Want to save the planet? Invest in better agricultural policy, not biotech meat

Let’s say you want to save the planet and you have a lot of money to spend. Be on the lookout for snake oil vendors who claim to have the silver bullet in biotech meat, i.e. meat grown from cells.

The biotech meat fantasy is a dangerous distraction from the entrenched politics that made conventional meat production so ubiquitous in the first place.

Available data suggests that in 2021, cell-cultured meat and seafood companies secured $1.4 billion in capital investment, the highest in a single year so far.

Last month, leading U.S. cell-grown biotech meat company Upside Foods announced it had raised $400 million for its Series C funding round, bringing the total to $608 million and giving the company “ unicorn” (valuation at over a billion dollars).

In December last year, Israeli cell-grown meat company Future Meat Technologies announced that it had raised $347 million in its Series B. They will build a plant in the United States to “meet the needs of the U.S. market” by moving into retail, according to the company.

So much money invested in businesses that are not just pre-revenues but also “pre-products” seems both staggering and mind-boggling. Fantastic meat is not enough.

Aside from the very real scientific and economic feasibility questions surrounding meat grown from cells, the product rests on the highly questionable assumption that consumers will replace food from slaughtered animals with synthetic options.

Where is the proof that it will happen?

A few industry-funded surveys of consumer “openness” are unconvincing given that this is an entirely new food category with too many unanswered questions. Questionnaires are likely to be biased in their wording. For example, industry-funded surveys use the term “greenwashed” from “cultured meat” for biotech meat and then find that consumers prefer this term to more specific, but less marketing-friendly terms, such as “to cell base.

Whatever you call it, we don’t have time to wait for fantastic meat to become a reality. The latest climate change report sent an urgent “now or never” message to limit global warming.

Instead, we need political action to address the evils of industrial meat production. The reason meat is so cheap and available is due to a complex set of government policies supporting oligopolies, resulting in a concentration of power in a handful of global corporations.

All this combined to tilt the market in favor of industrial meat products. It’s no coincidence that just four companies control more than 80% of the US beef market. We can thank the lack of enforcement of antitrust policies, even during Democratic administrations. Choosing not to enforce the laws is a policy in itself.

Moreover, the main fuel that keeps the engine of cheap industrial meat running is government subsidies for production inputs. Most people know how federal corn and soybean subsidies contribute to cheap meat, but that’s not all. A 2018 account lists 8 separate forms of federal farm subsidies totaling $20 billion a year. More than 70% of our taxes go to just three crops: corn, soybeans and wheat.

This excellent 2020 report entitled “The Feed-Meat Complex” sums it up succinctly:

“In the United States alone, an estimated 248.8 billion pounds of corn, soybeans, sorghum, barley, oats and canola are used to feed livestock and poultry. The majority of this livestock and poultry is controlled by a handful of multinational corporations. If these companies can reduce the cost of feeding their livestock and poultry, they will make more profit when they sell their beef, pork or poultry..”

Government largesse also supports access to water and land use rights; the list continues. None of this is going away just because investors are chasing a pipe dream.

So instead of investing billions in synthetic and biotech animal products, we should focus on policy change to fight the destructive animal agriculture that created this mess in the first place. The meat lobby spends millions to influence policy every year, more than $4 million federally in 2020 alone.

What might investing in policy change look like? The current farm bill, which governs much of the country’s agricultural policies, expires next year, and the usual suspects are already lining up to ask for favors in the next version. We need a seat at this table.

Additionally, in 2020 and again in 2021, Senator Cory Booker introduced a powerful bill that, unlike promoting biotech meat, could actually reduce the harm caused by factory farms. Called “The Farm System Reform Act,” the proposed law would, among other things, crack down on monopolistic practices by meat packers and impose a moratorium on large factory farms. As Senator Booker describes the vision:

“We must immediately begin the transition to a more sustainable and humane system. An important first step is to end our reliance on huge factory farms and invest in a system focused on resilient and regenerative production.

The bill has broad support, including farmer and rancher groups. Some of the leading vegan organizations that are instead cheerleaders for biotech meat solutions are missing.

Senator Booker, himself a proud vegan, enjoys a coveted seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Other committee members hail from “meat states” like Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. Senator Booker needs all the help he can get.

We need smarter, long-term investments, but not the kind that make money for shareholders and the start-ups and nonprofits that promote them. The kind that addresses the underlying causes of the problem and changes the entire food and agriculture system to create a healthier, more sustainable future. The kind who shuns industrial factory meat and cares more about the future of humanity and the planet than making a quick buck.

About Jimmie T.

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