Saving the Planet, One Scientific Steak at a Time

In-vitro meat (IVM) is one of those subjects that could quickly get out of hand in the minds of an uninformed public, and this post is my small part in countering the entropy of reason. Hmm, is it still entropy if the reasoning was never there to begin with?

In my discussions with those unfamiliar with it, the first reaction seems to be one of disgust. Maybe due to the increasing familiarity with Genetically Modified Foods (GMO), especially with the increasing notoriety of Monsanto (as if they were the first and last step in GMO). But, as in any foray into the unknown, as Bertrand Russell puts it: first you must begin with the facts, and move on from there. So let’s get to the facts of meat today, and then with those of IVM. One thing we must get out-of-the-way before we begin: human-beings will not just stop eating meat, so any philosophical or personal objection to the practice of meat-eating is bunk. One person’s (or even a billion persons) objection to the practice of eating meat is irrelevant, it’s simply a part of life and must be dealt with.

Current picture of meat consumption:

  • in 2011, worldwide meat consumption was 46.6 kg (92 pounds) per capita, which is about 326,200,000,000 kg of meat every year, and increasing, expected to double by 2050
  • Each kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat requires about 6.6 kgs (14.5 pds) of plant produce
  • Between 500 – 2,000 litres of water is required for each kg of meat (depending on the type)
  • Of the eight-hundred-eighty million people who live on less than a dollar-a-day, seventy-percent of them are partly or completely dependent on livestock for their livelihood and food-security*
  • Eighty-percent of the worlds antibiotics are used on livestock, and seventy-five-percent of those antibiotics are not absorbed by the animals. As a result of such overuse (in the human population also), in a decade or so, antibiotics will be completely ineffectual as resistant super-bacteria will take over the world
  • In the US alone, more than nine-billion livestock are maintained to supply the required amount of meat-protein
  • Factory-farms contribute negatively to surrounding environments such as creating dead-zones in rivers and oceans, killing millions of fish, and poison fresh water supplies
  • Worldwide, livestock accounts for 18% of greenhouse-gases, 40% of methane gas emissions (25 times more potent than CO2), and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions (300 times more potent than CO2)

* – Some of the references are used for more than one of the statements

There is a plethora of other information, but I’ll leave it there for fear of boring whomever is reading. Given what we know about humanity’s reluctance to change, meat consumption is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and is on an upward trend as economic growth is creating a new middle-class that want a slice of the ‘good-life’ and view meat as part of that life.

So the facts so far are: meat consumption is much worse for the environment than plant consumption, which is increasingly likely to negatively contribute to human health (antibiotics, pollution etc). People want to continue eating meat (and will do so for the foreseeable future). Lastly, livestock significantly contributes to climate change and biosphere degradation. There are two options we can take at this juncture given what we know. Which of the following two scenarios is more likely?

  1. Embark on an ambitious worldwide re-education program, coordinating among 190 nations and people’s, educating them of the dangers of meat consumption, waiting one to two generations for the decline in meat consumption to gradually kick in, if it does at all
  2. Redefine, reinvent, and remake the nature, production, and economics of meat so private industry takes over and people flock to the cheaper, healthier alternative, just as people flocked to conventional factory-farmed meat, even though it wasn’t healthier

Given that the global climate-change debate (which resembles option 1) has progressed for over twenty-years, with very little progress. I think it’s safe to conclude that any benefits of doing it in this way are futile, if not impossible. What we can and should do then, and (thankfully) are doing, is creating more efficient cars, increasing solar-cell technology, wind-power, and thousands more technologies that are turning the tide against fossil-fuels economically, and which in the coming years, will culminate in an avalanche of change. The method being, using technology to reinvent the manner in which we live our lives. This technology, in regard to meat, is IVM.

But here we need to quickly divert to decentralized, pasture-grown animals, and recognize that while it is an improvement over factory-farmed meat in terms of human health, and somewhat better environmentally, its benefits pale in comparison to IVM so offering this as an alternative is a stop-gap measure at best. Pasture-grown livestock requires more land, doesn’t eradicate (only reduces) disease, is reliant on oil (transportation), still kill billions of animals, and I’m sure there are a few more variables I’ve overlooked, which would show that IVM meat is still preferable to pasture-raised animals.

So, let’s start with the facts of IVM, first by detailing what it is: It is, in essence, growing meat using stem-cells that envelop and grow around a string of animal-tissue (this is what nature does if it sounds gross). In more detail, scientists will take a string of tissue from an animal painlessly, from an area such as the rump or breast. They will also extract stem-cells, or engineer identical stem-cells (a nobel prize was just given out for demonstration of this process), and put the two together. The stem-cells naturally take on the exact genetic properties of the meat, and begins to grow around either a biodegradable or edible scaffolding, which will feed nutrients into the meat, and also helping it to stretch and twist, stimulating development and increasing tissue-strength. The result? A steak, chicken breast, or pork sausage, that is indistinguishable from a cut of meat that came from a living, breathing mammal. And this is where a lot of people get lost, it will actually be indistinguishable at a genetic level; it won’t be imitation meat, nor will it be fake-meat, but real meat!

