Non-sentient meat is the key to sustainable factory farming

Georgeann Sack
Mar 20 · 16 min read
“Chicken poultry engraving 1895,” THEPALMER.

Filthy, cruel, and unsustainable

Some say factory farms have gone too far. I say they haven’t gone far enough.

I read “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, for the first time this month. Among the takeaway themes is this — farm animals are not animals in any natural sense. These beings have been created by humans for human consumption.

“However much we obfuscate or ignore it, we know that the factory farm is inhumane in the deepest sense of the word. And we know that there is something that matters in a deep way about the lives we create for the living beings most within our power.” From “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer

Factory farms are concerned with production of the largest quantities of meat at the lowest possible cost. In service of this goal they have created animals that would not survive in the wild. Factory farm animals have been selected, genetically engineered, and drugged to grow muscle at rapid rates, at the expense of basic biological functions such as mobility and reproduction.

Food animals are put into an unnatural environment and severely overcrowded, so they do not display any of the social or intelligent behaviors of their animal ancestors. Foer describes how overcrowding causes more aggression and stress, so factory farmers take measures such as debeaking chickens, confining pregnant pigs to gestational crates too small for the pigs to turn around or step off their feces, and drugging or genetically engineering the animals to experience less stress. In these conditions, food animals become so sick and broken they must be chronically fed antibiotics.

All together, these qualities make it easier for us to look at the unnatural beings we have created and think, ‘Dumb animals. You are lucky you taste delicious or you wouldn’t exist.’

The problem is, food animals are still beings. Factory farms treat animals as though they are things, but they are not things. They experience pain, stress, and suffering. This middle ground is filthy, cruel, and unsustainable. It is time to take the logical and humane next step and turn farm animals into non-sentient things.

The solution and its benefits

“The factory farm will come to an end because of its absurd economics someday. It is radically unsustainable.” From “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer

“Wild Turkey in Mating Display, California” by alacatr.

The harms of factory farming have long been recognized by public health organizations, which have provided many suggestions for improvement. Unfortunately these suggestions have no teeth. Time and time again, the suggestions of public health organizations become weakly worded mandates from the FDA or USDA that are easily circumvented by factory farmers. Consumer demand for meat continues to increase, and so it goes on.

If we want change, I think it is more likely to occur if it is to the factory farmer’s benefit.

If factory farms want efficiency and minimal waste, engineering meat without a central nervous system is the way to do it. This is not a new idea, but we now have the technology to make it happen. I think it should be a global scientific priority to make non-sentient animal products a cost-effective reality.

The benefits to human health could be profound. No need for antibiotics means we will no longer have such a high risk of creating an antibiotic resistant superbug that jumps from animal to human, setting off a global pandemic. No excretion means our meat will never come into contact with feces and the bacteria in feces, so human beings will have fewer bouts of gastroenteritis. There will not be feces filled lagoons covering our planet that are aerosolized over fields when space runs out, or that flood in a storm and contaminate water sources, increasing the likelihood of asthma and other chronic ailments in nearby communities.

The benefits to our environment could be equally profound. The combined impact of land clearing, animal feeding, and waste processing makes factory farming one of the most significant global contributors to greenhouse gases. According to a 2018 New York Times article, “Worldwide, livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.”

Brainless meat sounds great to me, but is this still in the realm of science fiction? Certain that some people are already working on this, I did some research. Below are some of the highlights.

In vitro / Cultured / Clean meat

Wild Boar by Avalon_Studio

These three names all represent the same product — meat grown from animal cells using cell culture techniques. This approach is the only one that is anywhere close to being a practical solution.

In 2013, Professor Mark Post created the first in vitro burger. Post’s approach was to collect muscle stem cells (satellite cells) from cow muscle, then culture them in nutrient-rich medium so they increase in number through repeated growth and cell division cycles. Placing them into differentiation medium along with anchor points causes them to differentiate into skeletal muscle fibers that can contract. Muscle fibers are then harvested and assembled into a hamburger patty. Post combined the muscle with separately grown fat tissue to improve taste.

Today there are a number of startups producing cultured meat, including Mosa Meat (Post’s company), Memphis Meats, and Finless Foods. All are aiming to get products to the consumer within the next two years. Major challenges include efficiency, cost, and consumer acceptance.

“It has to be efficient, and it has to also be meat, not some kind of substitute. We have more than enough substitutes from vegetable proteins. It needs really to be meat, nothing less, nothing more, so mimicry is very very important. Now, what do you want in meat? You want of course taste. You want it to be red or pink. And you want to have that particular mouthfeel of meat.” Mark Post, from his TED talk, “Meet the new meat.”

Taste and mouthfeel aren’t so easy to reproduce, it turns out, though taste tests suggest that these companies have gotten pretty close. Will consumers be ok with meat that looks and tastes almost like what they are used to?

I had never heard the phrase ‘fetishization of meat’ before researching this article, but wow, that is definitely a thing. That is also exactly the kind of deep gratification that needs to be satisfied in the meat-loving consumer in order for them to purchase cultured meat. It is a tall, perhaps impossible to achieve, order. That said, if cultured meat was one day cheaper than animal meat, as it almost certainly will be, that will likely sway many meat-loving people toward this option.

You may have noticed that this process still requires animals. The muscle stem cells are collected from animal muscle. What you probably didn’t notice is that every step of the process requires animals.

Post says that with just 1 stem cell you can theoretically create 10,000 kilos of meat, so at least that part uses far fewer animals to produce mass quantities of meat. However, the cells must be fed something, and in this case large quantities of cell nutrients are needed (50 liters of serum to produce a single beef burger according to this article in Wired).

The catch? It is unsurprising that animal cells grow best on materials and nutrients found in animal bodies. Cells have been historically cultured in fetal bovine serum, which is harvested from the blood of fetal cows and is rich with nutrients. Of course this not a palatable option for those in favor of animal-free food (it also happens to be incredibly expensive). Because of this, all of the cultured meat companies are developing alternative cell food derived from plants, or are figuring out how to recycle and reuse fetal bovine serum so they don’t have to use as much of it. This is perhaps the biggest challenge for getting cultured meat products to consumers at a reasonable price and in a way that doesn’t defeat the purpose (see same Wired article for a look at some of the approaches being taken).

A related challenge is the generation of 3D scaffolds for rapid growth and assembly of muscle cells into patties. The scaffolds that work best are also animal-derived.

“It should be noted that successful scaffolds for 3D skeletal muscle formation are all currently animal-derived due to factors such as cell adhesion, fibre alignment and comparability to an in-vivo environment. The additional consideration is whether the scaffold should be part of the product and therefore edible and degrade during the culture process to leave ‘just’ the cultured meat; or, whether the cells are removed from the scaffold so it can be reused to save material.” From the Trends in Food Science & Technology review, “Bringing cultured meat to market: Technical, socio-political, and regulatory challenges in cellular agriculture.”

Growing in 3D reduces the amount of time it takes to grow a burger patty. However, once cells are in three dimensions rather than a single layer, it is harder to get nutrients and oxygen to them to keep them alive. Scaffolds must be engineered alongside a more advanced perfusion system that penetrates into the tissue, essentially to replace the blood vessels that would normally be performing this job. 3D printing has been used to generate a perfusion network and might be the way forward.

Bonus — our future meat could come in any shape you want. Simply grow it on a 3D printed scaffold of your choosing. Fun! Meat art is delicious!

Mosa Meat calls their pilot production facility the “Meat Brewery,” which is so on trend and makes it sound comforting and delicious. Turns out there are efforts to create DIY kits so that you can brew your own meat at home and experiment with different cellular ingredients and culture conditions to produce different flavors. Combine that with your at home 3D printer (and backup generator for when the apocalypse comes) and you are the self-sufficient home farmer of the future.

It is interesting to look at where cultured meat startup funding comes from. Among other investments, Mosa Meat received venture capital from Bell Food Group (a leading processor of meat in Europe) last year. Similarly, Memphis Meats got funding from Tyson Foods. Tyson Foods is a giant in the animal meat production industry, especially chicken. According to their site, 1 in 5 pounds of chicken, beef, and pork in the U.S. are produced by Tyson Foods. They were thoroughly skewered in Foer’s 2009 book for inhumane practices on farms operated by their suppliers. One simply cannot produce 37 million chickens per week in only 50 facilities (see “Investors” page) and have animal welfare at the heart of the operation. Those things are incompatible.

In addition to Memphis Meats, Tyson Foods has invested in cultured meat company Future Meat Technologies and the plant-based protein company Beyond Meat. It makes a lot of sense to me that Tyson Foods and others would invest in alternative protein sources. It may be the only way they can stay profitable if demand for meat and protein continues to rise as predicted. It may also be the kind of support these young cultured meat and plant-based protein companies need to make it to consumers at a reasonable cost.

I like it. I would definitely consume these products, especially the fish, if they are able to overcome the significant challenges presented.

“S&M pigs”

“Wild Boar, Wildschwein, with Piglet / Ferkel” by 4FR.

Another option for your consideration is to genetically alter food animals so that they feel pain as pleasure. This solution was proposed by an undergraduate student and won the 2018 Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Enjoy this disturbing/entertaining article about it by Katie Herzog in The Stranger (source of the “S&M pigs” quote), or read the award-winning student essay.

Although this has not been applied to farm animals (at least not in a publicly searchable way), scientists have been able to genetically alter animals so that they do not feel the pain elicited by various stimuli (see this article for example — note that their goal is to understand the transduction mechanisms of pain and identify new drug targets for pain medicine, not to produce animals who don’t feel pain).

I don’t like the idea of creating farm animals with diminished pain sensation, or that perceive pain as pleasure. This seems more like genetically engineering animals with locked-in syndrome than any kind of humane solution. Fully conscious beings that cannot feel pain and can barely move due to overcrowding and being muscle-heavy. The stuff of nightmares.

Brainless chickens

“Wild Turkey in Flight” by KeithSzafranski.

Given all the challenges of creating truly animal-free cultured meat, why not leave (most) of the animal intact? Then you will have the needed scaffolding and perfusion and metabolic machinery present, as well as the taste that meat-lovers crave.

A 2012 conception of this idea by architecture student André Ford imagines largely intact chickens that lack a cerebral cortex, which he believes will reduce the perception of pain, desensitizing them to their awful environment. He calls the idea the “Centre for Unconscious Farming.”

I don’t like it. Animals can suffer and feel pain even without a cortex. Again, it doesn’t take the idea far enough.

So what would a truly brainless chicken look like? I imagine interfering with the genetics of early body programming, such that no head forms. Perhaps geneticists could take this even farther, such that no head, feathers, wings, or legs form. Alternatively, geneticists could try blocking closure of the neural tube, so that the brain is either largely or completely absent (anencephaly). Or taking this further, they could block formation of the neural crest, so that no nervous system forms at all. There are many options. I am sure the path to the best solution will be littered with the mangled bodies of the oddities created, but we will learn so much, and the final product could feed the world without animal suffering.

If left to its own devices, such a thing would clearly be non-viable (just like the farm chickens of today). But a brainless chicken would not be left to itself. It would be hooked up to artificial circulation tubing — oxygen and nutrients in, waste products out — no need to excrete anything. Nutrient solution could be optimized and/or synthesized, reducing dependence on plant agriculture. Waste products could be processed and cycled through again. See André Ford’s housing racks for inspiration.

“Slaughter” would not be slaughter at all. Simply remove the connection to artificial circulation tubing. Perhaps there would be skin to strip off and some bones to remove, or perhaps the meat would simply need to be removed from a specialized, protective membranous bag and placed on ice.

Similarly, for pigs:

“The perfect pig designed for the ultimate factory farm might well be instructed to develop without feet, without teeth, without eyes, and perhaps without anything much in the way of a brain. It would be, in effect, not a pig but a pork-making biological machine.” From “Future Man,” by Brian Stableford, 1984.

Ah, a what a bright future awaits. No?

Thoughts on increasing global protein demand

Photo by fcafotodigital

Why not just convince everyone to eat a plant-based diet? Because the people demand their meat. And they are particular about the flavor and texture, so don’t try to fool them with meat-like substances made from plant products.

People are going protein crazy, buying protein supplements in addition to demanding meat with every meal. High-protein diets have become widely popular for those looking to gain muscle, lose weight, or eat like a prehistoric human.

How much protein does a human being need, really? Seems like a pretty basic question but I’ll be damned if I can get a clear, research based answer. My hunch is that there is a wide range of healthy protein intake, and as long as you don’t eat none and you don’t eat absurd amounts (>125 grams of protein a day), you will be ok.

Hunches do not provide good answers, so hopefully the following public health organizations have based their answers on quality data that I was unable to locate myself.

The World Health Organization doesn’t even mention protein in its latest fact sheet on “Healthy diet.” They focus instead on limiting sugar and salt, eating a large amount of fruits and vegetables, and trying to balance caloric input with output. Regarding meat, they only mention avoiding high fat or processed meat.

In the “2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” echoes the key takeaway messages from the WHO but does have a short section specifically about protein intake. They say humans should aim to consume about 5.5 ounce-equivalents of animal or vegetable protein foods a day. What the heck is an ounce-equivalent? And what counts as a protein food? See the details here: (Note: I was surprised that there are no dairy products listed.)

5.5 ounce-equivalents is a very small amount, and easily achievable whether meat eater or not. A typical serving of salmon is 4–6 ounce-equivalents, and a typical hamburger is between 3–6 ounce-equivalents. Half a block of tofu is 3.5 ounce-equivalents. 7 walnut halves is 1 ounce-equivalent. 1/2 cup of lentils, chickpeas, or black beans is 2 ounce-equivalents.

A few caveats:

  1. maintains that any meat you eat should be lean and unprocessed (i.e. no bacon, sausage, or any other meats loaded with salt or chemical preservatives). They say eating patterns with low levels of meat consumption, especially less processed meats, reduces risk for cardiovascular disease, and perhaps also obesity, type-2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer in adults.
  2. Only animal protein contains heme-iron, which the guidelines say is especially important for children and pregnant women. (Note: heme-iron supplements exist and could be an alternative for those who don’t want to eat animal meat.)

The recommendation of 5.5 ounce-equivalents of protein a day is far less than most of us consume. Why do we think we need so much more protein than we actually do? I have one guess, though I am at risk of sounding like some anti-corporation teenage idealist: We are being sold a lie by people who want to make money. Protein in general and meat in particular is marketed to us. Heavily. I think it is working so well because it feels like it could be true.

In the meantime

“I like to think that when I die, the world will not be a worse place because of me.” Alex Honnold

“Feather Texture” by Jamesmcq24.

Before reading “Eating Animals,” I simply did not understand the scale of factory farming. Worldwide, more than 70 billion land animals are slaughtered for food each year. If you are buying meat without actively looking into its source, you are almost certainly buying meat from a factory farm.

So what can we do while we wait for factory farms to go brainless? We can eat less or no meat, and if we must have our meat we can try to verify the conditions our meat came from. Looking for “cage-free” or “pasture-raised” labels is unfortunately not enough, as you can technically meet the conditions required to get those labels without real improvement for animal welfare.

I, for one, have stopped eating meat again. We don’t need it to thrive. If Alex Honnold can do a 2,750 foot free solo climb of El Capitan in less than 4 hours on a vegetarian diet, I think I will be just fine. Ethics aside, I can no longer look at meat without thinking about feces and antibiotics. Gross.

On compassion

“Responding to the factory farm calls for a capacity to care that dwells beyond information, and beyond the oppositions of desire and reason, fact and myth, and even human and animal. […] Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless — it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another.” From “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer

“Girl Holding Her Pet Chicken” by RyanJLane.

I had most of this information before, so why am I only allowing myself to feel compassion for farm animals now? For me, this is part of a larger transformation. You can see the seeds of this article in my previous posts, “The Spiritual Malady” and “Recognizing Animal Intelligence.” I have been turning away from a life of ambitious goal-achievement and toward a life where I feel a sense of fulfillment at the end of each day.

Turning my attention outside of myself and taking time to care for and connect with others is an important part of that. Recently, I have been extending that consideration to non-human animals. The food I prepare for my family is a big part of each day. It is perhaps the biggest daily impact I have on animals, the planet, and the well-being of those I care for.

“Temple Grandin has argued that ordinary people can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter.” From “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer

Reading “Eating Animals,” I recognized similarities between factory farm workers and corrections officers. As was chillingly demonstrated in the Stanford Prison Experiment, good people can do awful things when placed in roles where they are asked to use whatever means are necessary to keep operations running, even when the means cause injury, suffering, and sometimes death. How you act in one area of your life tends to spill over into other areas. Acting in conflict with your values has a corrupting effect.

So what about those of us who decide to eat meat even though we know that factory farm animals suffer? What corrupting effect might that have?

Thankfully, positive emotions and behaviors tend to spill over also. Making the choice to care about animal welfare will likely make you a more compassionate person in all areas of your life, and we could all use a daily dose of caring.

Recommended reading (and watching)

The 2018 documentary, Eating Animals, by Christopher Quinn. Intended as an extension to the 2009 book, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Foer.

It Could Be the Age of the Chicken, Geologically
With 65 billion chickens consumed each year, the signature fossil of the modern epoch may be the leftovers. By James Gorman, New York Times.

Love Real Food, by Kathryne Taylor
My favorite vegetarian cookbook. Simple ingredients put together in flavorful combinations. Deeply nourishing food that isn’t stressful to make.

Georgeann Sack

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Exploring human experience through neuroscience and character-driven science fiction.

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