Did you know that Winston Churchill predicted the emergence of the current wave of syntho-foods that the alt-meat industry, its investors and its activist cheerleaders are touting as our menu of the future?
Back in 1931, according to a report on the Motherboard.com website, the then-Member of Parliament predicted that within 50 years, people would be eating synthetically produced chicken.
“New strains of microbes will be developed and made to do a great deal of our chemistry for us. With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, it will be possible to control growth,” Churchill wrote in The Strand magazine (the British publication that famously serialized “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” at the turn of the 20th century).
“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”
By 1981, his vision was nowhere near fruition, but you have to give England’s wartime prime minister credit for a visionary prediction.
Of course, many people throughout the mid-century predicted a whole slew of futuristic notions soon to take place: That people would be colonizing other planets, that artificial intelligence would allow robots to replace the human workforce, and most notably, that we’d all be cruising around in flying cars by the dawn of the 21st century.
There was even a show-business personality named Jean Dixon, who managed to get her far-fetched series of annual predictions published by dozens of newspapers in late December every year, despite the fact that among her many (rarely verified) “prophecies,” she predicted that former Pope Benedict would be assassinated, that a comet would hit the Earth, killing billions of people, and that someone born in the Middle East in 1962, a descendant of the Egyptian pharaohs, would start a new sect of Christianity that would unite all the people of the world by the year 2012.
She threw that last one j-u-u-u-st a little outside the strike zone, as most self-proclaimed seers regularly do.
The Energy Equation
So, what about alt-meat R&D? Churchill’s predictive timeline aside, the fact that the investor class is pouring money into the development of synthetic meat-like analogs ensures that prototypes will soon be widely available, if not all that affordable.
But arguing over whether economies of scale will eventually make test-tube beef, pork and chicken competitive with genuine products obscures the larger question.
Leaving aside the anti-meat activists’ arguments over “cruelty,” that animals are so much better off in the wild, versus domestication — absurd on its face — or that the global economy would be enhanced if the multi-millions of people who earn a living raising livestock and processing animal foods were out to pasture, the most significant traction that activists get while promoting the demise of livestock production is publicizing the carbon footprint of animal agriculture.
Activists have seized on the notion that raising and harvesting food animals uses up too much energy and emits too many greenhouse gas emissions to remain viable. The implication is that not only would it be a nice idea to switch to test-tube shamburgers as a way to make the animal kingdom all warm and fuzzy, it’s mandatory if we wish to maintain Planet Earth as a viable place to live.
Here’s what’s fundamentally wrong with that argument.
Where does the energy come from in agriculture? To put it more simply, what makes plants grow?
The sun, right?
According to scientific calculations done at the University of Oregon, on average, the sun delivers 164 watts of power per square meter of surface area every day. Obviously, there is significantly more solar energy in tropical areas or in deserts (where clouds rarely restrict the sunshine), than in northern latitudes or in regions where the sun rarely shines (hi there, fellow residents of the Pacific Northwest), but 164 watts a day is a conservative, accurate estimate.
That means the Earth receives about 84 terrawatts of solar energy every day, which leads to the operative question: How much energy is currently consumed worldwide on a daily basis?
Answer: 12 terrawatts.
In other words, the sun puts out about seven times the amount of energy that is consumed in all of civilization. Understandably, there’s no way to efficiently capture more than a fraction of those 84 terrawatts. The point isn’t that solar power alone can solve all our energy needs, but that the amount of radiant energy generated by the sun and captured in the green foliage of the world’s flora is absolutely enormous.
And here’s the flaw in the fake meat mantra: Instead of capitalizing on the massive amounts of solar energy that produces the forage and feed crops that sustain the world’s livestock, we’re expected to believe that the billions of tons of substrate required, and the zillions of watts of energy needed to grow the synthetic chicken wings and breasts Churchill envisioned, could be secured more cheaply, more efficiently and with less accompanying pollution and CO2 equivalent emissions than how they’re currently delivered by the sun.
I’ll make a prediction, and it’s one that doesn’t involve some Pharaoh: No way, no how, will “natural” agriculture be replaced by laboratory-produced foods.
Fifty years from now, you can look it up and realize I was right. □
The opinions expressed in this commentary are exclusively those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.