The End of Meat. And Driving. And Football.
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the Department of Transportation should set up a testing regime for robot cars. As soon as it can be established that computers are better drivers than humans, some level of automation should become mandatory, just as with seat belts, air bags, and child car seats.
We can’t expect people to drive safely all the time, but we can expect robots to. It may take a decade or two, but at some point, we’ll look back at the 20th and early 21st centuries and marvel at the fact that millions of vehicles once hurtled down our public streets under the control of frail, emotional, inattentive humans.
Next on my list of fashionable but doomed activities: eating meat from animals.
I’m among the tiny fraction of Americans who are strict vegetarians or vegans. (The Vegetarian Resource Group claims this fraction is as high as 2 or 3 percent, but one Yale study says it’s closer to 0.1 percent.) I’m a veg-head mainly for ethical reasons. But for the purposes of this article I’m going to ignore the moral issues around the treatment of animals and focus on meat’s environmental impact.
Let’s look first at the demand side. As a nation, we’re more carnivorous than ever. Between 1975 and 2007, annual consumption of red meat and poultry increased from 178 pounds per capita to 222 pounds. Total consumption of animals and animal byproducts has been steady lately at around 930 pounds per person per year, according to the Humane Research Council.
This national lust for meat comes at an enormous cost, and we have remade the American landscape to pay it. First, there’s the land itself—both the land given over to grazing, and the acreage used to grow grain for animal feed. In pre-industrial times, tall-grass prairies covered 170 million acres in North America. Now 71 percent of that land has been converted to cropland—and one-third of that is used to grow feed crops, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
The problem is that growing corn and other crops to feed cows, chickens, and pigs is an amazingly indirect and inefficient way to make protein for human consumption. To produce just one pound of beef, farmers have to grow seven pounds of grain. (Chickens aren’t quite as inefficient: thanks to modern breeding, it only takes two pounds of feed to make one pound of chicken.)
Then there’s the water. Feed crops are thirsty, consuming about 60 percent of all irrigation water in the United States every year, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. When you add it all up, producing one pound of raw beef requires 18,000 gallons of rain and irrigation water. That’s roughly the amount of water in a 16-by-32-foot swimming pool—to make just four Quarter Pounders.
A full accounting of meat’s environmental impact would also have to include the fertilizer and fuel needed to raise feed crops, the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned, the additional carbon dioxide released through deforestation to clear land for grazing and feed crop production, and the methane and nitrous oxide released by decomposing animal waste. The U.N. estimates that about 9 percent of all anthropogenic carbon emissions come from raising livestock. So, in a nutshell, the more meat we eat, the warmer the planet gets.
But here, too, technology offers alternatives. First, there are new meat substitutes like Beyond Meat, which is made from soy protein and pea protein and comes in strips resembling chicken cutlets. I haven’t tried it yet—it’s not widely stocked, and when I went to the local Whole Foods to get some, they hadn’t yet thawed out their latest shipment. But Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, a non-vegetarian who’s “tried every fake meat there is,” says it’s tender and moist, and that he’s “never tasted anything as realistic.”
Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown told Manjoo that the company’s long-term goal is to change the way people think about the category, replacing meat from animals with food produced more sustainably. “Instead of having it be called ‘meat,’ it would just be called ‘protein,’ whether it’s protein coming from a cow or chicken or from soy, pea, quinoa, or other plant-based sources,” Brown said.
Then there’s an even more radical concept: real meat harvested not from animals, but from petri dishes. Scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands made a splash this spring with reports that they’d grown muscle from stem cells. Making in vitro meat is still extremely expensive—a single hamburger made the Maastricht way would cost … Next Page »