This is an article that I've wanted to post for a while, but never had the time. It was written Andrew Revkin of the NY Times. It's a VERY interesting read and will affect all of us eventually.

The world has seen the first international conference on manufacturing meat. This is the process, tested so far only at laboratory scale, of growing pork, chicken, or beef through cell culture in vats instead of raising and slaughtering animals.

My colleague Mark Bittman wrote a fine piece recently about the greenhouse-gas consequences of conventional meat production. Others have explored the environmental and ethical impacts of factory and feedlot farming. Manufactured meat, in theory, provides an end run around these issues. What if you can have your meat, be ethical, and environmental, too? (And presumably they’ll engineer the bad fats out as well….)

The three-day meeting of the In Vitro Meat Consortium, held at the Norwegian Food Research Institute, is wrapping up today. (They might want to do something about that name.) It brought together biologists, engineers, government officials and entrepreneurs seeking – for both environmental and ethical reasons – to move from animal husbandry to technology as a means of providing the kind of protein people crave in a world heading toward 9 billion ever more affluent mouths.

A paper presented at the meeting concluded that, for the moment, the costs of cultured meat can’t come close yet to competing with, say, unsubsidized chicken. (A pdf is downloadable here.) The paper noted the reality of the climb up the protein ladder as countries move out of poverty, with global meat consumption at about 270 million metric tons in 2007 and growing at about 4.7 million tons per year.

It laid out the theory: “The environmental impact of meeting this forecast demand from existing livestock systems is significant. Cultured meat technology offers an alternative production route for a proportion of this consumption. This would then allow a downsized livestock production system to continue to be ecologically sound and to meet basic animal welfare needs.”

The group noted that costs for research, large-scale testing, and public relations will be significant, and anticipated that governments and nonprofit groups would chip in. That seems idealistic, at best, in a world with deeply entrenched interests linking ranching, the agrochemical industry, and giant restaurant chains.

But one could envision someday a model, say, of a solar-powered facility in southern California or Singapore basically turning sunlight and desalinated seawater into growth medium and then tons of cruelty-free, sustainable nuggets of chicken essence. (The promoters of this technology don’t envision anything, for now at least, beyond nuggets and ground meat. No filet mignon.)

For the moment, startup costs aside, the conferees concluded that unsubsidized chicken-raising still comes in at half the price. But the century is yet young.

I asked a few folks about facets of this, among them Peter Singer, the ethicist at Princeton who’s written for ages on animal rights and environmental values on a finite planet.

For those seeking an end to animal slaughter for human sustenance, is this kind of a cheat, I asked?

“Not necessarily,” he said. “My interest is in ethics, but whatever works best. If it is harder to move people on ethical grounds than it is to provide a sustainable humane substitute, I’m all for the substitute.”

I then went to my bellwether of techno-optimist thinking, Jesse Ausubel, the director of the program for the human environment at Rockefeller University. He said there is no reason to doubt that a long-term trend toward more concentrated food production will eventually lead to manufactured meat.

In fact, he said, there is essentially little choice on a crowding planet to pursue technological solutions to feeding ourselves, shifting away from carbon-containing fuels, and otherwise limiting our ecological imprint. Human nature is probably harder to change than technology, he said.

“If behavior and technology do not change, more numerous humans will trample the earth and endanger our own survival,” he told me. “The snake brain in each of us makes me cautious about relying heavily on changes in behavior. In contrast, centuries of extraordinary technical progress give me great confidence that diffusion of our best practices and continuing innovation can advance us much further in decarbonization, landless agriculture, and other cardinal directions for a prosperous, green environment. For engineers and others in the technical enterprise the urgency and prizes for sustaining their contributions could not be higher. Because the human brain does not change, technology must.”

What do you think? Can we change human nature? Should we?

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4 Opinions

  1. Rox // 20 April 2008 at 12:14

    Factory farming is probably the biggest causes of global warming, and when you consider that the crops used to feed food animals could solve world hunger, then this is possibly one of the biggest 'breakthroughs' on an environmental scale I've seen in a while.

    That said, as a vegetarian, it would be far cheaper and easier to look at changing what we eat than changing the way we eat it. That's just my 2 cents of course, and I know that while more and more people are starting to think about their food origins and hormones and the environmental impact... society still has a long way to go before things will really change on a big scale.

    Good article dude, ta for posting.

  2. HoTsTePPa // 20 April 2008 at 12:19

    This will certainly have a huge impact on the environment, but I was just wandering though: Will the ecosystem not be thrown into a spiral now?

    This will mean less animal culling, less fishing, etc. What happens when the fish population gets so too big for the sea?

  3. Rox // 20 April 2008 at 12:38

    Conservation is not all that it's made out to be - it's more about preserving animals to be killed off later than about protecting animals.

    I really don't believe that culling and control is the way to go, this is usually propaganda from various powers that be such as marine and fisheries departments and wildlife groups who see hunting as a sustainable way of animal conservation.

    Take salmon for example, the natural lifespan of Alaskan salmon starts when eggs hatch in the rivers. The eggs then hatch, and when the fish are big enough, the ones that have managed to not get eaten by predators migrate to the sea, where they stay for 1-2 years til they reach maturity. When it's time to spawn, the salmon start their journey upstream back to the rivers. Along the way, many of them get caught by trawlers, and some of them get past that, manage to jump up waterfalls, avoid getting eaten by bears, otters, bigger fish and birds, and a few manage to make it back to their spawning grounds, where a few then manage to lay their eggs. That is the end of their cycles, and they usually peg in the river soon afterwards.

    So, if we took out the human impact, the natural predators would have more abundance, and there would be a bit more salmon making it to the end.

    Nature has been managing to control animals for like, ever, so no reason why it can't do that again.

    (btw soz for the long comment hun, lol)

  4. Julia // 03 June 2008 at 03:24

    My problem is with the "manufacturing"- aren't we trying to move away from processed, refined and modifed foods? What's wrong with just eating less meat? I tell you what, manufactured meat would never cross my lips, I wish we humans would learn to stop interfering!