I was raised on meat – the more, the better. Our family feasted on a steady diet of hamburgers, pork chops, chicken and giant slabs of rare roast beef. Under duress, we ate fish sticks. Once my mom tried serving something vegetarian – we thought she’d committed child abuse.
I’m still a carnivore, but I don’t feel especially good about it. The mass slaughter of animals for human consumption bothers my conscience. I even stopped eating bacon for a while, because pigs are so intelligent. (That didn’t last.) On top of that, humankind’s growing appetite for meat is a big environmental problem. World meat consumption, according to the United Nations, is expected to double in the next 40 years. We’re chopping down rain forests to create more pasture land, and releasing vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Methane, a cow byproduct emitted by both ends of the animal, is a potent greenhouse gas.
Is there any ethical way to eat meat? That’s the question The New York Times Magazine posed this month. Readers sent in thousands of responses. Many of them seem to think we can get around the problem by switching to humane, non-industrial, organic meat production (although they failed to address the question of what the poor are supposed to eat as guilty rich folks chow down on their $28-a-pound artisanal rib-eyes).
Unfortunately, the idea of sustainable meat is probably a myth. Factory farming isn’t pretty, but it’s environmentally efficient. If all the cows in the U.S. were raised on grass, according to one calculation, cattle-grazing would require almost half the country’s land. Small-scale meat production, author James McWilliams wrote in The New York Times this month, also generates more greenhouse gases per hamburger. It would be nice if the human race would convert to vegetarianism. But this seems unlikely. As people grow more affluent, they invariably want more meat.
There’s another answer, and it’s astonishing that environmentalists and ethical eaters don’t lobby for it: lab meat. If we could figure out how to produce synthetic meat, we could save the rain forests, cut down on greenhouse-gas emissions, conserve huge amounts of energy and eliminate bacterial contamination, to say nothing of avoiding the slaughter of billions of animals a year. What we need is an all-out push to develop “shamburgers.”
“The prospect of being able to create our own meat could herald a food revolution,” writes William Little in the Financial Times. He reports that the first lab-grown shamburger will be grilled by a celebrity chef (to be announced) this fall. In reality, the science of lab-grown meat is still in its infancy, and we’re many years away from commercialization. But science advances by leaps and bounds and, if scientists can decipher the human genome, they can probably figure out how to grow meat protein.
So far, however, almost no one is interested in funding the research needed to make this possible. Governments would rather throw money at solar and wind power, and environmentalists would rather lobby against pipelines. Among the few interested parties is PETA, which has offered a $1-million prize to the first team that can produce synthetic chicken.
Why the lack of interest? It’s undoubtedly the yuck factor. “Yuck,” said my editor when I said I was planning to write about test-tube meat. Despite tender feelings toward other species, people are much happier to eat dead animal carcasses than something they regard as Frankenfood. Maybe they’ll get over that one day.