Socialize Lab Meat

Meat is killing the planet, but Americans are unlikely to give it up. Lab meat could be our best hope of winning tens of millions of American meat eaters over to a Green New Deal — if that lab meat can be socialized.

A researcher examines his lab-to-table meat. (Getty Images)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Climate Change and Land report, released on August 8, is predictably grim. Agriculture, forestry, and other uses of land account for a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

As land use and climate changes both intensify, the capacity of the land to act as a carbon sink and provide ecological services diminishes, dramatically increasing the odds of a global food crisis. What’s telling about the report is that it explicitly recommends a dietary shift to primarily “plant-based foods . . .  and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable, and low-GHG emission systems.”

What the report doesn’t say is that there’s an alternative to reducing meat consumption that doesn’t require any animal agriculture at all. We could grow all our meat in labs, freeing up much of the 80 percent of the world’s arable land currently devoted to raising and feeding livestock. And no one is talking about the fact that this lab meat doesn’t have to be owned and operated by Silicon Valley or giant agro-industrial corporations.

If it can be wrested from corporate control, lab meat production could be publicly financed, with intellectual property held in the public trust, and tied to the social and ecological goals of a just economic transition.

As far-fetched as this sounds, it’s not only plausible, but it could be our best hope of winning the political support of tens of millions of American meat eaters for a Green New Deal.

It’s never been clearer that rearing animals for food — especially through factory farming — is a major contributor to climate breakdown. The IPCC report joins a growing chorus of voices from environmental NGOs and the scientific community that explicitly advocate massively reduced consumption of animal products as a necessary step in stabilizing the climate. The sort of low-carbon agriculture needed for planetary survival — and thus, a central policy plank in any Green New Deal — has to drastically reduce the production of animals for food, and by extension, meat consumption.

But few people are willing to give up meat voluntarily, and there is little to suggest they would happily embrace having to abandon meat by fiat. When the Right mocks us for wanting to take away their hamburgers, they’re onto something. We need a better response than pretending there’s no problem.

In recent discussions about the Green New Deal, much attention has been paid to the question of how to organize production in a more socially, economically, and ecologically just society, including supporting robust farming communities and more just rural land ownership. These notions — embodied in the necessity to break with large agribusiness companies, do away with monocrop agriculture, and ensure fair pay for farm labor — are to some extent present in Bernie Sanders’s and Elizabeth Warren’s proposed agricultural policies.

But we also need to urgently ask what it is that we will produce and consume. Reorganizing land use and food production will require not just political organizing. As a major study published in Nature late last year shows, we also need a massive reduction in meat eating and investment in cleaner, more efficient technology if we are to keep agriculture within planetary limits.

Any plan designed around the idea of “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers . . .  to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible,” as the Green New Deal draft document suggested, is an a priori lost cause. Most large-scale farmers and ranchers are ecologically and politically intransigent, as evidenced by ongoing legal battles against any encroachment on their land or the market for their products.

The answer is cellular agriculture.

One of the greatest achievements of America’s hyperefficient system of commodities-of-scale food production — what Raj Patel and Jason Moore term a “cheap food” regime predicated on the exploitation of land and labor — is that it trained American consumers to expect a steady supply of cheap food. Ready availability at low cost undergirds eating habits and tastes.

The number of vegans and self-proclaimed flexitarians may slowly be growing, but on balance, animal rights activists’ and environmentalists’ pleas have done little to change the public’s appetite for meat. The average American eats about 220 pounds of animal flesh per year.

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested that people should eat less meat, the American right nearly had a coronary. Sebastian Gorka suggested progressives were out to fulfill a Stalinist fantasy of depriving red-blooded Americans of hamburgers; Rep. Bob Bishop of the House Committee on Natural Resources Republicans held an anti-GND press conference at which he shoved a quarter-pounder down his gullet.

The bigger problem, however, is that the rest of American society, including many environmentalists and progressives, isn’t about to go vegan either. This may have to do with political convictions — including the critique that living “green” is inaccessible to many populations, the belief that veganism is merely bourgeois lifestyle politics, the view that individual action is ineffective in achieving systemic change (doomsday prophet du jour David Wallace Wells quips that “if I eat fewer hamburgers a year, so what?”) — or simply a personal or cultural attachment to meat eating.

Plant-based meat alternatives like the Beyond Burger show one potential way out of this morass: replacing meat with an incomparably lower-impact alternative.

The empirical question is whether or not these not-quite-analogous products will win over enough consumers to challenge the economic viability of factory farming. Other options like the small-scale, biodynamic animal farming suggested by the IPCC report are certainly more ecologically sound than conventional systems. But this “happy meat” can’t scale up to meet anything close to current demand, and certainly not at the prices to which consumers are accustomed.

The moonshot promise of cellular agriculture — tissue engineering technology that allows animal muscle and fat to be grown from stem cells, rather than in animal bodies — is to sate society’s appetite for meat without asking for any change in consumption practices or, theoretically, price.

