Human history is rife with examples of natural phenomenon radically changing his existence — the ice ages and smallpox, to name two. The AIDS virus has had a profound effect on the sexual behavior of many people the world over. Now, a mysterious protein, the prion, is about to change the eating habits of many people in the West and those aspiring to the standards of “developed” nations. The timing is perfect!

Population growth and improving standards of living are putting pressures on natural resources, including water and arable land, not only to feed a growing number of people but also to feed them in the manner of “developed” societies. The term “sustainability” arises in this context.

Some people would argue that the AIDS virus is nature’s way of reining in unchecked human expansion and, likewise, that bovine spongiform encephalitis, also known as mad cow disease, is forcing beef-eating cultures to reconsider this luxury food.

Mad cow disease, like its human version, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is one of the deadly progressive neurological disorders called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. The operative word is transmissible — across species.

The idea of recycling the unused parts of animals to feed other animals is an old concept but today’s “intensive farming” methods have short-circuited the time-consuming process of going through the many levels of the food chain.

A modern process called rendering uses low-temperature vacuum to strip bones of flesh, including infected nervous-system tissue. In the old days of commercial rendering this stew was boiled, effectively killing many harmful microbes. Rendered feed substituted for grain is one of the reasons meat is inexpensive but the rendering process has been made less expensive and less safe by using the low-temperature vacuum system.

Rendered feed seems to be the medium of transmission for this cross-species neurological disease. Whatever the agent — prion protein or mysterious virus — the fact remains that growing animals to supply our complex protein needs is going to be much more expensive and always tainted with fear.

Nutritional experts agree that Western adults consume far more complex protein and fats than is necessary to sustain a healthy life. In fact, the amounts consumed contribute to poor health and disease.

The world is facing an assault on its complex-protein sources: an epidemic chicken virus in China a few years ago, mad cow disease, the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England and depleted fish stock in the oceans.

The demand for meat increases as societies develop and the supply is going to become more expensive to produce. The problems will be exponential as the Earth’s population of 6 billion doubles in the coming 50 years. It seems easy to conclude we will eat much less complex protein, and meat will become a luxury food.

The word “luxury” implies a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort. Californians had this situation regarding electrical energy and are now forced to either do without or pay more. The same will be true for those in the world who wish to consume complex protein in the form of mammals, fowl and fish.

Some basic terminology and facts offered by environmental expert Bill McKibben are worth noting. The term “carrying capacity” refers to the amount of land, water and other natural resources needed to support human beings. Obviously a nomadic tribesman requires less natural resources than a person living in a Manhattan penthouse apartment with an attendant life style.

On a yearly basis, how many hectares of land does each American need to supply the food they eat, the grain needed to feed the animals they eat and the paper, furniture and houses they use? How much water is needed to not only drink and wash (body and clothes) but to irrigate the avocado and lettuce groves in arid California? What about oil for energy and plastics? Needless to say, the “footprint” of each American is big, over five hectares! It’s about the same for the other G7 nations.

Of course, the real footprint of a human being is pretty small. We could stand all the people of the world on half of Rhode Island, and if each person lived in a “Tokyo size” apartment, a space half the size of Texas would suffice.

We have 90 percent of the current world population striving to attain the “mode of life” of the 600 million or so citizens of the developed countries. According to Stanford biologist Peter Vitousek, the evidence indicates we are already approaching “biophysical limits.” Consider the fact that it takes four kg of grain to produce one kg of pork, and for beef the input is at least three times as great. Producing a ton of grain consumes 1,000 tons of water. Add another 6 billion people and the arithmetic is pretty simple, if not daunting.

In order to sustain the carrying capacity of the Earth we have to use our agricultural resources more efficiently: grain feeds people, not animals.

Of course, we will want our juicy stake on some special occasion but it will cost the equivalent of hand-fed Kobe beef, about $100 per 500 grams. It will be accompanied with a pedigree and a certificate of assurance.

The logical and ecological reasons to change our eating habits, especially meat, sound convincing, but appeals to logic seldom persuade when it comes to our appetites for food and sex. However, fatal human nervous-system disorder as we see with CJD or its bovine equivalent just may result in large-scale behavioral change for the betterment and survival of all.

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