Soggy Pork…and Other Climate Change Choices

December 8, 2009
  • Marshall Chase

    Former Associate Director, BSR

The world faces some interesting choices in the next few years. As illustrated by the ongoing Copenhagen negotiations, we have to decide whether and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a wide range of sectors, from energy generation to transportation and beyond.

The livestock industry faces particular uncertainty in this environment. According to various studies, livestock accounts for somewhere between 18 percent and 51 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity—primarily from cows burping methane. Meat production is expected to double by 2050, at the same time that the world attempts to drastically reduce overall GHG emissions. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress recently prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating livestock GHG emissions.

Despite the Congressional ban (only a short-term measure in a country where livestock accounts for less than 5 percent of national GHG emissions), it is clear that any successful, long-term global solution to climate change will have to include livestock. The solutions break down into two broad areas, familiar to many who focus on human impacts on the environment: We can either change technology, or change culture. In other words, we can produce animal products vastly more efficiently, or eat a lot less of them (or do both).

Fans of a technological solution may tout a new option in the next few years. Scientists in the Netherlands have created “artificial” pork, grown from the extracted stem cells of a living pig, and such a product could be on the market within five years. Research suggests that cultured meat would reduce GHG emissions by about 90 percent, making it a viable alternative to “real” meat that can successfully reduce livestock GHG emissions while fulfilling the world’s growing demand for animal products.

If people are willing to eat it, that is.

Eating “artificial” meat might require a cultural shift as significant as a move toward eating less animal protein, particularly if the products don’t precisely resemble your favorite cut of meat (the pork produced in the Netherlands, for example, has been described as “soggy”). On the other hand, in societies where consumers may never have seen a butcher, let alone a farm, perhaps “artificial” meat will be introduced with very little fanfare and squeamishness.

This is just one example of a core question in our efforts to address climate change: What types of changes are we willing and able to make, before change happens to us? In 2050, will we be eating less meat? Will we eat meat grown in a laboratory? Or will we be trying to eat the same stuff, in a world where climate change drives massive physical and economic dislocations in many sectors—including agriculture?

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