by Miranda Vogt '19
There are two types of people in this world, those that make conscious decisions to alter their diets for the benefit of the environment, and those that say “Screw it, I just want my God-damn burger”. This is the way it has been for a long time, and the way it still is now, but some people argue that by the year 2050, these two groups will not be mutually exclusive. I am extremely interested in researching this intersection of the carnivore and the environmentalist as it occurs in lab grown meat, a promising but somewhat problematic new technology.
But why do we have to change the way we eat? A 2006 report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that 18 percent of Greenhouse Gas Emissions comes from the meat and dairy industry, compared to the 13 percent emitted by the entire transportation sector. Recent reports, however, show that the true percentage could be higher still. Through a scientific lens, we’re taking a really inefficient route to get the energy and nutrients we need to live. We’re putting vegetable protein into a biochemical reactor called a cow (or chicken, duck, whatever) and then it puts off a lot of heat and methane and finally the reaction is done and we eat our hamburger. Added on to the greenhouse gas emissions and wastefulness of meat is the space that it takes to grow it. 30% of non-ice covered land is dedicated to raising livestock and the food that we feed it. Every day huge portions of land get cleared to make room for our gigantic appetite for meat. And every day, our population grows and our situation becomes more and more dire.
Even with all the facts, I have struggled with how to eat ethically. I’ve looked in to various ways to reduce my carbon footprint at the dinner table, including veganism and entomophogy (eating insects), but always end up coming back to omnivory. It’s just easier to get protein, and easier overall. You don’t have to ask for substitutions at restaurants or be difficult at family dinners. And unless you’re cooking for yourself, it is usually a lot more expensive to only get the healthy, veggie things (places catering to vegans are often organic and pricey). Plus, I like meat.
But now there’s an intriguing new voice in this conversation—the cultured meat side, promising to end all our problems with animal stem cells and a petri dish. Ideally, the process goes as follows: animal stem cells are taken from a living organism (without killing it) and allowed to divide for months in a bioreactor with plant-based growth culture. Then the cells are made to differentiate into muscle cells and begin the process of “bulking up”, through electronic stimulation.
In studies about the environmental impact of cultured meat (also referred to as “lab-grown meat” and “clean meat”), it was estimated that it would involve approximately 35 to 60 percent lower energy use, 80 to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions and 98 percent lower land use compared to conventionally produced meat products in Europe. Not only that, but ideally, meat produced in a lab setting could be enjoyed guilt-free, as the animal who so willingly donated the cells could still be alive and kicking.
Where’s the catch, then? If lab-grown meat is environmentally in the green and guilt-free, why is it we don’t see these products in our stores already? One reason is the astronomical price-tag on cultured meat. A lab in the Netherlands was able to produce the first completely lab-grown burger, but it cost approximately $330,000—a little out of budget for our average supermarket shopper. Not only that, but when served without condiments to a board of taste-testers that were chosen for their willingness to embrace the technology, the lab-grown burger fetched such rave reviews as “edible, but not delectable”.
Here’s the crux of the issue. Yes, prices are dropping. Cultured meat producers like Memphis Meats here in the Bay Area say that it will be on our shelves and price competitive with conventionally produced meat in as few as 5-10 years. But will we ever be able to accept cultured meat into our lives and refrigerators when we raise such a big stink over harmless GMOs? Is lab-grown meat our silver bullet or our Frankenstein’s monster?
“Are Livestock Responsible for 51% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” TerraPass. N.p., 10 Nov. 2009. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
Bartholet, Jeffrey. “Inside the Meat Lab.” Scientific American 304.6 (2011): 64–69. www.nature.com. Web.
“FAO - News Article: Key Facts and Findings.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
“Food: A Taste of Things to Come? : Nature News.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
“Livestock a Major Threat to Environment.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
“Long Awaited Lab-Grown Burger Is Unveiled In London.” NPR.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
McLaren, Mallory E., "Cultured Meat: A Beneficial, Crucial, and Inevitable Nutrition Technology" (2014). Law School Student Scholarship. Paper 527.
“The High Price Of What We Eat.” NPR.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
Thornton, Philip K. “Livestock Production: Recent Trends, Future Prospects.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 365.1554 (2010): 2853–2867. PubMed Central. Web.
Welcome to our blog!
This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.