By Neal Peirce
It's been 42 years, but the memory won't go away. I was visiting a slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, S.D. -- gathering notes for a book about mid-America, where meat means big dollars. Hundreds of cattle, sheep and hogs were being "processed" hourly. I watched animals being knocked unconscious, hung up, vessels cut, torrents of blood flowing. Skinning, dissection. Particularly disconcerting: a view of hog heads staring up glassily from a conveyor belt.
There was no steak or pork on my plate for dinner that evening. Ever since, I've consumed meat with pangs of guilt.
Today, though, there's a new rationale -- keyed to the world's future -- for finding substitutes for meat.
Fact No. 1: The immense demand on resources to deliver a single quarter-pound hamburger -- 6.7 pounds of grain, 600 gallons of water, 75 square feet of land, 1,036 BTUs of energy.
Modest enough? Not when you note the average American consumes 224 pounds of meat a year -- 1,000 times the single hamburger.
Fact No. 2: Globally, meat for today's 7 billion people requires 60 billion land animals, all grazing, drinking water and expelling wastes. "Cattle Nation" would be the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, trailing only China and the United States. By 2050, with 9 billion people on Earth, it will take at least 100 billion land animals to feed us all.
Could we all just eat less meat? Some Americans are trying, but not enough to flatten the rising consumption curve. And now, global meat consumption is surging as middle-class populations soar in such countries as China, India and Brazil. (From 1.8 billion today, the worldwide middle class is expected to expand to 4.4 billion by 2050.)
There is one solution, CEO Andras Forgacs of the firm Modern Meadow argued earlier this month in a presentation to an Urban World 2030 meeting of Washington policy experts. The group, focused on the impacts of rising urbanization for U.S. security, has been meeting regularly since last spring under auspices of the nonprofit Atlantic Council.
Modern Meadow's method is "tissue engineering" -- creating meat substitutes by biopsying and then isolating desired cells from living animals, growing thousands of them, and then producing (hopefully) a succulent meat surrogate in the process.
Tissue engineering has already been applied, successfully, to make tissues and organs that can mimic or regrow lost body parts by computer-controlled so-called "3D printing" processes. The science to develop it for food is still early -- Modern Meadow plans to apply it first to create leather. Next, working with molecular technology chefs, the firm is confident it can create ultra-lifelike meats.
Before you say "yuk," Forgacs notes, consider that we've been applying cell cultures for centuries to brew beer or make yogurt. To which one needs to add the horrific side of meat production -- not just the terror of slaughtering I witnessed in Sioux Falls, but animals (pigs especially) spending their entire lives in tightly packed cages.
The big global discussion we need is how to produce sufficient foodstuffs for the century's staggering population growth. It will require a 64 percent growth in global food availability by 2050, Manish Bapna of the World Resources Institute told the Atlantic Council gathering.
No single solution will work, but all might. One, surely, is to eat less meat. In terms of food value, meat is just a sixth as efficient as eggs and poultry, a quarter as efficient as milk. Another possibility: cutting back on today's egregious levels of food loss and waste -- estimated at about 25 percent globally. Biofuels are bad news too; they consume significant farmlands to produce only minimal shares of energy for transportation uses.
The world's cities, home to an ever-growing percentage of global population, can play a vital role. They can work with their surrounding countrysides to bolster regional food self-sufficiency -- diminishing their dependence on distant transport, saving energy and carbon emissions. With luck and some good planning, today's growing wave of farmers' markets can be the cutting edge of escape from industrialized agriculture that taxes the environment even while it pushes sugar- and fat-laden foodstuffs.
Possibilities for food production inside cities need to be broadened -- millions of backyard vegetable plots, for starters. Or the "vertical farm" ideas of Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier, using advanced greenhouse technology to produce fruit and vegetables, even poultry and fruit, in skyscrapers.
And tissue engineering, with localized laboratories to produce meat right within the cities where it's consumed? Compared to standard farming and slaughtering, the method is claimed to have the potential of requiring 99 percent less land and 96 percent less water, 96 percent less carbon emissions, 45 percent less energy demand.
One can imagine the food purists in full alarm. Too bad. The real issue will be: Does it taste good? If it does, we'll have a safer world.
Neal Peirce's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.