Back to the Future

If you are like me – a child of the 70ies – you most likely remember the ‘Back to the Future’-trilogy with Michael J. Fox.  In fact, Part I (now a classic!) was the very first movie I watched at the movie theater, back when there were those cushy, deep old chairs; reel changes after the commercials; high ceilings; and heavy, dark-red curtains.  Awww, the good ol’ days – much has changed since – and sometimes I long to the movie-going experience from back then.

I was reminded about this over the recent cartoon ad from Chipotle titled “Back to the start”.  In short, a farmer’s couple confines their livestock and turns them into junkies.  The farmer regrets that, breaks down the confinements, and provides free-range for their livestock.  In the last segment, the farmer hands his goods (now natural again) to Chipotle.  The ad is supported by Willie Nelson’s version of Coldplay’s ‘The scientist’ – and includes the line “I’m going back to the start”.  Much has been written and said about the misleading implications of that ad (See here and here).  But, the ad is clever – it speaks directly to our sentiment for the good ol’ days and to our fears about the future.

The reality is that regardless of all the sentiments, we’ll never be able to go back to the start, wherever the start was.  I will never be able to go back and relive the experience of watching my first-ever movie.  And even if I tried, I will almost certainly end up rather disappointed.  I want to be blunt: There is no going back, not to 1955 and not to farming methods from decades ago.  We are at a certain point in time – the now – and there is only one way from here on: into the future.  We cannot make the recent past undone.  We may have the opportunity to visit an old-style movie theater and relive the past for a couple of hours. But once we leave the theater, we are back in the now, which we cannot escape long-term.  Similarly, we can e.g., buy products from a free-range farm or become a member of a communal farm.  In either case, we are still surrounded by the now.  We can slide back into the past, but only for a short while.  Even if we decided to revive certain things from the past, it will still be in the future – never back to the start.

Every generation has had its own fear about the future.  The 1955-version of Dr. Emmett Brown states that “in 1985 plutonium is available in every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it’s a little hard to come by” and (about the fact that his 1985 version is wearing a radiation suit) “Radiation suit? Of course, because of all the fallout from the atomic wars”.  These lines resembled the fears back in the 50ies of an atomic showdown.  Today’s generation seems to fear Armageddon from e.g., Frankenstein food.  It is rather natural to fear the unknown.  And I agree that much of today’s livestock production procedures are largely unknown (or not easily comprehensible) for many people.  In contrast, the majority of us understands the simplicity of growing fruits and vegetables in a garden, and animals in a pastoral setting.  If we fear today’s animal production methods, we can either try to discredit them; or – as I would suggest – attempt to understand why farmers are relying on those methods.  Seeking direct interaction with farmers may be helpful in that regard.  We may learn that our fears are unnecessary in some instances, while other practices may be improved, changed, or abandoned in other instances.

Dűrrenmatt wrote 50 years ago: “Those things which were thought can never be unthought.”  In other terms, we’ll have to live with the current technologies from now on until the end of time.  We can approach it two-ways: passively fear them, or actively try to manage and best utilize them.  My deep conviction is that we should not discuss how do raise all livestock free everything: range, of antibiotics or hormones, alternative feeds, etc; but instead seek ways of how to best implement, manage, monitor, and not overuse these technologies.  We have to live in the now and plan for the future.  The direction is back to the future, not back to the start.  Remember, as Dr. Brown said in Back to the Future:If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

The hidden side of test-tube meat

Artificially-grown meat has been a frequent topic on our facebook page.  Today, Common Sense Agriculture published a new blog, clearing up the pros of meat produced artificially in a laboratory.  Excellent discussion there, I won’t go into further detail here.  BUT, I like to add two points which will impact the overall sustainability of these ‘test-tube’ meats tremendously.  Its production requires resources, too! In order for those cells and tissues to grow, one needs to supply 1) nutrients and 2) maintain a constant temperature.

1) These nutrients have to be in a simple form; one that is ready to be absorbed and utilized by the cells. Cells cannot convert fibers (forages/grasses), complex proteins from byproducts, or energy from grains or oilseeds into cell-usable nutrients/energy.  Animals (and humans) have these processes (digestion/metabolism of feeds) naturally.  For test-tube meats, these nutrients would have to be manufactured from ‘something’ prior to feeding  the cells.  Thus, this system would require some type of feed stock as input.  And likely, this feedstock shouldn’t compete with foods for human consumption.   Moreover, initial production and feeds and consequent manufacturing of these feeds to get nutrients for the test-tube meat require resources – fuel, land, labor, etc.  I’m curious about how this compares to just feeding cattle for meat production.

2) Cells and tissues will only grow at a very narrow range of temperature – about 98-104 F.  Thus, the facilities in which this test-tube meat is grown must be temperature-controlled – this uses energy, too. In addition, any glitch may ruin the meat products. In the current system, cattle (and all other mammals and most birds) control their body temperature by utilizing energy from their feed and the fermentenation/metabolic energy.

I don’t know whether a holistic analysis of test-tube meat production will favor it over conventional (Natural!) meat production (e.g., raising cattle, swine, sheep, etc).  But, I know that these requirements of test-tube meat production are virtually never mentioned. Likely, artificially-grown meat will draw a lot of scarce resources, such as land, fuel (energy), etc.  In the big picture, these inputs will negate (m)any of the pros presented by proponents of artificially-grown meats.  Certainly, resource requirements will make or break test-tube meat production.

Animal Welfare – A Piece in the Puzzle of Sustainable Food Production

Welfare of livestock and poultry has become a highly-publicized political issue.  And, like so many political matters in nowadays, the welfare debate has split the public into two sides and created a huge business. Animal protectionists are lobby for legislation regulating animal welfare and ownership.  Opponents of those regulations argue that these regulations are unnecessary and that rather better enforcement of current regulations and better education of animal owners and the general public are needed instead of more stringent regulations.  Moreover, they claim that 1) the proposed changes will make animal agriculture uncompetitive globally, and thus animal food production will be outsourced to countries with less animal welfare concerns, and potentially threaten food security; or, 2) cost of food production will rise considerably and food will become unaffordable for the less-fortunate in this country.  Two main arguments have emerged: one based mostly on emotions, and the other on the basis of efficiency and economics.  Not surprisingly, the result is at times a rather dirty trench war, with neither side moving an inch.

Both sides seem to ignore the true complexity of the system of food production.  Often, a discussion about animal welfare revolves around very specific issues.  Regulation of a single welfare issue will only be a band-aid and never address the complex food production system thoroughly.  I argue that, until we clearly understand the deeper ins and outs of food production, we will never deliberate on animal welfare issues in a constructive manner, let alone find acceptable solutions.  We should aim to find simplicity beyond complexity, yet over-regulation of animal welfare aims for simplicity without recognizing the complexity of food production.

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