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The ultimate eco-meal? In-vitro vittles Add to ...

TEST-TUBE LIVESTOCK THE NEWS Juicy burgers and other meaty delights create huge environmental problems: Seventy per cent of deforestation in the Amazon is for cattle pasture, animal waste contaminates rivers and other water sources, and the belches and farts from livestock

release about 37 per cent of planet-heating methane emissions. But teams of scientists in the United States, Norway and the Netherlands may have a solution - in-vitro meat grown from cell cultures instead of on the farm. They are working on feasibility estimates to be released this spring.

THE BUZZ Less livestock has some clear benefits. But will we actually stomach test-tube protein? The public hasn't warmed to the idea, and nobody has been able to grow enough meat in a lab to give it a proper taste test. But the In Vitro Meat Consortium still hopes to produce processed meats within a few years, and higher-quality cuts by 2020. THE BOTTOM LINE Growing meat in a lab is very expensive - making 2.2 pounds currently cost up to $20,000. And the original cells used to seed the meat still have to be extracted from live animals. But the biggest challenge to this green innovation may be creating in vitro vittles that mimic the real thing.

BIOFUEL VERSUS BIOHAZARD THE NEWS New research at England's University of Leicester confirms the devastating side effect of draining peatlands for agriculture: massive emissions of carbon dioxide. The bogs act as natural carbon stores, preserving dead plants that sink to the bottom. But when the swamps are dried out, the peat starts to decompose - emitting as much as 2,400 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere over a 25-year period. THE BUZZ Although ignored in the Kyoto protocol, as much as 40 per cent of 1997 emissions came from fires on Indonesian peatland, mostly started by farmers clearing the land. Perversely, huge swaths of this land are used to grow palm oil trees for biofuels - even though about 30 times more carbon dioxide is released by draining peat than is saved by using clean energy.

THE BOTTOM LINE Last month, delegates in Bali agreed that measures must be taken in the post-Kyoto treaty to preserve carbon stocks, including peatlands. At stake: About 155 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide still locked away in the peatlands of Southeast Asia alone - equivalent to the past five years of global fossil-fuel emissions.

A CHARGE FOR CHANGE THE NEWS Research published in last month's issue of Nature Nanotechnology suggests new hope for gadget-obsessed greenies: A battery that could keep phones, iPods and that laptop your kids keep forgetting to shut off running 10 times longer - or about 20 hours instead of two.

THE BUZZ Engineers once thought they could replace the carbon electrodes in conventional lithium batteries with energy-efficient silicon versions. But the silicon fractured and degraded over time, so this alternative was abandoned decades ago. Now, scientists at Stanford University have come up with a new twist: Lithium batteries wrapped in silicon nanowires - tiny wires a millionth of a millimetre thick that resist rupture.

THE BOTTOM LINE In addition to reducing household-energy use, silicon-lithium batteries could improve the holding capacity for batteries that store power generated by wind turbines and solar panels.

CARBON GROWTH SPURT THE NEWS According to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could change the composition of microbes in the soil - and actually help plants grow faster. On one stand of aspen trees in Wisconsin, ecologists increased the level of carbon dioxide in the air to about 560 parts per million. This is about twice the current atmospheric level, or about the level predicted for 100 years from now if current trends continue, which they discovered increased the bacteria that break down leaf litter and release nutrients into the soil, boosted fungi that live on plant roots and help them grow, and decreased fungi that cause plant disease.

THE BUZZ Many studies have shown that plants increase their growth in high carbon dioxide. In the case of the Wisconsin aspen, by about 20 per cent. What scientists don't know is whether plants can keep this up in the long run. THE BOTTOM LINE Daniel van der Lelie, who headed the DOE's study, is skeptical about ongoing plant growth in a heavy CO{-2} environment. Their initial burst of growth could deplete the soil of key nutrients, particularly nitrogen. But this study does imply that with some help from soil bacteria and fungi such growth could be sustained, though probably for just a few years.

Zoe Cormier is a science writer based in London. Her column on environmental news and trends appears every other week in Focus.

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