Worldwide, diets typically revolve around the largest available protein source. Historically, animals have been the main source of protein and the only methods of obtaining protein in this way are by hunting or by husbandry. The most sustainable of these two for a growing population is of course husbandry. Various animals are reared for slaughter worldwide, and these may differ drastically depending on the culture; for example, horses and dogs are traditionally eaten in some cultures. As the world population continues to grow, so too does the burden of providing enough protein rich food sources. Not all countries are equipped to undertake largescale farming of cattle such as is seen here in the United States. Nonetheless, cattle farming comes with costs, the most concerning of these are environmental. Depending on the direction of your moral compass, largescale cattle populations raised for slaughter may raise ethical concerns as well. The rising demands of the growing world population has increased the head of cattle worldwide. Increasing cattle populations has led to such negative events as rampant deforestation. Forests must be cleared for grazing land, or for an expansion of existing grazing. In fact, the massive fires occurring in the Amazon region have been attributed to the burning of sections of the rainforest to provide more land to cattle farmers in Brazil. Beef, in particular, is a profitable industry for some countries, such as the U.S. and Brazil. Politically, some governments are ignorant of the repercussions and push for large scale destruction of ecosystems in pursuit of this economic resource. Many habitats are destroyed or fragmented for this reason. Not to mention, cattle can contribute to the decline of water health by means of their waste entering waterways. The problems posed by largescale agriculture of this kind are in some cases unavoidable. Additionally, poorer countries do not have the resources to prevent or alleviate the negative consequences. From this perspective, meat protein is not a sustainable food source. Overfishing is another consequence of the need for protein rich food sources. Global fish populations are in decline and the current rate of fish harvest cannot be sustained (Jackson et al., 2001). Nutritional requirements of rising global population have a cascade of effects that will need to be dealt with in the next couple generations at most. Given this information, we have a responsibility to explore alternative, sustainable options of obtaining alternatives to meat and weighing their costs and benefits.
As previously stated, relying on meat as a protein source is costly. Grazing land is required as well as large amounts of feed. Farmers in poorer countries may have trouble acquiring the necessary resources, farming enough meat to sustain a population, and selling enough meat to sustain themselves. Deforestation of woodlands to produce grazing land is also terribly damaging to the environment. Insects are already a common delicacy in various countries around the world, despite the Western world’s aversion to them. Insects are known to be nutritious and about 1,900 species are eaten worldwide (Van Huis, 2013). They are quick to reproduce, require less resources, and have a great potential to leave less of an impact on the environment if managed properly. In fact, the protein content found in insects rivals or exceeds that found in animals (Elhassan et al., 2019). Mealworms have been shown to possess on average 51% protein by dry weight (Elhassan et al., 2019). In addition to being high in protein, they have been shown to be high in lipids as well (Elhassan et al., 2019; DeFoliart, 1999). Insects are also efficient converters of biomass, unlike livestock (Ernstoff et al., 2019; Van Huis, 2013). Insects also do not share the potential of releasing large amounts of enteric gas into the atmosphere. One paper reports that “livestock production accounts for 19 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 9 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions” (Penn, 2018). The author continues by adding that livestock production “requires up to 30 percent of all land surface area on earth, 33 percent of all arable land, and 70 percent of agricultural land”. Some estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions exceed this estimate and
Figure demonstrating nutritional content of mealworms vs common protein sources (Elhassan et al., 2019)
Insects as a food source are frowned upon by western countries but these facts demonstrate why cultures have relied on these organisms as valuable sources of protein, likely since primitive times. In some areas where insects are perceived as a delicacy, biodiversity has been observed to be greater (DeFoliart, 1997). This is apparently due in part to the absence or lack of reliance on pesticides, which are known to be harmful to environments in a variety of ways and of course harmful to the insects to be eaten (DeFoliart, 1997; Geiger et al., 2010). Organic farming paired with consumption of insects that are pests to crops has proven an efficient harvest method in poor, rural areas of some countries (DeFoliart, 1997). Although, this is just an example of how harvesting of insects contrasts with typical farming of cattle. Cattle farming is generally seen as harmful, since much of the large-scale farming required results in alteration and/or destruction of habitat. This is not to say that cattle farming is wrong, but rather that it is unsustainable for exceedingly large populations. The larger a population becomes, the more head of cattle will be required, and subsequently the more habitat destruction will occur. This type of growth cannot continue indefinitely.
