Poverty is not only economic—having poor health or compromised living conditions are manners in which every person can be restricted from enjoying as many opportunities as possible. Living in a healthy ecosystem pays dividends to our bodies in many ways, but those who are in extreme poverty are unable to enjoy such benefits. If we want to make our country better for all of us, especially for those who face the biggest economic challenges, we should focus on making our environment as safe and strong as possible.
The current process by which most Americans get their meat, however, is one that causes severe ecological problems all across our nation. Factory farms are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the country: according to Compassion In World Farming (CIWF), “livestock production globally is currently responsible for 18% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, a higher proportion than all global transport (14%).” Livestock are significant contributors to levels of methane, ammonia, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Global ammonia emissions, 64% of which CIWF claims come from animal farms, also find ways into our water and soil.
These numbers are so large because, using cows as an example, factory farms contain roughly 200 times as much livestock in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) as a conventional farm, according to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Animals on these factory farms are fattened quickly thanks to an overabundance of American corn; they get so big so fast off of a strange concoction of corn, bones, blood, antibiotics, and other additives, that they can be slaughtered before they suffer from organ failure and still provide plenty of meat. So instead of producing manure that can be used safely as fertilizer, the waste that comes out of these animals is highly toxic and currently has no reliable disposal method. It is simply kept in lagoons, and sometimes used as fertilizer despite the risks.
OCA estimates that a CAFO produces about 38,000 gallons of waste per day. We treat this excrement like spent nuclear fuel: we simply store it and hope that it doesn’t get anywhere. Unfortunately, it often does—when a storm comes, or when the waste is used as fertilizer, it can run off into water supplies, contaminating them with fecal matter and other dangerous chemicals. In The Ethics of What We Eat, Peter Singer explains that the excess nitrates that make it into bays and rivers “stimulate too much algae growth…[which create]‘dead zones’ that cannot support…species of ecological significance” through the over-absorption of oxygen. One such dead zone he references stretched over 100 miles.
At this point, the very line between environmental dangers and public health dangers begins to blur. The latent chemicals in the atmosphere can cause significant health problems for those who live near factory farms; OCA specifically cites “brain damage, nausea and sinusitis, and the blood disorder ‘blue baby syndrome,’ which can come from high nitrates in drinking water.” For the communities lucky enough to be significantly far away from CAFOs, there are still dangers—the foremost being the low quality of meat that is produced by factory farms.
When animals are not fed nutritiously, the muscle tissue they develop does not contain the same elemental makeup as that of grass-fed animals. Consumers who eat this meat are not taking in the same nutrients in the same ratios which our ancestors have been eating for thousands of years; corn-fed cow meat is quite different from grass-fed cow meat, especially when consumed throughout an entire lifetime. Other risks to our health are more direct: when animals in factory farms live their daily lives in such close contact with their own feces, being fed countless antibiotics to stave off infection, all sorts of nasty bacteria can evolve into novel forms which can become resistant to medication. CAFOs are breeding grounds for new and deadlier strains of E. coli, which can prove extremely dangerous to humans. The variant known as 0157:H7, according to Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “can shake off the acid bath in our stomachs—and then go on to kill us.”
One would hope that bacteria like this would never make it into the food we actually eat, but then one’s hopes would be misplaced. The film Fast Food Nation, an adaptation of the best-selling book of the same name, uses the story of Don (an executive at Mickey’s, a fictional fast food chain), who discovers that the burgers his employer is selling are tainted with fecal matter. His naiveté is matched by that of the standard American citizen in that he assumes this meat is all handled safely and cleanly—why would the meat packers do anything different? How could they, ethically, do any different, when they are making something as precious as food for so many people?
He goes to visit the plant, and the parts he gets to see are pristine. The white floors of the kill room are so clean that they make Don (and the viewer) wonder how anything could have ever bled on it. He is assured that everything is kept up to the appropriate standards, and he sees nothing that could possibly lead him to believe otherwise. However, what he is shown is not what happens every day. Workers, most of whom are illegal immigrants who have taken the only jobs they can get, are forced to move extremely quickly. Because so much meat passes through the packing facility every hour, there is rarely enough time to make sure that the slaughtered animals have been appropriately disemboweled. Mistakes happen, and some of these errors result in pounds of feces spilling out onto areas where clean food is supposed to be. When such messes are not appropriately cleaned up, consumers can end up buying food that has all sorts of nasty bits inside.
