Today’s common definition of the term "natural" is: "A concept that represents everything that exists, and was not created or modified by man. By definition, all products of man are artificial, that is, they are not a part of the natural world." (According to Wikipedia).
Looking at the modern world and our way of living, according to this simple definition, it's clear that nothing humans do holds up to that standard:
- The landscapes around us are filled with paved paths and roads, planted vegetation, irrigation, artificial lighting at night and so on.
- The buildings we live in, whether they are concrete buildings, log cabins or ice igloos, were not created by nature, and often do not resemble anything that exists in it.
- Our communication methods have gone through immense changes in the variety of signals, shapes, and the distance they can transmit over, with the assistance of fax machines, telephones, cellular phones and satellite networks, the Internet and various other media such as radio, television and print.
- While in nature, human life expectancy was only a few decades, there is now a significant increase in life expectancy in most countries. This is thanks to changes in human lifestyle, including inventions and improvements in the fields of hygiene, adverse weather protection, medicine and more. Without life-saving medicine, temperature regulation, clean drinking water and other dramatic changes, life expectancy would not have gone through these revolutionary changes.
- While natural means of transportation for people used to be walking and running, you can now find a wide range of man-made transport means including airplanes, ships, cars, bikes etc. All these led to major improvements in mobilization of the human race and played a significant role in its prosperity.
- Ballistic missiles, guns and rifles, warships, warplanes and more – these weapons are not natural, but they have been shown throughout history as being essential for societies that wish to protect themselves and survive.
- Many other areas have gone through revolutionary changes: computer gaming, alcoholic beverages, clothing and footwear, amusement parks, home appliances, the entertainment industry and cinema world, hotels, candy, sports competitions and the list goes on.
This of course is a random and partial list, because if we take a look at the other aspects of our lives, we will soon realize that all things around us have significantly deviated from what might be referred to as 'natural'.
On the left: Manmade pool. On the right: Natural pool. Where would you rather swim?
As a matter of fact, men took nature, and through trial and error, by science and research, accumulated extensive knowledge and implemented the mentioned changes on human welfare (Some of these implementations also brought a lot of damage with them, such as damage to the ecosystem, but we will not delve into that in this this article).
To all of the above we should add, of course, the food we eat. Following the mentioned definition of 'natural', all foods consumed today are in fact unnatural. There are many kinds of foods, some of them are a central part of the human diet, that without technological advances enabling their processing, humans would be unable to eat (potatoes, rice and beans are just some examples). In addition, some of them have gone through intensive intervention of humans over the years in order to be improved (in terms of taste, growth rate, yield efficiency, shelf life, maturation times change, resistance to natural elements, etc), including: the green revolution of wheat, tomatoes, corn, different types of cabbage including ‘superfood’ kale, bananas, cantaloupe and almost any food you can think of in its modern format.
On the right: The original tomato discovered in Peru. Inedible. On the left: A tomato after genetic enhancement.
Even when considering foods that are not vegetative, such as meat, eggs and milk, everything mentioned above applies: Those are not "natural foods" either, since all of them are eventually a product of artificial insemination of livestock in the industry that underwent genetic manipulation, separation from their families, imprisonment on a mass scale, number branding, and of course slaughter in industrial assembly lines. There is no link to nature in this chain what so ever.
So basically, the question we must ask is not whether cultured meat is a natural food, but, is there currently any food that meets the definition of "natural". The answer to that is an unequivocal no!
On the top: The ancestor of corn. On the bottom: The same plant, after genetic enhancement.
Cultured meat will be eventually produced from animal cell tissue, without the use of animals or animal products. Once the research phase is over, and it attains enough tools and knowledge, cultured meat will be formed in the exact same way as tissues develop in the animal body and without any genetic manipulation. The only difference will be the growth habitat, which will not be the body of an animal, but still one that provides all the necessary conditions for it to develop. In the future we will have an international reservoir of stem cells, and those will be placed into giant breweries (the same containers used to produce beer), where they will have suitable temperature and nutrients, and sterile conditions that will make them grow in volume and differentiate into muscle or fat tissue, depending on what kind of meat is desired. Creation of the tissue will happen in the exact way it occurs in the animal body.
So, with regard to the definition of natural food, cultured meat is not significantly different from the rice, milk, tomato, meat and broccoli of today’s world. All of the food products we know and love underwent intensive intervention of man, and without it, they would be impossible to consume: either because their production, storage and transport in their natural forms are impossible, inefficient or non-economical, or because they would've simply been inedible or unpalatable.
Considering all of the above, we can also choose to include in the ‘natural’ definition, things that humans have intervened in (quite a logical step, since humans are part of nature, and so they are part the planet's fabric of life). According to this modified definition, cultured meat can be seen as a natural food, just like eggs and broccoli would now be considered natural foods.
Top part: Industrial killing of hens. Bottom part: Brewery. Where would you rather your meat came from?
Another thing worth mentioning is that most people associate the word ‘natural’ with positive things. When one thinks of beautiful landscapes, magnificent animals, and even food, this term has a positive meaning – for example, when promised that a certain product contains "100% natural ingredients", one might be pursuaded to buy it. However, this link one makes in their mind does not accurately reflect reality. It ignores the cruelty and the negative things abounded in nature alongside the positive aspects. It is natural for a group of hyenas to tear apart an antelope piece by piece while it is still conscious and screaming in pain. In nature there are serious and fatal diseases (lung damage, degeneration of kidneys, cancer, bacterial and viral infections, etc.), extreme weather conditions (heat waves, blizzards, and so forth) – all perfectly natural and cause suffering and mortality. In addition, morality, nature and justice do not always go hand in hand. As we all know, a weak or disabled deer will be the first to fall prey among a deer flock, while in human culture, we aim to give special treatment to the weak or disabled (including easier access, financial aid, etc.). There are many more varied examples, all show that what is natural, isn’t necessarily right (and vice versa). The simple fact that something is natural, does not mean that there is no room to improve it.
When referring to nature while talking about processed foods, we often try to state something positive, or clarify that a certain component is not a chemical product that may harm us, and is only used for reasons of taste, smell, or appearance. Still, we must restate that humans have made many changes in all types of food that are consumed by them today, and these changes were all positive changes that helped humans benefit from their diets. In this respect, we can say without a shadow of a doubt, that without human intervention in nature, humanity could not have obtained itself with such a variety and quantity of food in most areas of the world. In regards to this matter, the initial context to the term ‘natural’ is not necessarily so positive, because without man's ‘non-natural’ intervention in food, there would not be such a rich and multi-nutritional selection of foods available.
If so, in regards to being natural, cultured meat is certainly a food as all foods. Whether we define it as natural or not – cultured meat is as much of a food as bananas, tomatoes and pasta.
When one considers that the decisive majority of the human race does not want to stop consuming meat, and that cultured meat could stop widespread environmental damage, the most severe animal abuse, and prevent pandemic outbreaks capable of killing millions of people, the critical question is not whether cultured meat is natural or not, but whether or not we want to support a product that can change our world for the better.
Just as we choose to have surgery when our life is in danger, although that action does not meet the definition of ‘natural’, we need to support the cultured meat research, because our precious earth is very sick. In fact, the world is dying – and cultured meat is the surgery it needs to go through in order to recover.