By Rob Verkerk PhD, founder, executive and scientific director
“Civilized man is the only animal clever enough to manufacture its own food, and the only animal stupid enough to eat it.” - Barry Groves PhD (1936-2013), nutritionist
For some of us, Barry was the first person we heard talking up the scientific merits and health benefits of eating roughly two-thirds fat, one-third protein, and minimising carbs. He was doing Paleo before Paleo was a thing. He may have died at 77, but up to the day of his death he was full of energy, fully mobile and lucid. He ate more like our ancestors, and died more like them too.
What then would he have said about the last week’s report out of the San Francisco-based RethinkX think tank, founded by Tony Seba and Jamie Arbib? These were the people who, in 2017, said private vehicle ownership will collapse by 2030 and make way for fleets of shared driverless electric vehicles (EVs). Their latest report on food and agriculture issues a dramatic forecast for livestock-based agriculture. Like the privately owned motorcar, the meat and dairy industry is predicted to collapse by the same date. The trigger, say the RethinkX authors, will be the arrival of lab-grown meat that’s viewed as a solution satisfying human protein needs as well as significantly reducing environmental and climate impacts.
RETHINKX REPORT, September 2019 Title: "Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030" Subtitle: "The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the Collapse of Industrial Livestock Farming" Lead authors: Catherine Tubb & Tony Seba Website: https://www.rethinkx.com/food-and-agriculture
First things first. Time will ultimately tell if Seba, Arbib and colleagues’ predictions are right. But the time to evaluate the accuracy of their predictions is over a decade off. Secondly, might they be right in everything except possibly the rapidity of the disruption? Again, it’s too early to tell. What’s worth recognising, is there’s some serious modelling that goes into the predictions. So, whether you’re talking about shared EVs or lab-grown meat, the nature of the predictions and time frames for their realisation probably have more value than the discourse down at your local drinking hole (should you have one).
While both predictions are about tech-based solutions, it’s also worth pondering the profound differences between the extent of human attachment to privately-owned vehicles as compared with our consumption of animal-derived foods. We’ve been co-dependent on the former for a mere 100 or so years, while our relationship with animal produce has been integral to our evolution as a primate species over the last million or so years. No one can deny the popularity of the current trend towards plant-based diets, but applying a smartphone-like adoption curve to EVs might be one thing, but to apply it to meat-eating and dairy consumption is something else.
You’ll get the gist of the predictions by reading RethinkX’s executive summary. I will attempt to précis it further: the low cost of lab-grown proteinaceous foods will force the collapse of livestock and dairy farming within 13 years because real food farming just won’t be economically viable. Fermentation units will be able to produce meat analogues and other protein-rich foods of almost unimaginable variety at a fraction of the cost, with minimal negative environmental impact. These new-fangled ‘cultivated’ foods, referred to as ‘Food-as-Software’ by the RethinkX authors, will trigger the greatest transformation in agriculture since its dawn, around 10,000 years ago. People and planet will be saved by technology, the very thing that’s contributed to many of our current health and environmental woes.
There’s no doubt that cell-based meat isn’t just a moonshot idea. It’s already big business. What’s not clear, is whether it will have the kind of mass appeal that RethinkX’s authors and investors in the technology are predicting.
And in case you’re not entirely clear what we mean by ‘lab-grown meat’, it’s meat that is grown in labs from stem cells harvested from animals. It allows specific body parts or tissues to be grown, such as muscle tissue. Products of cell-based agriculture, variously referred to by aficionados as ‘clean meat’ or ‘cultivated meat’, shouldn’t be confused with the parallel and rapid growth in the markets for plant-based or algal-based foods, many of which are also produced using biotechnological processes.
