Columnist Johanna Neumann: Our love affair with meat

  • Sandwiches made with Savage River Beyond Meat breakfast sausage are seen during the inauguration of the company's Manhattan Beach Project Innovation Center in Los Angeles on July 19, 2018.  BLOOMBERG/Tim Rue

Published: 1/17/2019 8:37:36 AM

America’s love affair with meat faces a rendezvous with manufactured meat and fish. 

Bill Gates and other visionaries with cash have their sights set on producing tasty, nutritious meat substitutes. Manufactured meat may soon outpace animal-sourced protein. That may be good news for future generations who need open spaces, clean air and clean water to thrive. But are we ready for it? 

In 2018, the average American consumer ate more than 222 pounds of red meat and poultry. That’s more than half a pound of meat for every American every day. Globally, we produce and consume more than twice as much meat as we did 40 years ago.

The meat industry has kept up with demand by developing methods to grow animals faster than they used to. In 1920, it took 16 weeks to raise a chicken to a weight of 2.2 pounds. Today, a bird will weigh 5 pounds after just seven weeks. 

But some of these efficiencies have been won with questionable practices. Large-scale animal farms routinely administer life-saving antibiotics to otherwise perfectly healthy animals to make them grow faster or survive crowded, stressful and unsanitary conditions. Today, on many farms, animals are packed into the tightest quarters allowed, bred to optimize production; and instead of their traditional food sources, they are given calorie-dense, hard-to-digest feeds like corn and even candy. 

Ethical questions aside, raising animals this way is problematic in many ways. It’s helping to fuel a rise in antibiotic-resistant superbugs, contaminating drinking water and creating massive dead zones in iconic waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. 

The issue of antibiotic overuse has serious ramifications. Seventy percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are intended for use in livestock and poultry, mostly for animals that aren’t even sick. These farms and feedlots have become breeding grounds for resistant microbes. 

Six years ago, antibiotic resistant bacteria infected more than 2 million people and killed 23,000 people in the United States, and that number is expected to rise. The World Health Organization warns that a post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — is a very real possibility for the 21st century. 

Given the stakes, we shouldn’t allow even one large-scale farming operation to overuse antibiotics in this way, let alone an entire industry.

It’s not just the overuse of antibiotics. In America, farm animals produce somewhere between three and 20 times as much waste as all the people combined, but without a modern sewer system. The sheer quantity of waste and poor management practices are linked to toxic algal blooms in drinking water supplies of hundreds of thousands of people and to dead zones in rivers, lakes and estuaries across the country. 

Some may argue that we should ban this kind of agribusiness and return to a simpler time. Small-scale, organic livestock farming is making a comeback in some pockets, but converting an entire industry to lower-impact practices is easier said than done. America’s appetite for cheap meat is strong, and winning broad-based support for policies that threaten widely available affordable meat would be a pretty big lift in today’s political climate.

It is also impractical. Even if we could grow cheap meat from truly happy free-range animals, the reality is that animals are not very efficient when it comes to turning feed into meat. On a feedlot, beef cattle may eat 4.5 to 7.5 pounds of feed to grow one pound of beef. Production of that one pound of beef also requires around 200 gallons of water and more than 280 square feet of land. Free-range animals would be even less efficient.

Which brings me back to the idea of growing meat in the lab. Maybe America can have it both ways: eat the meat we want, and produce it in ways that don’t threaten our air, land, water or health.

Processed meat-like products like Beyond Burger, an assortment of plant-based sausages and “beyond chicken” nuggets are already on the market. Products like steak, chicken breast and pork chops, not to mention briskets and rib roasts, have proven trickier to manufacture, but even there the technology is rapidly advancing. In November, a Spanish startup crafted a nutritious paste derived from rice, peas and seaweed and then extruded a fibrous, fleshy material using a 3D printer that felt, looked and tasted similar to a raw steak or chicken breast.

I haven’t seen analyses of the energy or water input of these new vegetable-sourced meats, nor have I seen analyses of what it will take for these technologies to come to scale. But I imagine that, much like the coal industry quakes in its boots as solar and wind power came to scale, the agribusiness industry may be facing a similar disruption in the future.

And the question is: Will we lean in, or will we back away? 

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She writes a monthly column on environmental and public interest issues and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.


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