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Food: The Hidden Driver Of Global Politics
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Get ready for a new era in which food scarcity is the hidden driver of world
politics, an era in which countries are competing for food and for the land and
water to grow it, an era in which even the U.S. will have a difficult time
expanding its grain production.
That warning comes from my guest, Lester Brown, in his article "The New
Geopolitics of Food." It's the lead article in the current food edition of
Foreign Policy Magazine.
Brown founded the World Watch Institute, devoted to the analysis of global
environmental issues. In 2001 he founded the Earth Policy Institute, with the
goal of creating a roadmap for an environmentally sustainable economy. His
article is adapted from his book "World on the Edge."
Lester Brown, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. LESTER BROWN (World Watch Institute): A delight to be here, Terry.
GROSS: Let's talk about some of the trends you've indentified as the underlying
causes of today's high food prices. First, there's climate change. How's that
affecting crops around the world?
Mr. BROWN: The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for each one degree
Celsius rise in temperature, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain
yields. So that's the â sort of the simplest link between climate change
between rising temperature and grain yields.
But more fundamentally, the agriculture as it exists today has evolved during
an 11,000-year period in which there's been rather remarkable climate
stability. So agriculture is designed to maximize production with that climate
system. But that climate system is now changing.
And so with each passing year the agriculture system and the climate system are
more and more out of synch with each other, and it used to be when we had a
weather event like a monsoon failure in India or a drought in the former Soviet
Union or something, within a year or so things would go back to normal on the
climate front. But now there's no norm to go back to. Things are in a constant
state of flux. And that makes it difficult for the world's farmers.
GROSS: And there are a lot of water shortages around the world. You say
irrigation wells are running dry in many places. Is there an explanation for
Mr. BROWN: Well, over the last several decades we've been increasing rather
steadily world grain production to satisfy the growth in population and rising
And as a result, in this effort to expand production, more and more countries
have been over-pumping. That is, they're pumping their aquifers faster than
they recharge through natural precipitation. So water tables are falling.
And then eventually the wells go dry, and the pumping is necessarily reduced to
the rate of recharge. So the water shortages, we're seeing this in Saudi Arabia
now, where they've been pumping a non-replenishable aquifer and have been self-
sufficient in wheat for more than â more than 20 years. But now that aquifer is
depleted, and their wheat production is in freefall.
But beyond that, World Bank data show that in India, 175 million people are
being fed with grain produced by over-pumping. Our estimate for China is that
130 million Chinese are being fed with grain produced by over-pumping. And
over-pumping at some point comes to an end.
And I don't think the world is prepared for adjusting to this reduced supply of
irrigation water. And I would simply point out that more than half the world's
people live in the 18 countries that we've identified where water tables are
falling and aquifers are being depleted.
GROSS: So they're going to need to get their food from someplace, if they can't
grow it themselves, because of the aquifers being depleted.
Mr. BROWN: Exactly.
So here's something I really hadn't thought about till reading your article,
that, you know, a lot of people in countries like India and China are entering
the middle class, and they're eating a more varied diet. And they're now
competing for the foods that we eat, as opposed to having a largely, you know,
like grain-based diet. So what does that mean, that there's going to be more
competition for food?
Mr. BROWN: It does, and we see this most dramatically in China. We estimate
that today there are probably close to three billion people in the world who
are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock
products: meat, milk and eggs.
And we can see what that means if we simply compare the United States and
India. In India, annual grain consumption per person is about 400 pounds a year
or roughly a pound a day. If you have only a pound a day, you can't convert
much of that into animal protein because you have to consume almost all of that
to meet your basic nutritional and energy needs.
But in the United States, we consume about 1,600 pounds of grain per person per
year, the better part of a ton. But we don't consume much of that directly. The
great bulk of it is consumed indirectly, in meat and milk and eggs, cheese, ice
cream, yogurt, all the animal protein products that we consume.
GROSS: So we're now competing with other countries in a way that has never
happened before for middle-class food like meat and eggs and milk. And this is
coinciding with a time when there's less grain being produced because of
climate change and because of over-pumping of irrigation wells. Is that the
right term, irrigation wells?
Mr. BROWN: Yes.
GROSS: Yes, so this is all leading to crisis, you're saying.
Mr. BROWN: Yeah, it's not that...
GROSS: I'm going to add to the crisis, okay, and mention biofuels, because you
Mr. BROWN: Right.
