What Will Farmers Do Once the Cow Is Obsolete?

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
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Cows graze on grass at a ranch. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Cows graze on grass at a ranch. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Is America ready for a post-cow economy? Jared Keller explores what boutique farms—and petri dishes—mean for the future of agriculture.

Keller's Pacific Standard story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Thursday, November 12. Until then, an excerpt:

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.

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.”

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