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The Cow Tipping Point

Is America ready for a post-cow economy? What boutique farms—and petri dishes—mean for the future of agriculture.
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(Illustration: Jon Reinfurt)

(Illustration: Jon Reinfurt)

At 5:30 a.m., Sarah Chase is hard at work. The 27-year-old proprietor of Chaseholm Farm, a 350-acre dairy farm in the hills of the bucolic New York hamlet of Pine Plains, aims to have her 60-strong herd of Holstein and Jersey cows back in the pasture by 7:30 for a day of grazing before she and the farm’s four full-time employees can tackle the assorted chores that come with running a family farm. When I arrive on a sunny Saturday in July, Chase is hard at work washing milk jugs in the barn. The weekends are often packed: Chaseholm serves around 75 households, and Chase and her farmhands rotate through the farm’s store to greet familiar customers.

Chaseholm is the gem of the local food movement taking root in the Hudson Valley, the very model of a modern family farm. But in 100 years, both Chaseholm and the factory farms to which it offers an alternative may not exist. In labs from San Francisco to New York, researchers aren’t working simply to make animal husbandry more efficient. They want to remove animals from agriculture entirely.

"There's real value in knowing exactly how your food is made—in seeing that relationship with your dinner right in front of you."

This isn’t a novel concept: In 1931, Winston Churchill quipped that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” But in the last several decades, breakthroughs in synthetic biology have made the fantastical vision of growing animal products without animals closer to a reality. In 2013, a Maastricht University professor created a five-ounce patty with beef muscle tissue grown in a lab. This miracle of gastronomic science cost more than $300,000 to produce.

Now, a host of start-ups are focused on perfecting the processes of culturing (for meat and milk) and biofabrication (for leather). In its Brooklyn facility, Modern Meadow has already manufactured “steak chips,” although the company is currently focused on material biofabrication rather than food. On the other side of the country, Muufri, founded in May 2014, wants to put cultured milk, prepared through a process not unlike brewing beer, on grocery store shelves in the next year. Taken together, the ecosystem of start-ups could potentially release cows from their domesticated bondage as sources of meat, milk, and leather.

While companies like Modern Meadow and Muufri are still in the proof-of-concept stage, it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of displacing the cow. The livestock sector uses 30 percent of the planet’s entire land surface and consumes one-third of the world’s fresh water. The industry also claims 20 percent of global energy consumption, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions than planes, trains, and automobiles combined. The massive consumption of water and crops for meat production has a dramatic effect on the environment, exacerbating erosion, habitat and biodiversity loss, and water scarcity.

With the human population set to hit nine billion by 2050, it’s no wonder that livestock is the fastest-growing agricultural sector on the planet. Removing the cow from the global food system, then, seems like an obvious solution to the looming challenges of feeding the post-industrial world. A comprehensive University of Oxford assessment suggests that popular adoption of cultured meat production in Europe could yield approximately 35 to 60 percent lower energy use and 80 to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventionally produced meat. For a world wracked by growing systemic crises like hunger and water scarcity, ditching the world’s approximately 1.3 billion cows for less resource-intensive sources seems like an opportunity too good to pass up.

Stateside, there is an obvious source of political opposition to this potentially revolutionary science: the 6.2 million American livestock workers who depend on some $200 billion in wages annually. The meat and poultry industry dominates the agricultural sector in the United States, and is a major player in the economy as a whole—in 2009 it accounted for $864.2 billion, or roughly six percent of GDP—making it one of the most politically influential industries in Washington. But the main obstacle may be purely cultural. No matter how pure or healthy or even eco-conscious a meat patty’s origin is, Americans are likely to be put off by the yuck factor of “test-tube beef.” Some 80 percent say they won’t give lab-grown meat a chance, even though it’s likely to be commonplace in the next 50 years.

Taken together, the ecosystem of start-ups could potentially release cows from their domesticated bondage as sources of meat, milk, and leather.

This is good news for community farmers like Chase, who put a premium on an authentic relationship between consumers and their food. “People aren’t going to be sold,” she says as I outline the biofabrication process in her homey farm store. “You can make meat as cheap and as tasty as you want, but if it’s too alien, not everyone’s going to go for it.”

In some ways, Chaseholm Farm and start-ups like Modern Meadow have the same ethos at their hearts—diminishing the environmental impact of large-scale farming—but they are attacking the same problem on vastly different scales. Chase’s immediate work objectives are far less aspirational than the scientists dabbling in biofabrication: increase her herd, diversify her breeds, get the farm certified as 100-percent grass-fed, and regularly measure soil samples to ensure her grazing patterns are rejuvenating and revitalizing the farm’s rolling pastures. But while mass adoption of culturing may displace the kill floors and slaughterhouses of industrialized farming, farmers like Chase are betting that nothing will uproot the traditional community farms that foster a connection between man and Earth.

Outside the farm store, Chase points up toward her pastures. When the weather turns mild during the summer months, Chaseholm will host burger nights in the adjacent field—a gentle reminder to patrons of the natural origins of their food. “There’s real value in knowing exactly how your food is made— in seeing that relationship with your dinner right in front of you,” Chase says. “Nothing will change that.”


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