It’s a nice story, the tale of a Delaware farmer’s wife named Cecile Steele who gave birth to the modern chicken industry. In 1923, the story goes, Mrs. Steele ordered 50 chickens for her egg-laying flock. A nearby hatchery accidentally delivered 500. She crammed them into a shed, raised them for meat and her profits grew. She ordered another 1,000, then 10,000 and soon raised 25,000 chicks at a time. Her neighbors took notice. Today, chicken growers on the peninsula known as Delmarva, which includes the eastern shores of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, raise more than 600 million chickens a year.
Yes, it’s a nice story, but the truth is more complicated. What really made possible the explosive growth of today’s chicken industry was science and technology. Scientists working in university and corporate labs, often with government funding, invented, developed and perfected technologies that underlie the global meat business—antibiotics that prevent chickens and pigs kept in close quarters from spreading disease, modern genetics so they can be bred to grow faster and fatter, mechanization that allows a single farmer to raise thousands of animals and advances in shipping and logistics that make it easy for beef, pork and poultry meat to be shipped around the world.
Now, it seems entirely possible that the new science of “clean meat” could bring an end to factory farms–and to the suffering of animals who are raised in intensive, confined quarters. “Clean meat” is a term used to describe both plant-based meats, made by startup companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and cell-based meats, grown from a few cells from animals, which together could replace the meat obtained from live animals.
In my first story for a Medium publication called OneZero, about science and technology, I look at the science of clean meat, and how it is rapidly advancing. Some of the science is funded by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, but fundamental research is being underwritten by philanthropy from the Good Food Institute, a fast-growing nonprofit led by Bruce Friedrich. GFI made $3 million in grants last year to scientists researching clean meat, and recently announced that it would award another $3 million in the next few months. This is philanthropy with potentially incredible leverage–if these grants help make alternatives to meat tastier, healthier, cheaper or better for the environment, they will help drive an industry that will do enormous amounts of good.
You can read my story for Medium’s Onezero here.