Will that be Frankenchicken or stem cell beef?

2012-03-17 09:45

The world’s seven billionth human was born last year.

This milestone brought to the fore a question that many had began to ask: how do we feed all these people?

As the developing nations flex their muscles, more and more people enter the middle-class ranks and with that economic empowerment comes the inevitable desire to eat more meat – something previously seen as an unaffordable luxury.

The problem is that our planet has finite space and resources. Larger populations require more land for housing, which in turn means less land for farming but more mouths to feed.

It is a disturbing catch-22.

We are already discovering what it takes to produce food – especially meat products – on a massive scale, and it is not appetising.

For many people, there is no link between the animals you see grazing happily
in a field and the meat we buy, conveniently packaged in the supermarket.

A trip to an abattoir may be a shock to the system for many, but what would be even more of a shock is the process involved in getting the animals reared for slaughter.

Growth hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals are used routinely in modern farming to speed up the natural growth and reproductive process, so that we can produce enough to meet the growing demand.

It has already reached a point where a global fast-food chicken chain was recently told that they could not call their core product “chicken” any longer as it bears little resemblance to the animal in its natural form.
There are two arguments to this assertion:

» That the chickens are so badly abused when being reared (some battery chickens live in cages so full of excrement that their legs and feet fall off); and

» That there has been too much genetic modification (tubes inserted into the animal’s bodies, and chemicals and nutrients pumped through their systems.

The animals are debeaked, and their bones shrunken and weakened to increase the meat yield).

It’s no wonder people are calling these unfortunate animals “Frankenchickens”. Inhumane as this is, it is still not a sustainable model.

Dr Mark Post, head of physiology at Maastrict University in the Netherlands, says: “Meat demand is going to double in the next 40 years, and right now we are already using 70% of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock.”

Post has, however, come up with what he believes is a viable solution to the planet’s desire to eat meat – the stem cell steak.

In a Petri dish in his laboratory, Post is creating the world’s first man-made meat.

Using stem cells from a cow’s muscle tissue and combining it with foetal calf serum, these slivers of muscle tissue eventually grow into something resembling meat – with the occasional electric shock to boost the growing process. Yummy!

It would take approximately 3 000 pieces of these muscle strips, minced with a few hundred pieces of fatty tissue, to produce a burger patty.

Post, however, reckons if a single cow currently yields 100 burger patties, his stem cell process could create 100 million burgers from one cow.

In his imagined future, livestock would be reared not to be slaughtered, but as a source of stem cells, which would reduce the land needed to keep livestock.

Unappealing or unappetising as it may sound, it is a plausible scenario given that most futurists predict that we will have a crisis of natural resources – including water – by the middle of the century.

In South Africa we have a different problem looming, but one that will also force us to think about alternative means of producing food.

The ongoing farm attacks and murders, as well as talk of land appropriation without compensation, are slowly driving the bulk of the country’s (white) farmers to neighbouring states.

At the same time, much of the rural subsistence farming has stopped, with communities opting to receive government welfare grants rather than farming their own produce.

A vacuum is being created as fewer people (especially the younger generation) look to farming as a career or simply as a means of livelihood.

It was recently estimated that in the next 20 to 30 years, we would have as little as 15 000 active farmers left in South Africa – the same number of farmers who would have to produce enough food to feed a population of 50 million.

The numbers simply don’t add up.

So brace yourselves.

Pretty soon, instead of being asked “chicken or beef?” by the cabin attendant on your flight, you could instead beasked if you prefer “Frankenchicken or stem cell beef?”.

» Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit www.fluxtrends.com 

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