Climate change tastes like chicken

Written by Tom Freeman on 26 October 2018 in Comment

Urgent action on reducing meat consumption is needed, but is the answer to grow it in a lab?

Rooster and cow - credit Archie McPhee

The development of lab-grown meat in California has been treated as a humorous story for the ‘and finally’ section of broadcast news, but the implications for the planet could be enormous.

The sight of James Cook, the face of BBC Scotland’s indyref coverage on his now more colourful beat as the broadcaster’s California correspondent, tucking into a chicken nugget on live television was met with hilarity when it emerged the chicken was still alive and well, and running about outside.

“It tastes like chicken!” Cook chuckled.

But the issue is controversial, and politically difficult. 

As the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report shows, keeping global temperature rise to a manageable level will require urgent actions from both governments and individuals.

Lifestyle and consumption patterns need to change now, it said, to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming leading to a huge loss of homes and assets, mass-migration and economic collapse.

While much has been made of energy consumption and transport emissions, diet is a huge factor too. In fact, the livestock industry is estimated to be responsible for 14.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, more than direct emissions from transport.

And 68 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock.

Most of Scotland’s successes in reducing Co2 emissions so far have been down to the move to renewable energy, but if the IPCC’s warning is to be heeded, personal behaviours are going to have to change.

Politicians, though, will find standing in front of a new wind turbine more politically beneficial than advising people to give up their favourite meal. UK climate minister Clare Perry balked at the idea in an interview with BBC News recently. 

“I like lots of local meat. I don’t think we should be in the business of prescribing to people how they should run their diets,” she said.

She refused to say if she would cut down her meat consumption as an example. 

“I think you’re describing the worst sort of nanny state ever,” she said. “Who would I be to sit there advising people in the country coming home after a hard day of work to not have steak and chips?… Please…”

There has been a steady move towards meat-free options in the British diet, though, according to market researchers, with producers of vegetarian and vegan products reporting a rise in sales over the last few years.

It has been enough to concern farmers, especially in parts of the country more suitable for livestock than crops. Lanarkshire farmer Carol-Anne Warnock told Holyrood: “The biggest problem is we have a population that doesn’t appreciate, or have an understanding, of how their food is developed. 

“They’ve got different tastes developing. They are less reliant on the food you’ve always produced. That’s why people are starting to look at different avenues.”

She added: “There are areas of this country that are incapable of growing the crops people like to eat so they have to be used for rearing livestock for meat. It’s whether people are comfortable with the concept going forward. We’ve certainly seen in the press in the last wee while that the vegan movement has been picking up all over the place.”

The meat industry will be similarly concerned with the prospect of meat grown in a laboratory.

Just, Inc., one of the start-ups which has developed cell-grown meat, predicts the product is becoming so cost effective it will reach restaurants within a year. It has moved fast. In 2013 a lab-grown burger cost $330,000 to produce.

There will be pushback from the meat and dairy industries, and undoubtedly questions on whether mass production of meat in a lab might actually consume more power than rearing livestock, which is a way of life for so many people.

Furthermore, if people follow Warnock’s advice and take more of an interest in where their food comes from, will there really be an appetite for meat that never had a face? 

Given the IPCC’s warning, the choice may have to be between that or cutting down on steak and chips for good.  

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