GROSS: ...that one of the problems is in the past there's a big shortage of
food in one country because of a monsoon or a drought or, you know, whatever
catastrophe has caused it, and a country like the U.S. could step in and say:
We're here, we're going to produce more. And - or we're just going to export
more to you and solve your problem.
But we're not in a position to do that as easily now as we did before. Why not?
Mr. BROWN: Well, for a long time there was excess capacity in the world food
economy. And so in the United States, for most of the last half of the last
century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid farmers to hold some land out
of production. It was a way of sort of balancing supply and demand, stabilizing
And so if there was a monsoon failure in India, we would simply increase the
amount of land that farmers could plant, and we'd quickly make up any deficit
that existed. And we also had so much grain in stocks that in 1965, for
example, when the Indian monsoon failed, we simply shipped a fifth of our wheat
crop to India to avoid famine.
We couldn't do that today because we don't have that sort of slack in the
system. So we've lost two cushions - one, huge stocks that we used to call
surpluses; and the idle crop land.
And the problem is not that we're producing less grain today. We're producing
more grain. But we're not increasing production fast enough to keep up with the
growth in demand, and that's where the problem is.
One of the difficulties on the demand side is that in addition to population
growth and rising affluence that enables people to move up the food chain, we
now have, in the United States, the massive diversion of grain to produce fuel
On the demand side, the annual growth in the world consumption of grain used to
be about 20 million tons a year. It's now 40 million tons a year.
So farmers have to produce a lot more each year to keep up, and they're
beginning to have trouble, given the climate stresses, given the water
shortages, and given the fact that in some countries, some of the more
agriculturally advanced countries, farmers are catching up with scientists.
That is, they're using all the available technologies. So they can't increase
their grain yields anymore because there are no unused agricultural
technologies for them. This is true for rice growers in Japan. It's true for
wheat growers in France and Germany and the U.K., for example.
So this is a new constraint on efforts to expand world food production that we
don't have an answer to, at least not in the short run.
GROSS: So in the U.S., when you say that grain is being used for biofuels, it's
really corn you're talking about, right?
Mr. BROWN: Mostly corn, yes, but you can use any grain.
GROSS: You write that the European Union is diverting some land from food crops
Mr. BROWN: Yes, and in Europe, as you may know, they use a lot more diesel fuel
in cars than we do. And so this is what they're concentrating on mostly, and
using various vegetable oils either produced within Europe from rapeseed or -
which is in the mustard family, or palm oil that's imported from countries like
Malaysia and Indonesia.
GROSS: My guest is Lester Brown. His article "The New Geopolitics of Food" is
published in the current edition of Foreign Policy Magazine. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Lester Brown. His article "The New Geopolitics of Food" is
published in the current edition of Foreign Policy Magazine. It's about how
food scarcity has become the hidden driver of world politics.
So, just to summarize the picture you're creating, you're saying now the
ability to grow food is becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage. Countries
are using food for political leverage. Give us an example of how that's
Mr. BROWN: Well, what has happened is that we've seen a shift in world
agricultural trade from a situation that existed during the last half of the
last century, where the exporting countries - like the U.S., Canada, Australia,
Argentina - would get together and pressure Europe and Japan to open their
markets to free competition.
We were never very successful at that, but in recent years, we have seen a
shift from the question of access of markets to that of access to supplies.
Because when grain supplies began to tighten in 2007 and into 2008, one of the
things that happened was, with food prices rising everywhere, some of the
exporting countries restricted or even banned exports for a period to try to
keep their domestic food prices down.
For example, Russia and Argentina both restricted wheat exports. Vietnam, the
number-two world rice exporter, banned rice exports for several months to try
to get its domestic food prices under control.
And that created a panic in the importing countries, because they didn't feel
like they could any longer count on the world market to supply their needs. So
the first thing they tried to do was negotiate long-term agreements with grain
The Philippines, which imports rice, negotiated - I think it was - a five-year
agreement for a million-and-a-half tons of rice a year from Vietnam. The
Yemenis sent a delegation to Australia to try to get a long-term wheat
agreement, because Yemen imports 80 percent of its wheat. But the Australians
And that generally failed, the idea of long-term commitments, because it was a
seller's market. And so there was no reason for exporters to want to make long-
So then the next step was that the more affluent grain-importing countries
began looking for land in other countries on which they could produce grain for
themselves, and the leaders in this were Saudi Arabia, China, South Korea. And
they've been buying huge chunks of land.
