For a developmental project that appears to be light years away from commercial success, the “fake meat project” continues to garner lots of press.

Just last week, the UK’s The Guardian newspaper, in a major feature titled, “Fake meat: Is science fiction on the verge of becoming fact?” (short answer: No) touted research underway in both Silicon Valley and at Holland’s University of Maastricht that aims to develop synthesized cellular tissues that mimic the texture—if not the taste—of animal protein.

As has been covered here previously, fake meat R&D is fraught with massive technical difficulties, as well as the basic problem of trying to develop a highly technical, extremely complex process that can somehow compete with the economics of modern livestock production. Although The Guardian article focused more on the rivalry between American and Euro scientists “racing” toward an eventual rollout of lab-synthesized protein, the reporter included the by-now standard nod to the notion that conventional meat production wastes resources, harms the environment and exacerbates animal suffering.

That, in fact, has become the basic rationale activists now deploy to justify everything from Meatless Mondays to extreme vegan lifestyles. Few veggies bother anymore with the alleged nutritional damage meat-eating causes—with the exception of a quick joyride whenever a study claiming higher morbidity and mortality for carnivores gets published. They’re too busy whipping up clueless media members with the fear factor of global devastation unless and until humanity rids itself of its dietary allegiance to animal agriculture and meat consumption.

You know, that bad habit that’s plagued us for a couple hundred thousand years now.

Can’t have both ways

For both the activists and the apologists who’re licking their chops over the prospect that someday animal husbandry will be rendered obsolete with the eventual development of fake meat, here are three principles to consider, and they’re ones that virtually every veggie advocate with whom I’ve ever interacted clings to with a passion:

  • We should choose “natural.” You can’t have it both ways, fake meat lovers. Either Nature knows best, or science knows better. Which is it? If it’s Nature, then on the basis of the natural diet chosen by every significant society on every continentin every era if history; on the basis of conducting agriculture in the most elemental, “natural” manner possible; and on the basis of continuing the food production strategies that have sustained humanity for millennia, raising livestock in conjunction with cereal and vegetable crops is monumentally more logical than any possible configuration of test-tube technology.
  • We should support sustainability. About 20% to 25% (or more) of the Earth’s land mass is unsuited to conventional crop production, given deficiencies in climate, soil and precipitation. Yet much of that acreage can and does support the existence of grazing animals. They could be sheep, goats or cattle, or they could be deer, elk, antelope, buffalo, caribou, yak, moose, musk ox, reindeer or other herbivores. To suggest that all that land be left fallow or allowed to host only wildlife (which can’t be harvested, according to veggie sensibilities), would negate whatever hope humanity has of dealing with the challenge of feeding the nine billion hungry people who will inhabit the world within many of our lifetimes.
  • We should promote diversity. By that I mean the downscaling of commerce, the reversal of control by multi-national corporations of virtually every aspect of commerce, with particular emphasis on food production. Assuming that a low-tech, diversified agricultural system is preferable to highly centralized control of the world’s most vital resource—food—which I do, by the way, begs the question: How the heck do we do that? You can’t postulate billions of small-scale farmers actually earning a living growing only fruits, vegetables and soybeans. Nor can any veggie diehards explain how all those farmers obtain “natural” fertilizer without the synergism of combining animal and crop production. Nor do they have an answer for the billions of people in the developing world who would lose their livelihoods if fake meat production were to somehow replace conventional animal husbandry.

On the basis of those three considerations alone—and there are plenty more where they came from—the idea that synthetic meat is a good idea can be summarily dismissed.

For all the talk of animal suffering and eco-damage, the truth is that raising livestock and eating meat has—and always will be—part and parcel of what has supported our survival as a species and sustained the accomplishments of civilization across the entire span ofhuman history.

To think that someday thousands of giant warehouses situated in the midst of barren industrial landscapes scattered across the Third World—what, you think mass production of fake meat would be centered in high-wage countries?—could efficiently replace modern livestock production and the global infrastructure involved in processing, portioning and packaging animal foods represents not only the height of chutzpah but the depths of hypocrisy, as well.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.