In its own way, cellular agriculture is vastly more democratic than calls for large-scale dietary change or high-priced green consumption in that it seeks to change the value chain almost entirely, while changing actual consumption as little as possible. Early life cycle analyses (LCA) suggest exponential reductions in land and water use, and marked improvements on conventional meat production’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. (Energy use remains a major question mark — we might need a lot more solar and wind power.)

It’s easy to dismiss this all offhand as yet another Silicon Valley techno-utopian fantasy, a technocratic dream of venture capital funding better calories for the working class that happens to align too closely for comfort with the facile tech-fetishization of fully automated luxury communism. But the reality is far more complicated, uncertain, and malleable.

There’s an opening for progressive policies to steer the technology’s development. As it stands, despite producing prototypes of meatballs and chicken nuggets and even thin strips of steak virtually indistinguishable from conventional meat, cellular agriculture companies face numerous technological challenges.

Among these impediments are the use of fetal bovine serum in some types of cell growth medium, which is as nonvegan as it sounds; an uncertainty about the feasibility of large-scale, reusable, antiseptic bioreactors; and the challenge of creating analogs for full cuts of meat like a porterhouse steak. The industry’s boosters claim that these are simply technical issues. So far, those most interested in ponying up the money to find out have been a combination of celebrity investors, Silicon Valley stalwarts, and, increasingly, major meat and pharmaceutical companies.

This presents a threefold problem. First, the free market is amazingly inefficient at allocating resources for rapid research and development in highly complex technology. Venture capitalists expect returns in the medium term, and it is unclear if they will keep investing if the technology does not progress rapidly toward market viability. Start-up companies are usually underfunded to do breakthrough research, and then jealously guard any breakthroughs from their competition. Those best positioned to bring the technology to fruition are corporate giants.

This leads to the second problem. Looking to the history of GMO foods as a rough parallel, much public opposition stemmed from major corporations like DuPont owning the intellectual property to the building blocks of agriculture. Just as consumers in the 1990s railed against “patents on seeds” by petrochemical firms, they might balk at buying “environmentally-friendly meat” in the 2020s from companies who have received multimillion-dollar investments from big pharma behemoths like Merck.

Third, even if these challenges are overcome, cellular agriculture will be a product of corporate America. A massive environmental improvement over concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), “clean meat” would nonetheless fit into the “cheap food” system. That is to say, it need not be aimed at achieving labor or food or even environmental justice, and may even indeed be antithetical to these.

The alternative is not to reject this technology, but to embrace it as part of a progressive agenda for a low-carbon restructuring of the economy.

The first step should be investing in research and development in order to both accelerate technological development and keep resultant intellectual property public. The best place to start is in public universities, where research coordinated across institutions and disciplines could be used to stimulate innovation and allow state university ownership of intellectual property — enshrined in the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 — for licensing to producers.

It was a multiyear grant from the Dutch government that jump-started work on the first cellular meat prototype, produced by Mark Post of Maastricht University. And, indeed, it was only through massive support from the American government — a push to “make every farm a factory,” as the historian Deborah Fitzgerald puts it — that the infrastructure necessary to make modern animal farming possible was created.

The establishment of land grant universities, federal subsidies, and the creation of commodity promotion groups like the Pork Board (responsible for the “Pork: The Other White Meat” campaign) left a legacy that to this day supports the very sort of agriculture that must be abolished if we are to have a low-carbon economy. This same model, however, could be used to support technological innovations to make animal agriculture obsolete.

The UK think tank Chatham House has urged the EU to invest in meat alternatives as part of a push for a greener economy. Currently, two nonprofits — the Good Food Institute and New Harvest — have invested in open-IP research via competitive grants, but both of these groups rely on funding from philanthropic donors, who, like venture capitalists, may be turned off if the technology doesn’t come to fruition fast enough.

A broad, progressive economic agenda like the GND would also be best situated to integrate the development of cellular agriculture with other low-carbon schemes, including pairing it with low-carbon energy production to offset its electricity demands. It would also mean speeding a transition to a post-CAFO world through job creation and re-skilling programs for the farm and slaughterhouse workers displaced by the end of factory farming.

A just transition would require that they are integrated into a fair agricultural economy organized along the lines described by Raj Patel and Jim Goodman in Jacobin a few months ago, or into urban, industrial meat labs. We could make meats in warehouses that look and feel just the same as “maker spaces” full of 3D printers and bike repair shops. The latter could be part of urban renewal and housing schemes, merging pragmatic job creation and city climate resilience schemes in an age that, as the IPCC report notes, may be marked by climate-induced food crises in traditional agricultural areas.

All of this would constitute not pie-in-the-sky futurism, but pragmatism incarnate. It would be a clear-eyed effort at achieving what food scholar Garrett Broad calls “food tech justice,” all while reducing stress on land, soil, and waterways.

A transition to a more socially and environmentally just economy requires us to disambiguate between technocracy and technological innovation. We need practical, public investment in new technology to make the benefits of a more just society — from energy generation to green housing to improved medical care — more readily available to every member of society. Lab-grown hamburgers for all wouldn’t be a bad start.