemicals containing a large amount of indigestible materials, and a certain proportion of materials injurious to our health."
But tellingly, these midcentury futurists were least optimistic that artificial meat was just over the horizon. In fact, unlike other foods, they cautioned that artificial meat was almost "utopian"—a word somewhat less harsh in the optimistic '50s, but still a slight.
Even with all the financial and technical support a chemistic society might provide, the synthesis of proteins to replace meat on a large industrial scale remains a Utopian idea, so far at least as the present generation is concerned. Of course, it is quite possible that this "utopia" will become a reality some day. Airplanes, radio, and television would have been Utopian, we must remember, to Columbus.
The November 14, 1965 edition of the Sunday comic strip "Our New Age" by Athelstan Spilhaus also saw synthetic food as the promise of tomorrow. With the world's exploding population, it was truly the only answer, even if his illustrator poked a little fun at the idea. Petro Pizza, Fakin' Bacon, and Baloney Bologna were all illustrated by Gene Fawcette in this 1965 prediction. But Spilhaus insisted that it was the most logical answer to the world's hunger problems, which were surely only going to get worse this time.
Synthetic food may be the answer to the present world food crisis, as modern agriculture in food-short countries makes gains too slowly to offset population increase. Already almost all non-food agricultural products — dyes, plastics, drugs, paints, soaps, rubber and textiles — can be artificially made.
Synthetic foods need not be inferior either in texture or taste — already we use millions of pounds of synthetic flavoring materials, vitamins and amino acids.
Of course, today our "synthetic meat" most commonly comes from plants. Supermarket coolers are stuffed to the brim with any number of vegetable-dervied proteins sold to vegetarians, vegans and others who want to simply lessen their meat intake.
This too was a promise of the future as you can see from the September 28, 1958 edition of Arthur Radebaugh's Sunday comic strip "Closer Than We Think" below. The strip referenced "fat plants and meat beets" which would be used in the future to make sure less land was used for grazing by cattle.
Today, we see absurd scare tactics used in an effort to hamper any progress in feeding people more efficiently. Critics are already calling lab-grown meat "frankenburgers," and last year a process to more effectively cut down on waste in meat production was derided by a campaign against "pink slime."
As I wrote last year when the pink slime was hitting the fan, this entire debate around faux meat in all its forms seems to be aesthetic rather than safety-driven. Sure, lab grown meat just feels wrong on some basic level, but doesn't cutting open an animal to devour its flesh feel just as wrong? With too many forks and too few pounds of beef, more efficient production in the future is the only way.
People have every right to know where their food comes from and what goes into its production. And even more importantly, people have the right to eat only what they want. But I must say that I agree with the weirdo 1950s futurists on this one: We need to stop kidding ourselves that food production is a binary choice between "natural" and "unnatural," between "processed" and "unprocessed." In the grand scheme of things, the meat you might buy at the farmer's market isn't really less "processed" than the "pink slime" that was pulled off grocery store shelves last year.
You know what unprocessed beef is called? A cow.
- November 14, 1965 edition of "Our New Age"
- September 28, 1958 edition of "Closer Than We Think"