Foreword: You might wonder, and rightly so, why this topic is in any way related to my fiction. But it is, although in a very indirect manner. Still, the topic is most important, and because I am a biologist, I wished to discuss it when I heard about Impossible Burgers last week. I hope this helps you take some action of your own or at least answer some questions you had.
Synthetic meats are beginning to appear on the market. Impossible Foods launched its plant-based ground meat in 2016, which is now being tested in a few Burger Kings and other burger joints across the nation, and they are aiming to some day replace all animal-derived meats. Meanwhile, another company, BlueNalu, launched activities to develop the first cell-based fish meat (see article on NPR).
These are certainly welcome developments in an overpopulated world where land and air are being degraded beyond repair, the waters are likewise polluted and the seas are being depleted of fish and other sea creatures to feed all of us.
These damages to our Earth are happening because of overpopulation, and over-reliance on animal -derived foods (animals such as cattle, pigs, and poultry). But what do we mean by these two things?
Let us begin with our over-reliance on farm-raised animals as a source of proteins. A fact that is little known outside the scientific community is that only about 10% (on average) of the energy accumulated in a lower trophic level is passed and assimilated into the next level in the food chain (see article from Oregon State University). This means that the carnivores at the top of the food chain (say meat-eating humans) only get about 1% of the energy contained in the grass eaten by the cows. This being a mathematical operation, if the human population increases by say, 10%, we will need 1.5 billion (current estimated number of cattle on Earth) x 10% = 750 million more cows to feed us, and these 750 million more cows would require 7.5 billion more units of feed or grass to grow the meat we need, meaning that we would need to deforest more land to convert it to growing grass and feed for the additional cattle. This is obviously unsustainable. On the other hand, if we all became vegetarian (or vegan), and could replace cattle grass with plant foods that we can digest efficiently, then we would have about 10x more energy available to us, meaning that our numbers could increase by a factor of 10 without any additional land necessary to grow the plant matter we’d need for food. Put differently, if we “cut the middle man”, we would have a lot more energy available directly to us.
Now, the above is an over-simplification because not all the land used by cattle is easily transformed into arable land, and not not all plants foods are easily digestible by us. In fact, our ability to extract energy from various foods is controlled by our genes, and while most of us are “omnivores”, some are essentially meats eaters (e.g. Inuit) while others derive their nutrition from a vegetarian diet (India’s Jains…see article by National Geographic). It must therefore be understood that as badly as some may want to eliminate carnivorous diets, and as necessary as the switch to a more vegetarian diet might be to save our planet, the solution cannot be a “one-size-fits-all.” Regardless, the concept of energy loss between trophic levels is real, and we must do what we can to eliminate our over-reliance on meat protein because the reduction in the numbers of cattle and other farmed animals will reduce land requirements, reduce land degradation and pollution of our waters and or our atmosphere, even if there are many exceptions and conditions to the numbers I gave above.
Would it be better to obtain our meat from the wild then, rather than converting land to growing grass and feed for farm animals? Absolutely not! Our needs would greatly surpass what nature can offer. Already, as it is, hunting and fishing are harming communities where there is an imbalance between human population numbers and food animal reproductive capacity. Natural populations are harmed because by removing more and more individuals from the source stocks, those that remain can no longer find mates and reproduce, or defend against their natural enemies. The decline of natural populations is doubly harmful as it impacts all the other plant and animal species which rely on their existence, as part of a connected ecosystem.
What about overpopulation? It may seem obvious what the impact of too many people on the planet is, but few people know the extent of the impact. Firstly, overpopulation does not cause an increase in production and consumption of farm-raised animals, but it does exacerbate the pressure on fish and seafood given that developing nations are the major consumers of these foods (see article here). Not only that, but the aquacultural practices of the developing which have invested in it are not environmentally-friendly either (see article here). As living standards increase in developing nations (which are most affected by overpopulation), their consumption switches from fish to red meat, which then increases pressure on the land and on freshwater (see article here).
Some might say that we do not need to invent synthetic meat, that we can simply all switch to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. But that is not a reasonable expectation, given that not all humans have the necessary digestive system to efficiently extract energy from plant food, and that there are people who will simply not accept to switch. There are also lands which simply could not be made to grow human crops sustainably or at all. It, therefore, stands to reason that it would be better to let cattle feed on those lands and produce the energy-rich food for which they are known. However, the development of alternatives which can give meat or fish-eaters the same satisfactory experience as they enjoy now eating a steak or a salmon, can be a successful strategy to dramatically decrease our environmental impacts, that is, so long as the companies developing these new foods think globally and holistically, to ensure that their own activities do not cause other harm.
Will humans adapt to the changing diet? Of course. Will the change be global? Not necessarily, unless we find ways to include those in developing countries in this new wave. But it is likely that the eventual switch to synthetic foods will cause the development of a black market which will continue to supply animal-derived foods to those willing to pay the price for a taste of the real thing. Eventually, though, once there are generations that have never have tasted real meat, even the black markets will disappear. In the short story Ronin – Part 1, the main character goes to the planet to get a taste of realmeat, and while doing so, unbeknownst to him, embarks on an adventure which will lead him straight to K’Tara.
What do you think?