Primal Numbers – Test-tube Burger

It’s almost summer, and that means BBQ grills everywhere will soon be heating up. From lowly hot dogs to succulent steaks, people can’t enough of their favourite meats. But as worldwide meat consumption grows so do the harmful effects, and some scientists think they’ve found the solution: test-tube meat. The big question is, will meat lovers be willing to bite?

If you’re thinking of fake meat a la texturized vegetable protein or cardboard veggie burgers, think again. The latest research has brought us actual muscle tissue, just like on a cow or pig, being grown in a lab. As Live Science reports, researchers working with pork have taken “pig myosatellite cells?a type of muscle stem cell?and [grown] them in a serum made from the blood of cow fetuses.”

That might not sound too appetizing, but the end result is actual muscle tissue. And while initial testers report the taste as being a bit bland, researchers can boost the fat content for better flavour. Science could also benefit consumers by tailoring the nutritional content of the cultured meat. As this article in The Atlantic notes, healthier fats such as omega-3 fatty acids could replace the saturated fatty acids normally found in your typical pork chops and burgers.

But are the health concerns of eating meat really enough to justify funding this kind of research? That might depend on how much you worry about your diet, but the growing toll of meat production and consumption go far beyond concern over high cholesterol and elevated cancer risks.

When we think of cattle (or pig or sheep) farms, we probably picture the fields, barns, and grazing animals that are a common sight outside many cities. The problem is, that idyllic scene doesn’t come close to capturing the incredible scale of meat production on this planet. So let’s put it in perspective.

As the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) showed in 2012, the numbers are staggering. Over a half century, from 1961 to 2009, global meat production per year grew from 70 million tonnes to 278 million tonnes. That’s a whopping increase of “300 per cent in 50 years.”

And our growing appetite for meat can’t all be pinned on population growth. We’re also eating more meat per person, and the increased demand has the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization predicting another rise of 65 per cent in the next few decades?reaching 460 million tonnes by 2050. That’s a lot of meat.

To be fair, meat isn’t the only food we’re demanding more of. The growing number of humans on the planet also means a greater demand for plant foods like wheat, rice, and beans. So whether you crave a double bacon burger or a plate of veggies and hummus, you’re still using up resources like land, water, fertilizer, and the fuel to haul those groceries to the store.

Raising meat, though, comes at a much higher cost?to resources, the environment, and the animals themselves?than farming plants. UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, notes that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are one of the more destructive aspects of putting all those billions of steaks and chops on the table.

For starters, there’s the methane and nitrous oxide from the animals themselves. Cows, for example, “are by far the largest contributors to global enteric [methane] emissions.”

And unlike the traditional image of Bessie grazing in a field, most of your meat today comes from animals that are densely packed into what’s known as CAFOs?Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Since there’s nothing to graze on, we have to add the environmental cost of chemical nitrogenous fertilizers that are needed to grow the feed for the animals. True, the wheat and rice that humans eat contribute to fertilizer use as well. But the GHG emissions from livestock account for “nearly 80 per cent of all agricultural emissions.”

That’s because it’s no small feat to grow enough crops to feed all those cows, pigs, and sheep. Indeed, as the National Post reports, “raising animals destined for the dinner table takes up about 70 per cent of all agricultural land.”

What goes in must come out, of course, which means we also have to think about all the GHG emissions from the resulting manure. Those piles of poop, as UNEP tells us, add up to some 500 million tonnes each year in the United States alone?”three times the amount of human sanitary waste” produced by the people there.

All in all, modern meat production doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to farming of old, neither in the methods used nor the massive differences in scale. That’s not to say the entire world should become vegetarian. To eat meat or not eat meat is a personal choice.

But it does mean that, if you want to keep enjoying all those steaks and pork chops, we’ve got to look for better ways to supply it. Ways that don’t use staggering amounts of resources to produce relatively small returns. Like the 20 pounds of grain required to produce just 1 pound of edible beef.

Maybe, then, the question isn’t whether or not consumers will embrace the idea. Instead, maybe researchers should be asking whether they’d like fries with that.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

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