What Netflix Got Right and Wrong with “The Future of Meat”

On Thursday, the Netflix docuseries Explained released its latest 20-minute episode, called “The Future of Meat.”

In the first few minutes, we are presented with some disturbing statistics. Like the fact that every 10 seconds, more than 24,000 animals are slaughtered for food, amounting to a grand total of 75 billion animals killed each year around the world (that’s not including fish). We also learn that while the human population has doubled in the past 50 years, meat production has more than quadrupled.

Explained then examines how meat production today has become grossly unsustainable and a major contributor to climate change. Factory farming, the filmmakers highlight, has also been linked to outbreaks of extremely virulent diseases like bird and swine flu that put huge populations at risk.

So, the show postulates, can future generations satisfy the human craving for meat another way? The episode then explores innovative ways entrepreneurs like Dr. Pat Brown (Impossible Foods) and Josh Tetrick (Just, Inc.) are fashioning meat out of plants or using cells and bioreactors.

For the most part, the show is great and I recommend watching it. But there were just a couple things that irked me as a vegan animal rights activist.

First, the episode seems to repeat as fact the theory that early human consumption of meat might be responsible for why humans developed larger brains and a specific type of intelligence. That is, however, only a theory and many scientists have counter-argued that based on surviving fossil record, early humans primarily ate a plant-based diet. There’s a quote in this section that really bothered me: “Meat eating is arguably what made us human.” Excuse me?? No, gurl.

Second, we hear the typical whine that meat is the only source of essential vitamins and minerals like B12 and heme iron, making it sound like you need to eat meat or else you’ll die. Please. The truth is nearly half of all Americans are actually B12 deficient – that’s a whole lot of meat-eaters. So everyone should be taking a supplement. Period.

And heme iron? Let’s just say it’s not the panacea this show makes it out to be. Fact is, heme iron has been linked to a host of disorders such as certain types of cancer, diabetes, and coronary heart disease. So, while non-heme iron – the type found in plant-based foods – is less absorbable than heme iron, it doesn’t mean that a vegan diet will leave you iron-deficient by any stretch. And for all this drama over nutrients, studies show that vegetarians actually live longer than their meat-eating counterparts. Where’s that statistic?

But my biggest issue with this mini-doc is that while it acknowledges the insane amount of animals we breed, exploit, and kill every day for food, there is zero discussion of the inherent cruelty involved in factory farming.

The episode makes brief mention of a woman I’ve never heard of before named Cecile Steele, who is cast as the accidental inventor of factory farming. But she’s almost celebrated. And then we hear from an expert who casually remarks that we’ve bred chickens to grow so fast that if we don’t slaughter them about a month old, their bones will break under the weight of their monstrous, unnatural bodies. Tragically, the truth is this very thing happens all the time when the animals are alive, and numerous undercover investigations by animal rights activists have documented it.

At just over 20 minutes, I obviously don’t expect this episode to cover every issue – though there certainly seemed to be endless minutes dedicated to watching kids taste Impossible Burgers. But it is a towering – and perhaps telling – omission by the filmmakers to never once question the ethics of imprisoning and slaughtering animals on an industrial scale – and that perhaps that is also a key argument for changing how we produce meat. In fact, younger generations name animal welfare as their chief reason for avoiding animal products.

Because of its devastating effect on our planet, meat may indeed have to come from plants or a lab in the future. But what does it say about humanity, if that’s what it takes for us to finally stop inflicting unimaginable suffering on tens of billions of animals each year.