The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is widely known as one of the world’s most extreme animal rights groups, with policies that condemn people for not only consuming any type of animal product, but for owning animals for any purpose as well, including as pets.
But when it comes to generating mass publicity for their cause, they are proven masters.
The group’s move six years ago to offer a $1 million prize for the first person to create commercially viable meat in test tubes serves a case in point.
$1 million is a huge sum for a single organisation to spend on one prize.
However, as any business knows, it’s the return on investment that counts.
In the privately-funded research sector where scientists can spend more time trying to secure funding than performing actual research, $1m is a highly attractive carrot.
And it is virtual chicken-feed when compared to the tsunami of free global publicity such a carrot can generate for your cause.
Yesterday’s saturation media coverage of the world’s first test-tube hamburger undergoing taste-tests in London was just the latest example of how Peta’s $1m investment – or in effect lack of investment given that a winner has yet to be identified and the money paid out – continues to pay dividends.
The ‘meat’ pattie was grown and produced from the stem cells of a cow by Dutch scientist Dr Mark Post. The burger cost a reported A$450,000 to produce, funded in part by the founder of Google.
While PETA has not directly invested in Dr Post’s work, it has credited its $1m prize offer for putting ‘in vitro meat’ on the map, and for “spawning hundreds of news stories and creating a buzz that resonated around the world” according to a 2012 PETA press release.
“Since then, sponsorships have blossomed to include a grant of more than $1 million to a Dutch research team and the first-ever taste test of an in vitro hamburger developed by Dr. Mark Post,” PETA states.
(Anorther PETA article celebrating yesterday’s burger development reports that only a few stem cells are needed to produce 20,000t of artificial meat, and adds that a nutrient broth sourced from fetal calf serum is used to grow the stem cells. How much serum from unborn calves is needed to produce thousands of tonnes of test tube meat, and how this fits in with PETA’s anti-animal use philosophies are among many questions about the new technology that remain yet to be answered.)
Regardless of whether PETA can claim any credit for Dr Post’s test-tube burger, it would have undoubtedly been delighted to observe that almost without exception, every article of the hundreds that covered yesterday’s development reported that livestock production is bad for the planet, that meat is bad for human health and that invitro-grown meat offers the only sustainable and responsible alternative.
The articles that did endeavour to provide some attribution for those claims seemed to refer almost invariably to the same source of information – the United Nation’s Livestock Long Shadow report produced in 2006, which concluded that the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than the emissions of the total global transport industry.
Little matter that that report has been widely discredited since one of its authors admitted publicly on BBC radio that the methodology made unfair comparisons between livestock and transport and effectively exaggerated the environmental impact of livestock.
In a quick Google search yesterday Beef Central could only find one mainstream media article that questioned the lack of evidence underpinning the widely reported view that meat is public enemy number one for both the environment and human health.
London’s Daily Mirror wrote on the subject yesterday:
The anti-meat lobby is fond of arguing that if we all gave up eating animals we would have a sustainable planet and a secure food supply.
In truth, there is a wealth of evidence that livestock farming, carried out in a compassionate, responsible manner, is good for the environment.
The Prince of Wales, who probably understands more about protecting the environment than many ideological anti-meat campaigners, recently made this fascinating statement about the work of Allan Savory, who has carried out long-term studies of the effects of animal farming in southern Africa.
As Savory ‘has shown so graphically’, said the Prince, ‘the land needs the presence of feeding animals and their droppings for the cycle to be complete, so that soils and grassland areas stay productive’.
It also discussed the paradox of environmental policies that produce bad environmental outcomes in the real world:
So, contrary to the ‘all meat is bad’ view, some areas of the planet might benefit from having more grazing livestock.
Looking at Britain, where we have excellent grazing pastures because of our climate and geography, most of our lamb and much of our beef comes from animals reared outdoors.
Much of the land they graze simply cannot be used to grow food crops, such as lentils and aubergine. Furthermore, these permanent pastures act as carbon sinks, helping to lock carbon in the soil, benefiting the environment.
Yet again we see the paradox, where a policy presented as environment-friendly is the exact opposite.
I am disappointed that the increasingly vocal anti-meat lobby fails to distinguish between different types of livestock rearing. Like them, I am opposed to intensive, factory farming, which is cruel to animals and produces poor quality meat.
But free-range agriculture is completely different.
(Links to the full Daily Mirror article and Allan Savory’s recent TED presentation at bottom of article)
The livestock sector can complain all it likes that the media is against it, but as respected Australian media veteran Anthony McLellan told the Northern Territory Cattleman’s Association in Alice Springs earlier this year, it may as well take a bex and a lie down for all the good that attitude will do.
The bottom line is that animal rights, vegan, vegetarian and welfare groups that rely upon public donations for survival have been far more effective at pushing emotional buttons and selling the message that livestock farming is bad to city-based populations that are largely disconnected from the realities of agriculture than the farming sector has been at selling its message that modern livestock production is sustainable and not the evil these groups portray it to be.
What can the livestock industry do about it?
Learning from their opponents mightn’t be a bad place to start.
A $1m investment – which has still never been paid – in return for years of ongoing global publicity and the recruitment of some of the world’s best scientific brains to your cause isn’t bad ROI in PETA’s book.
In a timely coincidence, the Five Nations Beef Committee is meeting in Australia next month.
The committee brings together the peak beef cattle industry councils from Australia, the United States, Mexico, Canada and New Zealand to discuss issues of common importance to the global beef cattle sector.
Between the five countries they account for more than half of the world’s beef cattle herd, and generate many millions of dollars in industry funding for research, development and promotion of the industry.
The opportunity exists for the industry at that meeting to discuss jointly funding the industry’s own international $1m prize to the scientist/researcher who can best demonstrate the environmental and human health benefits of beef production.
What is there to lose? $1m may well be less expensive than the cost of doing nothing.
Daily Mirror article: Miracle? No the new Frankenburger turns my stomach
Allan Savory’s TED video: How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change with livestock