Mr. BROWN: Mostly in Africa, but some in Southeast Asia and also in Latin
GROSS: So you have countries like Saudi Arabia and South Korea and China buying
land in Africa so that they could farm it for grain?
Mr. BROWN: Yes - for grain, and in some cases, to produce biofuels. A survey
the World Bank did of these land acquisitions - as they're called in the
diplomatic circles, or land grabs as they're called in the 100-or-so NGOs that
are opposing these. These agreements now - and there are hundreds of them -
have acquired roughly 140 million acres of land, which is equal to the land
planted in wheat and corn combined in the United States.
So these are not trivial acquisitions, but they've not translated much into
production yet. And a World Bank survey of these land acquisitions indicates
that only 37 percent are planning to grow food, and then another 37 percent are
planning industrial crops, which is mostly biofuels. And the others, it wasn't
clear what they were planning to produce. But this is becoming a huge political
issue in many parts of the world, and it's creating conflict between local
populations and these investors.
GROSS: Is that because, like, local people are hungry, and there's food -
there's land available to grow grain, but, like, China just bought it?
Mr. BROWN: Two of the principal countries that have been selling land - or
leasing it long-term on typically 50-year leases, or what have you - are
Ethiopia and the Sudan, both of which are high on the list of the U.N.'s World
Food Program, countries that they help feed.
And the idea that the governments in these countries are selling huge chunks of
land to other governments who are agribusiness firms representing other
governments is really very difficult to explain.
And what we're probably looking at down the road is a situation where there
will be extreme hunger in some of these countries where the investments are
being made, and people will simply resist and try to block the trucks that are
hauling the grain from the fields and to the ports.
And so we have all these flashpoints sort of lying around now, just waiting to
be ignited by some event or an overall tightening in food supplies. And it's a
new situation, and quite unlike any that we've faced before.
GROSS: You know what the situation you described is reminding me of? Oil, where
countries or oil companies go in and develop the oil, and the people who live
there don't necessarily profit from it, and their land is basically not theirs
Mr. BROWN: Yes. I think more and more people are beginning to realize that food
is sort of the new oil in the sense that there's a real struggle now to control
sources of food and food supplies. And the exporting countries are obviously in
a strong position now.
And one of the most interesting recent developments has actually taken this to
another stage, and this has happened just in the last several months. But in
January, the South Koreans announced that they were creating a new public-
private entity to acquire grain for import into South Korea. Now, South Korea
is self-sufficient in rice, but it imports all of its wheat and all of its feed
grains, virtually, which is about 70 percent of the total.
So what they have done, what this new entity has done, is open an office in
Chicago, and their plan is to either buy or lease grain elevators and then buy
grain directly from U.S. farmers to put in their grain elevators, and they will
then ship the grain to South Korea.
So what they're trying to do, in effect, is to corner part of the U.S.
exportable grain supply before it gets to market, and this represents an
entirely new stage in the effort to try to secure food supplies by individual
And what is so interesting about this is it's hard to imagine China or Japan or
Saudi Arabia or any of many other countries just sitting by and watching the
South Koreans tie up part of the U.S. exportable grain supply before it even
gets to market.
And so I would expect the other countries to start doing the same thing, and
the bottom line here is we may wake up one morning and realize there's not
enough grain left for us.
GROSS: You mean because the farmers are going to get a better price from, you
know, South Korean buyers or Chinese buyers?
Mr. BROWN: Yes. And they will pay quite a bit just to make sure they're going
to have enough, because, as I noted earlier, they can't count on the world
market now responding to their needs because there may not be enough, and when
there's not enough exporting countries, begin restricting exports.
GROSS: So here's one thing that confuses me about the picture that you created.
You say that in places like Sudan and Ethiopia, where there's so many starving
people, countries are coming in and buying the land so that they could farm it
But I thought a lot of this land is non-farmable now, that there's droughts,
and that's why - that's one of the reasons why there's so much starvation in
Mr. BROWN: Well, this land that's being acquired is actually not just a land
acquisition. These are also water acquisitions, because the land without water
wouldn't be very useful.
And this creates a fascinating problem in the Nile River Basin, to develop this
particular example further, because Egypt either imports all of its grain or
the water to produce its grain.
