The End of Meat. And Driving. And Football.

9/7/12Follow @wroush

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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.

Mystery Meat

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 All-American meal--a hamburger, fries, and a Coke

The All-American meal

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 »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://twitter.com/jonbierer Jon Bierer

    I would concur with each of those, but not the gun control.

  • Alice

    At the risk of further offending… I can’t help but imagine how much gentler and kinder 50% of the population would be without cars, meat, and football. ;-)
    Signed, a woman

  • http://www.facebook.com/robofhood Robert Hammond

    very interesting read. at the very least, i would love to have my car drive myself and my bbq back from the tailgate :)

  • http://twitter.com/charlie_joslin Charlie Joslin

    Maybe lacrosse would grow in popularity. Not as severely physical as football, but just as fun to play and watch.

  • BW

    Well, let’s see. Oil consumption dropped due to the economy,sure, but now it’s natural gas that is replacing those BTU’s, not staying warm with a hair shirt. And you want to do away with meat? I gotta say, beans give me gas. You can grow my steak in an algae vat, but don’t try to argue that killing chickens and cows is evil. Have you ever tried living with one? Work on an egg farm for awhile, and trust me, fried chicken starts to look like a solution, not a problem. And as for football, what’s wrong with football? OH, you mean American football? I thought you meant the Beautiful Game. Never mind, you can flush football.

  • Jerry Jeff

    I haven’t looked deeply into the synthetic meat issue, but I tend to wonder about manufacturing and quality control. As I understand it, even for high cost specialty products like biological therapeutics it is hard to keep viruses and contaminants out of large-scale tissue culture. Once you are trying to make a product that (1) uses all of the cell mass rather than throwing it away, and (2) costs $10/lb or so, it will be a real challenge to keep all of the cultures clean. As for football, maybe the answer is to play with no helmets–the game would adjust, and the level of concussions would be similar to soccer or basketball.