Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Test-tube burgers leave a funny taste in my mouth

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I confess. I have a beef with fabricated beef -- the stem-cell hamburger manufactured in a laboratory that tasted "almost" like the real thing and cost as much as a Rolls-Royce.

It is animal protein all right, fried in butter no less, not one of those concoctions of soy, brown rice, black beans or quinoa the vegetarians turn to for their burger fix. My daughter and I quite innocently found ourselves in a Winnipeg restaurant specializing in those creations lately. Vegetarians we are not, but our meal was really quite tasty.

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As a matter of fact, I felt pretty good afterwards, instead of feeling like I'd swallowed a bowling ball. I enjoy a good beef burger as much as the next carnivore. But portion sizes in the fast-food business are way out of whack with my aging constitution. Go figure.

What I don't understand is why the cooks felt they needed to make strips made from some non-meat ingredients look like bacon, soy slices look like cheese or the chickpea patties look like meat. It didn't fool us. What was wrong with portraying it as -- I don't know -- gourmet chickpeas with a side of salty bits and soy?

Also interesting was that it cost about twice as much as one of those "value meal" burgers we could have bought down the street, when chickpeas, even mashed ones with spices, cost a lot less to grow, transport and process than beef.

That brings me back to the saving-the-planet hullabaloo the $330,000 burger produced from stem cells harvested from a cow's shoulder is getting. The pundits are positively salivating about this technology's potential to reduce agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions and feed a world that is evermore hungry for meat.

Several have cited a 2011 University of Oxford study that said cultured meat could potentially be produced with up to 96 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45 per cent less energy, 99 per cent lower land use and 96 per cent lower water use than conventional meat.

With as much as 70 per cent of current agricultural capacity going into producing meat through livestock, that land could be converted back to forest and prairie or switched over to grain production for human consumption, the well-known scribe Gwynne Dyer writes in a recent column.

Now find me one example where land currently in agricultural production, which is largely a function of private enterprise, was voluntarily turned back to the coyotes when there was still a buck to be made by farming it. That's not human nature. It's more likely to mean more grain for ethanol to feed those gas-guzzling SUVs.

There are vast swathes of land across the Canadian Prairies that are only suited for forage production. We've tried before to turn land meant for grazing into annual crop production. It didn't go well. And if it isn't cattle consuming those forages, it would be some other gassy ruminant. That's how nature works.

Those grasses transform the sun's energy into protein. Grazing livestock serves a valuable purpose of converting that protein into something humans can digest while recycling much-needed nutrients. It should be valued as such.

We run into trouble with energy efficiency, greenhouse gasses, animal welfare, nutrition and food safety when we put four-legged energy converters into feedlots and start feeding them grain that's been grown somewhere else -- and then haul the manure out and pile it someplace where it contaminates instead of nourishes.

And we do all that so we can make burgers cheap.

My point is, I think we're cosying up to the wrong premise when it comes to saving the planet with fabricated burgers, even if they get the taste up and the cost down. This approach only perpetuates the notion that everyone in the whole wide world should be eating burgers like we do, even though medical professionals say we'd all be healthier if we treated them as a luxury instead of a mainstay. Or that technology will somehow spare us the tough choices that lie ahead as population growth, increasing wealth and our insatiable consumerism overwhelms the Earth's limited resources. Dream on.

The only thing that will save the planet is changing human attitudes and actions.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 B6

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