Philip Lymbery, Compassion CEO

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Book review: 'Clean Meat' by Paul Shapiro RSS Feed

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Clean Meat: How growing meat without animals will revolutionise dinner and the world. Paul Shapiro. (Gallery Books, 2018).

Humanity has been eating meat since the dawn of Homo sapiens over 200,000 years ago. Today, 70 billion farm animals are reared and slaughtered every year to satisfy that hunger for meat. The business of producing livestock products for food has grown into a huge, resource-sapping industry, using 80 per cent of the world’s farmland whilst providing little more than a quarter of humanity’s protein.

As our global population expands and world resources shrink, we are being forced to turn our collective mind towards the challenge of how to satisfy our desire for meat in a way that dispenses with the waste, inefficiency and cruelty associated with much of the world’s meat production today.

Enter Paul Shapiro’s compelling new book, Clean Meat.

Shapiro, a vegan and leading animal advocate, has spent the last few years immersed amongst the business of those producing what the sleeve notes describe as “real meat” without the animal. In so doing, he’s succeeded in pulling together the definitive guide to the subject of cellular agriculture.

The technology is tantalising.

Shapiro documents how companies are already producing animal products from microscopic animal cells – or even from yeast, bacteria, and algae.

The debate around it is fascinating.

In this highly readable and intensely personal account, Shapiro tells of his misgivings as a vegan faced with the opportunity to taste first-hand some lab-produced meat: “My mind raced with questions: Was I about to get sick? Was I still a vegetarian? Did that even matter?”

The concept is controversial.

He nails the question I often find myself being asked: will vegetarians eat stem-cell meat? Shapiro’s answer is crisp and to-the-point: “In actuality, it doesn’t really matter if vegetarians or vegans will eat meat that was grown rather than slaughtered. They’re not the intended audience.”

Clean Meat delves into the controversy facing this emerging new super-food: will it get the necessary funding, regulatory approval and consumer acceptance to turn possibility into revolutionary practice?

Although already exciting to some, it’s unlikely that such a high-tech approach to food may be to everyone’s taste; natural food enthusiasts, for example, will find it hard to swallow.  

Yet, the reality is that many mainstream meat consumers rarely think twice about where their steak or chicken nugget comes from or how it’s produced. Hence why so much supermarket meat today comes from factory farms.

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Paul Shapiro

Why then would mainstream consumers turn their nose up at ‘clean’ meat from stem-cells or the like? Besides, as Shapiro points out, all processed food started in a food lab, “even Corn Flakes and peanut butter”. And, once perfected, the actual business of producing meat without animals wouldn’t happen in a laboratory. Instead, it would most likely come from a ‘brewery’, not unlike the kind of manufacturing plant that supplies much of the food sold in the supermarkets of today.

Besides the tension between natural versus processed food, given the strides in making purely plant-based products so meat-like, there is also the question of whether clean meat is even necessary?

In essence, the book sees clean meat innovation as a vehicle for change.

Shapiro sets out a personal and compelling analysis of why change is necessary (public health reasons, environmental constraints, animal cruelty, etc.), exploring the range of possibilities, rather than rooting for a particular solution.

It’s a futuristic journey that has taken him to meetings with clean meat evangelists, had him looking into the role of early investors like Bill Gates, Jeremy Coller and Google co-founder, Sergey Brin, and walking through the laboratories of researchers at the sharp end of wrestling with bringing this idea to reality.

As I absolutely expected, the book is written with a big heart and huge optimism. Given its tight focus on clean meat as being revolutionary, what really surprised me is how sober and balanced a read it is.

Whether you already believe in meat from a fermenter, rather than an animal; detest the idea; are intrigued, repulsed or inspired by it, Clean Meat is a must read. Within pages of engaging prose, Shapiro lays out how the seemingly intractable problem of factory farming of animals has taken a heavy toll on the planet, and how things have to change. Whether it becomes the next big food revolution remains to be seen. But, like it or not, ‘clean’ meat may just be the positive catalyst that changes the game forever.

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