Railcars to reactors: Infrastructure’s role in reinventing meat
It’s time to improve our means of meat production
Yossi Quint
August 28, 2023

Access to an abundance of delicious and affordable meat is the norm in America. This is the “land of plenty,” after all. But it wasn’t always this way. In the late 19th century, beef made its way onto grocery store shelves thanks to the scalability and cost-reduction empowered by infrastructure. 

Cultivated meat has the potential to bring to life a similar revolution, meat without the negative consequences of today’s agricultural system.

Meat’s transition from scarcity to abundance

In the 41 years that passed between the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906, beef production was transformed in such a way that the status of an 8-ounce steak went from that of unattainable luxury to household staple.

Suddenly, meat was plentiful. Anyone could stroll into a market and pluck it off the shelf. And what’s more — it was cheap! 

This shift in access and cost fundamentally redefined America’s relationship with meat. 

Innovation in infrastructure enabled a better way of meat production

The invention of the refrigerated railroad car ushered in the modern era of fresh, abundant, and cheap meat.

For most of the 19th century, beef was produced in a highly-fragmented, onerous, and expensive process. The process began in the great plains where cows were moved from one plain to the next, fattened by grass. When it was time to sell off the herd, cowboys would round up and march the cattle from the grassy plains of the midwest to urban coastal centers. This long journey was difficult with cattle dying on the way, robbers stealing parts of the herd, and the cattle losing weight on the way driven by heavy exercise. The cattle that made it to their destination were then slaughtered by local, small-scale butchers who would distribute the beef locally. This process was inefficient and expensive.

The introduction of the refrigerated railroad car by Gustavus Swift and Andrew Chase in 1877 marked a turning point for meat consumption. This invention enabled meat to be produced more cheaply. Ranchers could now ship their cattle to a nearby, central location — Chicago — where mass slaughters could benefit from economies of scale. Cut-up-meat was then transported across America via refrigerated railroad cars.

Meatpackers could now deliver beef at scale, at a price people could afford.

This new infrastructure enabled an entirely new scale of production. Refrigerated railroad cars reinvented the value chain, and in turn, revolutionized the meat industry. A revolution that generated real money. 

The weight of the current landscape

The refrigerated railroad car democratized fresh and cheap meat in America — and paved the way for the meat system as we know it today.

The shortcomings of present-day meat production carry more weight. Animal agriculture is a leading greenhouse gas emitter and a primary driver of biodiversity loss

It couldn’t be clearer that a better system is needed.

Better bioreactors will redefine our relationship with meat

History does indeed repeat itself. This next shift will be one away from conventional animal agriculture and its many negative externalities. Better meat production will once again be driven by new infrastructure — specifically, better bioreactors. This new wave of next-generation innovation will enable us to move past the inefficiencies in today’s meat production.

The mobilization of meat, empowered by infrastructure, shaped global foodways. Cultivated meat will do the same. New infrastructure in the form of the refrigerated railroad car enabled reliable transport for chilled, packaged meat, and in doing so, created extraordinary wealth. So too will the enablement of large-scale production for cultivated meat.

Access to abundant and affordable meat transformed the American diet, for better or worse. But today, on a warming planet, uncertainty looms over the future of food security. What could access to meat that isn’t vulnerable to the effects of climate change mean for society?

It’s time to once again redefine our relationship with meat. Cultivated meat is actively undergoing the same transformations beef did before it reinvented the value chain. Better bioreactors will mean better meat production — which will mean affordable meat with better nutrition, and without the exploitative environmental and human baggage that comes with conventional meat today.

As technology evolves, so too can human behavior. Let’s move forward!

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