Think of your special, happy places and your happy memories. Birthday parties, Christmas family dinners, weddings, romantic dinners with your partner, fancy company dinners… These are all special events and everyone celebrates them in their own, special ways. Some like their birthday parties quiet and intimate, some like them big and rowdy, some people like small weddings, while other people like their weddings to be a fairytale-like event with 600 people on board. But all of these events have two things in common: that special feeling of happiness and meat consumption.
Just think about it: have you ever been to a special event that didn’t have some exquisite meat meal? Every household has its special recipes for their special occasions and they mostly revolve around special (read as costly) pieces of meat that the family eats once or twice a year. It is in human nature to associate a big, fat, juicy (and costly) piece of meat with a sense of accomplishment and happiness, all the way back to the prehistoric era.
The best hunter, the man who could bring home the most and the best meat (or meat carcass), was always the leader of the tribe; kings, pharaohs, emperors, and leaders of all kinds celebrated their power with unending feasts that included a lot of sex and a lot of meat. Public displays of sexual or sexualized acts and food (mostly meat) abundance were always used (and still are) to showcase one’s power and satisfy primordial survival instincts.
Throughout history, any kind of meat was considered to be a luxury. The situation changed dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. Until then, meat was consumed only in those special events I mentioned in the opening of this blog post. The staple of human nutrition was made of dairy products, wheat products such as bread or wheat porridge, stews made from cabbage, beans, potatoes, or other available vegetables. A typical person ate less than fifty meat meals in their entire life. That is two to three weeks of meat consumption an average person consumes today. So, why was meat such a luxury in times past, and what made the transition from meat-as-a-luxury to meat-as-an-everyday-commodity possible?
Common people lived in autarchic communities – each household, each farmstead had to provide every necessity for itself. Each household had to grow its food, process its food, make its clothes, building materials, weapons, etc. In those conditions, if you wanted to grow pigs, cows, sheep, chicken, or any other animal, you had to build a special building for them, feed them with the food you grew yourself, nurture them, kill them, process them in special buildings you had to build, treat them with spices that were extremely expensive at that time and store them in, again, specialized building for that – remember, there were no fridges back then. As you can see, it was a time-consuming process that required a lot of effort and material investment. As a result, most people kept a couple of chickens (for their eggs) and a couple of sheep (for their milk and their wool). Some people grew rabbits for their meat. Owning one cow or one fully grown pig was the medieval equivalent of owning an upmarket sedan like Mazda 6 or VW Passat nowadays.
The technological innovation of the 19th and 20th centuries, sociological changes that occurred during industrial revolutions (population moving from villages to great cities), and economic revolution (wide adoption of the free market economy) ended autarchic communities and gave rise to the civilization of specialized individuals organized in nuclear families. With the emergence of specialized manufactures and factories, with specialized bureaucratic machinery, with the emergence of blue-collar and white-collar jobs, farming and husbandry became specialized, industrial activities. Law of the big numbers did its thing and farming output started to grow exponentially. The introduction of internal combustion and electrical machinery gave birth to corporate farming and that transition made the abundance of fruits, vegetables, and meat reality we live in today. There are arguments if the corporate farming industry is a good or bad thing, but the reality is that without those corporations operating in a free market economy, we would still live in a world where any kind of meat is a luxury and our diet would consist of season-available fruits and vegetables.
So, how does husbandry look like today?
Most of our food comes from great, unending agricultural fields, be it from French and Ukrainian wheatlands, USA Midwest with stretches of hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of farmlands and husbandry fields, Chinese or Argentinian steppes. Most of your food doesn’t come from some farmer that has two cows and five sheep, the food on your table is a result of a fine-tuned global industrial process. But is that whole process sustainable and ethically acceptable?
I will not go into the discussion of whether meat consumption is ethically acceptable or not, it depends on your religious background, your empathy, desire to eat meat, and a plethora of other subjective reasons. I do not want to discuss these matters, I want to talk about science, about objectively measurable facts on the subject of sustainability of modern husbandry, whether there is a problem, and what would solution to the problems, if there are any, be. I am using data collected mostly from the USA, and I apologize for all the gallons and pounds mentioned in this post. The emphasis of this post is not on the actual numbers but the orders of magnitude and ratios. I would like to point to the fact that the country that has the most “invisible” and lightweight bureaucratic system in the Western world has the most complete and up-to-date data on just about anything.
