The Future of Backyard Barbecue
By Emily Powell
Cattle factories, otherwise known as feedlots, whose astounding efficiency of transforming a few bushels of corn into a several-hundred-pound steer for our culinary pleasure, are part of one of the most inefficient, unsustainable industries in our modern society. Hidden from the grocery store butcher counter is a world of manure-soaked grassland, clogged with dust and aching with the stench of hundreds of thousands of over-fed cattle. These feedlots are grim expanses of trodden ground which utilize procedures that cause issues spanning from eutrophication of nearby waterways to soil erosion to outstanding levels of methane release to energy inefficiency to poor animal welfare. But what if our enjoyment of hamburgers doesn’t have to be a result of this destructive and hugely impactful linear system? What if our beloved Memorial Day barbecues had only minimal environmental impact? Enter Memphis Meats, a new company founded by medical researchers that’s planning to use advances in biotechnology to eliminate the need for feedlots.
Memphis Meats, the premier “cultured meat” lab, tells us they can make a quarter-pounder without ever slaughtering an animal. This process involves taking a small muscle sampled from a steer and breaking down the muscle fibers so that they can grow in a new environment: The environment of a modern laboratory (see the exact process outlined in this Washington Post article ). The result of an allotted period of growth is called “shmeat” – an animal product that looks like meat, tastes like meat, cooks like meat, and has nutritional value similar to meat. If you don’t believe me, check out the Memphis Meats website (2), where an intro video shows their first lab-made meat cooked into a mouthwatering, savory meatball. This website also declares that the process of growing meat from tissue cells in a lab reduces the amount of greenhouse gas pollution by 90% compared with feedlot procedures. The company, whose costs currently put the price of a five-ounce hamburger well above $18,000 per pound according to Newsweek (3), are securing investor funds in order to evolve their methods and bring the product to market within five years. When this happens, lab-grown meat might be less expensive than feedlot-grown beef. This alternative might also reduce the demand for feed corn and reduce excess nitrogen runoff from grassland feedlots. Environmentally, this process uses less resources to feed the same (or greater) number of people. And that’s good news.
The idea of lab-growing meat brings the concept of sustainable nutrition to a largely industrial and mechanized scale. Essentially, if all meat were to be lab-grown, the connection between a person and the source of their food is potentially further blurred, defeating the concept of “farm to table” that brings a sense of environmental awareness to consumerism. If the future of food is simply to make existence more efficient while allowing the luxuries of beef and other animals to be enjoyed, then lab-grown meat is an astounding achievement. However, if the future of food is to make individuals more personally responsible for their consumption and encourage efficiency, lab-grown meat is an advancement that might make some people a little nervous. But in actuality, how much more (or less) quantifiably sustainable is it to subsist heavily on lab-grown meats and other products rather than on a whole-foods, non-GMO, holistic diet which avoids food products altered by biotechnology practices? I don’t have the answer for you, and the answer might just be impossible to universally declare because of varying personal preferences and ethics.
Speaking of personal preference, I think eating lab-grown meat sounds a little unappetizing – but why is this the case? Personal stigmas against eating a lab-grown product are because of an aversion to the unfamiliar, not necessarily an aversion to the disgusting. For example, if we were to be fully aware of the feedlot, manure-soaked origins of the ground beef in our grocery store while we were buying it, it probably wouldn’t be as appetizing as it is. But since it is simply customary to buy raw meat from a fluorescently-illuminated glass case without any indication of its origin, we don’t think twice. Similarly, if lab-grown meat were to be the common and preferred option, we wouldn’t think twice about it. It’s only because of humans’ natural “neophobia” – or fear of new foods – that we develop an automatic aversion to such products. In contrast, the reality is that artificial creations of the snack and cereal aisles that we know and love (and which contain ingredients only vaguely reminiscent of something plant-based) might be just as oddly innovated. So, is lab-grown meat the answer to our prayers for a sustainable, low-impact protein alternative for carnivores? That’s for you to decide. For now, keep an eye out for Memphis Meatballs coming to a grocery butcher near you.
More food for thought: Memphis Meats definitely isn’t the only group of entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on these advances in food science. Check out this BBC article about the very first research team to create a lab-grown burger in Germany and what they plan to do with it now.
Emily’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietician credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.