This editorial piece is no place to tear apart the fabric of RethinkX’s predictions, simply because, intuitively, they might not feel right. We don’t have sufficient data to posit a fair contest. But what we do know is that none of RethinkX’s predictions can happen without a profound change in consumer behaviour. That transition would necessitate a mass decision among citizens to give up what we think of as ‘real food’, at a time when there is renewed interest in our ‘diet of origin’. It would need the public to implicitly trust the manufacturers of this lab-grown food, turning the current trend of mass distrust of Big Food on its head. This trust would need to be built in a matter of a few years, despite common knowledge that mass distrust of genetically modified foods, claimed as safe by its manufacturers and governments, persists over two decades following its commercial introduction.
What’s interesting is RethinkX’s justification that economic factors will be the key trigger, more so than environmental or animal welfare ones. You could go as far as saying that RethinkX may therefore have understated (deliberately?) its case given that the current interest in meat analogues is being strongly driven by these others concerns, and, in particular, the perceived climate change impacts of animal farming. That’s reflected by the skyrocketing success of the Beyond Meat IPO. Many are eagerly watching to see if this kind of success follows through in sales of alt-meat and plant-based alternatives in trials at Burger King and McDonald’s in the coming months.
'...And damn statistics'
Another variable that could scupper consumer behaviour is a change in perception of the science and statistics that have justified the demonisation of meat. Just how robust and relevant are the statistics that have been used, especially in relation to greenhouse gases and climate change impacts?
Much of the data that’s used to denigrate beef farming, for example, is derived from grain-fed industrial farming systems. It doesn’t take into account data from low intensity pasture-fed animals that graze on marginal lands that aren’t suitable for other uses. The data used often focuses only on emissions, and ignores the sequestration of carbon on pasture-based grazing systems, where livestock play a key role in nutrient cycling and the development of a diverse soil microbiome. For example, a widely cited figure from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN proposes that about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions originate from livestock. But this figure doesn’t taken into account the carbon that is sequestered in the pastures on which the animals are grazed – where they are still grazed.
Recognising that our biosphere is a closed system, we’ve also got to look at the contributions of different regions. Focusing only on Europe, or the USA, isn’t good enough, bearing in mind the contributions of China, India, Russia and, the region in which greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than anywhere else, sub-Saharan Africa. China, unsurprisingly, is presently investing deeply in cell-based agriculture, but, yet again, the proof will be in the eating – and maybe even the exporting.
I’d hate to be a killjoy. But even if there’s early adoption by the masses, it’s not a dead cert that the trend will go stratospheric like the iPhone.
Here’s just a few thoughts. As naturally-grazed and industrially-farmed livestock disappears and is replaced by more arable (grain) farming, there’s a recognition that we’re killing our soils even more rapidly. The soil microbial content and diversity that was previously maintained by the addition of animal poop (and manure) is lost. That triggers a renewed interest in more traditional systems of farming that rely on nutrient cycling between soil, animals, plants and microbes. These are the very systems that are so crucially needed to maintain biodiversity in the nearly 40% of the global land area on which agriculture of some description is practiced.
Then you’ve got to consider social attitudes and cultural norms. Meat consumption in the US continues to increase, unabated by all this talk of its negative health and environmental effects. Meat consumption is strongly correlated with standards of living - and everyone's hoping living standards, globally, can continue to rise. But if we were to really unpack the science on this, might we find – conclusively – that meat eating, even red meat eating, can be very good for us? Currently, the consensus view from population-wide (epidemiological) studies is that red meat and processed meat consumption are harmful. But most of these data are subject to residual confounding, because those who consume less red or processed meats usually have healthier diets and lifestyles. We also know that some groups actually benefit from increased animal protein intake. A Japanese study, for example, showed that higher animal protein intake was linked to better physical, psychological and social functioning in seniors. Will these seniors be happy with lab-grown meat? Sebo and Arbib would presumably argue that most will eat it whatever — it's the only animal protein they'll be able to afford.
Public attitudes towards meat-eating might also begin to change as we discover, conclusively, that it’s only red meat from industrially-farmed, grain-fed animals that’s harmful, this being the predominant production system from which consumption patterns have so far been studied. We already have plenty of empirical evidence that red meat from pasture-fed animals is beneficial, assuming we don’t damage the meat when we cook it, forming, for example, carcinogenic PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons).
