Filler: Chow down on a test-tube burger and quit worrying about tomorrow

A burger made from cultured beef is shown A burger made from cultured beef is shown to the media during a press conference in London, England. (August 5, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Lane Filler Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Lane Filler

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board. He came to Long Island in 2010

So it really took us 35 years longer to make a test-tube Big Mac than a test-tube baby?

There are reasons, of course. We live in a market-demand world, and while the planet was not lacking for infants in 1978, when the first test-tube baby was born, couples who could not have one of their own created a demand for the technology to change that.

Today, in vitro fertilization is so common, particularly in affluent areas, that the process could be sold as part of a child-rearing package: "OK, so that's two fertilized eggs, two strollers, one copy of 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,' a nursery-school application consultant package, two prescriptions for Ritalin, two prescriptions for Adderall, a lifetime AARP membership for the soon-to-be-50 mother, and a nine-seat Dodge Normandy Invasion Up-Armored SUV with pro-environment bumper stickers. So the total is . . . $103,516.42. Cash or charge?"

But it was only this week that the first laboratory-grown beef burger got gobbled. The product won't be flying out of fast-food joints anytime soon, unless McDonald's decides to experiment with a "$332,000 Value Menu," but it's an important development nonetheless.

The World Health Organization says planetwide meat production is expected to rise to about 730 billion pounds per year by 2030, up almost 75 percent from what it was 15 years ago. This is a problem.

Meat production now contributes about 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Feeding that many animals means cutting down a lot of rain forests and clearing other diverse, helpful acreage to grow our steaks and sausages. Meat is inefficient, because a cow will eat six pounds of corn or soy or other feed for every pound of weight it gains.

So 15 years from now we would, at the point where we are going through a couple billion animals for food each year, face a clear-cut, hot, fertilizer runoff polluted and painfully poopy planet.

It's always easy to see the future's mounting problems: "Well, there will be twice as many people, the only oil will be what we can harvest from the faces of teenagers, and global warming will cause a shortage of handbasket ingredients, meaning we'll be cramped and irritable as our society takes the journey straight to hell." What's hard to envision are the technologies we'll develop to conquer those future problems.

Paul Ehrlich began his 1968 book, "The Population Bomb," with these words: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."

It was entirely untrue, as were most of the major predictions in this bestseller and his later books, such as "The End of Affluence" and "Extinction." Yet Ehrlich is still a respected professor of population studies at Stanford University.

People have predicted famine and want, pestilence and disease, for hundreds, even thousands of years. They could see the population growing but couldn't envision the improved plow, the irrigation, the antibiotic or the vaccine that would allow us to handle future needs.

So this week, ground beef grown from cattle stem cells was consumed by a couple of food tasters. They agreed it was OK, but could use cheese, ketchup, and fat cells to go with the lean ones grown.

And 35 years ago, couples who could not conceive a child found hope in a process so alien it sounded like the most outlandish science fiction.

Of course, when this all culminates in sets of spoiled triplets dripping PetriPatty juice on the seats of dad's Flying nine-seat Dodge Normandy Invasion Up-Armored SUV, it won't be as if we have no problems: They just won't be the problems we predicted.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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