The Quartz editors left out what I think is one of the most important points made in the chapter about relative inefficiencies of meat eating. So, for sake of completeness, here's the segment they left out (long time readers will recognize that I've touch one this theme in previous blog posts).
More broadly, this line of argument – that meat production (inside the lab or out) is “wasteful” because it requires feed inputs that humans might use – is misplaced. To see this, it is useful to consider a thought experiment – an imaginary story that might help us get to the bottom of things.
Imagine a biologist on an excursion to the Amazon looking for new plant species. She comes across a new grass she’s never before seen, and brings it back home to her lab. She finds that the grass grows exceedingly well in greenhouses with the right fertilizer and soil, and she immediately moves to field trials. She also notices that the grass produces a seed that is durable, storable, and extraordinarily calorie dense. The scientist immediately recognizes the potential for the newly discovered plant to meet the dietary demands of a growing world population.
But, there is a problem. Lab analysis reveals that the seeds are, alas, toxic to humans. Despite the set-back, the scientist doesn’t give up. She toils away year after year until she creates a machine that can convert the seeds into a food that is not only safe for humans to consume but that is incredibly delicious to eat. There are a few downsides. For every five calories that go into the machine, only one comes out. Plus, the machine uses water, runs on electricity, burns fossil fuels, and creates carbon emissions.
Should the scientist be condemned for her work? Or, hailed as an ingenious hero for finding a plant that can inexpensively produce calories, and then creating a machine that can turn those calories into something people really want to eat? Maybe another way to think about it is to ask whether the scientist’s new food can - despite its inefficiencies (which will make the price higher than it otherwise would be) - compete against other foods in the marketplace? Are consumers willing to pay the higher price for this new food?
Now, let’s call the new grass corn and the new machine cow.
This thought experiment is useful in thinking about the argument that corn is “wasted” in the process of feeding animals (or growing lab grown meat). Yet, the idea that animal food is “wasted” is a common view. For example, one set of authors in the journal Science wrote,
“Although crops used for animal feed ultimately produce human food in the form of meat and dairy products, they do so with a substantial loss of caloric efficiency. If current crop production used for animal feed and other nonfood uses (including biofuels) were targeted for direct consumption, ~70% more calories would become available, potentially providing enough calories to meet the basic needs of an additional 4 billion people. The human-edible crop calories that do not end up in the food system are referred to as the ‘diet gap.’”
The argument isn’t as convincing as it might first appear. Few people really want to eat the calories that directly come from corn or other common animal feeds like soybeans. Unlike my hypothetical example, corn is not toxic to humans (although some of the grasses cows eat really are inedible to humans), but most people don’t want to field corn.
So if we don’t want to directly eat the stuff, why do we grow so much corn and soy? They are incredibly efficient producers of calories and protein. Stated differently, these crops (or grasses if you will) allow us to produce an inexpensive, bountiful supply of calories in a form that is storable and easily transported.
The assumption seems to either be that the “diet gap” will be solved by convincing people to eat the calories in corn and soy directly, or that there are other tasty crops that can be widely grown instead of corn and soy which can produce calories as efficiently as corn and soy. Aside from maybe rice or wheat (which also require some processing to become edible), the second assumption is almost certainly false. Looking at current consumption patterns, we should also be skeptical that large swaths of people will want to voluntarily consume substantial calories directly from corn or soy.
What we typically do is take our relatively un-tasty corn and soy, and plug them into our machine (the cow or pig or chicken, or in Post’s case the Petri dish) to get a form of food we want to eat. Yes, it seems inefficient on the surface of it, but the key is to realize that the original calories from corn and soy were not in a form most humans find desirable. As far as the human pallet is concerned, not all calories are created equal; we care a great deal about the form in which the calories are delivered to us.
The grass-machine analogy also helps make clear that it is probably a mistake to compare the calorie and carbon footprint of corn directly with the cow. Only a small fraction of the world’s caloric consumption comes from directly consuming the raw corn or soybean seeds. It takes energy to convert these seeds into an edible form – either through food processing or through animal feeding. So, what we want to compare is beef with other processed foods. Otherwise we’re comparing apples and oranges (or in this case, corn and beef).
The more relevant question in this case is whether lab grown meat uses more or less corn, and creates more or less environmental problems, than does animal grown meat.