Schmeat and its Effects on Society: Full Version

By: Ruby A.

Abstract

In the fall of 2012, the first lab-grown hamburger was produced.  This success opened many doors for the future.  This paper looks at what could happen to society and the world if lab-meat became a competitor to animal-grown meat.  The current live-animal system uses large amounts of fossil fuel energy, water, land, and feed.  The animals are poorly treated, and their waste contaminates water sources, both on the surface and underground.  The treatment of the workers is not much better.  The work is hard, unsafe, and underpaid.

 Lab-meat could solve these problems, but only if the process is refined and advanced.  The process that made the first lab-grown hamburger used the same amount of energy as when animal-grown meat is produced.  To this point, “schmeat” does use less land and water, and also includes significant cost of using high levels of anti-biotics and anti-fungals.  To be able to grow the meat requires growth hormone, which has been proven to be detrimental to humans.

 As it is now, both lab-meat and animal-meat are nowhere near perfect.  But if more research is done, and funds continue to be given to this development, someday lab-meat might be able to compete with animal grown meat.  If so, the meat-eating world could keep enjoying tasty and nutritious meat without the regret of killing an animal, or polluting the Earth.

 

Issue

In 1932, Winston Churchill wrote, “(In fifty years) 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” (Fifty Years Hence).  Churchill was off by 30 years, but in the fall of 2012 the first lab-grown hamburger was created by Mark Post, a biologist in the Netherlands (Hanlon, Hurt 9).  Today the only lab-grown meat that has been produced is hamburger and sausage meat (Hanlon).  This is because both of these meats are ground when used, making it easier to create the meat to look the same (Hurt 11).  To create convincing meat, blood vessels and fat need to be added for flavor, smell, and look (Ibid).  The process needs to be refined to be faster and cheaper.  It currently takes 6 weeks and $250,000 to $ 350,000 to make a quarter pound hamburger, a price that does not have buyers flocking to (Hanlon).

 

If it’s Not Broke, Don’t Fix it?

99 percent of the meat consumed in the United States of America (U.S.A) is grown on factory farms (“Factory Farm Workers”).  Factory farms contain animals that are bred to gain weight quickly on high protein feeds, so that in six months cattle reach the market weight of 1,200 pounds (“Beef Production on Factory Farms,” “Meat Production Continues to Rise”).  The animals are crowded together on these farms (“Meat Production”).  Most chickens live in an area smaller than a size of this sheet of paper, and cattle in feedlots live in knee high manure (Ibid).  Most cattle arrive at the slaughterhouse covered in manure (Ibid).  Avian flu, pig fever, and Nipah virus can spread quickly in the crowded, filthy conditions, so the animals are given antibiotics to keep them healthy (Ibid).  As resistance builds up more antibiotics are used, and strains of resistive bacteria begin to form.  More and more antibiotics are used to kill the resistive bacteria, until they can no longer be killed.  Out of all antimicrobial drugs that are used 70 percent are used on livestock, which will cause greater amounts to be used in the future if something is not done (“Meat Production”).  Lab-meat would decrease the amount used on live animals and possibly the net use.

Calves raised for meat can be dehorned, castrated, or branded, all of which are painful (“Beef Production”).  Between six months to a year of age cattle are moved to feedlots to reach market weight using high protein diets (Ibid).  Feedlots are primarily in four states, causing the cattle to endure long, uncomfortable trips from ranches to feedlots (Ibid).  The treatment of livestock drives many to become vegetarian or vegan.  Lab-meat is a possible solution for those who detest the treatment to the animals, but cannot give up meat.

The growing and processing of animal-grown meat produces 18 percent of all worldwide greenhouse gases (Hurt 8).  A Part of these gases are produced because cattle, sheep, and goats are all ruminant animals (“Ruminant Livestock”).  Ruminant animals are able to digest difficult plant matter, like grass, into nourishment, and while the digestive system of these animals is able to accomplish this hard task it produces Methane (CH4), which is then let out in farts and burps (Ibid).  All the ruminant livestock in the world produce about 80 million metric tons of CH4 a year (Ibid).  The production of lab-meat may decrease the numbers of ruminant livestock, meaning that a smaller amount of methane is let into the atmosphere each year, thus slowing down global warming.

