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Question Your World: Can We More Efficiently Feed The Planet?

Science and technology have been leading the way for massive changes throughout human history. We are healthier and more connected to each other than ever thanks to the many individuals working in the science industries. So, how about our meals? Can we more efficiently feed the planet? Can lab-grown food become a standard in our lives? Listen to this week’s Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

On Aug 5, 2013 a restaurant in London showed off a new menu item, the test-tube burger. Yes, a burger that was created in a lab. Throughout human history meat has been a vital player in our evolution. Our early ancestors formed important bonds with one another and created rituals surrounding the consumption of meat. This diet would allow for the human species to develop strength and gain the physical energy needed to become the most dominant species on the planet. That was a long time ago. A lot’s changed since then. We no longer live in caves and natural shelters; thanks to innovative thinking we build houses. We no longer have to run as our means of transportation, thanks to technology we can transport ourselves better than ever. We no longer spend our lives devoted to being hunter-gatherers, thanks to science we have a world filled with interesting occupations.

So, how does this standard hold up for our meals? Some day will we be able to say we no longer need to go hungry as a species because we can grow our own food in a lab? Well, those days may not be upon us just yet, but there are a lot of individuals working to more efficiently feed our planet. This test-tube burger is one example of how scientists are working towards that goal.

Modern agriculture may be in for an overhaul if humanity embraces this lab-grown meat. Currently the process of creating meat has not only an ethical impact, but an environmental one as well. For example, about 18% of our greenhouse gas emissions released into our atmosphere come from the manufacturing and production of meat. This process is also a strain on resources considering that 1500 to 2500 gallons of water are needed to create one pound of meat. Farms and factories dedicated to meat production also consume a lot of physical space, a lot of good use-able land. Our planet’s growing population is going to demand more and more food and the way things are going do not seem to be sustainable. So, Dutch scientists have created an interesting alternative to the current model. By using adult bovine stem cells scientists have been able to create thin strands of muscle tissues that, after proper construction, turns into a 5oz beef patty. This process has taken decades of work and is ready for a public test. 

This Franken-burger essentially makes a giant reduction in the environmental impact of food production. The process of creating lab-grown versus farm-grown food saves about 55% on the energy bill, releases only about 4% of the greenhouses gases, and conserves nearly 99% of the land used for modern-meat growing. This process would make a huge difference and could make a large impact around the world. The savings from this could go to easily and efficiently feeding the masses healthier foods more often. Every major breakthrough will produce questions too right? So, one big question with regards to this test-tube burger is what happens when we can more easily feed an already over-populated planet? There are still a lot of variables to factor in, but one thing’s for sure science and technology are moving on as always and in this instance not only are they on the move, they’re taking to-go meals with them!

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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