Professor Patrick Brown could easily be taken for a deranged visionary. He is intense, driven and unfazed by critics and rivals. This 57-year-old ultra-lean, sandal-wearing, marathon-running vegan wants to stop the world eating meat. Not through persuasion or coercion, but by offering us carnivores something better for the same price or less. […]
Brown, a specialist in the genetics of cancer, is a tenured Stanford University molecular biologist, a member of the National Academy and the founder of a non-profit academic publisher. For two years, he has been working on creating synthesised meat and dairy products. “I have zero interest in making a new food just for vegans,” Brown says. “I am making a food for people who are comfortable eating meat and who want to continue eating meat. I want to reduce the human footprint on this planet by 50%.”
What Brown is talking about is a revolution that will remake our relationship with our planet, and with our fellow animals.
Eating meat is bad for the environment, of that there is no doubt. And the moral arguments against killing animals are compelling. Humans currently slaughter about 1,600 mammals and birds every second for food – that is half a trillion lives a year, plus trillions more fish, crustaceans and molluscs. The total biomass of all the world’s livestock is almost exactly twice that of humanity itself. And while crops that feed people cover just 4% of the Earth’s usable surface (land that is not covered by ice or water, or is bare rock), animal pastureland accounts for a full 30%. Our meat, in other words, weighs twice as much as we do and takes seven times as much land to grow.
And we are going to have to feed a lot more people in the coming decades. The world’s population stands at a little over 7bn; by 2060 this will have risen to perhaps 9.5bn, and that is a fairly optimistic scenario. Not only are there more and more of us, but we are eating more and more meat. Demand for it is expected to double by 2050. The market in chicken, pig, cattle and sheep flesh is worth about $1trn a year. By mid-century this will more than double, perhaps triple at today’s prices, as the cost of land rises.
This is bad news for the Earth. Meat production accounts for about 5% of global CO2 emissions, 40% of methane emissions and 40% of various nitrogen oxides. If meat production doubles, by the late 2040s cows, pigs, sheep and chickens will be responsible for about half as much climate change impact as all the world’s cars, trucks and aircraft.
But it is animal suffering that usually turns people vegetarian. Meat farming is, say its critics, an obsolete technology that produces a nutrient-dense food in just about the most inefficient (and cruel) way imaginable. The problem – the big problem – is that, when given a choice, most of us like to eat meat regardless. It may be inefficient, dirty and cruel, but there is no denying that cooked animal flesh tastes good.