Clean meat trivializes complex issues

Arguments against the food animal production system are often based on the grounds of ethics, health and the environment.

Recently, Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, and chief executive officer of the Better Meat Company, wrote that people should “ditch meat” to avoid pandemics. He used the threat of pandemics from food production animals to sensationalize an important societal, scientific and policy discussion, thereby trivializing the discussion by portraying complex, under-studied topics as scientifically settled issues.

It takes a long time and a major investment of resources to carry out the type of rigorous research and analyses required to resolve a scientific question.

The discussion of food production systems should include the pressing issue of ensuring people in developing countries have reliable access to safe, affordable and nutritious food.

The past and current food supplies originate from a combination of plant and animal sources. Recent concerted efforts to attack animal-derived food sources, especially meat, do not help with global efforts to ensure people have enough to eat.

Canadian farmers and ranchers work to support global food security by employing science-based production, processing and trade policies. The value of Canadian plant and animal food production enterprise is in the billions of dollars and provides employment to hundreds of thousands of people. It is generally accepted that Canada’s food production, processing and trade system is regulated through science-based policies that are reviewed and revised as needed.

As well, Canada has one of the most respected veterinary medical education systems in the world to train professionals for the care and welfare of animals. One could argue that Canada and its farmers and food processors promote peace and development across the globe through production and export of safe food, including meat.

The changing societal norms will continue to generate complex questions around food. Let us take the example of synthetic meat as an alternative to real meat. Artificial or laboratory-grown synthetic meat builds on major advances in biotechnology — a branch of science that is criticized for producing genetically modified products.

The synthetic meat is produced from rapidly growing cells sourced from animals and fed with artificial growth media containing a cocktail of biochemicals. While there are ways to grow cells with a culture medium free of animal products, many of the artificial growth media contain fetal bovine serum, which contains many growth hormones. It is important to note that the government of Canada prohibits the use of bovine growth hormone, or its recombinant form in cows, in Canada.

We can already see complex scientific, health and ethical questions that synthetic meat will pose. There are no simple answers even for the production and consumption of supposedly “clean” meat.

There is a way forward to tackle these issues. That way goes through collaboration among public, private, academic and societal groups to undertake a multidisciplinary and respectful discussion on this topic.

Emerging concepts such as One Health inspire us to examine animal, human and environmental health in an integrated manner to inform development of better policy frameworks and informed personal choices.

But the way forward should not be through the use of cultish rhetoric against animal or other food production systems because millions of people prefer to include meat in their diets based on nutritional values and personal choice.

Dr. Baljit Singh is professor and dean of the faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Calgary and a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. This op ed originally appeared in the Calgary Herald. It has been edited for length.

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