By Katja Lierhaus ’16
We are a “species designed to love meat.” Bacon for breakfast, turkey for lunch, and a hamburger for dinner — we are a nation of meat eaters. Yet for the vegetarians scattering our globe, how would they respond to beef grown in the lab? This manufactured beef, a five year research project led by Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University, is grown from the stem cells of an organic cow’s muscle tissue. While some vegetarians or vegans may reject the lab-grown beef claiming that it still originates from a mammal, those who simply do not eat meat for ethical and environmental reasons have something to celebrate about.
Grown beef has the ability to solve our world’s most pressing problem: feeding our growing population. It is estimated that there will be 9.5 billion people by 2050, and therefore two times the current demand for meat. Post’s innovative technology provides food security to meet this demand. Just a few muscle-specific cow cells can grow to ten tons of meat. This resourcefulness means that we have the power to provide an endless supply of meat. Cows, on the other hand, are extremely inefficient; it takes 100 grams of vegetable protein to equal fifteen grams of edible animal. Lab-grown beef eliminates this inequality between food input and output.
Not only will this beef provide food security, but it will also provide numerous environmental benefits. Right now 30% of the total world’s surface is covered with pasture lands for livestock. Comparatively, only 4% of the Earth’s surface is used to directly feed humans. With a world that will have to grow 70% more food by 2050 just to keep up with the population, it makes sense to do away with such a resource intensive product. Replacing these cows with crops also means less CO2 and methane, a greenhouse gas twenty-four times more powerful than CO2. Livestock, which contribute to 40% of all methane and 5% of all CO2 emissions, are clearly a massive pollutant. In fact, if the meat demand doubles, livestock could contribute to half the negative climate impact as all of the world’s cars, buses, and aircraft. Moreover, fifteen hundred gallons of water are used to make only one pound of meat. In a world where clean water will most certainly become a precious commodity, we could be using that water for more useful applications such as crop irrigation and drinking. Consequently, less cows means less adverse environmental impacts and an overall cleaner world.
Perhaps the most convincing argument to vegetarians is that lab-grown beef will eliminate the need to slaughter cows. Animal cruelty will be eradicated due to the fact that we will not need industrial sized cattle farms. As seen in the documentary Food, Inc., it’s no secret how big corporations treat their animals: cows are crammed into tight quarters, fed processed grains, and given injections of antibiotics necessary to lessen the chance of disease due to overcrowding. Post’s beef eliminates all of this.
While the grown beef is all well and good, many believe that it is distracting us from the main problem: humans eat too much meat. Consuming red meat has been correlated with a 20% increase in the risk of heart disease and cancer. Although Post’s beef in present form is pure protein, he and his team are looking to add lab-grown fat cells and something that would resemble blood vessels in order to resemble the taste and texture of real beef. Thus, his creation could be just as unhealthy as meat coming straight from the cow. The answer, although ideal, would have humans rejecting beef altogether. Less demand would mean less meat production. This total rejection, however, is perhaps unreasonable.
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University believes that humans will not stop eating meat in the near future. He claims that what drove us to eat meat was part of our evolutionary past and that we have been eating meet for the past 2.5 million years. A hunter showing up with an animal ready to be placed over the fire was a cause for dancing and celebration – showing up empty-handed was a different story. The protein in meat allowed humans to grow bigger brains and become the species we are today.
So while world-wide vegetarianism is a transition unlikely to happen in the next thirty years, lab-grown beef is the interim answer to our potential food shortage as well as environmental crises. Although many vegetarians will still be munching on lentils and carrots, those who reject meat for the ethical and environmental reasons can now breathe a sigh of relief. Furthermore, Post has paved the way toward a cleaner and healthier planet. It is the next step, limiting our meat consumption, which will mitigate the demand for beef – lab-grown or genuine – and the need for industrially produced beef cows. Simply changing our habits is the answer to this paramount problem. While evolution may have sustained our love of meat, only we have the ability to become vegetarians for the good of our currently evolving world.
For more startling statistics, visit: http://www.salon.com/2014/09/17/red_meat_is_destroying_the_planet_and_the_frankenburger_could_help_save_it_partner/
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Alok Jha, “Synthetic meat: how the world’s costliest burger made it on to the plate,” 5 Aug. 2013 22 Sept. 2013 <http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/aug/05/synthetic-meat-burger-stem-cells>.
David H. Freedman, “Are Engineered Foods Evil?,” Scientific American September 2013: 82.
Alok Jha, “First lab-grown hamburger gets full marks for ‘mouth feel’,” 6 Aug. 2013, 22 Sept. 2013 < http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/aug/05/world-first-synthetic-hamburger-mouth-feel>.
Kate Wong, “The First Cookout,” Scientific American September 2013: 68.