There is a burger-shaped hole.
President Joe Biden has a plan to tackle climate change. Its main infrastructure program, the American Jobs Plan, is primarily a project for doing just that. It is exhaustive – the summary alone it comes to 12,000 words – and that’s encouraging. But there is something crucial missing in all these words.
Nowhere is there any mention of “meat”. Likewise, “animal agriculture” appears exactly zero times.
If Biden is serious about averting climate disaster, our meat system is not something he can afford to ignore. At least 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from animal agriculture. That is largely because ruminants such as cows emit a lot of methane and the production of feed requires the use of energy and the clearing of forests that otherwise trap carbon.
The United States plays an outsized role in all of this.
“If US agriculture were its own country, it would be the 14th largest emitter in the world,” said Richard Waite, an associate researcher at the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization. “We can’t get to where we need to be on climate if we don’t also address our agricultural system.”
Repairing our meat system is also critical to preventing future pandemics, another goal of Biden’s American Jobs Plan. The intensive farming, the huge industrialized structures they supply 99 percent of American meat, animals overcrowded by the thousands in unsanitary conditions that paralyze their immune systems and make them vulnerable to disease, which could easily trigger the next pandemic.
Although the Biden administration has announced a new initiative wave “To accelerate global agricultural innovation through increased research and development,” he has so far neglected to address the problems with intensive farming.
And there is a probable political reason why. Eating meat has become enmeshed in the country’s cultural wars. a fake Tabloid-fueled rumors that Biden was trying to ban burgers it recently provoked an apoplectic reaction among Republicans. Imagine the backlash if Biden did in reality lawyer for cut subsidies to the meat industry, a factory that requires farms to report and reduce emissions, or completely eliminate intensive farming.
“I think these kinds of policy options are less viable in this flesh-as-culture-war-object era,” said Alex Smith, an analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based environmental research center. What he suspects might work is “more carrot and less stick”.
While the Biden administration is expected to fight uphill battles, it should also give a strong boost to investments in food and agricultural research and development that can set the food system on a sustainable path. Such a push would likely encounter less resistance.
There is a clear parallel here with the rise of green technology. In the fight against the climate crisis, the innovation sown by the government has played a fundamental role, leading to a boom in solar and battery technology and electric cars. Biden now has a similar opportunity to accelerate food and agricultural technology – and it would cost relatively little, at least compared to the scale of its broader agenda.
A research and development program to expand plant-based food research and explore improvements in how we grow plants and animals will not solve climate change alone. But it should be part of a multi-pronged struggle against the crisis that defines our time.
It is time to invest in research and development for meat without meat
For decades, the US government has been pouring money into the meat industry. That funding has effectively transformed the industry into what it is now. For example, take “Chicken of tomorrow” program, which aimed to raise chickens that grew faster and had larger breasts. It was organized by the Department of Agriculture in the 1940s and led to the development of the contemporary broiler chicken, the type many people eat today.
Now, some argue that the government should do the same thing, but for the meatless meat industry.
Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have ushered in a new generation of plant-based meats. They don’t exactly taste like real meat, but they are quite similar. Meanwhile, other companies are working on developing lab-grown or “cell-grown” meat. We can expect it to taste exactly the same as the real thing because it is grown from real animal cells. The downside is that it is still astronomically expensive to produce.
The Biden administration could help accelerate alternative meat technology by investing in research and development. Right now, private investors may not want to take the financial risk of looking for truly innovative new technologies, which may take years to pay off, but a large infusion of public money may make the field seem more of a safe bet.
“The rationale for true technological innovation in this space may not exist for private investors in the same way it might exist for public investment,” said Smith, adding that the sector needs new technologies because the industrial process that currently Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat use is very energetic and expensive. This cost comes down to consumers, who find that the Meatless meat in grocery stores is even more expensive than regular meat.
Public funding could catalyze researchers to find low-energy, low-cost ways to produce meat without meat. It could also help them understand how to improve taste and texture by identifying better ingredients.
Most of the research on alternative meats is currently conducted by startups who continue to keep their findings private, because much of a startup’s value can reside in the intellectual property it holds. But Biden could direct public R&D funding to academics that would generate a lot of open access research, which would then benefit everyone in the field, from startups to established meat companies looking to get into the alternative meat game.
This wouldn’t require a lot of money from the Biden administration. The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to meat, says carving $ 2 billion for R&D would allow the sector to make great progress. Compared to other government spending (Biden’s infrastructure plan comes in at $ 2 trillion), it’s quite cheap.
We know from past experience that smart government spending is critical to moving America in a more climate-friendly direction. On the energy front, it already is helped reduce the cost of solar panels with a significant margin. It can – and should – also help on the food front.
“What we want is the equivalent of DARPA but for agriculture”
As nice as it would be to make meatless meat cheaper, tastier and more popular, it won’t completely replace real meat anytime soon. So it also makes sense to think about ways to improve conventional animal farming.
Again, more support for research and development could be useful. There are potentially promising technological innovations that we are missing out on because they are under-researched. The recent announcement by the Biden administration of a new initiative “Accelerating global agricultural innovation through more research and development” is vague and experts would like more clarity on what the initiative’s goals will be.
“There are a lot of things we think could reduce emissions and increase production at the same time – like perhaps red algae, for example,” said Tim Searchinger, a senior member of the World Resources Institute. He was referring to the possibility that feeding cows a particular type of alga could reduce their methane emissions (although he acknowledged that there is skepticism on this front and more data is needed).
“The first thing you would do if you were serious about this is that you would have 100 large-scale tests going on across the country for two years,” Searchinger said. “Instead, we have this a really nice guy at the University of California Davis carry out one small research project after another. We shouldn’t depend on a guy in a university! “
It made a comparison with DARPA, the Department of Defense’s advanced research agency, which receives billions of dollars each year for research and development of emerging technologies. (DARPA research helped lead to the invention of Internet, among many other innovations.) “What we want is the equivalent of DARPA but for agriculture.”
Smith echoed that desire and argued that it would be perfectly politically feasible for Biden to incorporate more funding for agricultural research and development into upcoming legislation such as the upcoming Farm Bill.
Chloë Waterman, program manager at the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, agreed that the United States needs to significantly increase its agricultural research and development. But he noted that we not only need new technological know-how, but we also need economic research on how to make a “just transition” to more climate-friendly agriculture.
“I would like research on animal agriculture to be geared towards the ‘how’,” he said. “How can we successfully transfer farmers who are engaged in intensive farming to do different types of agriculture? What are the best combinations? What will be the most economically viable alternatives to move towards? “
Waterman added that there are also useful changes that the Biden administration can make immediately, such as allocating more of the USDA Foods budget to purchasing plant-based food for schools. purchase of meat and dairy products). “I think there is a huge lost opportunity in using the government food supply,” he said, adding that contracting plant-based companies would send a message to investors that there is a reliable market for that type of food.
But she is skeptical that relying on carrots rather than sticks could help the United States fix its food system at the speed required by the climate emergency, which reflects the broader idea that the fight against climate change will have to be a battle on several fronts.. Politically unpopular or not, he said, the Biden administration must regulate the meat industry – forcing it to report and reduce emissions, to begin with – rather than rely on it to make voluntary changes as new technologies or new contracts become. available.
“This is the decisive presidency if we can fend off the worst impacts of climate change, so we can’t afford to work on the sidelines,” he said. “We have to say, ‘This is an industry that is fueling climate change and we have to abandon it.’ Unless we really bite that bullet, we won’t be successful. “