In London, back in 2013, the world’s first stem cell burger was tasted by its inventor and two volunteers in front of more than 200 journalists and guests. This burger was made from ‘cultured beef,’ which is grown in Petrie dishes using the stem cells of a cow. It was grown in three months and took a budget of $330,000. Lab-grown beef might seem like a pretty creepy, science fiction, futuristic-like project, but Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University didn’t make his burger just for fun. He also didn’t do it to give the world’s vegans and vegetarians another option.
Dr. Post was thinking about our inevitable future as a species. His cultured beef burger is meant to serve as a logical solution to the world’s addiction to factory-grown meat, which is about to reach its peak. The way we produce meat globally is unsustainable and posing a serious risk to our water, our air, our health and the possibility that humans will continue to remain a living species on this planet in the near future.
Humans slaughter 3 billion animals worldwide for meat. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations expects global meat consumption to rise by about 73% by 2050 to accommodate the 9.1 billion people who will be attempting to live on planet Earth at that point. However, the chances that humans will even be a thing in 2050 are looking pretty grim, and a big reason for that is our large-scale factory farming industry.
Agricultural pollution is the largest source of water pollution in the world. Animals who are raised for food, in a confined space, consume more feed, and therefore, create more waste. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, confined livestock generate 450 million tons of manure each year — that’s three times the amount of waste that American humans generate.
Because everything is covered in raw shit at a factory farm, more water is required to wash it away. One hundred and fifty gallons of water, in fact. Per cow. Per freaking day. That’s a serious amount of clean water, especially when you consider that one cow is being slaughtered every 30 seconds at many of these operations. And it usually takes them 6 months to reach a typical ‘market weight’ of 1,200 pounds. So that’s about 13,500 gallons of water per the life of an average doomed cow — and that’s just to clean the place.
Vice journalist Isobel Yeong went to a factory pig farm in Duplin County, North Carolina last Feb. to shoot Vice’s episode on the world’s addiction to meat. There, she interviewed Larry Baldwin from the Waterkeeper Alliance standing next to an open-air lagoon that’s meant to serve as a container for the gallons and gallons of liquified pig waste these operations are dumping daily. Baldwin told Yeong that the public would be outraged if human waste was handled in the same way — being dumped in mass quantities into a stagnant pond right next to creeks and streams.
And then he asked, “What’s the difference?”
When I heard that, I wanted to open my window and scream because, seriously, what is the difference? What’s the difference between pig shit and human shit when you’re dumping it into our world’s precious water supply? The thinking is that it will just be absorbed into the ground, but if you know anything about the very simple way water conducts itself, you’d know that’s extremely wishful thinking.
Yeong was taken up into a helicopter so she could see hundreds of these brown, sludge lagoons in just that one area, many of them dangerously close to a nearby creek which runs into the Cape Fear River Basin — North Carolina’s largest watershed and one that 1.5 million people drink from. Thousands of North Carolina creeks, stream beds, and the Cape Fear River Basin itself have been found to be contaminated with raw feces and toxic chemicals — most recently high levels of 1-4 dioxane, which has been proven to cause cancer even at low levels of ingestion.
North Carolina is not the only example of a place that is getting thoroughly screwed by factory meat production. These kinds of practices — keeping livestock in confined spaces, using massive quantities of water to keep them alive, and dumping their antibiotic-ridden waste onto the land or into the water supply — have become just the way we do things. In Brazil, in the Great Plains, in New Mexico, Kansas, in Texas, in Missouri…
So how do we turn back? How do we get off this one-way ticket to human extinction bus that we’ve been chartering since the Industrial Revolution?
Maybe now, Dr. Post’s stem cell burger doesn’t sound like such a trippy concept. The good news is that three years after that $330,000 burger was sampled for the first time, it now costs less than $10 to make and is currently being served at one restaurant in New York City as the ‘Impossible Burger.’ Within 10 years, we should be able to buy it in the grocery store for a reasonable price. If the public embraces the concept of laboratory-grown meat in the same way that we embrace McDonald’s Dollar Menu, we can expect to cut the amount of land and water used to support these factory farms by 90 percent.
But in the meantime, is it too much to ask, for the sake of the human species, to just not eat factory-farmed meat? You don’t necessarily need to become a vegetarian or a vegan, you just need to consider your buying power. At this point, there are organic farms and farmer’s markets all across the country, and most of them accept food stamps. Buy your meat weekly from a local farmer, or pay for a larger share of small-scale, responsibly-grazed meat that will last you through an entire season. Go in on an entire local cow or pig with your family or your roommates. If you go out to dinner and no one is able to tell you exactly where their meat came from, don’t freaking order it — you’ll be healthier as a result. And maybe tell the restaurant owner why. HBO’s Portlandia made a huge joke about this in its very first episode 5 years ago — but nowadays, the concept behind that sketch doesn’t sound all that funny, does it?