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We badly need better alternatives to conventional meat
The case for big investments in plant-based and lab-grown alternative proteins
I was walking around my neighborhood, thinking about how to frame my thoughts on the Van Gogh soup-throwers and Monet potato attack, when I saw an Extinction Rebellion handbill that summarizes their argument quite succinctly.
“Their power is in dollars” and “our power is in numbers” is, in a nutshell, how progressives believe climate politics works: money from narrow special interests induces elected officials to go against the will of the people, therefore the solution is always to mobilize more people and to engage in more political activism.
I think on some level, almost everyone with any power in the world knows that it’s wrong. When OPEC announced production cuts, nobody I follow expected it to help Democrats in the midterms because voters will be enthusiastic that we are getting closer to our global climate goals. People know, deep down, that voters like cheap gasoline, they know that OPEC’s moves were bad for Biden, and they know that the more recent decline in gas prices is good news for him.
And this narrative about political will versus special interests is particularly unhelpful when it comes to agriculture, and in particular the production of meat.
Facing up to meat and reality
Animal agriculture generates a lot of emissions. Global meat consumption is rising so rapidly that even pretty significant mitigations would only slow the pace at which meat-related emissions rise — we just do not currently have the technology we need to generate radical decarbonization in this sector.
But mainstream climate philanthropists and advocacy organizations often avoid this issue because it is simultaneously very hard and very simple.
It’s very hard in the sense that existing alternative proteins just aren’t good enough. The Impossible Burger does great in taste tests, but it’s a lot more expensive than a traditional hamburger. The Beyond Burger does not do as well, and everything else does much worse. Alt-chicken products have an easier time taste-wise, because a lot of widely-used chicken applications are low flavor to start with. I had the Beyond Orange Chicken at Panda Express last week, and if you have any kind of soft spot in your heart for Panda Express, you’ll find it delicious. But chicken is much cheaper than beef, so even though alt chicken is closer to the goal in terms of flavor, it’s further from the mark in terms of cost.
But it’s very simple in the sense that plenty of people around the world already eat plant-based diets and live healthy, productive, and happy lives. There’s no reason we all couldn’t do that, with perhaps some exceptions for young children and adults with particular health concerns. The problem is most people don’t want to do that. Some people care enough about climate change to give up animal products, but that’s a very small share of the population. A strategy of just telling everyone to go vegan is going to fail. Worse, major climate advocates worry (rightly, I think) that it would generate backlash. If people feel the only way to meet global climate goals is to go vegan, and they really don’t want to go vegan, then a lot of them will also resist progress in more tractable areas like decarbonizing electricity generation or electrifying home heat. And that’s a bad outcome! I want to get people more fired-up about permitting parity for geothermal exploration and interregional electric transmission lines, not make everyone feel hopeless and demotivated.
So that’s a bummer — we have to own up to the fact that we are facing a bunch of overlapping, non-trivial technical problems and can’t convincingly claim it’s a question of political will.
But that’s okay by me because I don’t have a problem admitting that most people’s level of concern about climate change is pretty low. I don’t have a problem admitting that the barrier to decisive action is us ourselves and not the financial clout of special interests. If you ran a referendum on taxing meat, it would lose — and it would lose even if meat companies didn’t spend a dime on it. If large numbers of people wanted to give up meat for climate reasons, they could just do it. But they don’t.
If alternative proteins were better, more people would use them and that would solve a lot of problems. But right now, rather than own up to reality and try to invest in technological solutions, a lot of major climate funders and advocacy groups want to ignore the whole subject of meat to avoid cognitive dissonance.
Shadow taxes are a bad idea
One major exception to this politics of inattention is the Good Food Institute, an alt-proteins think tank whose president Bruce Friedrich is pushing for more government funding of alt protein research and development.
Last spring Ezra Klein wrote about Friedrich’s ideas, calling for a “moonshot for meatless meat” to try to do for alternative proteins what public policy, science, and technology has done for renewable electricity and batteries. It struck me as a politically unripe idea at a time when Democrats were still trying to round up the votes for more familiar concepts. But the basic idea “for government to put money and muscle behind the project — just as it’s doing for electric cars and weatherized homes and renewable energy” was and is extremely sound. The piece didn’t make a huge splash, but some of the pushback it got makes me worried that people who are aware of the problems in the global agricultural sector are trying to lead us down a dead-end that wastes a lot of time and energy.
Mark Bittman, Charlie Mitchell, and Melissa McCart for example said Ezra’s piece was all wrong, and the real solutions we need are:
A livable minimum wage, including an end to the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.
A swift path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“Phase out medium and large CAFOs”
“Ramp up collective bargaining, accountability, and inspection in the meatpacking industry”
Last but not least: “Start talking about land reform. Returning land to Indigenous people, and making Black people, other people of color, and women equal partners in land ownership and farming will improve food sovereignty and provide us with a collective right to determine what we eat. We don’t have that now: Our diet is determined in corporate boardrooms based on what’s most profitable.”
