Could a test-tube burger save the planet?

August 5, 2013

The most expensive burger ever made was served in London today. It cost more than $300,000 — thanks, Google's Sergey Brin — and didn't taste very good. But the texture was right, and it saved a cow. Maybe one day it can save the Earth.

That's the real play behind the test-tube burgers. The hope, according to Dutch scientist Mark Post, who led the team, is that they can eventually help stop global warming.

The most expensive burger in the world. (David Parry/AP)
The most expensive burger in the world. (David Parry/AP)

The case for moving away from raising and slaughtering animals for food is typically portrayed in terms of animal welfare. But increasingly the argument is about planetary welfare: Meat is simply a huge, huge contributor to climate change, and it's only going to get bigger as the billions of people in emerging economies begin demanding the meat-heavy diets they associate with wealth.

In this 2009 column, I laid out some of the numbers behind this debate. They're worth thinking about today. The column is slightly edited from its original version.

According to a 2006 United Nations report, livestock accounts for 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. That's larger than the entire transportation sector. Burgers, in other words, are doing more damage to the planet than SUVs.

Some of meat's contribution to climate change is intuitive. It's more energy efficient to grow grain and feed it to people than it is to grow grain and turn it into feed that we give to calves until they become adults that we then slaughter to feed to people. Some of the contribution is gross. "Manure lagoons," for instance, is the oddly evocative name for the acres of animal excrement that sit in the sun steaming nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. And some of it would make Bart Simpson chuckle. Cow gas — interestingly, it's mainly burps, not flatulence — is a real player.

But the result isn't funny at all: Two researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius (PDF). A study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that the average American would do less for the planet by switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a week. That prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to recommend that people give up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. The response was quick and vicious. "How convenient for him," was the inexplicable reply from a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. "He's a vegetarian."

The visceral reaction against anyone questioning our God-given right to bathe in bacon has been enough to scare many in the environmental movement away from this issue. The National Resources Defense Council has a long page of suggestions for how you, too, can "fight global warming." As you'd expect, "Drive Less" is in bold letters. There's also an endorsement for "high-mileage cars such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids." They advise that you weatherize your home, upgrade to more efficient appliances and even buy carbon offsets. The word "meat" is nowhere to be found.

That's not an oversight. Telling people to give up burgers doesn't poll well. Ben Adler, an urban policy writer, explored that in a December 2008 article for the American Prospect. He called environmental groups and asked them for their policy on meat consumption. "The Sierra Club isn't opposed to eating meat," was the clipped reply from a Sierra Club spokesman. "So that's sort of the long and short of it." And without pressure to address the costs of meat, politicians predictably are whiffing on the issue. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, for instance, does nothing to address the emissions from livestock.

The pity of it is that compared with cars or appliances or heating your house, eating pasta on a night when you'd otherwise have made fajitas is easy. It doesn't require a long commute on the bus or the disposable income to trade up to a Prius. It doesn't mean you have to scrounge for change to buy a carbon offset. In fact, it saves money. It's healthful.

And it can be done immediately. A Montanan who drives 40 miles to work might not have the option to take public transportation. But he or she can probably pull off a veggie stew. A cash-strapped family might not be able buy a new dishwasher. But it might be able to replace meatballs with mac-and-cheese. That is the whole point behind the cheery PB&J Campaign, which reminds that "you can fight global warming by having a PB&J for lunch." Given that PB&J is delicious, it's not the world's most onerous commitment.

It's also worth saying that this is not a call for asceticism. It's not a value judgment on anyone's choices. Going vegetarian might not be as effective as going vegan, but it's better than eating meat, and eating meat less is better than eating meat more. It would be a whole lot better for the planet if everyone eliminated one meat meal a week than if a small core of die-hards developed perfectly virtuous diets.

Of course, if scientists could come up with an affordable, tasty meat that grows in a lab and doesn't impose much cost on the planet — well, that might be the easiest solution of all.

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Neil Irwin · August 5, 2013