Alone, the U.S.A ruminant livestock produces 5.5 million metric pounds of CH4 a year (“Ruminant Livestock”).  The packaging, shipping, and the growing of the feed uses 17 percent of fossil fuel energy used in the U.S. (Pimentel, Pimentel).  The ratio of consumed fossil fuel energy (kilocalories) to output protein (kilocalories) for beef is 54:1, lamb is 50:1, pork is 17:1, and chicken is 4:1 (Segelken, Pimentel).  Lab-meat would likely produce 78 to 96 percent fewer greenhouse gases in the process of producing meat (Hurt 12).  Lab-meat would need almost no land compared to the current production, largely reducing the number of trees that are cut down each year to supply livestock with food and space (“Meat… Resources”).  More trees means that more carbon dioxide could be taken in and more oxygen would be let out; helping to decrease the harm meat processing is doing to the earth.  In 2004 to 2005 2.9 million acres of rainforest were destroyed to grow crops to feed livestock (Ibid).  If lab-meat does get to a point where it can compete against animal grown meat it could use 99 percent less land to produce (Hurt 12).  Dr. Hanna Tuomisto, a scientist who works at the Institute for Environment and Sustainability, believes that the land now used for livestock could be converted back to forest, thus helping forest species (Hurt). 

To feed all the livestock animals it takes more than a third of all the world’s crops (“See How It Adds Up”).  Supplying the intake of animal protein in the U.S. takes nine billion livestock (Yacoubou).  The U.S. livestock population, of over nine billion, outweighs the human population by five times, and consumes seven times as much grain (Ibid).  In some regions of the world ruminant livestock are fed by pasture, hay, and crop residues like corn stalks, all of which are not edible by humans (Yacoubou).  But most of the ruminant livestock that are in feedlots eat grains and soybean meals that are edible by humans; monogastric (one stomach) livestock, like hogs and chicken, are all mostly fed human-edible grains (Ibid).  If the grain that is fed to animals was fed to humans in countries with famine, the numbers could be decreased greatly.

In the U.S.A. livestock grazing is the top reason why plant species are becoming threatened and extinct, as well as soil erosion and desertification of land (Falk).  Thirteen tons of soil per hectare per year is lost to lands where feed grain is grown, and six tons of soil per hectare per year is lost on pasture lands (Ibid).  Without the nutrient rich topsoil, it becomes increasingly difficult to grow large numbers of healthy crops.  This can cause widespread shortages of food, or famines.  About 60 percent of U.S. cropland is losing topsoil 13 times the sustainable rate, one inch every 100 years (Falk).  Lab-meat could depopulate areas of livestock, thereby helping the soil and plants in the area.  Depopulation has happened before and can happen again.  It caused no problems and the Earth is in better shape because of it.  From 1975 to 2009 the total number of cattle in the U.S.A dropped from about 45.7 million cattle to only 31.7 million.  As the amount of meat produced from each animal increased, from just below 600 pounds per animal to about 780 pounds per animal the number animals decreased as they were not needed (Department of Agriculture, “See How it Adds Up”).

Eight percent of all water used on Earth is used for crop irrigation and drinking water (“See How It Adds Up”).  To “grow” an animal, a quarter pound hamburger uses 52.8 gallons of water (Ibid).  In the southwest U.S.A. cattle numbers have been dropping because of the ongoing drought, which is raising corn prices (Blaney).  If it does rain, fewer cattle will go to feedlots because the ranchers will try to rebuild their herds, making the prices for meat go up further (Ibid).  It is predicted that lab-meat would use 80 to 96 percent less water in the process of making the meat, so the price will not be dependent on the weather (Hurt 12).  Animal meat does not only use water, but also pollutes it.