According to research, a pound of hamburger comes with a resource cost of 26.8 pounds of feed, 232 square meters of farmland, 4,144 BTUs of energy (Penn, 2018). Consumers in the United States are reported to eat approximately fifty-two billion pounds of meat per year; 270 pounds per person on average (Penn, 2018). A promising development in science that can drastically alleviate the resource load of typical livestock production is the recent breakthrough into the field of lab cultured meat or more broadly, cellular agriculture. This type of lab growth of biological products is not new. In fact, a similar process exists for producing such human byproducts as human growth hormone (HGH), and insulin. Culturing meat in a lab starts with a single cell of muscle tissue that is replicated under controlled conditions to generate layers of muscle tissue that are then ground up to produce ground beef (Penn, 2018). Stem cells are extracted from muscle tissue and left to grow on their own in a petri dish (Penn, 2018). A myotube of muscle cells is produced and placed around a cylinder of gelatin along with other myotubes (Penn, 2018). The ring of muscle cells attaches to the gelatin and contracts and expands itself, effectively exercising and causing growth of muscle tissue (Penn, 2018). The cells grow into a thin layer of tissue, one-half of a millimeter in height (Penn, 2018). As many as twenty thousand layers of tissue are combined and ground into hamburger (Penn, 2018). This process is less demanding on the environment and subsequently requires fewer resources. In the lab, the production of one pound of meat requires less than a single square foot of land, 43.6 gallons of water, consumes up to 45 percent less energy, and does not require feeding. From a consumer perspective, it is necessary for the product to be comparable to traditional meat. Fortunately, studies have demonstrated a large degree of similarity between lab cultured and traditional hamburger (Penn, 2018). It is speculated that the “lighter” taste of the lab cultured meat may be due to lack of fat and iron from blood flow. As this process becomes easier to manage at larger scales, the lack in environmental costs seem to undeniably outweigh any aversion due to slight differences in taste. Additionally, this technology is not restricted to beef. Muscle tissue layers may be grown from other organisms like pigs and fish (Jones, 2010).
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Many strides forward have been made in this field in the last decade. Previously, the muscle tissue was grown on a kind of scaffold; however, the resulting meat was “weak and textureless” (Jones, 2010). The lab-grown muscle tissue, requires growth or “exercise” just like natural muscle tissue. Other problems are still faced in this field; the kinks haven’t quite been worked out yet. However, about a decade ago it still hadn’t been worked out how to grow cuts of steak in the lab. Today, we know this has been done more than once but it is costly. Growing steak in the lab required the creation of “fake blood vessels” to run through the meat (Jones, 2010). This is because as the thickness of the grown muscle tissue layer increases, the innermost cells become starved of oxygen and nutrients, ultimately leading to their death (Jones, 2010). These recent breakthroughs give a glimmer of hope in regard to the rapid advancement of this technology.
Agriculture as a whole is said to result in 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (Smetana et al., 2015). A depressing fact to complement the data listed throughout this review is the predicted increase in agriculture by 70% before the year 2050 (Smetana et al., 2015). Given the rampant degradation of the environment on multiple fronts, the coming generation will likely be left with no choice but to act on these issues. Perhaps all they can achieve will be too little too late. The problem of altering where we obtain our food, namely our protein, has the potential to alleviate consequences of multiple issues. By adopting one or more new methods of generating protein rich food, we can affect the availability of food for a population, the sustainability of the food source, and reduce environmental destruction. It is worth noting that multiple other methods are possible for the future, but not discussed here. These two alternatives are some of the most promising, in my opinion. The harvest of meat may continue but as a whole it is unsustainable on large scales. Wealthy, first-world countries such as the United States have to accept these facts and lead the way into future developments and implementation. It has been estimated that meat-less meals result in more than a 40% reduction in negative environmental effects (Ernstoff et al., 2019).
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