Where isn’t the beef?
No such thing as a free lunch
The incorporation of animal meat 2.6 million years ago was the first significant alteration of the human diet - fundamentally changing the trajectory of humanity. Cut to the past fifty years:
Worldwide meat production has quadrupled to over 340 million tons per year
Animal protein consumption has increased by roughly 44 pounds per person, with the steepest gain in low- and middle-income countries
As the son of a chef and grandson of a humble dairy farmer, I am concerned by the trajectory of the current volume of meat production to double by 2050. The idea of stymying consumer appetite for animal products is unlikely. And prohibition often creates more problems than it solves.
But sustainability doesn’t have to mean compromise. In reality, scaling up alternative proteins (alt-proteins) alongside regenerative agriculture may achieve up to 20 percent of the emissions mitigation needed to stay below 1.5°C by the half-century while creating products people want more of without the negative impacts.
Beyond emissions reductions, this reorientation of farming could provide an opportunity to restore degraded landscapes and enhance the flavor, nutrition, and functionality of our favorite foods.
I agree with regenerative grazing advocates who believe more sustainable and ethical forms of animal husbandry exist. Yet the bulk of meat consumed today comes from industrially raised livestock. Rather than roaming rolling hills, most animals destined for a dinner plate are fed GMO corn and soy and pumped full of antibiotics in cramped factory farms and feedlots, also known as CAFOs.
In this paradigm, livestock are a machine optimized to gain weight faster, consume feed more efficiently, mature sooner, and better withstand confinement. But cheap meat and dairy come with a steep cost to:
Animals: Due to unsanitary CAFO conditions, 65 percent of antibiotics in the US are fed to animals to prophylactically treat sickness. Thus, it is hard to decouple the use of antibiotics in CAFOs from the rise of antimicrobial resistance, one of the biggest threats to global health according to The World Health Organization.
Humans: CAFO workers and residents near factory farms experience adverse health conditions, including asthma, anemia, birth defects, fertility issues, and more. By 2050, human consumption of products derived from livestock overfed antibiotics may usher in a post-antibiotic era - causing nearly 10 million human deaths per year from antimicrobial resistance.
Ecosystems: CAFOs themselves produce more than 1.5 times the waste of many cities. Ground application of feces causes nutrient runoff that contaminates nearby soil and waterways. And while the animal waste sits idle in lagoons, it emits nitrous oxide (N₂O), a GHG with 300 times the warming power of CO2.
It is imperative that we find new ways to efficiently produce more high-quality protein while rebuilding the health of our planet. Compared to industrially produced meat, alt-proteins derived from plants, microbes, fungi, and cells use up to 99 percent less space and water while emitting up to 90 percent fewer GHGs.
At the same time, farmers following a regenerative playbook are improving soil fertility while sequestering carbon into croplands and grasslands by curbing chemical inputs, rotating cover crops, eliminating tillage, and strategically grazing animals on pasture.
Wizards and Prophets
The author, Charles C. Mann, refers to devoted environmentalists and scientists - striving to solve the same set of climate problems through different means - as "Prophets" and "Wizards," respectively.
Prophets believe that humans should respect Earth’s natural limits. In the context of protein production, this translates to restraint (reducing consumerism) and investing in a smaller supply of premium livestock raised in a way that breathes life back into pastures.
Wizards, on the other hand, believe innovation can overcome natural limits. This sentiment is embodied by techno-optimists who dream of creating protein abundance by replacing animal products with analogs.
While proponents of alt-proteins and regenerative agriculture may not always see eye to eye, both approaches seek to improve animal welfare, eliminate antibiotic resistance, safeguard biodiversity, and transform agriculture into a carbon sink.
There’s more than one way to shear a sheep
With less than 2 percent market penetration collectively, alt-protein companies could use regenerative farming partners and vice versa to overturn the industrial meat monopoly.
“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”
- African Proverb
Large alt-protein brands face mounting pressure to swap GMO ingredients grown in monocultures with cleaner-label inputs. Luckily, many legumes and non-legumes like chickpeas - key components in meat and dairy replacements - are ideal for cover crop rotations implemented by regenerative farmers. And new players like NuCiCer and Equinom are developing high-yield, non-GMO crops optimized for alternative protein applications, including higher protein content, reduced off-flavors, better solubility, emulsification, etc.
And similar to Kernza, a perennial grain naturally bred to fight soil erosion, regenerative farming can rapidly scale expand to more acreage by partnering with food manufacturers to offer alt-protein products with better flavor, nutrition, and function.
We are in the early days of developing new paradigms for protein production. In the last year:
The USDA announced up to $2.8 billion in non-dilutive capital for sustainable farming pilots via the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities funding pool.
The Inflation Reduction Act allocated $19.5 billion in incentives to agricultural conservation efforts.
The Biden Administration signed an Executive Order creating a National Biotechnology and Bio-manufacturing Initiative.
With so much momentum and talent pouring into the AgTech and FoodTech sector, we are hopeful about a future food system that is just, resilient, and regenerative.
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