The case for big investments in plant-based and lab-grown alternative proteins
This piece gets at an example of why the move, in the last couple decades, to rebrand "liberal" as "progressive" hasn't really worked, led to new political gains or left behind the negative baggage the term liberal had accumulated. Most of today's self-describe progressives aren't actually very progressive, except on maybe a few pet issues.
Being a progressive means believing in progress across the board -- unabashedly, enthusiastically preaching progress and a better future by using human ingenuity to solve today problems by offering people something better, something new. Not stale, curdled reactionist thinking that wants to go back to some idealized past, whether neo-pastoral or neo-fascist, but forward to a better future, with more freedom and good things for everyone.
The list of progressive grab-bag ideas in response to Ezra's piece reads like a parody of itself. Why exactly are meant to treat this faction as a serious interlocutor with liberalism and not just a group of misanthropic communists who are more interested in wrecking every system they can find than in solving problems in a serious way?
I genuinely think a lot of vegetarians and vegans don’t even know how different their food lifestyle is than many peoples. Mark Bittman also said the replacement for meat is legumes which it is for me and many plant based eaters but this is built on sand if you’re trying to spread it outside of the foodie world of relatively affluent people who cook as a hobby.
People don’t know what to do with them, or how to season for them which for me is a fun adventure—let’s learn to make a new curry, but for a lot of people is a daunting task trying to get dinner on the table for several picky eaters.
I think that neopastoralism and the 'food sovereignty' movement are like antivaxxers but for agriculture.
Much as antivaxxers kill themselves and others due to a foolish belief in 'nature knows best', the belief that anything synthetic in agriculture is bad will get a lot of people killed. Safe and inexpensive chemicals to improve yields are vital to ensure we have enough to eat. The only people who eat organic are either mainly African people in absolute poverty, and rich wankers in Europe and the US who have the money to pay for such nonsense.
Food sovereignty sounds so cuddly, but anything that aims to damage and dismantle international food markets and emphasise ''''sustainability'''' in food production would be a world historic disaster if it succeeded, akin to forgetting how to make vaccines. The Wikipedia page for food sovereignty is an example of how you can use nice words to mask reality:
I'm afraid that the omens for making factory grown meat are not good. Even if we succeeded in mass producing it cheaply, would it be rejected for irrational reasons just like GMO crops?
Other technological breakthroughs include: Feeding cows seaweed decreases their methane emissions 82%! The idea that technology will help is anathema to Mark Bittman et al., but it's truly incredible stuff that reminds us there's a lot of low hanging fruit here, and we should invest in more research. https://caes.ucdavis.edu/news/feeding-cattle-seaweed-reduces-their-greenhouse-gas-emissions-82-percent
It's worth noting that by far the worst climate impacts are from ruminants - specifically, sheep and cattle (and goats, to a far lesser extent). Chicken and fish (or kangaroo, which tastes pretty similar to lean beef) are far less of a problem from a climate perspective.
I'd also add that the beef industry has been working on technology that cuts methane emissions from cows by a large amount: see https://www.future-feed.com/
I was raised as a vegetarian and have never intentionally eaten meat. I don’t eat fake meat either, not eating meat as a child made me think meat is disgusting, so the thought of eating an impossible burger is revolting to me. The difference between me and many vegetarians is I have empathy. I understand that my food preferences flow directly from what my mother taught me when I was very young. Therefore, other people are every bit as attached to their comfort foods as am I. You’ll have to pry my vegetarian pasta from my cold, dead hands!
I'm doing research on cultivated meat for my new book and I managed to eat a bunch of it while I was out in the Bay Area a few weeks back. I've been writing about it for several years and the speed with which it is now rushing to market is astounding. The big line even three years ago from skeptics was that it was a total pipe dream and was mostly a gimmick to fleece VCs, a perspective that I took seriously enough to believe I would personally be unlikely to eat it any time soon. But eat it I did! I ate lab salmon sushi and I had my first chicken and pork in seven years. It was all delicious--a perfect match on taste, if still facing some interesting textural challenges when the meat is entirely on its own. (You wouldn't notice these challenges in a sandwich or if it was breaded.) If the start-ups are to be believed, the big issue at the moment is regulatory approval, though I agree that, in the longer term, for realistic price parity, there's need for huge public pre-competitive infrastructure. I found this essay (by one of my co-authors) persuasive: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-022-00586-9#article-info
Meanwhile, the cultured meat stuff is all very interesting, but don't sleep on precision fermentation as a way of replacing dairy products.
