“Clean Meat” is the Optimism We Need

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Note: The author of this book was accused this past January of sexual misconduct by his former colleagues. This review focuses strictly on the book’s content and does not address the accusations.

 

Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World” provides the uplifting and future-focused message that reminds us there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of lab-grown meat. It was written by Paul Shapiro, former Vice President at the Humane Society of the United States, with a foreword by Yuval Noah Harrari, a historian and philosopher best known for writing the best-sellers “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus.”

The book offers an inside look at the major players in the lab-grown meat space, such as Uma Valeti of Memphis Meats, and Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek. It takes the reader through the science of producing artificial human tissue that has typically been used in labs and elsewhere, but is rather easily adapted toward producing meat that can be, molecule for molecule, identical to the real thing, minus the cruelty. It also tells the rather riveting story of the scientists who came up with the idea, how they are turning their vision into reality, and how companies are racing to be the first on grocery store shelves — preferably in the meat department instead of next to the tofu.

Those who are already familiar with lab-grown meat will still have much to gain from reading this book. Shapiro recounts numerous interviews with the major players, his personal journey toward going vegan, and his minor identity crisis after eating clean meat — and enjoying it. In addition, Shapiro discusses the connection between craft beer and lab-grown meat, providing some rather interesting imagery of brewing clean meat in your garage. And you’ll learn how, with a single cell, you may be able to “eat” your favorite celebrity’s flesh, even if you didn’t want to learn about that possibility.

Moreover, you’ll find out about the involvement of big-time investors such as Bill Gates and Google’s Sergey Brin, and their recognition of the glaring inefficiencies of animal agriculture.

Shapiro spends a significant number of pages discussing the problem of public acceptance. Most people are grossed out by the idea of eating something grown in a lab while, ironically, preferring the objectively dirty and bloody alternative that necessitates killing an animal that does not want to die. To address this, Shapiro discusses the possibility of introducing the public to lab-grown leather first. People will then be eased into the idea, and will be more accepting of clean meat as a result.

But I am skeptical that that will make much of a difference. Wearing something and eating something are quite different. People can be very particular about what they put in their body, and not discerning much at all about what they put on it. If producing cow-free leather delays putting clean meat on shelves, I think that will be a net negative.

Shapiro also writes a lot of words about the benefits of clean meat: first of all, it’s clean; second, no animals need to be harmed, not even to create the initial culture; third, it will save a significant amount of resources; and fourth, it will allow us to produce all kinds of different cuts of meat — far more than we currently have.

He adds a cherry on top of this rosy picture by pointing out that many of these companies, such as Hampton Creek, aim to have clean meat on shelves within just a couple of years or less. It’s hard for this book to not inspire in the reader a strong sense of optimism, and it appears warranted.

“Clean Meat” is also an important reminder that corporate profit and ethics are not always in conflict, though that is the case much of the time. Markets respond to consumers. And when consumers seek to make ethical choices, companies can be rewarded handsomely by giving them what they want.

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