The Anti-Meat Pill: Human Engineering to Combat Climate Change

A forthcoming paper explores the biomedical modification of humans in order to stop us from consuming red meat. This would have a mitigating effect on climate change. 

NYU Bio-ethicist Matthew Liao has caused a stir recently with a forthcoming paper that explores the biomedical modification of humans in order to stop us from consuming red meat.

Liao is no stranger to controversy. He is known to Big Think readers for his dangerous idea that people should be allowed to take memory-erasing "eternal sunshine" pills to cope with traumatizing events.

In a forthcoming paper to be published in Ethics, Policy and the Environment, Liao suggests that humans might take pills to bring about mild nausea to rid ourselves of our appetite for red meat. This would have a mitigating effect on climate change, he argues. 

Liao refers to studies such as a widely-sited UN report that estimates 18 percent of greenhouse emissions come from livestock, which is a higher share than transportation. Another report, from 2009, estimates livestock emissions are significantly higher, at 50 percent. Fact of life: cows fart. Other negative impacts of increased livestock farming includes deforestation and a drain on water supplies. 

As the world population increases, the problem of greenhouse emissions from livestock will only grow worse. Or will it?

What if meat consumption is reduced? Liao argues that even a minor reduction would have a major impact, and the way to accomplish this is human engineering. Think about it. While social and cultural incentives have failed to produce the necessary outcomes in human behavior, what if we controlled our appetite for meat by triggering nauseous reactions? Or if that doesn't sit well with you, how about introducing a "mild intolerance" to condition the immune system to reject 'eco-unfriendly' food? 

And yet, "phamacological meat intolerance" is only one solution among many that Liao offers.

Engineer Humans to Be Smaller

What is your ecological footprint? It depends how big you are. Liao points out the simple fact that we all need a certain amount of food and minerals to maintain our body mass. Therefore, Liao argues that even a small reduction in the average height of humans could have a significant effect on what we consume. How do we achieve this? Liao suggests using "preimplantation genetic diagnosis" (PGD) to select shorter children. This does not involve any genetic intervention. It's simply a matter of selecting the right embryos to implant. In addition to selecting short children, Liao suggests using drugs or nutrients to reduce birth weight as well. 

Lower Birth-Rates Through Cognitive Enhancements

If you consider that each child you have will be responsible for 160 times more greenhouse gas emissions, you might also want to consider, as some researchers have suggested, that no family should have more than two children. 

Pharmacological Enhancement of Altruism and Empathy

Big Think blogger David Ropeik recently alerted me to a surprising study that found young people today don't care much about the environment and are doing even less about it. How can we change that? One possibility is to drug them with the prosocial hormone oxytocin. Liao points out that is one of a number of human engineering solutions to increasing empathy. 

Why Human Engineering?

Liao contrast human engineering with geoengineering, which involves "large-scale manipulations of the environment including reforestation, using space-based mirrors to alter planetary albedo, and fertilizing the ocean with iron to enhance carbon sinks." Modifying humans, as opposed to the environment, is considerably less risky, argues Liao. 

After all, if you've read about so-called "pink slime" and you're as disgusted by it as I am, you've probably started to rethink a lot of your eating habits already. And if a nausea-inducing pill is not your thing, we have provided a literary version of this pill in a separate post, which quotes a passage from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle describing Chicago's turn of the century meatpacking industry. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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