Even Lab-Grown Meat Won’t Save Us From a ‘Terrible Reckoning’
Historically, meat consumption has driven violence, colonialism, and war. Will the stuff cultivated in a lab be any different?
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates tells his fellow Athenian philosopher Glaucon that in order to feed the Greeks’ nascent appetite for meat — a luxury good in 375 B.C. — they would need ever more territory to graze farmed animals. Glaucon is quick to point out that would “certainly” require going to war to obtain land for this purpose. New research has proven him correct.
Rosa E. Ficek and Joshua Specht, historians at the University of Puerto Rico and Notre Dame, respectively, have shown that cattle ranching is indeed connected to colonial expansion: During European conquest of the Americas, cattle would be set off to roam in lands that settlers had no rightful claim to, creating the further pretext for military intervention. Specht, the author of Red Meat Republic, referred to the cattle that helped settle the American West as “mobile colonizers” for their unique ability to fulfill Glaucon’s prophecy.
Once the “buffaloes are exterminated,” Philip Sheridan, a Union general and a “chief architect” of the Western expansion movement, said, “your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as the second forerunner of an advanced civilization.” In other words, after the buffalo were killed, Sheridan implied, so too would the indigenous people who relied on them — and thus he appealed to the idyllic notion of America as a cow pasture. In this sense, cattle were intimately tied to the violence, growth and, crucially, the idea of the American frontier. As the land was settled, so was its diet — which, Specht notes, with the help of new technologies like refrigeration and railroads, democratized the availability of cheap beef. This yoked notions of settler belonging to the consumption of meat grazed on freshly stolen land.
The lust to seek new territory stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that Europe had used up many of its natural resources, and needed more to satisfy its hunger for more space. Today, half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture; and, of that, two-thirds is used for…