In Singapore, you can now get “chicken bites” (a nugget, really), which have nothing to do with chickens. The city-state has become the first to approve a “cultured meat” product — flesh-equivalents produced in bio-reactors that do not require the slaughter of an animal. The move is being seen as a landmark moment for the livestock industry: For some time now, several companies have been developing cultured meat to mitigate the impact of animal rearing on climate change as well as provide vegetarians with a “cruelty free” option. These are laudable goals, no doubt. But vegetarian meat is also the disturbing, almost dystopic, fruition of a phenomenon that began with such innovations as the soya chaap.
For people socialised in food cultures where animal protein is not the centre of the meal — in the Subcontinent, for example, a cereal, pulses, vegetables usually accompany a meat dish — the overwhelming need that vegetarians have to eat meat substitutes may not make sense. In fact, a dietary pattern which does not rely on mass-produced animal protein also puts far less stress on the environment. That Indians consumed only 3.16 kg of meat per capita per annum in 2017, (in Singapore, the figure is over 71 kg, in the US, 98.6 kg) is as much to do with eating habits that encourage diversity as socio-economic factors.
What is irksome about lab-grown meat, and meat-substitutes in general, really, is that they claim nobility for what is essentially a fear of missing out. They allow people to make the choice of being vegetarian, without feeling like they have to actually give up meat. And finally, is all the research and money put into an over-processed chicken nugget worth it? Just stick to the soya chaap.