The Economist has published a Technology Quarterly edition dedicated to food. It says the Anthropocene diet enjoyed by today’s well-off would amaze all previous generations. But it is not without its costs. Meat is cheap because it is produced with great cruelty. Billions of animals spend brief, miserable and often pain-racked lives crammed together in airless sheds. They are ripped from their mothers; pumped with drugs; castrated without anaesthetic; eviscerated while alive; or all of the above.
Picking berries and lettuce is backbreaking labour; the people who do it often lack health insurance, job protections and a living wage. Many of the world’s fisheries run on slave labour. Depleted soils are chemically tarted up into a fecund semblance of health with nutrients straight from the factory. Fertiliser and animal-waste runoff create algal blooms that strip the oxygen from ever more, ever larger dead zones in littoral seas. Few human activities emit more greenhouse gases than raising animals—particularly cattle, for which ranchers cut down vast swathes of forest. The processing that serves to make food cheap, tasty and addictive strips out nutrients while adding fats, sugars and salt.
Taking a moral inventory of every food’s inputs is a lot to ask of, say, a mother on a tight budget, on her way home from work, who just wants a dinner that makes her children happy. That does not mean she does not care, or would not prefer a system that does better by her family and the world.
In Britain, the number of vegans more than quadrupled from 2014 to 2019.
In America, sales of organic food—which people take to be better both for themselves and for the environment—rose from $13.3bn in 2005 to $56.4bn in 2020; Europe saw a similar rise. Restaurant menus often name the farms that supply their food, giving diners a greater sense of connection to what they are eating. The word “locavore”, coined in 2005, was an American dictionary’s “word of the year” by 2007.
Heretofore niche proteins, such as insects and seaweeds, are being explored not just for their gourmet potential—which is higher than most might believe—but also as ways to refashion food chains. Yeasts are being programmed to grow proteins that make a soy-protein patty cook and bleed in the way a minced cow does. Inland saline aquaculture promises to provide fresh seafood to people thousands of miles from an ocean. Crops are being grown in soil-free shipping containers just blocks from the city dwellers who will eventually eat them, rather than half a world away. Cells taken from a living animal in a simple biopsy are being used to grow meat in bioreactors, providing familiar sources of protein without the need for slaughter or industrial-scale farming and the cruelty and health hazards those things entail.
Immense hurdles remain. It is one thing to grow a hamburger in a tank, another to get people to eat it, and a third to provide competitively priced tankburgers by the billion. Growing vegetables in skyscrapers might be environmentally beneficial, but field-based agriculture remains much cheaper. Practical and necessary improvements to today’s farms, such as regenerative farming techniques, could be sidelined in favour of incoherent and unsustainable Utopian neophilia that offers niche feel-good foods for a few, but little if anything for the many—or for the suffering animals. Some technologies which currently seem beneficial will turn out to incur unforeseen costs and harms, just as cheap meat has.
Yet there is something undeniably inspiring about this: deciding first what sort of person you want to be, and what sort of planetary settlement you want to embody, and then changing the world so that the kind of food it provides for you to eat fits that self-conception.
The movement has a recognisable, hard-to-resist ferment: a hype-heady nose and feel redolent of the terroir in which California raises its new technology.