Eat meat, kill planet

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2010

I’ve always struggled with ethical arguments for vegetarianism*, but bio-economic arguments have a pragmatism that I find myself responding to. In a repeat of a riff that I’ve heard a few times in years previous, Ars Technica has an article discussing a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which suggests that livestock farming is very close to the point of being ecologically sustainable.

Given the source, some of you will no doubt dismiss the concern out of hand… but it’s interesting to note that, yet again, the blame is laid at the feet of the Western world in general, and the US in particular. A liberal-left conspiracy to take The Empire down a peg or two? Or perhaps just an inconvenient truth: there’s only so much planet to go round, after all, and whatever justifications you choose to use, there’s no denying that the West consumes a disproportionate amount of the resources available.

As of the year 2000, the livestock sector—meat, egg, and milk production—is estimated to have contributed 18 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and 63 percent of reactive nitrogen mobilization, and to have consumed 58 percent of net primary productivity. We are already coming dangerously close to the safe operating space in all three areas. If we continue eating animals at the same rate we do now, this model predicts that these figures will rise by 39, 21, and 36 percent, respectively, until the livestock sector uses most of, or exceeds, our safe operating spaces.

So, what to do?

Based on their results, the authors suggest that “reining in growth of this sector should be a policy priority.” They suggest a number of ways to accomplish this. One is to make livestock production more resource-efficient, which is feasible at the level of feed crop production and more cycling of animal manure in lieu of synthetic fertilizers. Another is to encourage people to eat more poultry and fish rather than beef to meet their dietary protein requirements.

Unfortunately, consumption of meat is currently at twice USDA-recommended levels. Americans have not yet cut down, even thought we know it’s better for our bodies and better for our wallets; it seems doubtful that we would therefore cut down just because it is better for the Earth.

AT points out that the grim storm-cloud on the horizon here is the prospect of increased demand for meat protein in developing nations… which echoes some of the more popular justifications for refusing to limit carbon emissions (“well, they’re not going to slow down, so why should we?”). I’m increasingly convinced that, thanks to the politicising of environmental issues, the only thing that’s going to force a behavioural change on a large scale is economics: we’ll all start eating less meat (and driving more efficient vehicles) when we can no longer afford – as individuals, and as communities – to maintain our current habits.

Whether those economic factors will kick in early enough to prevent the nasty side-effects of running up against resource limits (we’ve had oil wars already, food wars are starting to show, and water wars are a not-too-distant inevitability) remains to be seen. It’s an ugly gamble to have to make as a species, but I rather suspect we’ve left ourselves little other choice.

[ * And there’s my own selfishness, lest anyone think I’m putting myself on some pedestal of righteousness here; the underlying problem with working against the prospect of ecological catastrophe is that we’re all complicit in it, which leads to the inevitable fusillade of finger-pointing as we all try to find someone more at fault than ourselves. Here’s hoping for Doug Coupland’s promise of a species-wide sense of culpability; sooner we get it into our heads that we’re all in the same boat, the sooner we can start solving problems. ]

Pain-free animals and ethical carnivorism

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2009

cowsAll but the most ardent and uncaring carnivores among us would probably agree that factory farming is a cruel and unpleasant lifestyle for the animals that eventually become our food. There are numerous answers to this ethical dilemma (aside from vegetarianism, of course), the newest of which is the suggestion that livestock be genetically re-engineered so that they don’t feel pain:

“If we can’t do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused,” says Adam Shriver, a philosopher at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. In a provocative paper published this month, Shriver contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative. “I’m offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering.”


Performing brain surgery on livestock wouldn’t be feasible on an industrial scale. Livestock would have to be genetically engineered to be pain-free for it to be profitable.

Zhou-Feng Chen, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis and colleagues are identifying the genes that regulate affective pain. Already, they have engineered mice that lack two enzymes which help neuron-to-neuron communication in the ACC. When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards. This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain.

Now, I’m no militant animal rights campaigner, but Shriver’s suggestion sounds like aside-stepping of the issue rather than a solution. The ethical problem is the way we farm animals, and their suffering is a function thereof; removing their ability to feel pain would be like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than aiming to cure the disease itself, and the ethics of such a sweeping piece of genetic engineering is a whole new can of worms in and of itself. It certainly wouldn’t buy off my own guilt about factory farming… and it seems that I’m not the only one:

“Large farms have become an environmental disaster,” agrees Alan Goldberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. They generate enormous amounts of waste and greenhouse gases and breed antibiotic resistance. “I think factory farms have to go, it’s that simple.”

Goldberg also contends that public attitudes may make pain-free livestock a non-starter. He and colleague Renee Gardner conducted an online survey on the use of pain-free animals in research and found little public support, even among researchers who experiment on animals.

Even Shriver (apparently a life-long vegetarian himself) agrees that the better option is to abolish factory farming entirely, which makes me wonder whether his suggestion is in fact a form of deliberately provocative rhetorical gambit. Personally, I think that vat-grown meat is the best long-term solution… as well as the only one that has a chance of scaling in response to global consumption patterns. [image by law_kevan]

I like my beef… er, ripped?

Paul Raven @ 18-02-2009

With a regular application of the right chemicals, it’s amazing what you can do to a living creature. Observe:

Belgian Blue cow

That’s a bull of the Belgian Blue breed, which has a genetic anomaly that suppresses the production of a hormone called myostatin that inhibits muscle growth – hence the ‘double muscling’ seen above.

“So what,” you say. Well, myostatin inhibitor drugs are being developed with the intent of treating muscle-wasting diseases like muscular dystrophy in humans. And we all know how the street finds its own use for things… as does the sports arena, the university, and the boardroom.

Double-muscled beefcake – coming to a gymnasium near you, very soon. [via SentientDevelopments; image from Kottke article, no attribution available]

All hail the New Flesh – in-vitro meat on sale within a decade

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2008

Blue steakHere’s another item to add to the list of science fictional ideas that are edging close to becoming a reality – in-vitro (or “vat-grown”) meat could be sat on supermarket shelves within ten years.

The technology is already tried and tested, it’s just a case of waiting for the economic cost to become competitive … which, given the sharp (and probably continuing) rise in global food prices, may come sooner than anyone would like to think. [image by Yandle]

I’ve spoken to friends about in-vitro meat and their reaction has usually been disgust. I’m guessing that the economics will change that attitude more effectively than any amount of rational discussion – principles tend to be the first thing that gets eaten when someone’s stomach is empty, and we’re already consuming meat from cloned livestock.

And after all, it’s not quite the same as Soylent Green. Would you move to eating in-vitro meat right now if it cost less than the real thing?

[And we’re back to song lyric references in headlines … 😉 ]

Cloned meat already on the menu

Paul Raven @ 17-10-2007

two_cows Wired has a lengthy piece on the increasing trend of cloned livestock – livestock that go on to produce the milk you drink, or the choice cuts you eat. Little more than a decade since the birth of Dolly the sheep, cloning is becoming accepted by the agricultural industry, if not the average consumer.

Whether Joe Average’s reaction to cloning (and similar technologies like GM foods) is a natural knee-jerk or a media-fueled disgust (or a combination of the two) is unknown to me, but it’s certainly not based on rational facts – animals are animals are animals, no matter how their birth was brought about. But if cloned livestock can freak people out, the reactions we’ll see when vat-grown meat becomes available should be pretty spectacular … [Image by FiskFisk]

[tags]agriculture, biotech, cloning, livestock[/tags]