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Franken-Meat: Mmm Mmm Good -- For All Concerned

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Fire up the carbon-neutral barbecue.

I'm all for what the skeptical are calling ''Franken-meat.'' PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is putting a million dollars where our mouths are: a big honking check to whoever can create marketable, affordable, realistic-tasting lab-grown chicken parts by the next presidential election year, 2012 -- a date which, like the warning on your rear-view mirror, is closer than it appears.

A million bucks -- a dollar, says PETA, for the number of chickens killed every hour in this country. If it's a gimmick, it's an engaging one, and ultimately both plausible and profitable.

Baby pork back ribs without killing a piglet ... veal that doesn't slaughter a calf ... chicken wings that you can grow without needing an entire [dead] chicken. Lab-cloned, made-to-order meat. Test-tube foie gras means Arnold Schwarzenegger could make the high-priced spread legal in California again. Cloned lamb chops mean not cloning a whole Dolly, just her baby gams.

As a vegetarian, I think cruelty-free, in vitro meat is a swell idea. Beyond the billions of domesticated animals not getting killed, wild species now on the verge of extinction because they're on the menu might still be saved -- and in Africa, that includes our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees.

And you -- even if you don't give a hang about the multiple billions of blameless creatures slaughtered every year to feed our species, perhaps you do give a hang about how much, or how little, time our species might have left on the planet. Livestock raised for human food reportedly accounting for nearly 20% of greenhouses gases -- and I'm not sure that that includes the destruction of natural forests and grasslands to grow animal feed. That little enterprise also releases tons and tons of greenhouse gases, and wheat acreage and cornfields are many factors less effective at cleaning up carbon dioxide than trees and natural grasslands.

Anyway, on-the-hoof meat is a pretty inefficient means of delivering protein. You'd have to run your shower for at least three hours nonstop to equal the amount of water it takes to grow a single pound of beef. And as my columnist colleague Paul Krugman points out, it takes 700 calories' worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef.

Fewer cattle, pigs, chickens -- fewer greenhouse gases, more available water, more forest, more open space, more available land. I like that recipe. By 2013, restaurants could be bragging about serving cloned chops and filet.

And McDonald's can change all those signs to read, ``Billions SAVED.''

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