American Hippopotamus – the Meat Question

By Sangamithra Iyer

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

A yawning hippo in the wild

A yawning hippo in the wild

In 1910, Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard introduced a bill to import African Hippopotamuses to the swamplands of the U.S. Gulf Coast to supplement the U.S. food supply. Author Jon Mooallem’s longform nonfiction multimedia story “American Hippopotamus” published by The Atavist details the origins and tracks the fate of this idea, which ultimately never came to fruition. The piece is a fascinating narrative and profile of two of the proponents of this scheme, who were once enemies fighting on opposite sides of the Boer War: American scout Frederick Russell Burnham (The inspiration for Boy Scouts and Indiana Jones), and Fritz Duquesne.

The proposal to import hippos was a response to what was then called the “Meat Question.” Mooallem writes:

“America was withering under a serious meat shortage at the time. Beef prices had soared as rangeland had been ruined by overgrazing, and a crippled industry struggled to satisfy America’s explosively growing cities, an unceasing wave of immigrants, and a surging demand for meat abroad… It was a troubling sign that maybe the country couldn’t keep growing as fast and recklessly as it had been. Maybe there were limits after all.”

Up until that point, U.S. had responded to shortages in food by land expansion, but the limits of this approach started to daylight. The introduction of African hippos to the U.S. was also an attempt to correct a problem caused by the introduction of a another foreign species. Water hyacinths—brought to New Orleans as a gift from a visiting Japanese delegation—rapidly reproduced and caused eutrophication and the formation of aquatic dead zones. The hope was that the African hippos would eat up the Japanese water hyacinths in waters of the U.S.

Burnham, Duquesne and Broussard had formed the “New Food Supply Society” to gain public and political support for this proposal. Mooallem describes the various arguments they put forth to counter initial resistance to the idea.

“Burnham challenged the committee to consider how bizarre it is that we eat only cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry—just four types of animals, basically all of which had themselves been imported by Europeans centuries ago.”

Burnham also provided a history of the adaptation of other imported animals to the American landscape- ostriches in California, Russian reindeer in Alaska, and African Camels in the American Southwest.

The ethics and potential ecological risks of bringing these animals to the U.S. are never fully addressed, as the men proposing this venture felt that those critical of the idea were either too small minded, or let emotion guide their decision making.

Despite the efforts of the New Food Supply Society, the hippo bill never got passed. Mooallem summarized a different path the nation took to answer the Meat Question:

“Rather than diversify and expand our stock of animals, we developed ways to raise more of the same animals in more places. Gradually, that process led to the factory farms and mass-confinement operations we have today—a mammoth industry whose everyday practices and waste products are linked to all kinds of dystopian mayhem, from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to a spate of spontaneous abortions in Indiana, to something called blue baby syndrome, in which infants actually turn blue after drinking formula mixed with tap water that’s been polluted by runoff from nearby feedlots.”

Over a century after the introduction of the hippo bill,the Meat Question still remains. How do we tackle the limits of our growth, issues of global food security and the ethical and ecological consequences of animal agriculture?

Mooallem isn’t necessarily suggesting that we would have been better off if we had implemented the hippo scheme, but he romanticizes the hippopotamus meat solution as one of idealism, offering a bold, innovative attempt at problem solving. “But there is something beautiful about the America that considered importing them—an America so intent on facing down its problems, and solving them, that even an idea like this could get a fair hearing,” Mooallem wrote.

There could also be something beautiful about an America intent on solving the Meat Question today. And what might that crazy, bold, radical solution be now? How about eating plants?

Photo courtesy of Doug88888/Flickr

Cruelty-Free and Sustainable Meat?

By Lauren Berger

Would you eat a lab created burger?

Would you eat a lab created burger?

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

At the New York Academy of Sciences Frontiers in Agricultural Sustainability: Studying the Protein Supply Chain to Improve Dietary Quality seminar a few weeks ago, scientists unveiled a new and exciting development into sustainable and cruelty-free meat and leather (an oxymoron, to say the least): lab created meat and leather.

So how can meat and leather be sustainable and cruelty-free? Scientists in Denmark and the United States have figured out how: by taking skin and tissue biopsies from cows, scientists are able to grow meat and leather cultures in a lab ultimately to the shape of a hamburger or a piece of leather, without killing animals and without producing harmful waste from factory farms. The biopsies are similar to biopsies humans receive, minimally harming the animals and allowing them to live after the procedure.

So, why the move towards lab based meat? Citing the harmful impacts of livestock production on the environment, the world’s growing population and demand for meat, and animal welfare concerns, scientists are looking to develop alternative ways to deal with these issues.

It seems like an ingenious, albeit costly, solution. Cultured Beef, one of the organizations that looks to develop lab based meat, says that as humans we are conditioned to like meat and proposes lab based meat as a solution to the negative effects of this primal need. When asked if the scientists support a plant-based diet in addition to lab based meat in order to reduce the impact of meat consumption, Dr. Mark Post, the scientist that debuted the first lab created beef burger to positive reviews in London, said that it is hard to tell people, particularly in the developing world, to stop eating meat when they have just begun to be able to eat meat due to financial growth.

This world of lab created meat and leather is intriguing as the process itself pretty much removes the negative effects of meat production. But would you eat lab created meat? What would it mean to eat lab based meat if you are a vegetarian or vegan? Would you think it was “odd” or “inorganic” in the same way processed foods are? Or would you view it as a way to get your meat fix in a more environmentally and animal friendly way?

Lab created meat and leather is extremely innovative and raises a lot of questions, but overall, it offers a new and exciting solution to the detrimental effects of livestock production: something we should all applaud.

Photo courtesy of Lucas Richarz/Flickr