You expect attacks on meat production from anti-industry activists to roll out the rhetoric about the so-called “horrors” of raising food animals: Cruelty to livestock, damage to human health, destruction of the environment, waste of resources, blah, blah, blah.

What’s disturbing, however, is the extent to which supposed meat-eaters have embraced the exact same attack lines. Here’s an example, from the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, expressing his excitement about the development of test-tube protein analogs:

“Sure, meat may pave the way to a heart attack. Yes, factory farms torture animals. Indeed, producing a single hamburger patty requires more water than two weeks of showers. But for those of us who are weak willed, there’s nothing like a juicy burger.”

There is so much wrong with that paragraph I almost don’t know where to start.

So let’s begin with the first sentence. Meat does not pave the way to a heart attack. If that were true, then not only would the native inhabitants of North America during the many pre-Columbian millennia have been dropping dead by the millions, but all of our pioneer ancestors would have never even made it to their covered wagons, much less traversed the continent and set up homesteads dependent on hunting and raising animals.

They’d have perished en masse from their diet of salted meat and wild game.

The “meat causes heart attacks” meme is like the fallout from an atomic blast: Nasty, lingering and radioactive, even though the rationale that spawned such a dubious connection is as far-fetched as the premise of any of the long list of Hollywood superhero movies.

But even worse is the notion that all livestock are tortured and that one hamburger requires the equivalent of hundreds of gallons of water — which isn’t a non-renewable resource, by the way. The statistics activists toss around regarding water use in meat production are about as squishy as it gets. If you were to account for every single stage of preparation, cultivation, irrigation, harvesting, storage, transport, processing, packaging, distribution and retail or foodservice sales for any food product, the total water consumption would be astronomical, as well.

Asking the key questions

The reasons that Kristof and other easily impressed media people are so enthralled with the development of fake meat are twofold: They’re veggie wanna-bes, because it’s trendy among the cognoscenti, and they simply aren’t bothering to ask any hard questions about the long-term prospects of trying to manufacture food in a factory, as opposed to a farm or ranch.

So I’ll ask them for him:

  • Where do you get the energy to run the factories that will (allegedly) produce billions and billions of pounds of fake meat annually? How much will that cost?
  • Where would you locate those factories? Vacant land in urban areas might be a good place to start, but that lead to another question.
  • What is the carbon footprint—energy use, resources, materials—required to construct the tens of thousands of buildings that would be needed to manufacture billions of pounds of fake steak?
  • What would happen to the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who depend upon animal husbandry to earn a living and to feed their families? We know that the relatively crude methods of raising livestock in the developing world are a much bigger contributor to greenhouse gas emissions per pound of meat. What happens to those people? Do they keep raising livestock, and thus keep contributing to GHG emissions? Or is their livelihood to be eliminated, and then they…what? Become customer service reps for Apple, Google and Microsoft?

And let’s not forget the most important question here: Fake meat doesn’t grow on its own. The process requires the input of enormous amounts of nutrients, and those nutrients don’t grow on trees. For all the talk of “economies of scale” somehow lowering the costs currently required to manufacture synthetic meat, what exactly would suddenly make this energy- and technology-intensive process cheap and affordable?

Answer: There’s nothing anywhere in all the happy talk about replacing animal food with synthetic alternatives that suggests it will ever be anything other than a high-tech, high end, highbrow luxury for the affluent among us.

Like the people with bylines at the New York Times.  

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator