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How The Sausage Is Made

When we discuss how something is created we find objectionable, we use the term “how the sausage is made.”

That expression is one that we hear all the time in reference to various unsavoury processes of our modern world- in the last month, I’ve heard it used to talk about the security apparatus of nations, fantasy sports betting leagues, the presidential race.

50 years from now, I am sure that I’ll have something largely positive to say about the way that we protect our society from terror, from the way we help our poorest avoid gambling addiction, and the way we elect presidents.

I have absolutely none of that confidence when it comes to actual sausage production. I’m terrified by the prospect of explaining 2016 meat production to my grandkids. I am convinced that this issue, more than almost any I can think of today, is going to be the defining shame of the millennial generation- how we became aware of just how deeply wrong our modern meat diet is for our planet, our bodies, and our culture’s moral compass.

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As a North American, I consume about 80kg of meat annually- that’s more than my body weight. That production takes 75% of the agricultural land that exists globally, and the FAO expects we’ll double the meat produced globally by 2050. Global demand growth from 1960-present for meat looks like this-

This is the same data, but removing the North American market- 1960-present- (thanks to National Geographic here)

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hats 1.4M metric tons of meat, tripling of global consumption in 50 years, a +2300% growth in developing markets.

So how is all that sausage made? It all comes down to two things- making protein people don’t want to eat into protein we do want to eat, and the feed to weight ratios of the animals we raise. Lets dive in.

The search for juicy and boneless

We as a species go to incredible lengths to find food that satisfies two criteria- juicy, boneless. To illustrate just how crazy this process can get, we’ll look at the production of salmon fillets, something that certainly qualifies as juicy and boneless meat.

Most of the Ocean Tastes Terrible

We’ve caught and tasted every kind of fish imaginable, and arrived at a few that we really love. Salmon are a crazy weird fish- they’re like nothing else that swims in the ocean, and we can’t get enough of them.

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Salmon are the perfect fish for the modern North American diet- fatty, sweet, and even more delicious when we add salt and smoke. Salmon is the most consumed fresh fish by far, second only to Tuna (which is almost all eaten canned) as the quintessential American Fish. Incredibly, we feed wild fish to chickens in the form of fish oil, (that, along with Flax Seed, produces those Omega-3 eggs we all see in grocery stores), and then feed pelletized food to farmed salmon that contains “feather meal” made from the same chickens who we raised on those wild fish we think are gross.

Our love affair with Salmon exists because most fish we catch are terrible to eat, and hard to cook. There are a couple solutions to this problem-

  1. we can campaign for 20 years to make consumers love weird fish, build custom processing facilities with abundant and variable machinery to cut and process everything that swims, crawls and squiggles around the ocean.

  2. We can fish and eat the ones we think are tasty, and grind up the other ones to feed to other things we think are tasty.

Option 2. has been a winner by popular vote- why?

We ate 400,000 tons of fish last year, globally. We caught 55,000,000 tons of fish commercially by very conservative estimate.

That’s by far the most wasteful protein source in the world, and it is the key ingredient in the “sausage” of modern meat production.

We can shape those fish we don’t like into fish we do like, and we never really need to worry about being efficient- the value of the fish we don’t like to eat is effectively nothing. We use that raw material to create other, juicy, boneless proteins we love. The degree of industrial control over this process is terrifying, yet deeply compelling.

If we could feed cows, pigs and chickens JUST fish we hate to eat, we would be in a pretty good spot.

But we can’t. More than about 10% fish in the diet of a land animal makes them taste, well, fishy. We feed them instead grain, grass and other marginal proteins to produce meat we think is juicy and boneless.

How much grain? So much that about 25% of the earth’s land grows food for livestock, and a shocking amount of that is on land that was once, even as recently as last year, forest. We’re cutting down the planet’s trees to plant grains to feed to livestock, and in doing so, create all the negative externalities that have been talked about millions of times over.

Feed to Weight Ratios

The key to understanding how we’ll keep producing meat at the rate we do relies on a simple ratio- how much feed must an animal consume before we eat them?

Cows need about 6:1, but up to 20:1

Sheep need about 5:1

Pigs need about 3:1

Chickens need about 2:1

Crickets need about 1.4:1

Salmon need about 1.3:1

Innovating around Feed to Weight Ratios

The newest wave of innovation in protein comes in three flavours- synthesizing proteins from plants to replace the animal proteins we use in transformed substances, lab-grown meat, and altering the genetic makeup of a species for a better feed to weight ratio.

Synthesizing Proteins

Most of what makes an egg so special is protein. We grow billions of eggs a year to feed our global demand, and a huge portion of those eggs go into transformed products like mayonnaise in order to produce something that we think is delicious.

We have at our disposal now the ability to cut out the cumbersome ratios of chickens and produce the proteins we need directly, without having to go “through” a bird. A chicken is a very efficient vehicle for transforming grain into proteins that we use everyday; when you contemplate the sheer efficiency of a chicken eating grain and producing eggs, it is staggering.

However, the age-old question of science VS nature (not that there is anything particularly natural about egg production) is now called into question around eggs- how can passing grain through a bird be more efficient than transforming that same protein in a lab? Can we improve this process and eliminate the birds entirely?

Dairy cows have a similar trajectory- creating milk from grain and grasses, each one a tiny machine producing the things we like to eat. Dairy is tasty because of both fat and protein, but the protein (lactose!) that we love is the reason why we have so many dairy farms in the US.

If innovation on these industries continue, we will be able to produce these proteins without passing through the animal, which will in turn create efficiencies. There are companies working on this right now, and big progress has been made.

Lab Grown Meat

Cows eat a shocking amount of feed to get to a juicy, boneless state. We spend more resources on cattle than nearly any other animal on earth- they occupy a central place in the North American diet and are increasingly important all around the world.

Peer-reviewed studies on lab grown meat show a 85% reduction in greenhouse gasses, 99% reduction in land use, and 80% lower water use compared to cattle production.

None of this matters unless the price is also lower, and the juicy, boneless, deliciousness is there. No lab grown meat will ever truly change our diet until we arrive at a place where the feed to weight ratio is below cattle and the process is industrialized to a point where the whole thing just works.

Genetic Modification

The innovations of aquaculture over the last 40 years have been enormous- we have arrived at a moment in the evolution of this industry where the fish we grow and harvest are incredibly efficient. There are few frontiers left in the breeding of fish or chickens- we have only the direct alteration of their genetic makeup as the next step.

GMO salmon, with an incredible feed to weight ratio of 1:1, now exist. Contemplate that for a minute- an animal that eats 1kg of fish meal, and produces 1kg. This is the holy grail of any protein production system- twice as efficient as the most efficient lab grown meat.

The FDA approval of these products happened in 2015, and almost immediately there was a public backlash, culminating in most major chains in the US signing a pledge to not sell this product. Boneless and juicy it may be, but the modern consumer has no desire to eat “frankenfish”.

The Bigger Problems in Meat

  1. There will be precisely zero people in the developing world who will move from subsistence agriculture into wealth and success by starting a multi-million dollar lab-grown meat business. Every single day, a desperately impoverished family somewhere on earth start to raise livestock as a route out of poverty. Creating an industry of lab-grown meat at a lower feed to weight ratio than beef is great- but this technology will not be available to the vast majority of people who farm for a living. Lab grown meat will be a winner-take-all kind of innovation, and in creating this industry, a traditional path of entry into wealth creation will be erased.

  2. We’re genetically hard-wired to celebrate meat. Distant ancestors returned from the hunt to a feast; the same desire sends us to a steakhouse after concluding a business deal. Wealth and flesh are intertwined. How will the knowledge that the “meat” I eat coming from a petri dish change the psychology of celebration?

  3. The meat industry is not going to take this sitting down. The influence of the industry on government, public perception of diet, and the regulations around eating is enormous, and change will be fought tooth and nail. Recently, Unilever sued Hampton Creek (later dropped, thankfully) because “mayonnaise” must contain, according to the FDA, eggs. If we’re suing each other over the definition of mayonnaise, imagine what will happen when “beef” grown in a petri dish is on sale next to a steak from a Texas steer.

The Bigger Ideas in Meat

  1. We’ve yet to see the freedom that synthesized protein can bring us.We’re so dedicated to the idea we must reproduce the taste and texture of “meat” as we know it today, we’ve let a golden opportunity slip away. If our whole meat production system is dedicated to creating boneless and juicy and delicious as the criteria, then we should be using the potential of this technology to shoot way beyond chicken and beef.
    I’m not convinced that synthesized meat will ever win the taste war with industrial meat when we’re always comparing one to the other. The companies who will truly innovate in this sector should be breaking down the fundamental experience of meat consumption and designing something that is 10x better than beef, pork or chicken. We should be creating the übermeat, not reproducing what we already have.

  2. Democratizing the means of production is going to be important.For the sake of brevity, insects were not brought up as a protein source, however the consumption of insects is one of the only innovative avenues for production of efficient protein that doesn’t require massive upfront investment. If we can create opportunities for smaller players to start producing alternative proteins, then we may very well stop cutting down rainforest for cowspace.

  3. Re-making meat into a luxury could very well be an outcome. The bottom of the meat business is depressing- factory farms, disgusting concentrations of animals producing toxic by-products. If the dream of a truly delicious alternative does not arrive quickly enough, then the next step could very well instead be to replace the large-scale, low quality meat we raise with a more efficient process, and work to find delicious, sustainable meat production markets. Grass-fed trends, the work Joel Salatin has done, and the ethical meat movement may end up being the ally in the fight against the industrial systems we revile.

Bringing it all back home

Ultimately, the more we come to understand the meat industry as it exists today (I have deliberately avoided the usual horrifying photos) the more likely we are to run to science for salvation. Beef will be the first to be replaced, and from there the slow march of science will conquer more and more of our proteins.

My grandfather grew up in a world where the sausage was made in a barn; I grew up where the cow and the weiner became an Industrial Process. My kids will believe that meat comes from both a mega-factory and a lab; their kids may need to be reminded that we ever needed animals to make meat.

One of the great wake-up calls on the state of the industrial meat system is the sight of endless styrofoam packages of boneless, juicy meat wrapped in cellophane on a grocery store shelf. Millions of people have felt something akin to dread when looking down at that solemn plastic parade- thousands have rebelled from that sight and have begun searching for a better meat. Someday soon, that section will shrink to accommodate new meat of scientific origin. Those cells will come from neither an industrial dystopia or grassy paradise, but instead from a totally new place conjured from human ingenuity.

This new section might sit between a group who refuse to contemplate how the sausage is made, and a group who refuse to contemplate any meat that was not raised with dignity and who’s price reflects a stewardship that cares about the environment. This product will not be #realfood, but neither will it be soul-crushing to contemplate. It will sit, awaiting sale, in between two worlds.

Our own species will change their feed-to-weight ratio dramatically this generation- more than a billion of us will become routine carnivores. As we push greater and greater efficiencies into our animals to lavish impossibly high ratios on ourselves, we must confront this problem and decide where we want our meat to be raised- the farm, the factory, or the lab?

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I am collecting opinions on this subject- hit me up at caithrin@caithrin.com if you have ideas.

Caithrin Rintoul

Caithrin Rintoul