Escaping the absurdity - promoting ethical, healthy, sustainable and safe foods

Escaping the absurdity - promoting ethical, healthy, sustainable and safe foods

"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… The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural product from the outset, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”

"Can we ‘escape the absurdity’ to help address biodiversity loss, the climate crisis, farmed animal suffering and potential future pandemics?"
Jenny Chapman at a conference

With the incredible buzz surrounding cultivated meat at the moment, you might think this quote in the introduction is from the last year or so. It describes the process of making genuine meat by taking cells from an animal and coaxing them to divide in a solution - a ’suitable medium’ - containing glucose, amino acid and other ingredients necessary for life. As described, the resulting food is real meat, ‘practically indistinguishable’ from animal flesh.

The ‘absurdity’ alluded to is multi-layered – there is the astonishing thermodynamic inefficiency of feeding crops to an animal, where the vast majority of the calories go to heat its body, enable movement and to form body parts that humans don’t eat (such as feathers and bones). There is also the land required to grow these feed crops. Land we are fast running out of if we want to be able to feed the nearly 10 billion people the United Nations estimates to be on the planet by 2050, whilst also adopting sustainable regenerative agricultural practices and rewilding vast swathes of the Earth’s surface.

There is the pandemic risk that comes from keeping animals in stressful, cramped conditions and the antimicrobial resistance risk that comes from feeding them huge volumes of antibiotics. There is the untold enormity of suffering. 75 billion land animals are killed for meat every year and 74% of these animals (that’s around 48,100,000,000) spend their whole lives in factory farms. And then there’s the fact that animal agriculture is responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions – to put that final figure into context, all transport is responsible for 21% (statistics from Our World in Data). 

Can we ‘escape the absurdity’ to help address biodiversity loss, the climate crisis, farmed animal suffering and potential future pandemics? Absolutely! With both ancient and new technology, scientists around the world are making environmentally friendly, nutritious, and cruelty-free food from plants and fungi. There’s also been exciting progress in using animal cells to make meat by growing them in the same fermenters we use to make yoghurt and beer, with these products already proving popular in the USA and Singapore.

Adoption of these foods, often termed ‘sustainable proteins’, is not as fast as it could be. There are many challenges – financial, regulatory, legal, attitudinal, cultural, political, educational, and logistical – which is what makes the topic so fascinating.

It is something I’ve been interested in all my life, as an environmentalist, lifelong vegetarian, animal advocate and biologist with a particular fascination with protein biochemistry. My Churchill Fellowship combines these interests and is allowing me to investigate what we can do to encourage the widespread adoption, acceptance, and trust of these foods.

Eating sustainable proteins is not the only way we can solve the problems outlined above but campaigns to encourage people to eat a more plant-based diet have simply failed to make much of an impact. Giving people the food they know and love just without the plethora of associated negative issues, from greenhouse gas emissions to antimicrobial resistance, is a real solution.

I’m travelling to the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany and speaking to people from the USA, to better understand how the UK can build on its rich agricultural history to realise the benefits of sustainable proteins. Whilst I’m away, I’m attending conferences and have arranged interviews with an extensive range of experts in health, food science and sustainability.

My qualitative research is focusing on how we can better communicate the benefits of these sustainable, healthy, safe, and ethical protein sources. I’ve started my Fellowship by reading a huge number of scientific papers and interviewing key stakeholders in policy, industry, and campaign work. Once I’ve finished my research, I’m writing a report containing communication recommendations and hosting a roundtable discussion to implement my findings.

So, when was the quote in my introduction said and by whom?

Remarkably, it is almost a century old and dates from the December 1931 issue of The Strand Magazine. It can be found in an article titled Fifty Years Hence’.

And it was written by Sir Winston Churchill.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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