Once we get over the fact that IVM is oddly disembodied, we’ll be thankful that it doesn’t shit, burp, fart, eat, over graze, drink, bleed, or scream in pain.” – Humanity+

The only way that this process is different from nature, is it is done without the biological machinery of two parent animals, using human-engineered machinery instead. Otherwise, it is the same process that nature uses. The mother and father animal pass on their DNA via egg and sperm, and nature employs stem cells and nutrients to grow a new animal that is a genetic variant of them. We take a tissue sample of an animal along with its stem-cells, and create more tissue just like that without artificial chemicals, antibiotics, transmission of disease, and without the waste and pollution that current practices emit. What’s not to like?

Benefits of In-Vitro Meat:

  • It is real meat, it won’t be fake or look-a-like meat but genetically identical to meat from a living, breathing animal
  • Reduce energy-use by up to 45% (same link for next three statements)
  • Reduce greenhouse emissions by up to 96% (those emissions that remain could be used to generate electricity potentially allowing 100% reduction)
  • Reduce land-use by up to 99%
  • Reduce freshwater use by up to 96%
  • No genetic manipulation would be necessary to increase yield (as is done now with many animals)
  • No more outbreaks of swine flu, mad cow, avian flu, tuberculosis, brucellosis, or any other animal-to-human plagues
  • Doesn’t cause any unnecessary suffering to both human and animal populations (transmissions of disease are prone to happen on farms)
  • Coupled with vertical-farming of agriculture, forty-percent of the Earth’s landmass, currently utilized for agricultural  and livestock purposes, can be returned to nature increasing biodiversity, pollution sequestration, and perhaps put a damper on the sixth great extinction, occurring overwhelmingly due to habitat-loss (a Belgium-sized chunk of the amazon rainforest is cut down every year to be used as grazing grounds for cows, to name one example among many)

All that is being done with in-vitro meat is the same process and outlook we used to invent agriculture, which began some twelve-thousand-years ago. That is, appropriating nature’s laws in such a way as to be conducive to humanity, and which will, unlike with agriculture, reduce our ecological and environmental footprint. Healthier humans. Better off animals and less disease. Happier Planet! Who could object to that? I, myself, cannot wait for In-Vitro-meat to become economically competitive with slaughterhouse-steaks.

“Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” – Winston Churchill


Fourat Janabi is the author of Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World, available for $1.99 on Kindle, or $7.99 on Paperback.

5 comments

  1. Fourat, this blog post is well laid out, nice work, and I agree that IVM could be a beneficial advancement to our species. I must say though that you have a habit of presenting false dichotomy arguments, disproving/disarming one and concluding that the other then must be true. There are more than 2 or 3 solutions to the problems facing this world! 🙂

    Also, in this post, you have (intentionally?) ignored the plethora of benefits of eating the other parts of the animal besides the meat, such as the livers, intestines, brains, etc. and also have ignored the benefits of cooking with bone stock/broth. The health benefits of the other “nasty bits” of the animal far outweigh the benefits of eating just the muscle.

    1. Thanks B!
      I hope I haven’t done that, and if I did, it wasn’t on purpose. I tried to get this post to be less than 1,000 words. It ended up being 1,400 and I had only presented the two extremes, so if I wanted to present the full-range of possibilities, it probably would have ended up at 5,000 words and bored you to death.

      I completely agree with you that that there are parts of the animal that are healthy, but the few that I do use only serve as examples really, I could have put any other part of the animal in there, and still made my point. I am not necessarily trying to make the example that it is just healthier for us, but for us and the animals, and the planet too, which in the end, still makes us healthier. That’s where I was trying to go, not by ignoring but pointing out easily-identifiable parts. So I don’t believe it is a false dichotomy (but maybe im biased), as I laid out the facts of factory-farmed meat, and laid out the facts of IVM. Just so happens that one is overwhelmingly negative, and the other is naturally positive. I don’t believe in far and balanced arguments when facts exist, especially when they fall mainly on one side. Fair and balanced should only be used when two opinions are being expressed.

      The easiest way to make an argument, at least for me, is to present the extreme opposing sides. Once a person has made their choice, then you can get into the subtleties thereafter, but I still dont think there is any comparison against IVM. Though if IVM were not an option, then pasture-raised meat would be far better than factory-farmed meat. Though again, the emphasis should be on the health of the planet, which in the long term, increases our health… 🙂

  2. One more caveat about pasture-raised ruminants that is regularly overlooked… they generate 2 – 5 times the level of greenhouse gas emissions than CAFO raised-ruminants. In conjunction with increased land use, organic meat production is not an environmentally-friendly solution.

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