Virtually every new report on global warming says that the problem is more severe than was previously believed, even by the most pessimistic climate scientists. One factor that is constantly underreported is methane, a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. A recent report by the National Academy of Science says that animal husbandry has been responsible for twice as much methane production as once thought. The NAS now says that a powerful source is ruminant animals, especially cows. The Environmental Protection Agency agrees, saying that livestock is the "largest source of methane from human-related activities."
How do cows damage the atmosphere? It seems that they have uncouth manners such as belching and (ahem) farting.
As prosperity rises in developing countries such as India and China, the demand for meat grows rapidly. This demand may be met without regard to animal welfare, the shrinkage of arable land, the over-consumption of water and other hazards to the environment. Each cow consumes about 11,000 gallons of water annually. As world population and wealth both increase, this will prove unsustainable.
What is to be done? In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote an essay predicting that one day the human race would quit eating animals and instead produce meat, fish and fowl much more efficiently in laboratories.
This is already happening. Production costs of cultured meat are currently prohibitive, but are rapidly coming down. A burger patty grown in Holland for demonstration in 2013 cost $330,000 to produce. Three years later, a one-pound meatball was produced by Memphis Meats for $18,000. Those who tasted them said they were like the real thing. As development continues, cultured meat is expected to show up in supermarkets and restaurants in just a few years.
The materials for growing cultured meat include muscle cells, fat, fibers and good cholesterol, all of it extracted from living animals without doing any harm to them. Chickens grown for meat will no longer spend their lives crammed in cages that allow no room to stretch their wings. Foie gras, a treat that has snob value for sophisticates, will no longer require the cruel practice of force-feeding ducks in order to produce livers ten times their natural size. No animals will have to be penned and slaughtered for human consumption.
The environment will benefit greatly from lab-grown meat. Land currently used for grazing will decrease by some 98 percent, and the use of water by 90 percent. Ponds and rivers will be cleaner because fewer chemicals will have to be applied outdoors. A ranch-raised cow releases 70 to 120 kilograms of methane per year, and there are 1.5 billion cows on the planet. Methane is 23 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. A Japanese study reports that growing one kilogram of beef produces 36 kilograms of CO2, while an average European car (which is smaller than an average American car) emits the same amount for every 250 kilometers of driving. Cows produce more greenhouse gas than do automobiles.
Culturing has broad potential for raising other foods besides beef. Presently, steak chips - a hybrid of potato chips and beef jerky - is in the works. We could have many other farm products, all grown indoors in vertical farms and labs. The oceans are badly stressed because of over-fishing, but laboratory-grown seafood may restore them to good health.
Shifting production from ranches and farms to laboratories will cause disruption to traditional livelihoods. At first, there will surely be frantic opposition to lab-grown food. In 2003, New Zealand's government proposed a flatulence tax on livestock and it failed because of protests.
But it will be hard to stop something that reflects market demand. Creative destruction has always been the norm of economic activity, and as technological change proceeds at an exponential pace, its effects, good and bad, will be shared by everyone.