Humans have been producing food for a long, long time. The first steps came with domesticating animals and planting crops, the next with the green revolution in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Wikipedia (an admittedly seedy source) notes that a strain of rice resulted in a tenfold increase in rice production in optimal conditions, kicking off an era of ever-increasing yields. Modern agricultural practices continues to improve yields, albeit at a far slower rate. Meanwhile, U.S. beef production alone topped 25.6 billion pounds in 2011, according to the USDA. The point is that not only do we make a lot of food, but that we will to need to make even more. The World Bank reports that between 1980 and 2000 total world population grew from 4.4 billion to 6 billion; by 2015 at least another billion people will need food.
Feeding people is not easy. There are not only more mouths to feed, but the food we grow is sometimes diverted into other uses. Corn-based ethanol is perhaps one of the worst offenders, and it takes about seven pounds of grain for every pound of beef produced.
That’s why I’m so excited about what happened two weeks ago. On August 6 the world met the world’s first test tube burger. It tasted alright–apparently the beef is unbelievably lean–and just one patty will set you back by about $300,000.
But once the technology improves on the burger’s taste and price tag (which is an almost certainty if there is any parallel at all to things like DNA sequencing) then the test tube burger is the most important revolution in food production in recent memory. Instead of raising the whole animal, you instead raise the animal protein in situ. And suddenly you do not have to worry as much about:
- Global warming (no methane emissions)
- Deforestation (no need for grazing)
- Caging animals for their entire lives
- Diverting food and water from humans to animals
Further, production uses about half the energy and you are absolved of having to kill an animal in order to eat it. It’s like having your cake and eating it too. And while there are compelling reasons to stay vegetarian–again, think of all that grain saved if people withheld meat from their diets–test tube meat offers compelling moral and environmental reasons to continue being an omnivore.
Once prices come down in a few years’ time test tube meat will become standard fare for millions of people. And I’ve got no beef with that.