Before I start, I’m linking these two videos here (warning: they are rather graphic and not for the faint of heart).
Don’t get the wrong idea: I’m not one of those militant PETA-type activist “in-your-face” vegan people who goes around guilt-tripping others into conformity. I know vegans and vegetarians often get a bad rap for that, as can be seen by the numerous jokes on Reddit, such as “Q: How do you know if someone is vegetarian/vegan? A: Don’t worry, he/she will tell you rather loudly and obnoxiously”. But this is a topic that does deserve serious attention.
As I have said earlier, thanks almost entirely to the work of just two (or three) individuals, Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and Norman Borlaug, we are able to support 7+ billion people on this planet. We currently have the resources to feed a rapidly increasing population, but the issue as to whether these issues are being allocated efficiently is a purely economic one.
I know a lot of the stuff I’m about to say is sure to be controversial; after all, diet is a fundamental aspect of who we are, and because we eat on an extremely regular basis, how and what we eat becomes a part of our individual identities. That being said, there really is no argument or reason to eat meat – that is, kill animals for their food any more. There are a few angles to look at this. One is that nutritionally speaking, we now know that it is possible to be perfectly healthy on a purely vegetarian or vegan diet; these are growing in popularity, and there are a number of successful vegan athletes today. The other is the utilitarian argument, and the chief proponent of this is the philosopher Prof. Peter Singer. His arguments are laid out in this paper, and in his famous book, Animal Liberation. In brief, Prof. Singer states that the notion that it is our right to have dominion over other animals is immoral and “speciesist”, in much the same way that the idea that one cultural group can enslave another is now thought to be racist. The utilitarian branch of philosophy is extremely interesting, because the postulates and arguments it uses are very simple, and when taken to extremes, can cause a lot of people to become very uncomfortable because it tests their notions of morality and right and wrong.
Another angle is that the meat industry (or the animal and livestock industry) is one of the biggest contributors to pollution in all forms – atmospheric, aquatic, and in the production of solid waste. Yet another angle is antibiotic resistance. About 80% of antibiotics produced today are used in the livestock industry, and the overuse of antibiotics is the reason for the recent development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On the other hand, as Derek Lowe points out, there haven’t been any recorded instances to date of humans getting infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria from animal sources. I think the key phrase here is “to date”, and that it is just a matter of time.
There are a couple of start-up companies getting in on the “sustainable food” trend, which is great! Hampton Creek, Impossible Foods, and Beyond Meat are some of the better-known of these companies, and have already released products on the market. Hampton Creek’s claim to fame is their product Just Mayo, a vegan, eggless mayonnaise. I don’t know anything about regular mayonnaise, but Hampton Creek’s product is smooth and delicious. The key breakthrough is their use of pea proteins to simulate the texture and consistency that egg proteins gives to regular mayonnaise. Interestingly, Hampton Creek was involved in a lawsuit with Unilever a few years over the use of the “mayonnaise” descriptor of their product. The aforementioned companies are the most well-known; there are others in this market space, and I really do hope that the demand for these products increases, enabling these companies to grow. If you can’t tell, I am very passionate about this! I really would like to work in this area, as it is something exciting that contributes to humanity in a very real, tangible way. Like I said earlier, the relationship we have with food is very close, and as a chemist, being able to develop products which I or others put in our mouths would feel more fulfilling than maybe developing some lead medicinal compound that might be developed into a medication that I or others may use (I apologize for the overuse of conditional statements here!). I have applied to these companies multiple times in the past but received no response – if anyone knows anyone working at these companies, please do let me know!
Another solution for sustainable food is hydroponics. Traditional methods of farming require a lot of water, and this was recently exemplified in California politics. Agriculture is a minor contributor to the GDP of California, and yet was the biggest consumer of water in the state. On the other hand, having farms and food growth is necessary for life, which is why the situation is not so cut and dry. That being said, indoor hydroponic farms are becoming a thing. Indoor hydroponic farms use much, much, less water than ordinary outdoor farms, but obviously use a lot more electricity, since they are missing sunlight. I do think that this will be a solution for sustainable food in the future – thanks to advances in technology, power generation, distribution, and storage is no longer a major issue*. Providing clean, potable water for the population will become a bigger issue, and techniques that conserve water (such as hydroponics), and desalination of sea water will have to be embraced in a big way. Farming may have to become decentralized, in the sense that every suburb or city will have 5-10 hydroponic farms in the neighborhood to supply locally-sourced food to the residents. Indoor hydroponic farms can be located anywhere, even in business districts – a multi-storey office building can be a hydroponic farm!
*Ok, I know there are a lot of things to be worked out – for example, energy generated from renewable sources such as solar or wind cannot be stored nearly as well as we would like, and the distribution of electricity in the grid can be a lot better. Renewable energy generation is getting more efficient every year, and the amount of solar cells we need to power the planet is not really that much. As this paper states, “Covering 0.16% of the land on Earth with 10% efficient solar conversion systems would provide 20 TW of power, nearly twice the world’s consumption rate of fossil energy and the equivalent 20,000 1-GWe nuclear fission plants”. More details can also be found here.