Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Future Of Meat

The Future Of Meat
By Claudina Yang

Devour is what I would like to do to steak. Succulent, juicy, creamy, and fatty, the taste and aroma of red meat makes my senses scream, “I must have it now.” Similar to the reaction one might have towards freshly baked cookies or percolated, ground Robusta, there is a certain potency of smell to cooked meat that makes me go weak at the knees. However, I was forced to reconsider my all-consuming love for juicy steak when I took an Environment Ethics course in the fall. Upon declaring that I was the sole and proud meat eater in the room, I was only mildly surprised to be the main target of all the dirty looks and verbal assault for the rest of the semester. Perhaps I shouldn’t have made the quip that some species of animals were virtually useless, but you’d think I drank the tears of pandas by all the appalling looks I received when I said nobody could pay me any amount of money to give up eating meat.  Nonetheless, it later became acutely apparent to me that my meaty dreams may soon have to be crushed, or at least suppressed, if I want to be a conscientious citizen of the changing world.

Unfortunately for those of us meat lovers, all the signs and research warn us that drastic changes to food production and diet are needed by 2050 to combat further global climate change. Some estimate that meat eaters in developing countries will have to cut back consumption by almost 50% to avoid the worst consequences of future environmental change. Reducing food emissions while still producing enough food for a growing population that is estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, is arguably the most difficult challenge of combating climate change. Presently, around 10 billion land animals in the US are raised for dairy, meat, and eggs each year. Factory farming accounts for 37% of methane emissions every year and contributes to air pollution by also releasing other compounds like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Animal waste from the farms cause dangerous levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the water supply, and the use of fossil fuels to raise and feed the animals emits around 90 million tons of CO2 emissions annually. Furthermore, global deforestation for grazing and feeding animals emits another 2.4 billions tons of CO2 every year.

Looking at the current research, it’s hard to deny the inevitable consequences of our meat eating habits if we continue to consume as much as we are now. Global warming might be the controversy of yesterday, but climate change is upon us, and it will only get worse if we don’t take on individual responsibility for our changing environment. Nowadays, with people growing more aware of the imminent problems we are facing, vegetarianism and veganism seem to be more common alternatives. However, in many developing countries, particularly in South America, ranching provides a large source of income for many of its farmers. A vegetarian diet is also often considered a privileged lifestyle that is too expensive to maintain, and buying processed meat provides a cheaper way for people to get the protein they need. Consequently, despite the infallible claims made by this current research, I still had a hard time coming to terms with what that would mean for my lifestyle. Why would I implement changes that I consider to be entirely unnatural to my way of life? So while proudly defending my fellow meat-eating brethren of the world in class, I also brought to the table topics on natural predation and biological evolution to back up my end of the argument. I’m a proponent of regulated hunting, and so I believe that natural predation is necessary if we want to maintain healthy animal populations. The food chain is a natural, biological structure. Entire ecosystems can’t be maintained if we give up meat consumption all together. Although this is true, it isn’t a strong enough argument to justify the enormous magnitude and scale of the meat consumption rates we are going at now. But some might ask, “Isn’t it human nature and natural for us to eat meat?” Meat-eating proponents argue that there is not much scientific proof that really shows us that our bodies can have completely healthy diets without eating meat in the long term. And look at our teeth. One could make the argument that evolutionary biology dictates that the shape and structure of our incisors were born to chomp on meat. However, if we take this line of argument, then we have to ask ourselves what it means to be natural. Is it natural for us to be species-est and deny equal consideration to other animals? Is it natural for us to destroy the environment we live in just to supplement our “natural” diet? This isn’t to suggest that we give up eating meat entirely, or that we must now adjust our thinking and view amoebas as precious lives that must be preserved, but as a long time defender of meat eating myself, I can no longer deny the dire consequences that my lifestyle can have on my environment. So what alternatives are out there?

In August, when London tasters bit into the first lab-grown burger, one taster declared, “It’s close to meat.” Another said “the bite feels like a conventional hamburger,” but that it tasted like “an animal protein cake.” However, the taste isn't necessarily relevant here. A hamburger grown from stem cells obtained from cow muscle, this lab-grown meat provides one view of the future of meat. Dutch researcher and proponent of the idea, Dr. Mark Post, presented the idea saying that this lab-made meat could provide high-quality protein for the world’s growing population while also combating many of the environmental and animal-rights issues surrounding conventional food production. Although it would take about 10 years for cultured meat to become commercially viable, this feat could lead to less usage of land, water, and energy resources, while also reducing methane emission and other greenhouse gases. It would also placate those who are concerned about animal welfare, since animals don’t have to necessarily be killed to make the meat. Other alternatives to combatting climate change also include renewable energy technology and breakthrough research in climate engineering and human engineering etc. So maybe there’s still hope yet for the future of meat.

With researchers making headway on new ways to supplement protein in our diets, perhaps one day we can provide a way for beefeaters to eat beef that is both environmentally friendly and morally ethical. Although the thought of giving up meat thoroughly pains me, I now realize how glib my comments may have been at the beginning of class when I proudly declared myself an inconsequential meat-eater. So nowadays, whenever I think about what to eat, I am at least now more aware and conscious of what it means for the environment when I consume that food. Maybe someday I can reconcile my love for eating red meat and the implications of doing so, and jump on the train with the other vegetarians. But for now, these days I choose to curb the desire to eat meat more often that not. Asking meat lovers to eliminate meat from their diets might not be a reasonable thing to ask, but at the minimum, we should all consider eating less of it, or at least supplement factory farmed meat with other alternatives like buying grass fed, organic, or free range meat once in awhile. Nothing can beat genuine, prime USDA cow in my book, but we can’t deny that if we want to combat global climate-change and sustain our growing populations, conscientious meat eating such as reducing portion size and frequency of consumption could go a long way for the future.

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