Would you consume something called hydroponic meat? How about test-tube meat? Maybe in vitro meat?
While these names may induce a grossed-out reaction, they may also be a choice for the meat-eating consumer in the future. Over the years, our meat production systems have garnered criticism for three main reasons: damage to the environment, health concerns and animal rights concerns.
Globally, meat consumption is on the rise. In America, the consumption of all meat has declined. However, the consumption of chicken and turkey has risen. To make one quarter-pound hamburger, it takes 6.7 pounds of cattle feed, 52.8 gallons of water for the cattle to drink and for irrigation of feed crops, 74.5 square feet of land for grazing cattle and growing feed and 1,036 Btus (British thermal units, a measure of energy) for the total process of food cattle production, including growing feed and transport.
Picture enough power to run a microwave for 18 hours. It is clear that the production of meat and other animal products strains our environment, but exactly how and why is this happening?
In America, the shift from grazing to factory farming means that animals live in crowded and dirty spaces where their life cycle is sped up to produce bigger meat, faster. To induce quick growth they are fed hormones, and to combat the unhealthy living conditions they are given copious amounts of antibiotics. Over 1.4 billion tons of animal waste are produced. This waste includes those hormones and antibiotics, which end up in our soil and water, and eventually in us.
Raising large quantities of animals also produces nitrous oxide and methane, greenhouse gases that affect the air quality. Globally, 18 percent of greenhouse gases come from meat production.
Factory meat production also affects us more directly. Recent studies have shown that Americans eat too much meat, which can be linked to the rise in obesity, heart disease and cancer. Annual medical costs due to the over-consumption of meat are between 30 and 60 billion dollars. Over-consumption of meat may be related to 1.8 million deaths a year.
Our over-consumption of meat is not just responsible for human deaths, but for billions of animal deaths as well. The statistics vary, but an estimated ten to 40 billion animals are killed per year in America for consumption. To combat this, many groups promote cutting down on meat consumption (Meatless Mondays) or cutting it out completely and eating a vegetarian or vegan diet.
However, not everyone wants to stop eating meat. Recognizing this fact, in 2008, PETA announced that they would award one million dollars to the first person to come up with a way to make “commercially viable in vitro meat by 2012.” While this has yet to happen, scientists have come closer than most may realize.
As far back as the 1930s, people have considered the possibilities of growing meat. Winston Churchill suggested such an idea when he stated, “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under suitable medium.”
About ten years ago, scientists conducted experiments for NASA to create food that astronauts could consume during long space missions. This is what is known as in vitro meat. Scientists take embryonic cells, called myoblasts or satellite cells, from an animal, such as a cow. (This is often confused with genetic engineering, but it is not, because in vitro meat uses the cells from already existing animals.)
Next, the myoblasts are attached to a scaffold, or a carrier, and placed in a contained environment, or bioreactor, to grow. During this stage, the cells are physically exercised to promote muscle. Then they can be harvested and consumed as meat.
Right now, this method only produces meat that can be processed, such as hamburger or sausage. Scientists have only been able to produce meat that is flavorless and grey, but they are trying to perfect the taste and texture. The technology to produce a three-dimensional meat, like steak, would require a way to reproduce blood circulation and currently does not exist.
Scientists are looking to advance the technology as well as make it more efficient and cost-effective. Currently it would cost one million dollars to turn out a piece of beef that weighs 250 grams.
While in vitro meat is not yet successful enough to be widely available, it does have potential benefits. In vitro meat could have the ability to reduce the number of animals killed for consumption as well as relieve many environmental and health concerns.
Some smaller benefits are worth considering as well. Because in vitro meat does not have to use all of the biological structures of an animal, it can be grown more efficiently and healthfully. Scientists could shift the ratio of healthy to unhealthy fats in in vitro meat and make sure it contains more omega three and six fats.
Another benefit would be the elimination of foodborne pathogens, like Salmonella and E. coli, which have been responsible for 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths.
While all of these benefits are encouraging, the biggest challenge in vitro meat may have is convincing the consumer to accept it as safe and equal to the real thing.
Even if the benefits make rational sense, humans are ruled by their emotions. There’s the gross-out factor. In vitro meat is still viewed as abnormal, or unnatural. We tend to think of our food as natural, but we forget how much of what we consume is actually made in a lab. One just needs to roam the inner aisles of a grocery store to prove this. Where do we think the latest Dorito flavor was created?
If improvements in the production process, cost and taste of in vitro meat happen, and humans are able to get out of their own way, the option of consuming it holds the possibility of positively changing our farming and feeding habits forever.
Editor: Jayleigh Lewis
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