Tastes Like Chicken

Feb. 8, 2017

How serious are we about curbing water consumption and avoiding the water-quality problems large-scale agricultural operations can bring? Here’s a test.

Fifty years ago, the world’s population consumed only about one-quarter the amount of meat that it does today. Globally, agriculture accounts for about 92% of our water footprint, and meat production in the US takes nearly a third of our water. Feeding livestock takes about a third of the grain harvested in the world, and meat-producing animals produce 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas.

A few more statistics: It takes 518 gallons of water to produce a pound of chicken, and a whopping 1,847 gallons to produce a pound of beef. In contrast, it takes only 302 gallons of water to produce a pound of tofu, and 299 gallons for a pound of rice. Bread made from wheat flour takes about 193 gallons of water per pound, and potatoes are a relative bargain at 34 gallons per pound. But most people—most Americans, especially—are not content with a diet of rice and tofu, or even of bread and potatoes. The number of people in the West who adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for health or ethical reasons, while they might be a vocal minority, are still very much a minority.

Some enterprising companies are trying to bring alternative meat products to market that are easier on the environment. As this article notes, one way of doing that is to replicate the texture and flavor of hamburger or chicken—as a California company called Impossible Foods is now doing—by recreating those qualities with plant-based substances. You can find some of these products today at Whole Foods Markets. An even more ambitious enterprise is to grow cultured meat—actual animal cells grown in a factory to form strips of muscle—which is then turned into hamburger or meatballs. (Meat with the texture of actual steak is apparently not yet achievable.) Another approach is to use insects as a source of protein; grasshoppers in particular are very promising. As the article notes, about 70% of a grasshopper is protein. “Being coldblooded, they convert more food into body mass than warm-blooded mammals do, and being boneless, more of that body mass is edible. Per edible gram, they need only a twelfth of the food that cattle require—and even only half as much as pigs.” However, the article goes on to note, “Here, the problem is marketing.”

Whether you intend to sample these new products yourself—or perhaps if you’re already committed to a diet that minimizes the use of agricultural resources—how well do you think these new approaches will catch on? We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the sales of fuel-efficient cars, for example, but part of that stems from the cost of fuel and the availability of credits for purchasing, say, hybrid vehicles. Do you think average consumers, made aware of the environmental impacts of the food they eat, will make different choices? Leave a comment below.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.