As you know, it essentially doesn't rain in Egypt. And so all of the Nile water
is used by the time it gets to the Mediterranean - that is, the Nile is a bit
like the Colorado River in the U.S. When it reaches the Bay of California,
there's not much water left, and sometimes it doesn't even make it to the sea.
And so there's no extra water in the Nile system, and what these land
acquisitions mean is that a lot of Nile water from upstream will be used on
that land, and that water will not reach Egypt.
Now, under the existing treaties, Egypt is supposed to get 75 percent of the
water from the Nile, and the Sudan 25 percent. Ethiopia wasn't expected to get
any. But that treaty was signed in 1959, I think it was. And now suddenly, the
Egyptian government has to deal not just with the governments of the Sudan and
Ethiopia, but with the Chinese and the Saudis and the Koreans and many others
who are investing in that, upstream in the Nile River Basin.
GROSS: I mean, do you foresee the possibility of, like, countries going to war
Mr. BROWN: Well, another question is: Will countries go to war over water, for
example? Because water's now becoming the key to expanding food production.
There's quite a bit of land in the world that can produce food, if there's
water to go with it. And up until now, water has crossed national boundaries
via the grain trade.
That is, the countries in North Africa and the Arab Middle East, for example,
as their cities grow and they have less and less water for irrigation, then
they important more grain. And because it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce
one ton of grain, this is the most efficient way to import water.
GROSS: In other words, you're not literally importing water, but you're saving
yourself from using a lot of water.
Mr. BROWN: Right.
GROSS: Lester Brown will be back in the second half of the show. His article,
"The New Geopolitics of Food," is published in the current edition of Foreign
Policy Magazine. It's adapted from his book "World on the Edge." Brown is the
founder of the Earth Policy Institute.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with
Lester Brown about how food scarcity has become the hidden driver of world
politics. His article "The New Geopolitics of Food" is in the current edition
of Foreign Policy magazine. It's adapted from his book, "World on the Edge."
Brown is the founder of the Earth Policy Institute, which is dedicated to
creating a roadmap for an environmentally sustainable economy.
Now you offer several things that you think can be done and should be done to
make sure that we have enough food to feed everybody. And your solutions
include produce higher crop yields with less water and conserve fertile soils,
stabilize the climate to stop climate change as swiftly as possible and
accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population,
which is growing rapidly.
Any easier suggestions than that? I mean that's really...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's really asking a lot.
Mr. BROWN: That's a full plate, no question about it. I think one of the things
that is going to become clear very soon, I mean we saw some of it last year,
was how climate does and will be affecting food production and food security.
We saw the heat wave in western Russia last summer and the average temperature
in Moscow was 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm for the entire month of
July. It reduced the Russian wheat harvest from close to 100 million tons,
which is what they were hoping for, to 60 million tons. They cut it by 40
By contrast, we harvest 400 million tons. And if we lost 40 percent of our
grain harvest of 160 million tons there would have been chaos in world grain
markets by the end of the summer. And we would've seen grain exporting
countries restricting exports. We would've seen grain and food prices moving to
levels we had never seen before.
And in addition to exporting countries restricting exports, we probably then
would have seen oil exporting countries beginning to barter oil for grain so
they could get the grain they needed. And then the rest of the world,
particularly the poorer grain importing countries, would have been scrambling
for whatever crumbs were left. And at that point, the loss of confidence in the
world grain market could translate into a loss of confidence in the world
economy more broadly. And that could be very dangerous.
GROSS: Now you've been doing environmental issues for a long time. You founded
the World Watch Institute in the '80s, which was devoted to analysis of global
Mr. BROWN: Actually, we started the World Watch Institute in 1974, so it's even
GROSS: Oh, older than I thought. Okay.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So you haven't given up. Not much has changed for the better, you say.
But you haven't given up. Do you consider yourself a man who is constantly
frustrated by what you see?
Mr. BROWN: You know, I probably should be. But sometimes you're asked if you're
an optimist or a pessimist, and someone answered that question recently and
said it's too late to be a pessimist. And I think that sums it up well. But one
of the things I do is go back and look at the economic history of World War II,
and realize that we totally restructured the U.S. industrial economy almost
The attack on Pearl Harbor came on December 7th, 1941. It was extraordinarily
successful in military terms, sinking, you know, sinking a large part of the
U.S. Pacific fleet that happened to be at anchor there.
