I know some lovely vegetarians but could never imagine joining their ranks. Something about a life fuelled entirely by plants fills me with dread. The veggie’s world is a pale planet, an insipid facsimile of the real thing. Think of the fear all true carnivores have of finding out at a dinner party that veggies are present or, worse, in charge; the wondering if at least there will be cheese, the troubling knowledge that those who deny the flesh often go the whole hog (mustn’t think of hogs… can always have a bacon sarnie when we get home) and so there possibly won’t be wine either.
Vegetarians have often been on the wrong side of history. Muggeridge, Hitler, Paltrow. It is interesting how veggie activists like to co-opt the great and the dead to their cause. Einstein, Darwin and Shakespeare are often included in the veggie listings despite there being little or no evidence that they eschewed meat at all.
The trouble is, they are right, those etiolated salad-munchers. They may be missing one of the great pleasures of human existence, the sheer, feral joy of ingesting a lump of charred amino acids, myoglobin and pure animal fat, the sating of human meat-hunger, a hunger that probably led to our ruling the world (the primatologist Richard Wrangham thinks that when our ancestors learnt to cook meat rather than eating it raw, the flood of extra nutrients enabled our brains to double in size) but no matter, they are right.
They are right because of the cruelty, the terrible waste, the planet-blighting dreadfulness of the meat industry. You may think you know what goes on in abattoirs, you may get free-range this and organic that, but you don’t really; don’t know, that is, about the torture, the suffering, the agonised screams of calves and fowl, the broken legs, slit tendons; the despoiling of forest and diverse savannah to make way for the dull, uniform thud of hooves. Fifty billion sentient lives cut short a year (and that’s not counting the fish). Yes, meat is wonderful and made us who we are, but surely we can do without it these days.
The trouble is, I won’t. I’ve thought about it, but no. I might, if someone could come up with something that looks, smells and tastes just like the real thing, but up to now no one has. Have you ever tasted soya mince? And how long did you spend glued to the toilet the next day? Tried Quorn, twice? No, didn’t think so. Is there a more depressing phrase in the English language than ‘veggie burger’? But things may be changing.
On Monday the Dutch scientist Mark Post is coming to London to cook, or have celeb-chef cooked for him (the details are all top secret) a burger made from meat grown in a vat. Derived from bovine stem cells and cultured in a broth containing foetal serum (stop gagging at the back), Post’s non-meat meat will, he told me last year, taste exactly like the real thing. Because it is the real thing, minus the torture. Small snag — Post’s sci-fi burger costs around £200k, but that will come down if it all takes off. Possibly.
Several teams are working hard on creating animal flesh in the lab without the costs and inconveniences, not to mention the cruelties, of keeping the animals themselves. One way is to culture flesh, the Dutch solution. There are other ways. In California, Pat Brown, a brilliant cancer geneticist at Stanford, is trying to turn plants into meat – not in a Quorn, veggie-burger way, but by using the cleverest molecular biology in the business. When I first met Brown I was convinced he was mad. Vegan, unsmiling, intense. Then I went to see him in his lab, chatted over a Californian café lunch of spinach and beetroot salad (there was bacon on the menu, but it seemed rude) and came away rooting for the guy. Brown knows that people like me will not give up meat. I know what goes on in abattoirs, I know about the rainforests and savannahs, I have had to know about mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth, horseburgers and the rest, and I still carry on eating the stuff. And if people who at least pretend to care about animal welfare will not give up, what hope to convert the great army of meat addicts, the millions who will happily buy something called an ‘everyday value’ burger and affect surprise when they discover it is not made of pure Wagyu fillet?
We could be on the verge of a true revolution, one, like the whole internet business, that we didn’t really see coming. Up to now veggie ‘meats’ have been designed for veggies, not meat-eaters. Pat Brown admits he has no idea what meat should taste like, so he has hired a team of top chefs, all carnivores, to help him.
Imagine a world with no livestock industry; it’s like imagining a world without cars. Sounds appalling, until you imagine it again, then think about it some more. Up to now, vegetarianism has, like the Roundheads, been right but repulsive. Now, thanks to technology, it could be right and tasty as well. And if not, well, there is always cheese.
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