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Food and warming? A lot of meat in it...

Last updated: 01 August, 2011
Kamala Balachandran

Agriculture and food consumption directly impact the environment and have immediate bearing on climate change, soil erosion, loss of habitat, global warming and greenhouse effect.

But shockingly, more than half of the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people! To produce a kilogram of beef, farmers (in the developed countries) have to feed a cow 15 kg of grain and 30 kg of forage. Grain requires fertiliser, which is energy intensive to produce. Furthermore, ruminants, particularly cows, emit methane, which is 23 times more effective as a global warming agent than carbon dioxide.

That a kilo of meat costs more than a kilo of grain or potato is true, not just from the view point of the consumer, but also from the stand point of the environment.

The impact on environment from agriculture and food consumption is expected to substantially increase with population growth and increased consumption of animal products. If the trend continues, environmental scientists warn that trillions of dollars will have to be spent in trying to keep the carbon levels stable at safe levels.

A cheaper alternative is in getting the global population to shift to a low-meat diet and thereby reduce livestock population. This would not only free up considerable farm land, the vegetation growing on this land would additionally mop up carbon dioxide. The government of Netherlands has taken a step forward in this direction. It is funding projects that are looking to provide alternatives to meat.

Entomologists at the Wageningen University in the central Netherlands are conducting ground-breaking research into insects replacing animal meat as a healthier, more environmentally friendly source of protein.

Insects are high in protein, vitamin B and minerals like iron and zinc, and they’re low in fat. They are abundant too. Of all the known animal species, 80 per cent are insects from which over 1,000 have been identified as edible species.

Raising insects for food would avoid many of the problems associated with livestock. Because insects are so different from us, there is very low risk of humans sharing diseases with them. Insects are also cold-blooded, so they don’t need as much food as the bigger animals. Insects produce less waste, too. By contrast with  farm animals, only 20 per cent of a cricket is inedible waste.  Raising insects requires relatively little water.

Insects also produce far less ammonia and other greenhouse gases per pound of body weight. Raising insects is more humane as well. Housing cattle, swine or chicken in high densities causes stress to the animals, but insects like mealworms and locusts naturally like to live in dense quarters. The insects can be crowded into vertical stacked trays or cages.

How does it compare in taste? Student volunteers who have tasted the prepared insects, describe it as "nutty."

The first insect fare is likely to be mixed into prepared foods to boost their nutritional value. And dry-roasted insects used as a replacement for nuts in baked goods like cookies and breads.

Scientists at Maastricht University, Netherlands are working on the problem from a different angle. They have come up with a technique to produce test-tube hamburgers.

The Dutch government has also invested heavily in the test tube hamburger project. In vitro meat, or cultured meat, is an animal flesh product that has never been part of a complete, living animal.

The process of developing in vitro meat involves taking live, muscle cells and applying a protein that helps the cells to grow into large portions of meat. Research projects have succeeded in growing in vitro meat experimentally but no meat has yet been produced for public consumption.

If the efforts are a success, in the long run, there would be a reduction in animal farming.


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