Charles Mann has a great book about these environmental debates, called The Wizard and the Prophet. It goes through historical and current debates over the Wizards, who claim that technology will help us get around environmental problems, and Prophets, who claim that our living standards are unsustainable and we need to cut back. I think the past few years have demonstrated, that the Prophet path is a dead end. Most emissions are coming from developing countries like China and India. They're electrifying and eating more meat, and even if we, in the currently rich world, accepted large drops in our standard of living, it wouldn't change things. We have to technology our way out of this.
Matt, for all your pragmatism I haven’t seen you acknowledge the reason groups push for shadow taxes rather than actual taxes. Actual taxes are deeply unpopular!
Shadow taxes are bad on the merits, but Secret Congress can get them done.
Meanwhile there’s a broad majority of Americans who seem to think roughly: “The government provides me no benefits, therefore I should pay no taxes. Okay I guess a little tax to cover the military but that’s it!”
I’d love your take on what, if anything, can be done to make “raise taxes” politically viable again.
Thanks for this. I’d add a reinforcing point—
I actually went vegetarian some time ago in reaction to documentaries about CAFOs like King Corn. But besides the goal of phasing out CAFOs in the meantime throttling supply and not being the best lever, anti-CAFO is actually anti-climate. If we’re going to eat lots of meat, CAFOs are much more efficient in terms of land use etc. and going more agrarian would be much worse for climate.
As we transition the world, CAFO’s are the nuclear power of food: Climate-adjacent people would like to see it die for other sympathetic reasons, but we need to keep it around for the next decades, until we don’t.
Go hunt! There's an overpopulation of deer in much of the country, and whichever state agency oversees hunting in your state may well offer free learn-to-hunt classes for adults who have never hunted before. (There's a nation-wide tax on firearms and ammunition, and part of that money is funneled into state hunter education programs. So all the gun panic buying means free classes for you!) The resulting meat will have all the hyphenated adjectives the cool kids crave (free-range, locally-sourced, ethically-raised, environmentally-friendly, etc.)
For the author: https://dwr.virginia.gov/hunting/help-for-new-hunters/
Important piece. I would have liked two points addressed. 1. You seem to consider only taste and price as measures for our goals in developing alternatives to meat. What about nutritional value and health? As I understand it “impossible burger” is worse for you than a real burger.
2. Are emissions a problem for the entire meat sector equally, or are red meats the main problem? Do chickens and pork also cause emissions to a similar extent? What about the fishing industry ? Because I think getting people to prefer some kinds of meat over others is a smaller ask than making everyone vegetarian (or a fortiori vegan).
Considering the obesity epidemic and the fact that we clearly don't understand fully what processed food does to our body, I don't understand how anyone can push a transition to fake meat as good for people without a much more thorough understanding of what exactly it does to our bodies. This could be one of the great public health catastrophes of our time.
The problem I see with the not-meat companies is they offer no incentives for new farmers to take on the risk. Getting farmers who already grow peas to ship to you instead of Campbell's is one thing, getting corn and soy farmers to cultivate legumes is another. The companies (at least a year or so ago here in Iowa) offered no long-term contracts or provided any financing to make capital switching possible. When I spoke with one of the companies about this, it didn't seem to me to be an oversight, and I walked away thinking even though they weren't saying it that it looked like a business plan where they really wanted farmers to fight it out in the cash market, to keep the prices of peas and pulses low long run. Maybe it's different today and they are now offering longer term contracts or financing. I haven't heard.
Does meat really need to be solved in order to address climate? Why not energy abundance + carbon capture? To me the political and technical challenges of doing really good fake meat and ensuring mass-adoption make carbon capture all the more important. According to the EPA, agriculture represents only 11% of carbon emissions, so solving everything else first seems like a better bet to me. I love impossible meat though! https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions