I’m a vegan, but I’m also a realist. There’s no chance humanity is going to give up meat, en masse, anytime soon. That said, we can’t just wish away the risks of industrial animal agriculture. If we don’t end this system, soon, terrible things will happen to us and to the planet. Terrible things are already happening.
So this is going to be a column about finding a way to work with humanity’s growing appetite for meat rather than against it. All we need to do is replace the animals, or at least a lot of them. Technologically, we’re closer to that than you might think. What we need is for government to put money and muscle behind the project — just as it’s doing for electric cars and weatherized homes and renewable energy — so that the future happens fast enough to save the present. This is the hole in the American Jobs Plan, and it wouldn’t take much money, just a bit of vision, to fill.
Let me first lay out the urgency of the task and the rewards we could reap. As best we can tell, the novel coronavirus jumped from bats, to some other animal, to humans, with the locus of infection being a Chinese meat market. There’s nothing unusual about that. Swine flus — yes, plural — jump from pigs to humans. Avian flus jump from birds to humans. Ebola most likely came from monkeys. “Preventing the Next Pandemic,” a report by the United Nations Environment Program, estimates that 75 percent of the new infectious diseases that threaten humans come from animals.
The U.N. report goes on to name the seven major drivers of these emerging animal-to-human diseases. First is the increasing demand for animal protein. As populations get richer, they eat more meat. Since 1961, global meat production has more than quadrupled, to more than 340 million tons from 71 million tons. Americans are among the top meat consumers in the world: In 2018, each of us ate, on average, 222 pounds of red meat and chicken. Consumption in most other countries is far lower, but rising. In China, for instance, per capita meat consumption has more than doubled since 1990.
The more meat we eat, the more animals we need to raise. That brings us to the second driver of pandemic risk: the “intensification” of animal agriculture. There are still farmers who raise animals as our ancestors did, with respect both for their lives and for the land. But they’re the exception. To get the quantity of meat we eat, at the prices we want, has meant turning animals into technologies. They’re bred to gain weight fast, crowded together in sprawling industrial operations and pumped full of antibiotics to prevent disease.
These operations are petri dishes for viral mutation. The animals, whose immune systems are suppressed by stress and fear, fall ill easily, and every creature is a fresh opportunity for a virus to develop into a form humans can catch and then spread.
Viruses are not the only health risk from industrial animal agriculture, though. About 65 percent of antibiotics in the United States are sold for use on farms. These antibiotics are often, if not mostly, used to keep animals from getting sick, not to treat them once they’re ill. They’re then excreted in animal waste, where they make their way into waterways, into fish and into us. Antibiotic-resistant diseases are already killing 700,000 people a year worldwide. The U.N.’s interagency group on antimicrobial resistance estimates that could rise to 10 million per year by 2050. To put that toll in perspective, there are around three million confirmed deaths from Covid-19 so far.
The health risks of animal agriculture are compounded by the climate costs. Only 18 percent of the global calorie supply, and only 37 percent of the global protein supply, comes from meat and dairy. But about half of all habitable land on the planet is given over to agriculture, and more than 75 percent of that goes to animal agriculture.
This raises our disease risk. We keep encroaching deeper into the wilderness, bringing both our domesticated animals and ourselves into contact with new pathogens. But it’s also a huge driver of global warming: We’re cutting forests that were sequestering carbon and turning them over to cows, which emit tons of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
About a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are traceable to the food supply chain. Animal agriculture accounts for about three-quarters of those emissions and nearly 90 percent of those in the average American diet. A 2020 study found that even if all fossil fuel emissions ceased today, the food system would still push warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which most scientists consider unsafe. “The 7.8 billion of us on this planet cannot have a steak every night,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, told me. “It doesn’t compute.”
It’s these next paragraphs where I fear I might lose you. It’s easier to argue for human welfare than animal welfare. I spent most of my life not just as a meat eater, but as an enthusiastic one. I posted my burgers on Instagram and I sought out the perfect roast chicken. Even now, I don’t believe it’s necessarily immoral to eat meat. What I believe is immoral is the way we treat animals in most factory farms. And the scale of that suffering melts the mind.
A reasonable estimate is that about 70 billion land animals are raised and slaughtered for food each year, a vast majority of them chickens. My colleague Nick Kristof has written eloquently about the plight of Costco’s rotisserie chickens, but the horrors do not end there. I’ve spoken with farmers who lie awake with guilt over the way they treat their animals, but they are so buried in debt to the agricultural conglomerates that they see no way out for themselves.
We treat too many animals like inputs, and their suffering as a mere byproduct. Cheap meat isn’t really cheap. It’s just the animal that paid the cost, living in conditions so gruesome I fear describing them. But suffice it to say: If we could produce the meat we want without the suffering we now inflict, it would be one of the great achievements of our age.
My reason for optimism is technological: There have been remarkable strides made in plant-based meat — witness the success of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — and milks. And the next step is cultivated meat, which is meat grown directly from animal cells. This isn’t science fiction: There’s now a restaurant in Singapore where you can eat lab-grown chicken made by Eat Just. Unsurprisingly, it tastes like chicken, because that’s what it is.
But so far, most of these advances, most of these investments, are through private dollars, with the findings locked up in patents, by companies competing with one another for market share. We’re going to need to move faster than that. “If we leave this endeavor to the tender mercies of the market there will be vanishingly few products to choose from and it’ll take a very long time,” Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, told me.
This is where policymakers can, and should, come in. At its heart, the American Jobs Plan is a climate bill. But there isn’t a dollar for alternative proteins, despite animal agriculture’s huge contributions to both climate and pandemic risk. That’s worse than a mistake. It’s a failure of policy design. Luckily, it’s easily fixed.
I keep asking alternative protein experts what they wish was in the bill, and the answers I get back are almost laughably small compared with the sums Congress is otherwise considering. The Good Food Institute produced a wish list calling for $2 billion in funding, half of it for research and half of it to set up a network of innovation centers. I’d like to see Congress dream a bit bigger, but the point is that it wouldn’t take much to supercharge this industry. And doing so would serve an economic as well as an ecological purpose: It would ensure American leadership in what will be one of the defining agricultural products of the future.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in terms of the volume of money being talked about and the opportunities to do something transformational,” Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, told me. “It wouldn’t take a lot of investment in alternative protein to take it to a whole different level. It’d be a rounding error in terms of the money going through Congress.”
Funding alternative proteins doesn’t mean adopting a vegan diet, or believing that all animal consumption is wrong. One possible future is that alternative proteins take over the market for cheap meat, replacing the commodity meat that goes into so many burgers and chicken nuggets and fish sticks, and animal-based meat becomes a much smaller part of our diet. But we raise those animals more humanely and we run less risk to the planet and ourselves.
Nor should the growth of this industry be a threat to farmers or ranchers: There are already legislative proposals, like A.B. 1289 in California, to pay farmers in the industrial animal agriculture system to transition to plants, and we desperately need skilled land stewardship to sequester carbon. If we can’t make saving the planet pay as much as harming it did, then our economic philosophies have truly failed.
We are living, right now, with the true costs of cheap meat: a world of pandemics, climate emergency and suffering both for human beings and the creatures we consume.
Additional reporting by Roge Karma.
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