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How now brown cow?

In the fields of agriculture, climate change and energy, having alternatives is the key, and a petri-dish patty holds the promise of ending the deleterious environmental impact of meat eating.

india Updated: Aug 08, 2013 02:29 IST
Hindustan Times

The public consumption of a patty composed of synthetic beef has aroused the normal mix of bouquets and brickbats. The revelation that the experiment was being funded by the co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, generated as much interest as the idea of petri dish-created meat.

The term "synthetic” is a misnomer. In chemical terms, the patty was identical to normal beef. It was only that the complex organic molecules that make up cow meat were made in a laboratory rather than the womb of a cow.

The idea of a humanity fed by artificially created meat has long been a staple of science fiction. That such a form of meat has now been created allows the public debate on the issue to become much more focussed on the ethical and cultural issues related to synthetic meat.

Cultural concerns, being broadly subjective, are really about the manipulation of symbols and mental associations. The ethical issues are also straightforward.

Synthetic meat could, in theory, allow the world to manage its growing addiction to meat. Already nearly a third of the Earth's usable surface is covered by pasture land for animals.

The world's livestock produce 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions and 40% of emissions of methane. With emerging economies pushing billions more people into a level of prosperity that allows meat-eating, the burden of meat can only grow. Synthetic meat could open the door to a solution to this dilemma.

Indians in particular could gain from this experiment because the country's dominant religious, Hinduism, has a stricture against beef eating. However, synthetic meat could provide a loophole to this norm because no cows are killed in the process.

No one can predict if synthetic meat will ever become viable economically, let alone ever find real acceptability. But what such experiments do accomplish is to provide new paths, genuine alternatives for humanity's more pressing problems.

Technology gives mankind options. In the fields of agriculture, climate change and energy, having alternatives is the key to future stability.