These are the facts about modern husbandry and agriculture.
- Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation emissions – transportation (road, rail, air, and marine transport) is responsible for 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Methane is 25 to 100 times more destructive than CO2 on a 20-year time frame and it has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20-year time frame.
- Cows (and cows only) produce 150 billion (150 000 million) gallons of methane per day.
- US methane emissions from livestock and natural gas are nearly equal.
- Emissions for agriculture projected to increase 80% by 2050, while energy related emission are expected to increase 20% by 2040. Can you imagine that? All of our focus is on improving our energy grids, improving fuel consumption for our vehicles, insulating our houses, etc. Nobody is pointing at the elephant in the room and the main driving force of global warming. Let’s go on.
- Even without fossil fuels, we will exceed our 565 gigatonnes CO2 limit by 2030, all from raising animals.
- US fracking (hydraulic fracturing) water use ranges from 70-140 billion gallons annually while US animal agriculture water consumption ranges form 34-76 trillion gallons annually. That is 3 whole orders of magnitude more than fracking, which is called upon as an outrageous water supplies destroyer (which it is). What would appropriate adjective for modern husbandry then be?
- Agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of US water consumption, and growing feed crops for livestock consumes accounts for 56% of total US water consumption.
- 442 to 8000 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef. 450 gallons of water are required to produce 1 pound of eggs and almost 900 gallons of water are needed for 1 pound of cheese.
- Animal agriculture is responsible for 20-33% of all fresh water consumption in the world today.
- Livestock or livestock feed occupies 1/3 of the Earth’s ice-free land.
- Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction. Animal agriculture contributes to species extinction in many ways. In addition to the monumental habitat destruction caused by clearing forests and converting land to grow feed crops and for animal grazing, predators and “competition” species are frequently targeted and hunted because of a perceived threat to livestock profits. The widespread use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers used in the production of feed crops often interferes with the reproductive systems of animals and poisons waterways. The over-exploitation of wild species through commercial fishing, bushmeat trade as well as animal agriculture’s impact on climate change, all contribute to the global depletion of species and resources.
- Livestock operations on land have created more than 500 nitrogen flooded dead-zones around the world in our oceans.
- We are living in an age of the largest mass extinction in the last 65 million years.
- One third of the planet has been desertified, with livestock as the leading driver .
- Every minute, 7 million pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food in the US alone. This does not include animals raised in the backyards or the billions of fish raised in aqua-cultures in the US.
- A farm with 2 500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411 000 people.
- In the US alone (not including fish from fisheries or backyard animals), 116 000 pounds of waste (manure and urine) is produced per second. Using collected data for dairy cows, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry, it is estimated that a total of 2 464 trillion pounds of waste is produced per year in the US alone.
- Three quarters (3/4) of the world’s fisheries are exploited or depleted.
- It is predicted that oceans could be completely fish-less by 2048.
- 90-100 million tons of fish (as many as 2.7 trillion animals) are pulled from our oceans each year.
- For every pound of fish caught, up to 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill. That means that as many as 64 billion pounds of fish caught globally every year are discarded.
- Scientists estimate that as many as 650 000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every year by fishing vessels.
- Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon rainforests destruction.
- Up to 137 plant, animal and insect species are lost every day due to rainforest destruction.
- 26 million rain-forest acres (10.8 million hectares) have been cleared for palm oil production. Do remember that the next time you’re buying Nutella, Rafaello, Kinder chocolates etc. Bring these pictures to your mind next time you enjoy these produces.
- Ten thousand years ago, 99% of animal biomass (zoomass) was wild animals. Today, humans and the animals that we raise as food make up 98% of the zoomass.
- 80% of antibiotic sold in the US are for livestock.
- Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1 100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, 20 pounds of CO2 and one animal’s life.
Our food consumption is killing this planet, and this way of life, this way of growing our food is completely unsustainable. The data is irrefutable, the amount of evidence is overwhelming. In the face of this data, will I, and most of the population, give up on a meat diet?
To tell you the truth, no.