But then a month later, January 6th, 1942, President Roosevelt gave his State
of the Union address in which he laid out arms production goals. He said we're
going to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, thousands of ships. And people
just couldn't relate to that because we were still in a Depression mode economy
at the time.
But what Roosevelt and his colleagues knew was that the largest concentration
of industrial power in the world at the time was in the U.S. automobile
industry. So after his State of the Union address, he called in the leaders of
the industry and said because you guys represent such a large share of our
industrial capacity, we are going to rely heavily on you to help us reach these
arms production goals.
And they said well Mr. President, we're going to do whatever we can. But it's
going to be a stretch producing cars and all these arms too. He said you don't
understand. We're going to ban the sale of automobiles in the United States.
And that's exactly what we did. And we'd been producing three million a year
even during the Depression.
We banned the sale of automobiles. So from early 1942 until the end of 1944,
there were essentially no cars produced in the United States and we exceeded
every one of those arms production goals. In the end, we didn't produce 60,000
planes, we produced 229,000 planes.
I mean, even today, it's difficult to visualize how we could do that. But the
encouraging thing is that we did that and it didn't take decades to restructure
the U.S. industrial economy, it didn't take years. We did it in a matter of
months. And if we did that then, then certainly we can restructure the energy
economy much more rapidly than most people think and thus, be able to stabilize
climate before it spirals out of control.
GROSS: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Mr. BROWN: Terry, thank you. It's been a delight.
GROSS: Lester Brown's article, "The New Geopolitics of Food," is published in
the current edition of Foreign Policy magazine. You'll find a link on our
Can meat created in a lab from stem cells help solve the world food shortage
while preventing cruelty to animals? Coming up, Michael Specter talks about his
article, "Test Tube Burgers," in the current edition of The New Yorker.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Burgers From A Lab: The World Of In Vitro Meat
TERRY GROSS, host:
Imagine eating meat without harming an animal, no factory farm, no
slaughterhouse. Teams of scientists at universities around the world are trying
to grow meat in petri dishes from the stem cells of animals. As you can
imagine, there's a lot of challenges they face, technical and ethical.
My guest Michael Specter writes about this new research in his article, "Test
Tube Burgers," published in the current edition of The New Yorker. Specter
writes about science for the magazine.
Michael Specter, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MICHAEL SPECTER (Science writer, The New Yorker): It's a pleasure to be
here. Thank you.
GROSS: There's something inherently creepy about the idea of growing meat in a
laboratory. But part of the motivation behind the idea is sparing animals from
the treatment they get in those big factory farms. Can you talk about some of
the motivations behind the idea of growing meat - some of the humane and
Mr. SPECTER: Well, there are quite a few motivations. First, I would say that
there is something inherently creepy about it. But there is more inherently
creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat, and that's one of
the important motivations for this.
Billions of animals, literally billions, are grown only to be killed and they
are treated like factory widgets. They are shot with antibiotics and hormones
and they live a horrible life and they often die quite cruelly. So the idea of
being able to eliminate some of that â because I don't think this is going to
be a situation where we're going to eliminate all of if â is extremely exciting
for a lot of people.
There are other motivations that in some ways are even more compelling, and
those are environmental motivations and they have to do with the size of our
planet and the number of people who live on it and the pressures that we're
putting on the Earth and that we will put on the Earth over the next 50 or so
We now have seven billion people. There will be nine billion by 2050. Those
people need food. They need protein. They tend to eat better as they get
wealthier. And better unfortunately, means a little bit more like Americans â a
lot of meat. And a lot of meat means using a lot of land, a lot of water, a lot
of grass and a lot of grain, and we don't have that much room for any of it.
There's also the issue of climate change, because lots of animals emit lots of
methane into the atmosphere and climate change is a serious problem when we
look at the food supply.
So when we add all this up we have to look at alternate ways to feed the people
who are coming to this planet and this is certainly an alternative.
GROSS: So let's talk about how scientists are experimenting with growing meat
in the laboratories. Is this with stem cells, with cloning?
Mr. SPECTER: It's primarily with stem cells. They'll take a couple cells let's
say from a pig. They will put them in a nutrient broth, a bunch of amino acids
and sugars basically, sometimes fetal serum, and it will grow. And as it grows
they will then try to turn those cells, which are muscle cells because that's
mostly - when we talk about eating meat we're mostly talking about eating
muscle. They will take those muscles cells and put them on a platform that is
sort of normally a biodegradable plastic scaffolding. And that allows the cells
to fuse together and become muscle tissue.
