By Dr. Ian Clarke
There is a new technique of tissue culture, which promotes the growth of beef in the laboratory. The companies involved in this development claim that the beef looks and tastes the same as beef from real cattle, though I realize that for some people this might be hard to swallow (pardon the pun).
It is grown from progenitor cells, which then become sinew, fat or muscle, just like the real thing. Unfortunately a laboratory grown steak will still set you back several hundred thousand dollars at the moment, but the developers claim that within a few years the prices will come down to supermarket prices. Laboratory cultured beef would be much cleaner than real beef, with no risk of salmonella, or other nasty bacteria.
I got thinking about this subject because the other day I happened to be parked near a local butchery where I could watch the butcher do his thing on a cow carcass. There was no refrigeration, he was wearing a bloodstained coat, spattered with bits of fat and meat, and he was obviously enjoying his job, enthusiastically hacking away at some piece of a cow, laid out on a blood stained wooden surface. In the process, bits of fat and meat flew everywhere, and I began to seriously consider the option of becoming a vegetarian.
Of course the meat we buy in Shoprite is sanitized and presented to us from a cooler, nicely shrink wrapped in a polystyrene container, with hardly a drop of blood in sight. But whether we buy our meat from some sanitized supermarket, or from the traditional butcher who has slaughtered the cow that morning, it still comes from cattle, which had been grazing contentedly up to that point. Actually, there are different time frames between slaughtering cows and serving the meat, depending on which culture you are from. Ugandan butchers slaughter the animal that very day and then sell the meat, while the European butchers slaughter the animal days, or weeks, beforehand and hang the sides of beef in a cold store.
When we were living in Luweero we decided to have a special barbeque to celebrate Easter, so I bought some recently deceased cow, and barbequed the meat. However, a problem arose when we tried to chew this meat, because it was so tough we could only suck it. In contrast I was at one of Kampala’s upmarket restaurants recently where I was offered ‘specially aged beef’. This was not because the waiter thought I was old, and I therefore would enjoy some very old beef, nor that the beef came from an old cow.
The aging has to do with what happens after the cow is deceased, which is when the beef is ‘aged’, though this isn’t really logical because the cow is already dead, and one cannot technically get older after death. Anyway, if you buy specially ‘aged’ beef you should know that it has been hanging around for a long time after the death of the cow.
Leaving aside the time interval between when the cow dies and we eat it, there is the aspect of how cattle are transported to the abattoir in this country. They are generally transported in appalling conditions, with their tails tied up, and their legs sticking out of the truck. As one follows behind these unfortunate animals one can literally smell the fear. I should make it clear that I am not a vegetarian and that I like meat, or at least I did, until I started writing this column. But apart from the inhuman way that cattle are transported, there is a larger problem with getting our protein from cattle. In blunt terms, cattle fart a lot, and produce methane as a result, which is a major greenhouse gas. Millions of farting cows are driving up the temperature of our planet.
Despite all this, I doubt that people will stop eating meat, even when laboratory cultured beef is available, simply because we all have our traditions which have a strong influence in our lives. When I was on my farm recently, one of the staff mentioned that the traditional rainmaker had diverted the rain away from the maize, because it had rained on the coffee but not on the maize.
‘But this is not due to some witchdoctor,’ I remonstrated. ‘It is due to microclimates.’ But he was having none of it; as far as he was concerned, the traditional witchdoctor had diverted the rain and that was that. He did not need any scientific talk since his traditional beliefs explained events perfectly well.
And we have now introduced some new traditions, which fit well with the old ones. I am speaking of the new churches whose pastors are referred to as ‘prophets’ who can predict the future. I was watching a local channel where the pastor/prophet was doing his thing, and along the bottom of the screen was a banner encouraging people to call in for healing, miracles and prophecy.
So the traditional witchdoctors can change the weather patterns, and the new prophets can predict the future. (I suggest that they should stand outside the betting shops where they could predict the winners and make a fortune). I have one prediction myself – that we will continue to eat real cattle, even if we know their farts are causing global warming.