June 15, 2021

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The one crucial thing missing from Biden’s climate plan

Then Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden grilled at Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 2019. | Scott Olson / Getty Images

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.