And the idea is as you grow those cells into muscle tissue, you grow the
tissue, and you eventually have the same sort of meat, exactly the same meat
that you would take from the flesh of an animal.
GROSS: Except that?
Mr. SPECTER: Except that it isn't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPECTER: I mean this is the thing and it's a philosophical thing as much as
a scientific thing: What is meat? I mean if they come from to cells and they
are grown, is that different from coming from the back of a living animal? It -
to some people the answer to that is yes. I'm not sure.
GROSS: Well, in addition to the philosophical questions, you have like starting
with the basics, the texture questions. As you point out in your piece, muscle
needs to be exercised. It needs to be worked and stretched or else it
atrophies. So if I have a piece of like artificial meat that you've grown in a
lab, it's not going to be walking and running and moving around. So like what
is muscle that has never ever moved?
Mr. SPECTER: I believe the term for that is fat. But...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPECTER: What they do with this is clever. They - you do have to stimulate
muscle whether you're out there running around or whether you're in a petri
dish. The way they stimulate muscle these days is electrical impulses and you
can sort of zap and it will do what you need it to do.
The problem with that is if we're talking about growing meat in a lab or in a
factory, we're talking about enormous quantities of it and it's difficult to
see our way to zapping tons of electricity into muscle cells, because it will
just be, if nothing else, extremely costly. So while that works in a lab and it
works well, they are looking at other ways to do it. And the main way they're
looking at it is using chemical signals from the animal's body to sort of mimic
the same electrical impulses. And that seems to be working but it's early days
GROSS: So now I'm picturing, and tell me if this is an accurate picture, I'm
picturing this artificial piece of meat twitching in a petri dish.
Mr. SPECTER: I hate to use the word twitching.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPECTER: I don't think it's entirely inaccurate to say there would have to
be some sort of impulse stimulation. I don't think the meat would actually
twitch. I don't think it would actually move. Lots of times you can have â pass
electrical currents through things and you don't notice it and the thing that's
being passed through doesn't notice it. It's not like it's an electric chair,
it's a small electrical charge. But, yes, it's got to be stimulated in some way
because it's muscle, and muscle is muscle.
GROSS: Now you know how a lot of health food stores and Chinese restaurants
have soy that's flavored as chicken or beef, and...
Mr. SPECTER: Sad - yeah. Sadly, I do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So is that going to be the premise behind artificially made meat too,
that it would be flavored in the way soy is or flavored in the way - I mean
this is different. It's not meat but there's like rice that's flavored to be -
rice extract flavored to be like mozzarella cheese. I mean they've really got
Mr. SPECTER: Yeah, they do have flavoring down and when I talk to people I said
well, you know, what's this going to taste like? And they basically said, that
is not an issue worth worrying about.
There were some kids in a scientific competition a year ago up at MIT who made
E. coli, which is a bacteria that smells god-awful. They made it smell like
wintergreen for half of its reproductive cycle...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPECTER: ...and bananas for the other half. These are college kids. So this
stuff can be done both in terms of smell and taste.
I don't think it's fair to make the analogy to soy proteins or things like
that. This will be meat. I talked to one scientist and I mentioned this as
synthetic meat and she got annoyed. She said this isn't synthetic, it's
organic. It's meat. It's two meat cells growing to become more meat cells. And
depending on what your definition of any sort of life is, this is as
fundamental as any animal is.
GROSS: So Michael, what's the closest thing in the world now in terms of
growing tissues and cells to growing meat? I know there's a lot of work on like
growing organs, there's a lot of cancer research. So what's the closest to what
you're looking at, which is meat?
Mr. SPECTER: I think the people who are doing the research here tend to be
tissue scientists and they often come from the field where they were working on
trying to make hearts, livers, kidneys. There are quite a few bladders out
there in the world that are made in labs and in people and have been
functioning for some while. And the reason that those people moved into the
meat thing is because they realize it's the same exact technology.
If you can make a bladder, if you can shape it and you can make those cells
interact properly and you can make them live off the oxygen supply that is
delivered by arteries, you could do that with meat. So I would have to say the
closest thing are some of the organs that are now being developed in some of
our best labs.
GROSS: So assuming you're trying to create beef, is it stem cells from a cow
that you're using to start with?