The fact is that we do eat too much meat and the amount of meat that we consume can certainly come down. We do not need to consume meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, one meat meal a day is certainly enough. If all people on the Earth would cut down their meat consumption to one healthy meat meal per day, the environmental damage of husbandry would certainly be diminished. However, in the face of growing population numbers, a continuation of desertification of our planet, and an increase of living standard in the Third world, no amount of meal-size decrease would stop us from driving ourselves to complete and utter doom.
Would going back to the roots save us, as “environment-friendly” groups such as Greenpeace suggest? Would complete disbandment of modern agricultural industry (usage of pesticides, herbicides, GM crops, etc) save the planet?
Well, it would certainly make humans healthier. If a large portion of the population would start to farm again, without using the pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides for their crops, without using antibiotics in raising their animals, we would eliminate a significant portion of the chemical pollution we’re causing today.
Most of the Earth’s population would starve as well. Personally, I don’t consider that solution to be the most effective or the happiest one. Advocates of the going-back-to-the-roots idea suggest then that we should just farm more land. That means that more forests, more swamps, more coastlines would have to be destroyed. As I pointed out earlier in this text, our ecosystem is on the point of breaking and we’re facing a complete and utter loss of biodiversity as is. To further accelerate habitat destruction is no less than signing a death sentence to the entire humanity.
The next question is, what can we do? Can we save ourselves without going vegan?
Luckily, we can. And the solution for these problems is the whole reason why I started to write about this issue.
You see, there is a new revolution brewing right in front of our eyes, and it comes from the field that had nothing to do with agriculture or husbandry. Using the same techniques that are used in tissue building and 3D printing of the human organs from stem cells, we could theoretically grow animal meat and hide from animal stem cells. Take a vial of bovine (cow) stem cells and grow 100 pounds of beef in a matter of days, using nothing else than a container full of water, some hormones, and a vial of bovine stem cells. Sounds like science fiction?
Well, it was up until 2013 when a team of scientists made a hamburger-from-a-tube, first in vitro hamburger. A famous chef made the burger, the public could taste it and rate it and it was a smashing success. There was just one, small detail that still made in vitro burgers a topic of science fiction – that one small burger cost 250 000 €. That was about 300 000$. Nobody actually expected that in vitro meat will be commonplace in our lifetime.
And everybody was wrong. In just a year, the scientist managed to greatly optimize the process and they made a new public tasting event. This time, the burger did not cost 300 000 $. The cost of the burger was just 11$, or 80$ per kilogram of in vitro meat. The best part is that they can now produce over 10 000 pounds (over 5 000 kg) from just one small piece of meat.
Let that sink in.
Today, we have the technology not just to increase our husbandry output by 10% without causing environmental destruction, we have the technology to increase our meat production by 5 000 times, that is 5 000 000% (five million percent) without causing further environmental damage.
We are entering the new era of food production.
Welcome to the era of cellular agriculture.
There is growing momentum in the scientific world regarding research and optimization of in vitro meat production. A plethora of research groups and organizations are doing their best to bring the artificial meat to our tables as soon as possible. There is a lot of hard work to be done, but in vitro meat will be a commonplace commodity in our supermarkets by the middle of this century.
And it is not just about the meat. We can already make perfect milk without cow or sheep, we can make (real) animal hide and leather without killing any animal and we can produce eggs without chickens.
With the birth of cellular agriculture, we once again have the possibility of growing healthy food for everyone without killing the planet and decimating species. We no longer need to slash jungles and rainforests, we no longer need to pollute our air, water, and soil with tonnes and tonnes of antibiotics. We can make Earth a healthy, vibrant planet once again and we can do it in our lifetime.
I fully expect Luddite-like organizations to raise against the in vitro meat, I fully expect those you’re-playing-God(s) nonsensical argumentation and I fully expect that road from industrial agriculture to cellular agriculture will be a rough one. You can count that I will fight with every fiber of my being for cellular agriculture. And the reason for that is pretty clear; there are only 3 viable options regarding our future food production: (1) we will either continue to do what we’re doing today and kill our planet (and us with it) in the next 100 years, (2) we will revert to the “organic” farming and let the majority of the world population to starve to death, or (3) we will embrace scientific advancements and make our planet a better place to live on, without sacrificing our modern way of life.
We all have that same choice.