Did you know in 2017 the U.S. exported 1.71 million metric tons of potatoes and brought in through imports 1.35 million metric tons? Why didn’t we just import the difference of 360,000 metric tons into our country and call it a day?

Putting politics aside, why waste time, energy, resources and petroleum fuel to send out potatoes just to bring them back in? It makes no logical sense, even to an elementary school student. The only people benefitting from this crazy lopsided equation are the food transportation companies and possibly politicians.

In this blog, we will look at the cost of delivery of protein and the future of animal protein food production.  

Factors used to determine the cost of delivery. Raw material production, food production, packaging, distribution, and access to consumers.

Raw Material Production.

Every raw food material, whether it be peas or eggs, begins with a seed or an egg. Plant-based foods begin from seeds and animal-based foods begin from an egg. Both the seed and egg require water and energy from the sun for growth and production. But from this point onward they differ greatly as to their required inputs.

Let’s start with the pea. Peas require nutrient rich soil and fertilizer to grow. Eggs require hens, food for the hens, and stables to shelter the hens.

The outputs differ as well. Peas emit emissions and water. Egg production emits emissions, feces, urine, water, and old hens who are no longer laying eggs must be removed.

Food Production Stage.

Once the peas are ready for harvesting and the eggs are laid, new inputs are required. Human energy, electric or petroleum energy is used harvest the peas, wash the peas, and set aside for packaging.  Human energy, electric or petroleum energy is used to gather the eggs, wash the eggs, and store until ready for packaging. 

Packaging and Loading Stage.

Both peas and eggs require energy for packaging, packaging material, and loading onto pallets and into trucks for delivery. Both emit emissions from energy used and have a certain amount of accumulated waste from packaging, in the form of damaged packages, damaged peas and/or eggs, etc. 

Distribution Stage.

Both peas and eggs require trucks for refrigerated transportation and delivery, and diesel or gas for fuel to power the trucks. For local delivery much less fuel is used. For far distances and global deliveries much fuel is required. Both emit emissions and have a certain amount of accumulated waste from damaged product, whether it be damaged peas or eggs. 

Consumer Stage. 

Both peas and eggs require the consumer to go to the store or market, use fuel to get there, and then once home, require energy and water inputs for cooking. Both emit emissions from driving fuel and cooking energy, plus packaging waste once the peas and eggs are removed from the package. 

As you can see both are very similar in every step except for the first one, raw material production; and can differ greatly in how far the end product travels to its final retail sales destination. Obviously food for U.S. export markets incur a much greater fuel and delivery cost than do locally grown and sold food. 

About 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen, or about 17% of the nations energy use is for agriculture, in a close second to vehicle use. Tractors, combines, harvesters, irrigation, sprayers, tillers, balers and other equipment all use petroleum.  

The largest use of gas is not the machines, but the soil inputs for non organic food. Materials such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides use oil and natural gas as the start up materials and in manufacturing. 

Getting the crop from seed to harvest uses only one-fifth of the total oil used for food. The majority is consumed during the trip from the farm to our plate. Each food item in the typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1500 miles. In addition to direct transport costs, other fuel requirements are used for processing, (drying, milling, cutting, baking, sorting), packaging, warehousing, and refrigeration. 

Currently vegetable sources of protein dominate protein supply globally (57%), with meat (18%), dairy (10%), fish and shellfish (6%) and other animal products (9%) making up the remainder. Soy is an important source of protein, however 85% of its production is used to feed animals and fish.

Mad cow or mad humans?

If a shipment of ground beef somehow gets contaminated with pathogens (disease causing microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses), the federal government does not have the authority to recall the beef, only to request the company involved issue a recall. The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service will post alerts at their website – www.fsis.usda.gov

One serious disease affecting cows in the past few decades is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as mad cow disease. Mad cow and its human counterpart, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are fatal for both cows and humans. Tracking mad cow is very difficult, as it frequently incubates for years in the victim. 

During the 1980’s an outbreak of the disease occurred in England, where more than 150 humans died from eating BSE beef. Thousands of cows were destroyed as well. 

A tiny malformed protein called a prion is responsible for the disease. Prions cause other proteins in the victim to rearrange into their unusual shape and destroy tissue. Prions limit their activities to the nervous system, where they cause death. 

You might be wondering how cows contract prions. The answer – from eating other cows, who happen to be infected. Are cows cannibalistic? No, they are given dead cow meat mixed into their feed. (Yuck, I guess they didn’t want to waste any precious morsels from the slaughterhouse.)

In the U.S., policies restrict feeding cow tissue directly to other cows, but cows can be fed to other animals, such as chickens, and the waste from the chickens can be fed back to the cows. 

Prions are not destroyed by extreme heat or any known drug, and as such, they survive this food chain loop. Cow blood can also be served as dinner for other cows, plus restaurant plate waste can also be given. 

What does the future hold?

Lab-grown or “cultured meat” could be the next step between real meat and plant-based products. San Francisco-based Memphis Meats produces meat from self-reproducing cells, thereby producing meat that is an “animal-based” product but avoiding the need to breed, raise, and slaughter huge numbers of animals.

The company debuted its first synthetic meatball in 2016 and followed up with the world’s first cell-cultured chicken and duck shortly thereafter.

While its original meat cost $18,000 a pound, in May 2017 the company announced it had gotten costs down to $3,800 per pound. The company also claims that it can produce animal-free products using just 1% of the land and 1% of the water compared to meat-producer incumbents.

Memphis Meats wasn’t the first company to produce lab-grown meat products: Dr. Mark Post, a Netherlands-based researcher, produced the world’s first lab-grown burger in 2013, in research originally financed by Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin. This initiative spun off into MosaMeat, which aims to bring in vitro meat, (meat grown from animal cell culture instead of from slaughtered animals) to market in the future. 

Biotech companies are even interested. They are exploring methods for engineering meat-like products from methane. While companies are already creating methane-based animal feed, startup companies are expressing interest in engineering methane-based protein fit for human consumption.

California-based Calysta recently raised $40M in funding, while India-based String Bio has received $100K to commercialize its technology.

Lab-grown meat faces a few obstacles:

Fake meat sounds yucky. Many consumers face a psychological barrier towards eating lab-grown foods and may prefer real meat products. 

High-tech meat is expensive. Cost is prohibitive, with high-tech meat alternatives priced as luxury goods. The need of fetal bovine serum, or FBS, is extracted from cow fetuses. It is a core and expensive ingredient in lab-grown meat.

However, some startup companies are looking to eliminate FBS from the meatless equation, in order to cut costs. Memphis Meats is in the process of proving the validity and accuracy of their methods to produce meats without the ingredient.

Can lab meat take off? Though many startups in the industry claim their products will revolutionize meat consumption, the question remains whether lab-grown meat will provide a scalable method to feed the future — or whether it’s simply a new fad. (Scalability is the capability of a process to handle a growing amount of work, and be enlarged to accommodate that growth.)

Will lab meat still contain saturated fat, cholesterol, or arachidonic acid, the inflammation promoting compound found in meat? Or will it become just another Franken-Food?

Is this the direction our world is going? I think I’ll stick to eating plants.

I don’t want to find out in 20 years from now cultured meat has health damaging side-effects.

Want to help decrease our dependence on oil?

Buy local. Go to Farmer’s markets. Ask about direct sales from farmer to consumer. Here are a few resources: www.AMS.usda.gov/farmersmarkets, www.LocalHarvest.org, and www.CSACENTER.org