Electric Cars, Cultivated Meat and Technological Change

Photograph Source: World Economic Forum – CC BY 3.0

There have been a lot of negative stories in the press lately about cultivated meat. For those who don’t know, cultivated meat is grown from livestock cells, without slaughter. It has the potentially to dramatically reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions, pandemic risk, and the suffering we inflict on animals.

Conservative states are trying to ban the new protein. Private funding is drying up. As a result, cellular-agriculture companies are folding. This February, The New York Times went so far to publish an opinion piece that read like an obituary for the nascent industry. The writer, Joe Fassler, suggested technological hurdles facing mass production were insurmountable.

As an animal activist, I’ve placed a great deal of hope in the industry. I regularly write letters to the editor calling for increased public funding for cultivated-meat research and picket my representatives to encourage them to support the same. Still, I can’t deny feeling somewhat discouraged.

When I’m down, I try to remind myself the pace of technological change can be painfully slow and then astonishingly fast. Developments that seem impossible can feel inevitable just a couple of decades later. I think efforts to replace fossil fuels with more environmentally-friendly options are instructive in this case.

Back in 2006, my father was the headmaster of a private middle school in the Adirondacks. That year, his students and staff converted a 1985 Mercedes D300 to run on vegetable oil. The fuel was donated from local restaurants, and as a result, whenever the car was running, it smelled of whatever food was cooked in the oil.

In an article The Adirondack Daily Enterprise ran about the project, reporter Geoff Hayward said the whole system — including filters, gauges, the fuel tank and other parts — cost about $1,000. The car itself was an alumni gift. School officials said they planned to use the vehicle for local trips, which suggests to me they didn’t really trust it.

My dad was very proud of this car. He drove it every chance he could and talked to everyone about it. I was going to college in Vermont at the time, and perhaps trying test the vehicle’s range, he picked me up in the greasemobile. We almost made it back. My father and I were probably half an hour from home when the car died.

I can tell you a future beyond fossil fuels did not feel close then. It was the middle of President George W. Bush’s second term, and my father and I were pushing his jerry-rigged vehicle, which perpetually smelled of french fries, to the side of the highway. My mother came and picked us up in her gas-powered truck.

In the present day, when I picket my representives, trying to convince them to support increased public funding for cultivated-meat research, it’s a completely different scene. Electric cars pass me by all the time. They’re not amateur productions. They’re sleek and beautiful. They feel like a future that is increasingly inevitable.

I don’t mean to suggest cultivated meat will develop at the same rate as technology to replace fossil fuels has. I think a lot more money and scientific focus has been dedicated to the latter. But I do think it shows change comes eventually, even if it currently appears out of reach. Giving up on the field of cellular agriculture would be incredibly foolish.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at SlaughterFreeAmerica.Substack.com.