Mr. SPECTER: Yes. If you want to create lamb you take stem cells from a lamb.
If you want chicken, stem cells from a chicken. I should probably make it clear
if I haven't that right now what we're talking about is ground meat, and that's
more than half of the meat that's eaten in the world. To make a steak or a lamb
chop or a pork chop is much more complicated because it involves all sorts of
arteries and getting oxygen to cells and getting blood to move around and
circulate and have fat marbled in.
That's a very complicated three-dimensional architecture and it's not as simple
as getting meat, chopping it up and calling it a hamburger. So the ground meat
I think probably could be done rather rapidly. I think it's going to be a
pretty long time before we grow a porterhouse steak.
GROSS: So you visited a couple of labs that are trying to make meat. What did
you actually see?
Mr. SPECTER: What you see there is a sort of sterile environment with
incubators where you can put a bunch of petri dishes to grow under ideal
conditions. And you will see little teeny dots that are actually muscle cells.
And sometimes you'll see muscle fiber that has been grown together from those
dots. They lie on beds of sort of Velcro or pink plastic in a little Plexiglas
box and it ain't the farm. It's about as far away from real life as you might
think but that is where these foodstuffs are being created.
GROSS: So is the biggest slab of beef that they have so far a little dot in a
Mr. SPECTER: Yes. The biggest slab - there are quite a few slabs this size, but
they are about the size of a contact lens, which you think is ridiculous. It's
millions of cells and it's one of these situations where if you can grow
millions of cells you should be able to grow many many billions of cells.
But they have started out really very thoughtfully. They want to make sure that
the science works before they try scaling it up. And they all sort of feel -
many people feel that scaling it up is not the issue that it will - that will
happen. It's an engineering problem and if there is money you can scale
something up. But right now that's not where they are. Right now they want to
make sure you can grow the meat, you can grow it in a healthy way so that the
cells work and engineer it so that it's actually something you'd want to eat.
GROSS: So you haven't tasted any of this but have the scientists tasted any of
Mr. SPECTER: Yeah.
GROSS: Or is it not ready to be tasted yet?
Mr. SPECTER: It's we're pre-taste. We're just in the stage of growing cells as
opposed to growing tissue. So we haven't even gotten to the point where you'd,
you know, see a chicken breast or something like that. That could have been
somewhat rapidly, but there's another issue too, which is it's hard to taste
something like that because you don't know what's in it and so no scientist is
going to let you taste it because if you were to keel over it would tend to be
bad for its funding. So these things have to be approved by the FDA and by
organizations in Europe like the FDA before anyone could be chomping down on
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Specter. He writes about
science for the New Yorker magazine and we're talking about his current article
"Test Tube Burgers. How long will it be before you can eat meat that was made
in a lab?
Michael, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
Mr. SPECTER: Sure.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Specter. He writes about
science for The New Yorker. We're talking about his current article "Test Tube
Burgers" and it's about scientists who are trying to create artificial meat in
So if these experiments did succeed, do you think they could succeed on a big
enough scale to actually make a difference in the food crisis?
Mr. SPECTER: Yes, they could. There's a lot of ifs there and one of them I
really think is the most important if really is the will of people to do this.
But if you look at other technologies, if you look at the human genome project
for instance, that was supposed to cost more than $3 billion and take 13 years
to sequence the genome of one man starting in 1986, I believe. We can now do
that in an evening for 1,000 bucks. It's not that many years later.
You look at computer processing, things that cost literally a million dollars
50 years ago, are cheaper than I would put in a $10 watch right now. So that
kind of thinking happened with this technology but it would need the support -
that only happens when people want to buy the stuff and when they want to
It's sort of a weird snowball. You have to get someone to get excited and then
when someone's excited other people get excited. But until someone gets excited
everyone's sitting there saying eh, who wants to do this? How can we do this?
But scientifically, technologically, there isn't any reason why this couldn't
be really significant.
GROSS: We mentioned that the Netherlands has contributed to what - $2 billion,
$2 million? What is it?
Mr. SPECTER: Two million.
GROSS: Two million.
Mr. SPECTER: Two million euros.
GROSS: Yeah. I guess that's not that much. But...
Mr. SPECTER: It's nothing in the scale of these things.
GROSS: Yeah. But you described, nevertheless, the Netherlands as having become
the Silicon Valley of artificial meat.
Mr. SPECTER: True.