This is a mixed bag of ideas on the merits. But note that if the problem we are specifically concerned with is the climate impact of meat consumption, the causal pathway here is that some of these ideas, if implemented, would raise the price of meat.
I think it’s possible that in some cases, we could see large gains in animal welfare in exchange for very small increases in production costs (we’ve seen improvements for egg-laying chickens along these lines), which is a good idea. But if the concern is climate, the only way to get the necessary emissions reductions is through very large price increases. If phasing out CAFOs makes meat dramatically more expensive, then people will eat less of it and emissions will go down. This has the exact same political sustainability problem of trying to sell people on a meat tax, except it’s a much worse policy idea on the merits:
A tax generates revenue that could offset other taxes or be spent on popular stuff.
A tax reduces consumption and therefore emissions, whereas a shadow tax partly reduces consumption but partly pushes production to other countries.
A tax can be calibrated precisely, while a shadow tax has unpredictable effects and can blow up in your face.
In other words, it’s the exact same problem we’ve seen with the idea that instead of a carbon tax, we can restrict fossil fuel supplies. Reducing emissions with carbon pricing is hard. But reducing emissions by the same amount through supply constriction involves much larger economic costs and political problems. I think that in a new global climate of fiscal constraints, carbon pricing may make a comeback, but that’s a post for another day. Either governments will have to significantly curtail meat consumption (which is pretty clearly not a question of narrow special interests blocking the demands of the mass public) or governments and philanthropists will need to invest in technology. The progress we’ve made on electricity has come from developing cheaper and better alternatives to coal and oil. The progress that’s been made on heat has come from developing better insulation technologies and improving the quality of electric heating systems.
Renewable energy is growing because it’s cost-competitive at certain margins; the electric vehicle industry is booming because EVs are now the better choice for many people. Progress on meat will come the same way: getting better at making cultured or plant-based proteins.
Neopastoralism is not the answer
I hate to disagree with Mark Bittman, because I love his cookbooks and his recipe columns. I grew up in Greenwich Village, going with my mom to the Union Square Greenmarket, and when my kid was little, I loved to take him to farmer’s markets in D.C. He’s still a fan of the occasional agro-tourism outing, and we’ve enjoyed everything from the Pumpkin Festival at Butler’s Orchard to an organic farm and winery in Tuscany that the whole family went to over the summer.
All that stuff is great — and an R&D program focused on alternative proteins coheres very poorly with that kind of lifestyle.
Realistically, breakthroughs in lab-grown meats and plant-based meat substitutes are going to come from one of two places: big agribusiness conglomerates with a lot of technical know-how and expertise in agricultural supply chains and product development, or disruptive startups that lack those mass scale advantages but have the edge provided by singular mission and focus. We’re talking, in other words, about either big businesses or the founders of small companies that are hoping to become huge.
And the most likely route to adoption runs through big fast food chains. These companies are at the low end of the quality spectrum, so achieving a “good enough” product is easier. And they’re big. If at some point it makes sense for Burger King to offer only Impossible Nuggets, that displaces a lot of chickens. And if it’s making sense for Burger King, that probably means they are putting McDonald’s on the defensive and creating big financial incentives for them to develop their own alt nugget. Of course, it’s great to have home cooks and upscale restauranteurs experimenting with alternative protein. But the work with large chains is vital to securing mass adoption, which is what really matters.
This is, of course, an issue we’ve seen repeatedly in the energy space.
Moving the world to zero-carbon electricity is possible, but it necessarily involves lots of new construction projects and holes in the ground — and that’s true whatever the balance of solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, and carbon removal. The vision of someone living in a farmhouse with triple-pane windows and rooftop solar and getting really into composting is fine, but you can’t actually power a prosperous global economy that way.
Solving problems is good
I don’t know what an alt-protein R&D push should look like.
But people interested in climate philanthropy should pull some of the money they are currently directing to activist chum and send it instead to alt-protein research. And they should direct the rest toward policy advocacy to get governments to make big investments here. Realistically speaking, success probably involves quiet climate policy enacted by Secret Congress rather than a wave of student strikes or paint-throwing or the declaration of a climate emergency.
Right now, we have some plant-based meats that are pretty good, but they’re mostly not good enough or cheap enough. And we only have two companies at the leading edge of the technology. We need more investment in this space, more companies competing, a wider range of products, more scale in production, and lower costs. We’ve also seen a lot of promising work done on lab-grown meats that in principle could substitute for whole muscles (steaks, chops, roasts) in a way that plant-based foods possibly never will. At the moment, it’s just way too expensive. But either we’re going to figure out how to do that more cheaply, or else rising meat consumption is going to cause emissions to increase forever.
These claims aren’t even that controversial — they just require actors in the climate space to admit that the average person cares about climate change enough to support government-funded research but not enough to give up meat unless someone can invent something genuinely better.
But we need to resist distractions. A fresh paper from Philip Howard in Nature warns that “cellular agriculture will reinforce power asymmetries in food systems.” By the same token, developing utility-scale solar and affordable consumer batteries for cars and e-bikes hasn’t ended capitalism or solved all the world’s problems. But it does solve some problems, and those problems are important.