Editorial: My beef with fabricated beef

I’m a bit confused by all the saving-the-planet hullabaloo over that $330,000 hamburger manufactured in the laboratory — the one the people tasting it said was ‘almost’ like the real thing.

It was animal protein all right, fried in butter no less, not one of those concoctions of soy, brown rice, black beans or quinoa the vegetarians turn to for their burger fix.

My daughter and I quite innocently stumbled into a Winnipeg restaurant specializing in those creations lately. Vegetarians we are not, but the meal we had was really quite tasty.

As a matter of fact, I felt pretty good afterwards, instead of walking out feeling like I’d swallowed a bowling ball. I enjoy a good beef burger as much as the next carnivore, and we could have had one of those “value meals” for half the price of what we ate. But portion sizes in the fast-food business are way out of whack with my aging constitution. Go figure.

The most confounding thing about it was why the cooks felt they had to make strips made from some non-meat ingredients look like bacon, soy slices look like cheese or the chickpea patties look like meat. What was wrong with making it look like — I don’t know — ground chickpeas with a side of salty bits and soy?

But I digress. Let’s get back to the manufactured beef burger made from stem cells harvested from a cow’s shoulder. Aside from the people opposed to using animals for food, the pundits have gone altogether gaga over the potential for this technological breakthrough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and feed a world that’s hungry for more meat. And they cite some impressive numbers to make their case.

Even Gwynne Dyer, a well-respected scribe covering global issues, seems enamoured. He points to a 2011 University of Oxford study that cultured meat could potentially be produced with up to 96 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45 per cent less energy, 99 per cent lower land use, and 96 per cent lower water use than conventional meat.

“In 10 or 20 years, we could be producing enough meat for a growing global population even though many people are eating more meat per capita as their incomes rise,” Dyer writes in a recent column. Plus, he said with as much as 70 per cent of current agricultural capacity going into producing meat through livestock, that land could be converted back to forest and prairie or switched over to grain production for human consumption.

Now hold on for just a minute.

I’m all for more forest and wide-open prairie, but find me one example where land that is currently in agricultural production, which is largely a function of private enterprise, was voluntarily turned back to the coyotes when there was still a buck to be made by farming it. That’s not human nature. It’s more likely to mean more grain for ethanol to feed those gas-guzzling SUVs.

There are vast swathes of land across the Canadian Prairies, and I suspect the same applies elsewhere, whereby forage production is the only sustainable agricultural activity. We’ve tried before to turn land meant for grazing into annual crop production. It didn’t go well.

And even if it did go back to wild lands, if it wasn’t cattle consuming those forages, it would be some other greenhouse-gassy ruminant. That’s just the way nature works.

Those grasses are a pretty efficient mechanism for transforming the sun’s energy into protein. Grazing livestock serves a dual purpose of converting that protein into something humans can digest while recycling and spreading nutrients.

It seems to me we run into problems with energy efficiency, greenhouse gas, animal welfare, and food safety fronts when we put four-legged energy converters into feedlots and start feeding them grain that’s been grown somewhere else and hauled in — not to mention the fact that we then have to haul the manure out.

My point is, I think we’re cosying up to the wrong premise when it comes to saving the planet with fabricated lab burgers — even if scientists can improve the taste and get the cost closer to a Big Mac than a Rolls-Royce.

It seems to me this approach only perpetuates the notion that everyone in the whole wide world should be eating Big Macs all the time, even though nutritionists and the medical profession are telling anyone who listens that’s a really bad idea. Or that technology will somehow spare us the tough choices that lie ahead as population growth, increasing wealth and our insatiable consumerism overwhelms the Earth’s limited resources.

The sustainable path forward is for meat to become an occasional luxury, instead of a mainstay. Producers might not produce as much, but they’d be better paid. Technology won’t save the planet. Changing human behaviour will.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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