Large numbers of animals produce large amounts of manure, which is costly to get ride of (Hurt 8).  The manure seeps into the ground and surface water, contaminating it with nitrates, heavy metals, and antibiotics that were given to the animal (“Meat Production”).  This pollutes the water, hurting the animals living in the water, and threatens public health (Ibid).  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the factory farm runoff pollutes waterways more than the all industrial sources combined (“Meat Production Wastes Natural Resources”).  Chicken, hog, and cattle waste pollute about 35 thousand miles of rivers in 22 different states, and pollute groundwater in 17 states (Ibid).  When this pollution runs downstream and into the ocean it can cause “dead zones” (Hurt 8).  “Dead zones” are where the runoff stimulates an overgrowth of microscopic organisms, which use all the oxygen in the water (Ibid).  The resulting low levels of oxygen kill off most of the life in the area (Ibid).  Copious amounts of manure changes it from a usefully resource in replenishing the soil, into a deadly nuisance.

Factory farms employ hundreds of thousands of workers, but the wages are small and most of the work is hazardous (“Factory Farm Workers”).  Employees can inhale dangerous levels of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide gases, and particulate matter (Ibid).  Hydrogen sulfide is a gas emitted from liquid manure, and low levels can cause dry skin, eye irritation, nausea, low blood pressure, headaches, and chronic coughs (“Factory Farm Workers”).  There have been reports of workers who have entered “manure lagoons” for maintenance and fainted and drown in the liquid as a result (Ibid).  One such worker was Enrique Araiza, who worked at Aguiar-Faria & Sons dairy in Merced County, California (Ibid).  Araiza was clearing a blockage in a manure pit pump when he was knock out by the Hydrogen sulfide, and collapsed into the manure (Ibid).  Jose Alatorre, a co-worker, tried to help, but too was overcome by the gas.  Both died drowning in manure (Ibid).

Figure 1: Employment and Earnings for Meat and Poultry Industries

Compared with Food – 2007 (U.S. Dept.  of Labor)

 

Industry Meat Packing Meat Processing Poultry Processing All Food
Total Employees 146,400 121,500 239,200 1,481,300
Production Workers 128,100 99,700 212,700 1,181,400
Average Weekly Earnings ($) 507.58 559.00 433.13 551.08
Average Weekly Hours 41.2 43.2 39.7 40.7
Average Hourly Earnings ($) 12.32 12.94 10.91 13.34

Sources:  “Employment and Wages in Meat Industry.”  American Meat Industry.  AMI, July 2009.  Web.  2 Mar.  2013.  <www.meatami.com/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/53062>.

Figure 1 compares the industries of meatpacking, meat processing, and poultry processing to the whole food industry.  It is compares the total number of employees, number of production workers, average weekly earnings, and average weekly hours, and average hourly earnings.  The invention of lab-meat could change these jobs so that they are less hazardous and more interesting, or it could eliminate them altogether.

If the current meat production system continues, it means a continuation of a food production cycle that results in billions of animals being mistreated then killed each year.  Greenhouse gases will continue to be pumped into the atmosphere and the trees that soak up the greenhouse gases will continue to be cut down to make room for the animals and their food.  The employees do not have a much better deal, and must endure a dirty working environment while being under paid for it.  Lab-grown meat could reduce these problems, or make them disappear.

Bettering Society

On April 21, 2008 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched a contest (“PETA Offers $1 Million”).  The first scientist to produce lab-grown CHICKEN that had both “taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh” and manufactured “in large enough quantities to be sold commercially, and successfully sell it at a competitive price in at least 10 states” would win one million dollars (Ibid).  PETA launched this contest to keep 40 billion chickens, fish, pigs, and cows from being killed every year, and to help many “kick their meat addictions” (Ibid).  PETA is also interested in helping the world stop the damage animal production is doing to it by providing another choice for meat.  In 2007, 275 million tons of meat was produced worldwide (Hurt 8, “Meat Production”).  By 2050 it is predicted that, because of population and wealth increases, 465 million tons will be produced worldwide (Ibid).

