Published on December 27th, 2016 | by Scott Cooney0
Lab-Grown Meat: The World’s Most Needed Clean Tech Innovation Could Use a Little More Liquid Smoke
If someone were to ask you what one innovation in the next decade would make the biggest impact in saving the world from anthropogenic climate change and global ecosystem collapse, what do you think it would be? I think it’s going to be lab-grown meat that makes the biggest impact.
There are a lot of amazing things happening right now: the cost of solar and wind energy dropping below fossil fuels, EV adoption surging, and energy storage solutions making local self-reliance an economically achievable goal in many places right now. Those things will have tremendous impacts in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, but there’s an elephant in the room.
According to a recent report by Environment America, the negative environmental impacts of Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries don’t even hold a candle to factory farms. In fact, between 2010-2014, toxic emissions from Tyson Food’s large scale factory farming were more than those put out by Exxon, Koch Industries, and BASF — COMBINED.
The sheer scale of the impacts are such that the environmental footprint of animal agriculture in general and factory farms in particular would be hard to overstate. Lamb produces an average of 86.4 pounds of CO2 per kilogram eaten, beef 59.6 pounds, and cheese 29.7 pounds, while vegetarian foods produce far less, like lentils (1.98 pounds), broccoli (4.4 pounds) and tomatoes (2.42 pounds). The EWG study found that animal products exceed the pollution effects of plant foods without exception. Of course, there are much more potent heat trapping greenhouse gases in the world than CO2. Animal agriculture produces 65% of global emissions of Nitrous oxide, which has 250x more heat trapping power than CO2.
To underscore the scale of the problem, it’s interesting to look at animal agriculture in terms of populations. You’ve heard the expression “another mouth to feed”? Well, animal agriculture creates a LOT of extra mouths to feed. The Guardian points out the that there are 20 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cows and a billion or so pigs in the world in industrial production at any given time.
Consider that in the United States alone, concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs, or factory farms) produce 3x more manure (500 million tons) than the entire population of people living in the U.S. And then there’s the land and chemical inputs. As Salon states, “About 149 million acres of cropland, 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of fertilizer are required just to feed [factory farmed animals in the U.S. alone]” Globally, one need only look to Brazil to see that 17% of the Amazon has been cleared, largely for cows or soy (which is mainly used to feed cows). Deforestation there to clear land for animal agriculture is releasing 200M pounds of CO2 annually.
So the answer is fairly simple, right? Just tell everyone to eat less meat? The problem is that we evolved to find fat, sugar, and salt very tasty. Back in caveman days, we needed those things to survive and didn’t encounter them often. Now that we have them all the time, our taste for them has led to public health epidemics of historic proportions.
Laboratories around the world are stepping up to the (pardon the pun) plate, producing meat products without the need to raise an animal. Some of the preliminary attempts have caught a lot of media attention, but lacked a little in the flavor department. Nowhere are those three flavor profiles so obvious as can be seen in the relatively new fad of adding bacon to…well, everything. Chocolate bars, coffee drinks, donuts…you name it. As a ~25 year vegetarian who has helped many a meat-eating friend eat far less meat, I know that bacon is what consistently gets people to fall off the wagon and return to a diet of “whatever”. It’s hard to fight biology, and while veganism works for many people (and is, of course, far healthier than the Standard American Diet), the flavor profiles lack a little of that fatty, sugary, salty, greasy slab loaded with nitrates and liquid smoke. Get laboratory-grown bacon to be cheaper than factory farmed bacon, and I think you’ll solve many climate change issues faster than any other single innovation out there.
This article is part of the 2017 Masdar blogging competition, which aims to find what innovations people believe will have the most impact over the next ten years. Photo from New Harvest