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What the Green New Deal will mean for your hamburger 11/3/2019
Amid the various critiques of the proposed Green New Deal, few capture the alarmism of the American right quite like Sebastian Gorka’s now viral claim that the deal’s proponents “want to take away your hamburgers … this is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved”.
 
While it is debatable whether Stalin would have rejoiced in a vegan United States, it is true that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a low-carbon economy would require a major reduction in livestock production. But there doesn’t need not be an either/or choice between the Green New Deal and meat consumption: the solution to the Green New Deal’s hamburger problem lies in Silicon Valley’s “clean meat” startups.
 
Cellular agriculture technology can already produce meat that is virtually identical in genetics and flavor to industrially produced meat, and it can do so without harming any animals. Last week, the UK thinktank Chatham House released a report urging EU policymakers to promote rapid regulation of and investment in this new technology. The United States needs to do the same. Government investment in scaling up alternative proteins should form a backbone of the Green New Deal’s commitment to job creation, industrial innovation and food security.
 
Every year over 9 billion land animals are slaughtered in the United States. Beyond being a nightmare for animals, industrial agriculture contributes 14% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Cows make up 41% of that, and the United States is home to just under 100 million of them. Reducing our carbon footprint must entail abandoning industrial agriculture, but changing people’s minds about eating meat is difficult, and getting them to actually eat less meat in even harder.
 
A 2017 survey shows that 95% of Americans claim to care about animal welfare and close to 50% want factory farms to be abolished. Yet Americans continue to eat an average of over 220lb of meat each every year. Habits are hard to break. And no one wants to be told what they can and can’t eat, even less so by the federal government, and least of all by people they disagree with politically. Gorka – and the trolls posting cow and wind gust emojis representing cow farts on Ocasio-Cortez’s tweets – are not wrong that eating meat is part of the American social fabric. But that doesn’t mean that cows have to be part of its agricultural landscape.
 
As part of its commitment to secure clean water and air, as well as healthy food for future generations of Americans, the current Green New Deal proposal recommends “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers … to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible”. It is unclear, however, how much the livestock sector’s GHG emissions could actually be reduced. Nor how any such reductions would mitigate its use of ever-more-scarce arable land and fresh water. Nor how this would benefit either labor or animals.
 
A far more promising avenue for ensuring an abundance of hamburgers is the emergent cellular agriculture industry. The plant-based meat and milk alternatives sector has seen tremendous growth in recent years, and the market for meat-alternatives such as the Impossible Burger is on track to grow to $5bn a year by 2020. But these products are mere alternatives. Cellular agriculture, meanwhile, uses animal stem cells to grow meat in a lab setting that is genetically analogous to meat from slaughtered animals. The Bay Area startup Memphis Meats has already produced meatballs indistinguishable from the real thing. Compared with conventional meat, clean meat generates 96% less GHG emissions, and uses 99% less land and up to 96% less water.
 
Cellular meat has yet to be released on the market, pending both regulatory clearance – which has been hotly contested by the cattle ranching lobby – and the ability to lower costs and scale up production. However, the sector has won hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital funding, including from major meat companies like Tyson, and many companies in the space plan to launch their first products within a year or two.
 
There is an amazing number of synergies between the aims of the Green New Deal and cellular agriculture. The most obvious is the potential for GHG reduction, but others go far beyond environmental impact. A 2017 reportfrom the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine flagged stem-cell-based meat as a key area for American biotechnology innovation. Similarly, a recent white paper by the Good Food Institute (GFI) shows that investment in clean meat would increase economic opportunities for everyone from Stem graduates to food service workers, and have carry-over applications in areas like regenerative medicine. This tracks precisely with the Green New Deal’s economic aims of supporting public investment in clean technology, high-quality job creation and industrial diversification. Federal investment could hasten the technological development needed to lower production costs and get clean meat to consumers sooner.
 
Bringing cellular agriculture under the Green New Deal umbrella right now, as the sector is still developing, could also mitigate the potential problems the new industry might present. Question marks hang over the energy use (rather than GHG emissions) of clean meat, the role of the financial sector in shaping its development, and its effects on labor. Green New Deal investment could tie cellular technology to clean energy schemes, democratize and strategically steer investment to maximize social benefit, and use a job guarantee or retraining programs to protect workers who might lose jobs at farms and slaughterhouses. And it could do all this without depriving Americans of the meat they love. This could be the Green New Deal’s chicken in every pot moment: lab-grown hamburgers for all. (The Guardian)
 
 
PHOTO CREDIT: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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