The nutrition of lab-meat could also be better than animal meat.  It is thought that scientists will be able to “tinker” with the protein and fat levels in the meat (Hurt 13).  If this happens people all over the world could enjoy a hamburger while no getting high levels of fat that are bad for health (Ibid).  The process of growing meat in a lab starts with an extraction of stem cells from the animal (Hurt 9).  This is done to a live animal with only a small amount of pain (Ibid).  In theory one specimen could provide hundreds of tons of meat, but infections and other diseases dampen the success (Hanlon, Hurt 9).  After collecting a few thousand stem cells, they are placed into the medium of amino acids, lipids, and sugars, which are the building blocks of proteins (Ibid).  Nicholas Genovese, a biologist at University of Missouri working to develop cells for meat, explains that to change the medium, the liquid mixture is put into a centrifuge that separates the cells and cultured medium by density (Hurt).  “The cells sediment to the bottom of the tube to form a loosely packed aggregate,” also known as a cell ‘pellet’ (Ibid).  The old culture medium is removed by suction, and the ‘pellet’ is put into new culture medium (Ibid).  After being “fed” the meat is exercised (Hurt 9).  This is done by zapping the meat with electricity, or by spreading it out onto frames to be stretched back and forth, like taffy (Ibid).

The Solution Hurting Society

Lab-meat would do some amazing things for the world, but it may not be able to at the present time.  For sanitation and to keep the meat from contracting infections during culture condition copious amounts of antibiotics and anti-fungals are used (Vinod).  This can build resistance in humans or in the bacteria, and as more are used, the more resistive the bacteria become, creating a cycle until the bacteria cannot be killed, just as it would do with the animal-grown meat.

Before the lab-meat is stored with anti-biotics it is first grown with growth hormone (Vinod).  Over-exposure to growth hormones in humans can disrupt biological processes, especially growing children (Ibid).  Growth hormones in children can cause effects like headaches and joint pain (Mitchell).  Less often scoliosis (curvature of the spine) has developed, and so has diabetes-like conditions as the hormone counteracts insulin in the body (Ibid).

The amount of the decrease of fossil fuel energy input to protein output would not be as great as most think.  The energy is used to produce large amounts of the medium, serum, and added nutrients to grow the meat with (Vinod).  In the paper “Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production” it is stated that lab beef uses 45 percent less energy (Tuomisto, Mattos, preprint).  However, Cornell cites the energy-input-to-protein-output ratio for beef as 54 kcal per kcal (Segelken, Pimentel).  Using an average value of 200 kcal per kg of beef, this ratio corresponds to 126,900 kcal per kg of animal beef.  To the precision of this data, this is the same as the energy input to protein output for lab-grown meat cited by Hanna Tuomisto which is 125,500 kcal per kg (Tuomisto, Mattos, preprint).  This researcher was not able to resolve the discrepancy between these two reported energy efficiency values.  It is related to how fat is taken into account.  The lab-grown meat is completely fat free.  But calculating energy efficiency of animal meat requires extracting the weight of just animal muscle from the integrated animal, and this researcher lacks the details of how the two researchers treated this aspect.  Nonetheless, the energy efficiency of lab beef needs to increase substantially for this development to be a beneficial invention worldwide, and worth the money it takes to create the meat.

Lab-meat would change the economic structure of the countries where the meat is produced.  In 2007, 60 percent of meat produced worldwide was produced in developing countries (“Meat Production”).  If the meat production is shifted away from these areas the economy would change, but in a way that could help the country.  The land could be used for something else, like farming or schools, and the people could work for other industries.

But to get any of this to matter, the majority of the population must accept lab-meat.  Lab-meat is a not a new idea, but is a new development.  The meat could be genetically changed to add nutrients, and society could react to that and revolt against the food.  This has happened before.  Environmental groups insisted that genetically modified crops were “Franken foods” and could cause allergies in humans, mutations in pests, and invasive “super weeds” (Food Ink, 3).  In 2002 many African nations faced starvation, but they did not accept U.S. aid because the corn contained genetically modified corn, that was “poisonous” (Ibid).  If there is a similar population reaction to lab-meat it may be many decades before it could start to help the planet and society.

 

 

Things Happened in the Past

The technology for creating lab-meat is far from being perfect.  As time goes on the process is being revised and becoming more efficient.  This has happened with another lab-grown item, diamonds.  At first the diamonds were formed out of graphite that was subjected to temperatures of 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit and pressures of 55,000 atmospheres (Boser).  This process only produced small, impure stones that were used for commercial abrasives such as dental drills, and hacksaw blades (Ibid).  But since then, the process has been refined, much like how the lab-meat process would, and is able to create stones that are as pure and nearly as big as the ones that are being mined (Ibid).  In a few decades, or less, the lab-grown meat process could be much more efficient and able to produce tasty, animal-less meat.

If lab-meat was to become widely available and popularly accepted real, animal-grown meat could become a luxury or illegal and sold on the black-market.  Another food has already been sold because of its differences from the legal substance, cheese.  It illegal to sell milk or cheese in the U.S.A. that has not been pasteurized, heated to kill bacteria, because it can carry salmonella, campylobacter, and E. Coli (Goodyear, Neuman).  On August 3, 2011 James Stewart, the leader of Rawesome Three, was arrested (Goodyear).  Rawesome Three was a milk-trafficking gang who, from a lot in Venice, California, supplied raw, unpasteurized, milk to customers (Ibid).  Cheese makers say that raw milk adds “richness of flavor” to the cheese (Neuman).  Raw milk advocates say that pasteurization kills enzymes that make food digestible and bacteria that make up a healthy immune system (Goodyear).  Similar arguments could be made for animal meat compared to lab-meat, and it could get to a point where animal-meat is sold illegally like unpasteurized cheese.

Conclusions and Inferences

If lab-grown meat became a major competitor to real, animal grown meat, the world would experience big changes.  The number of suffering animals would go down significantly, and depopulation of areas where the animals are held would ensue.  With fewer livestock animals, less food would be needed to feed them, and the land could be given back to the forests or grasslands.  The food could be given to other countries that would be in need of food.  Fewer ruminant livestock leads to smaller amounts of CH4 that go into the atmosphere, decreasing the rate of global warming.  Smaller amounts of water would be used, conserving our precious resource, especially in the desert.  The nonexistent animals would not produce waste that would seep into the water supply to pollute it, and it would not run down stream and create dead zones in marine waters.

The jobs in current meat production are hazardous and labor intensive.  Lab-meat could produce new jobs that are safer, and maybe even interesting.  Lab-meat’s nutrition values could also be changed so that the protein and fat levels are healthier ones.

The current process to create meat uses just as much energy from fossil fuels as the animal-grown meat does.  Lab-meat also uses high levels of anti-biotic and anti-fungal medication to keep the meat from rotting.  These could lead to highly dangerous bacteria and fungus resistant to these medicines.  The growth hormone that is used to grow lab-meat disrupts the natural balance in humans, especially in growing children.  Before lab-meat can even be considered to help save the planet, it must be safe to all humans.  However, the process must be improved to be efficient with energy and use lower levels of anti-biotic and anti-fungal medication.

The system can change if the research is put into it, just like with the lab-grown diamonds, but society must be careful that animal-grown meat does not become the new black market cheese.  Everybody should have the choice between no meat, lab-meat, or animal meat, and the law should not force it upon him or her unless there is a human safety issue.  Only time can tell if and when this old idea is a safe, world saving, new product.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

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