All Americans are endangered by this system, but the poorest among us suffer the most. They are trapped in a vicious cycle where they must buy the cheapest food possible, which causes them to have poor nutrition and higher medical costs, which keeps them in poverty—so they have even less to spend on food than before. Furthermore, those without wealth cannot afford to escape the drastic effects of climate change; it was not the richest people in New Orleans who were hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.
However, a new technology has the potential to alleviate nearly all of these problems. Lab-grown meat can dramatically reduce the negative impacts of getting meat to a consumer’s plate. Concerning the environment, a recent study by Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam found that cultured meat could be produced with “up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45% less energy, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use than conventional meat.” These drastic reductions in consumption and waste are achieved through a production process which is entirely unlike that of factory farms.
The way this meat is grown is extremely similar to how scientists currently grow human organs to replace defective ones when donors are not available. Stem cells are collected (usually from a mouse or a pig) and treated in a bath of nutrients so that they may grow. A rough structural frame is constructed from biodegradable material, and the cells spread across this scaffolding like ivy on a trellis. The resulting culture can be turned into ground meat with ease; creating steak and other cuts of meat is a much more complicated endeavor, but one which scientists are working on. This process removes the need for several environmentally destructive practices necessary to run factory farms, like clearing acres acres for storing animals, spraying gallons of toxic fertilizer, and using large amounts of energy to power the entire system.
Aside from the benefits to the environment, lab-grown meat could also be healthier than meat from CAFOs. A laboratory designed for producing in-vitro meat, on the other hand, must be kept extraordinarily sterile in order to ensure that the cultures can develop uninhibited. Thus, the risk of contamination is far smaller and much more easily detectable than in factory farms. Furthermore, these labs can be located anywhere—even in urban environments. There is no risk of disease from tons of ammonia being put into the atmosphere, nor from nitrate runoff into local waterways. The scientific nature of this meat’s creation also allows for the opportunity to engineer meat which contains additional nutrients. Including beneficial ingredients like omega-3 fatty acids could help make meat something that is not so looked down upon for its detrimental effects on health.
Major roadblocks to full-scale production of cultured meat are both the cost and the immediate disgust many people feel upon hearing the term “lab-grown meat.” The former issue is often written off by scientists, as they draw comparisons to how rapidly costs fell after early computing or genome sequencing technologies were made more efficient. The latter problem is more complicated, but if Michael Pollan’s “glass wall” policy were adopted by factory farms—and everyone could see what goes on inside them—then perhaps meat grown in a meticulously sterilized lab would seem more appealing than meat from a CAFO.
Opposition to in-vitro meat comes from some animal rights activists who insist that even taking the initial animal cells to begin production is a violation, and should be prohibited. This objection may seem extreme, but it is a logical conclusion to the argument which holds the sanctity of life above all else. However, such a strong commitment to defending every cell risks making the perfect the enemy of the good—even if an entire animal had to be killed (which is not the case), would it not be better to make one sacrifice in the name of saving millions and millions of others? So if what is lost are simply a few cells which had the potential to develop into an animal, then this objection based on animal welfare seems to deflate.
The Netherlands has found itself at the forefront of this industry; a 2011 New Yorker article by Michael Specter called the country “the in-vitro meat world’s version of Silicon Valley.” Willem van Eelen, a Dutch native and essentially the forefather of this technology, has been dreaming of lab-grown meat ever since he was a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II, forced to endure extreme hunger and to witness severe mistreatment of animals by the soldiers. Only recently have his decades of research started to attract the serious consideration of fellow scientists: there are now millions of euros available for research grants in universities all across the Netherlands.
Specter’s article features quotes from Dan Barber and Peter Singer, who both endorse cultured meat as—at the very least—superior to factory farmed meat, for one reason or another. While the two disagree over whether this new technology should replace all animal slaughter, cultured meat undoubtedly has the potential to supplant factory farming as a cheaper, healthier, and more humane method of bring meat to the plates of the hungry. And perhaps most importantly, in-vitro meat can provide a way for the poorest citizens of the world to eat nutritious meals without spending more than they can afford.
– Jake Simon
Sources: Compassion In World Farming, Organic Consumers Association, Oxford University
Photo: Washington Post