GROSS: I guess I'm not supposed to say artificial meat.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It's lab-grown meat. But what's happening in the United States? Is there
any action here?
Mr. SPECTER: They're a couple firms, sort of small firms exploring it. There
are some researchers at different institutions, including a guy named Vladimir
Mironov who is at the University of South Carolina and is soon moving to
another university, I'm not sure which, who's been doing this for a long time.
And he, like the guys in the Netherlands, his background is as a tissue
researcher, as a person who is trying to figure out how to make organs that we
can replace our organs with because we have a terrible organ donor shortage.
So there's a bunch of theoretical work. There's lots of regenerative medicine
going on in this country, which is very similar to this meat work, but the
specifics of the meat isn't being done anywhere all that much. In part because
nobody and people are going to have to be brought around to the idea that this
is worth doing. They're, you know, they're going to want their cheap meat at
the supermarket and some people are going to want expensive organic animals
grass fed and neither of those two things will fit into this paradigm.
GROSS: Now there are ethical motivations behind lab grown meat, including
trying to spare animals from the horrible treatment that they get in these
factory farms. But are there ethical challenges on the other side, ethical
questions about growing meat in a lab?
Mr. SPECTER: Sure. When, I think there is what people described as a high yuk
factor when people talk about this. And people want to know, as they do with
many food substances that have been manipulated in different ways, who's doing
what to it? Who's getting what out of it? How do we know it's safe? How do we
know that these cells are really just meat cells and they are not contaminated
and some strange way? There will have to be a lot of discussion, debate and a
learning curve. There's no question about it.
There are ethical debates about a variety of this sort of thing. Right now
they're trying to, there's a company that wants FDA approval for a salmon that
it engineered to grow twice fast as normal salmon. And the idea would be
obviously, you grow them faster, you get more protein, it's quicker, it's
better. Lots of people don't see it that way. They're actually repulsed by this
idea and that's clearly going to happen with this and there's going to be a
And what I think is it's worth having the debate and the discussion, because
the stakes, the ethical stakes, the animal welfare stakes, the environmental
stakes, the climate change stakes are really really high.
GROSS: You know all the concerns about genetically modified foods and, you
Mr. SPECTER: I'm aware of them.
GROSS: Yeah, and a lot of people won't â I'm sure you are. And a lot of people
won't buy genetically modified foods because they think it's bad for crops and
they think it might be bad for their own bodies. Are there similar concerns
surrounding artificially created meat?
Mr. SPECTER: There will be. I don't think we're at the point where we're in
widespread concern yet but there will be and that's why we need to talk about
it because for instance, the health concerns around genetically modified foods
are just unsubstantiated. We've been eating them by the â we've been growing
them by millions of hectors for years and years. There has never been one
substantiated case of illness ever on Earth as a result of eating genetically
modified foods. There are environmental issues as there are issues with
everything you ever grow or eat or do.
But in terms of health, that isn't an issue yet, it's seen as an issue. And
what needs to happen is people need to have conversations about thing so that
they understand what the pluses and what the minuses are.
And one of the pluses, by the way, of growing this kind of meat is that almost
two billion folks go to bed hungry every night in the world today. It's not so
much, you know, in Berkeley or Union Square in New York or Silver Spring,
Maryland that we necessarily need this meat. But if we could do this in such a
way that people who have no protein and are either eating no protein or trying
to eat wild animals like monkeys and gorillas to stay alive, could get this
kind of meat and get it at a fair price and know that it was healthy for them,
that would be wonderful.
GROSS: So did you walk away from this piece thinking you're likely to have a
test tube burger in your lifetime?
Mr. SPECTER: No, yeah, I do. I do. I think that this will happen. I think it
will happen not in the next year or two but I'd be surprised if 10 years from
now I wasn't able to have one. I would be surprised if 10 years from now I was
able to go into, you know, my local burger joint and say test tube burger
please. But I think they will be available. They will begin to be costly and
then the cost will come down, as with all technology. But I don't see any
reason why this couldn't happen soon.
GROSS: Well, it's an interesting story. And I want to thank you for talking
with us about it.
Mr. SPECTER: Always a pleasure.
GROSS: Michael Specter's article "Test Tube Burgers" is published in the May
23rd edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link to it on our website,
Michael Specter is also the author of the book "Denialism: How Irrational
Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our
I'm Terry Gross.
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