I never liked the term “vegan leather.” It dresses up something that’s a fake. We don’t call polyester sweaters “vegan wool” or a kid’s rubber football “vegan pig skin.” It’s fake leather. Let’s not show off about it.
Now biotech start-ups are making the real deal, fake. Read: leather without a former wearer. Departures Magazine reveals how it’s possible to grow the edible and wearable parts of a cow in a lab, sans mammal. Writer Daniel Grushkin takes the sustainability angle; meat and leather produced without the cow lacks both earth-crushing greenhouse emissions and the extensive grass feed production required to grow animals, and to grow them fast.
New Harvest executive director Isha Datar, says, “It’s not that we’re ending livestock farming, but our concept of what livestock is has changed…. Livestock is our cellular stock, not the whole organism.”
There’s truth in Datar’s observations. In order for the cattle industry to produce 25.8 billion pounds of beef and 206 million pounds of milk annually, a single livestock unit isn’t a living organism anymore, but a mechanical part to the larger profit-driven machine. As factory-farming practices constitute 99% of U.S. farms, the products of livestock no longer involve sustainable, ethical, or traditional farming methods.Founder of Modern Meadows, Andracs Forgacs also works with bioengineering animal products. Just as bioengineers can create human body parts, such as ears, for surgical purposes, they can do the same with livestock cells. In his Ted Talk, Forgacs says, “Essentially, animal products are just collections of tissues. And right now, we breed and raise highly complex animals only to create products that are made of relatively simple tissues.”
If livestock is already bioengineered, cut off from a gene pool that would offer any resemblance to healthy species diversity, what does moving the project from the factory to the lab mean? Yeast cells can produce alternate milk and cheese that matches the codes for the original product. Cows, like the dairy, beef and leather products they produce, are products, themselves. Factory farms produce cows and bulls with the purpose of re-selling them in new forms. They’re stuffed full of antibiotics and bred for either a life of constant birthing or a two-year period of standing in their own shit. Lab-made livestock products appear more ethical from the animal’s standpoint, to say the least.
Says Forgacs, “Animals are not just raw materials. They’re living beings. And already our livestock is one of the largest users of land, fresh water, and one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gasses, which drive climate change.” U.S. consumers aren’t going to stop eating meat. But lab results might be hinting at a new solution.