Commentary / World

Falling in love with meat all over again

by Faye Flam


Can science tell us anything about the wisdom of ordering Burger King’s newly introduced Impossible Whopper burger, invented in Silicon Valley and made from vegetable matter and a lab-produced protein?

Nutrition has recently changed course, reversing the late 20th century anti-fat dogma, and acknowledging that some kinds of fat found in animals can be good for you. If anything, the beef is the least unhealthy item in a fast food meal — compared with the bun, the pile of fries and the soda.

And yet, there’s evidence from the earth sciences that beef production increases water pollution and global warming. And now there’s research that backs a major moral argument for going vegetarian or vegan: Some of the animals we consider livestock are sentient beings with complex mental, social and emotional lives.

Science isn’t sufficient to tell us what’s right or wrong, but it can give us important insights — telling us, for example, that if we think a dog is too smart and too full of personality to eat, then the same argument might apply to sheep and cows. We just hadn’t bothered to get to know them.

Neurobiologist Lori Marino, an expert on marine mammals, was asked by a farm sanctuary group to look into the cognitive abilities of some of our popular livestock. She said she found remarkable evidence for brainpower and emotional richness among sheep and cows. She recently co-authored a review paper on sheep — on what they think, how they think and what it might feel like to be a sheep.

There’s this popular image of sheep as mindless followers, she said. But a closer look shows “they have the ability to make decisions, toss around ideas and mentally represent ideas to solve a problem.” Sheep are also discriminating. They have a powerful sense of taste to help them distinguish more nutritious plants from less nutritious ones.

And they are aces at face recognition, distinguishing pictures of up to 50 other sheep and remembering faces for up to two years. They they can also distinguish different emotional states among sheep and human faces. In other experiments, they were able to recognize pictures of humans they knew, as well as distinguish images of different human celebrities.

If we think sheep all look alike, that’s a function of our shortcomings. They show distinct personalities; some are more gregarious, others more introverted, some are more novelty-seeking, some are more set in their ways. And sheep form friendships. When we see a flock of sheep, we might think it’s just a mindless grouping, but Marino said the sheep are hanging out near their friends, just like any crowd of people.

Cows too have strong friendships, as well as powerful bonds between mothers and their calves. “Cows are much more complex than they look,” she said. “If you see a bunch of cows grazing, the social relationships play a big part in how they distribute themselves. … And when they are upset, they want to be with their friends, just like us.”

The scientific understanding of animals has shifted dramatically in the last 30 years. For most of the 20th century, biologists considered anthropomorphism a cardinal sin. They wanted to guard against making unjustifiable assumptions, projecting humanlike motives such as love or revenge to animal behavior.

But somehow this got distorted into a much more outlandish and unjustifiable assumption — that nonhuman animals are unthinking, unfeeling robotlike entities, despite their known evolutionary relationship to us.

There have been scientists pointing out the fallacy of this way of thinking for years, but until recently the mainstream scientific community wrote them off as sentimental, soft-hearted types. I once asked evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins about animal rights, given that he’s someone who doesn’t suffer irrational ideas gladly. He became a little incensed that anyone could deny the clear evidence that other animals feel pain and fear. And not just intelligent animals, he said. Perhaps animals we deem less intelligent would feel even more terrified when subject to painful lab experiments or the slaughterhouse.

Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” exposed a number of cruel factory farming practices — particularly crowding, confinement, and feeding corn to animals adapted to eat grass — all of which have adverse effects on consumers by changing the animals’ fat composition and increasing the likelihood of bacterial contamination.

At the same time, it’s hard to deny that we are animals adapted to digesting and getting good nutrition from meat (including chicken and fish), eggs and, for adults with the necessary genetic mutation, milk. Scientists who study diet and brain health are particularly keen on good fats — omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in some fish and shellfish as well as grass-fed beef and lamb.

Maybe the way forward, then, is to recognize that the mix of nutrients from our fellow animals is good for human health — which means finding approaches like lab-grown meat or meat substitutes to help ensure optimal nutrition for people who choose to spare the animals, and the environment. The Impossible Whopper is a good step, because the mixture of beets, peas and a yeast-produced protein called leghemoglobin has apparently fooled taste testers. The next step should be to figure out how to make it healthier.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg columnist.