Benjamin Franklin flirted with vegetarianism in his youth but after illegally fleeing an apprenticeship in Boston to seek fame and fortune in Philadelphia, the ship he sailed on floundered, and his rations ran out. His shipmates dropped lines and caught cod. Franklin’s vegetarianism soon cracked. In his autobiography, he writes that his original motives for rejecting meat were both financial (meat was expensive), and based on not-completely-defined beliefs that taking animal life was less than moral. But on that windlass ship, the smell of cooking cod called to him. Franklin says he noticed that some fish had other fish inside of them, providing what he admits to being some convenient logic for abandoning his meat-free ways. “If animals eat other animals, why shouldn’t I?” The great man may have indeed had some epiphany, but he was also very hungry. For millennia humans have eaten animals with a few basic rationales that mirror Franklin’s. First, we are hungry and animal flesh provides good protein. Secondly, we are animals that eat other animals. But like Franklin smelling the delicious sizzling cod, a final and powerful motivation is taste. Meat – to most people – smells good and tastes very good.
Plenty of people around the planet express sympathy for the ideas of vegetarianism or veganism. When completely honest, some even admit to mixed emotions or even guilt connected to eating creatures with some degree of sentience. But taste is older than logic and continues to win the day. Capitalizing on this fact is a new class of meat substitutes – “alternative meat” if you will. You can now enjoy anything from a “bleeding” veggie burger to a vegan kebab. Very soon, “new meat” created using AI tech and a 3D printer will hit the markets, and you’ll be offered the choice of ordering a steak that mimics the texture and flavor of animal flesh so closely, you might agree with the taste testers who’ve given it a score of 90% for ‘meatiness.’ It’s time for some thought experiments as the day is coming – much faster than most think – when eating animals will be close to indefensible. If there are products that taste awesome, smell great, and have something very akin to the texture of meat – plus are healthier and better for the environment – what “logic” can justify sticking with consuming animals for food? Tradition?
Things have changed radically since Franklin lived. Hunger and nutrition – the first pillar of the rationale for eating meat – is no longer solid. Most of us are not hungry. In fact, there are more obese people today on the planet than people suffering from starvation. The second argument is also on shaky ground. We now understand that while our evolution was certainly assisted after our species learned to hunt, cook and eat animals, this doesn’t mean that it’s still necessary in modern times. Protein can be found from numerous sources, and plenty of research is showing that much of the animal protein we consume is more detrimental to our health than nutritious. But the last whiff of reasoning that snared Franklin remains true. Meat continues to taste good – and for this reason alone the practice has resisted all other appeals to change.
With science, however, very literally stepping up to the plate to provide tasty plant-based “meat,” perhaps the time has come for more serious introspection. Anyone with an internet connection can find alarming stats on the extreme unsustainability of the meat industry. The demand for meat has skyrocketed over the last decades, as many non-western nations get richer and want a diet closer to the average western, meat-heavy one. The creatures we eat take up huge amounts of water and land and release more pollution than we like to think about. How’s this for a stat? –Some 94% of mammal biomass – excluding humans – is livestock, and this works out to mean livestock outnumber wild mammals by a factor of 15 to 1. There are around 28,000 animals on “extinction warning” lists, and aquaculture and agriculture (much of which goes to feed livestock) is a contributing factor in the decline of 24,000 of these possibly soon-to-be gone species.
For human health, environmental sustainability, the well-being of wild creatures and let’s say at least debatable moral and ethical reasons, we need to wean ourselves off meat. It’s not going to happen overnight; there will need to be a significant transition period. Meat substitutes that can – if not totally then at least mostly – satisfy our ‘primal’ urges could act as a stepping stone to a better future. A future where the lion may never lie down with the lamb, but one in which humans won’t be eating lambs while making lions go extinct.