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Will the test-tube burger stop climate change?

Does artificial meat really have the answers to world hunger or environmental catastrophe. Ian Sinclair doubts it.

“Test-tube burger marks milestone in future meat-eating,” proclaimed the Guardian earlier this year.

“Could in-vitro meat save the world?” asked Bioedge, a website dedicated to bioethical issues.

The answer could well be yes, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which said: “It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer.”

The August launch of lab-bred “meat” in London was, according to City University of London professor of food policy Tim Lang, “a masterly act of timing, theatre, and media management.”

“Considerable scepticism is required,” Lang warned.

Princeton University bioethics professor Peter Singer, author of the seminal 1975 book Animal Liberation, clearly didn’t get the memo.

Singer lauded the first public tasting of Dr Mark Post’s in-vitro beefburger as a “historic event” which, although he hadn’t eaten meat for 40 years, had convinced him to try in-vitro meat should it become commercially available.

Singer’s decision was based on reducing animal suffering and helping the environment.

“Using meat from animals is heating the planet and contributing to a future in which hundreds of millions of people become climate refugees,” Singer said.

In contrast “in-vitro meat won’t belch or fart methane. Nor will it defecate and as a result the vast cesspools that intensive farms require to handle manure will become unnecessary.”

Two inconvenient facts suggest Singer’s enthusiasm is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Production costs for the test-tube beefburger are currently running at over £200,000 — funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, as it happens.

This astronomical cost means it will probably take years to produce it on a commercially viable level.

Post himself says 20 years, an estimate the Scientific American journal considers “optimistic.”

The problem is we simply haven’t got 20 years to save the planet from climate catastrophe.

The New Economics Foundation stated in 2008 that we had just 100 months to stop “runaway climate change.”

Organisations as diverse as the World Bank, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency have all confirmed that the prognosis is dire and requires immediate, radical action.

So in terms of helping to combat climate change in-vitro meat will likely be of no help during the period when action is needed most — within the next five years.

And Singer’s salivating over beefburgers arguably perpetuates our cultural obsession with meat.

As one of my university lecturers, Professor Sarah Churchwell, once noted in a seminar: “Representation without criticism equals endorsement.” Apologies, Sarah, if I’ve misquoted you.

By championing in-vitro meat Singer’s article reinforces the popular idea that meat, especially beef, is intrinsically desirable, a high-value luxury food that represents wealth and social advancement.

By buying into the dominant ideology that makes meat-eating so attractive to so many, Singer’s PR-like article is damaging in two ways — in terms of individual health and the relationship between meat and climate change.

Evidence of the negative effects of red and processed meats on health has built up in recent years and the World Cancer Research Fund has recommended “shunning processed meat completely” since 2007.

Even if in-vitro meat can be produced without the cancer-causing properties of red meat — and that’s a big if — championing it still reinforces the idea that meat is a desirable, high-value food and thus does nothing to challenge consumption of red and processed meat and its negative health effects.

And, as Singer mentioned in his article, meat-eating is a significant contributor to climate change.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation named livestock in 2006 as a “major player” in affecting climate change, estimating that it generated 18 per cent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally.

To reduce this impact experts such as Lord Nicholas Stern and UN intergovernmental panel on climate change chairman Rajendra Pachauri recommend a reduction in meat consumption and dairy products — a vegan or nearly vegetarian diet, basically.

This reduction would also give us a good chance of meeting the nutrition requirements of Earth’s increasing population and addressing the looming water crisis.

It is important to remember that there is already enough food to feed the world’s population.

One in eight people around the globe does not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life because of many factors including war, natural disasters, poverty, agricultural infrastructure, environmental degradation and economic factors such as supply, access and affordability, not because they can’t buy a test-tube beefburger.

The Guardian’s coverage of the launch agreed: “The best way to prevent this environmental damage … would be if everyone could be persuaded to eat less meat.”

However, it went on to assert that “no-one thinks that will happen — the desire to eat meat is ingrained deep in our evolution, according to Harvard University primatologist prof Richard Wrangham.”

The Guardian’s conservative framing is both unrealistic and unhelpful.

While it is unlikely that everyone will be persuaded to eat less meat any time soon, studies show that many people in developed countries have been reducing their consumption of meat and red meat specifically for both health and environmental reasons. So it can be done.

And again the question must be asked — does the focus on in-vitro meat help or hinder the move to significantly reduce meat consumption and move to the vegetarian or vegan diet the world so desperately needs?

The media circus surrounding the first public tasting of in-vitro meat clouds the fact that it is, at best, irrelevant.

At worst it is a red herring that makes it more difficult for us to see our problems clearly and act in an appropriate and timely manner.

As with GM foods, fracking and nuclear power, we are being encouraged to support a technological fix to a problem that we already have the technology to overcome.

I’m not, I should note, against continuing research and development of in-vitro meat. One day it may well play a positive dietary role.

But I am sceptical about a corporate-funded technology which makes big claims about saving the world when possible solutions already exist.

What is missing from the media hoopla, of course, is the kind of political analysis that understands that fixing problems of this scale requires political will, otherwise known as popular pressure, and political solutions — a process in-vitro meat will be largely irrelevant to.

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

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