The attitudinal shift required to get people to tuck into lab-grown meat isn't a million miles away from the challenge of transitioning to people from sirloin steaks to insect proteins. Forty years ago my ecology professors were sold on insect protein. They had the data back then on its environmental benefits. All these years later, the masses still haven't taken to it in a big way, although we may be on the cusp of change.
Weighing up our options
Trends are driven by ideas that catch on. They don’t necessarily follow predictable paths or even consensus science. The idea of ‘peak livestock’ has definitely caught on, and it’s been underpinned by a few high profile scientific studies. Poore and Nemecek’s 2018 article in Science is one, EAT-Lancet another. You’ve then got the concurrent wave of concern about climate change, catalysed by the likes of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. With this viewpoint, the scene has been set for young people to take to veganism with almost religious zeal. In a few years, those who still want the benefit of animal protein and who are concerned about planetary impacts will have the choice of cheap alt-meat if they want it. But let's not confuse the nutritional profile of lab-grown meat with that of a pasture-fed animal. Just as we know fat-rich marbled meats from pasture-raised animals deliver a very different nutritional profile to lean minced beef derived from a factory farm.
I'm not convinced anyone has enough data to know what's best for humanity and our planet. What we do know is that we have evolved as omnivores, not herbivores. And lab-grown meat at this stage isn't bioequivalent to the meats that have been associated with our evolution. It's not just about the protein. It's the composition and nature of the protein, and it's also the fats, minerals and other nutrients we get from animal foods, especially when they are raised in an agro-ecological, non-industrial, context. Can lab-grown meats deliver a more complete nutritional profile in time? Theoretically yes, as they're based on stem cells. But frankly it's too early to tell if this is part of the longer-term commercial plan.
I come back to the point I made at the outset. It's just not that simple. Creating a new food in a lab and expect it to have the same impact on health as a form of eating that's been with us since the dawn of our species could be regarded as an example of kooky thinking. That's not to say we don't need to do things very differently. We already have over 7 billion people on the planet and we're expecting 10 billion by 2050, much of that growth in parts of the world that aspire to eat meat.
We also need to consider whether transition should be primarily in one direction? One of the big challenges this debate faces is that different groups of interest deliver their views and menu of solutions entirely independently. The word 'agroecology', for example, is entirely missing from the RethinkX report. Yet agroecology is the central plank of the sustainable and regenerative agriculture movement. Should we really ignore it and chase a technocratic solution that benefits technophile, Food-as-Software business interests when we're amidst a crisis in our soils, which have a huge capacity to act as carbon sinks, and with biodiversity?
What I do think is essential is the need to carefully weigh up the options, using a level playing field approach. In doing this, we really need to think of options that put both sustainability, planetary and human health centre stage. This was the the original plan of the EAT-Lancet Commission, but I believe that elements of the thinking, that we expound on in our critique of last January, were flawed. But we also need to be aware that we all bring with us our own biases.
There is an abundance of work that demonstrates that agroecological farming systems are both sustainable and viable at scale. These systems, typically, include livestock and it's an area in which there's a lot of exciting innovation now that we understand more about the complexity of the relationship between plants, animals and microorganisms. The first consensus study that really had traction, that positioned agroecological farming, adapted to individual biogeographic regions, as the most sustainable option going forward to 2050 was funded through UN agencies. It took 5 years of research, and involved 400 scientists from 60 countries. It was called ‘Agriculture at a Crossroads’, and it was conducted as part of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) in 2008.
RethinkX haven’t even gone there. Agroecology was completely absent from its remit, such was their their focus on cell-based agriculture. Was agroecology considered just not disruptive enough?
I certainly don't believe we have sufficient data to rush ahead with cell-based agriculture and accelerate the demise of agroecological farming. You have to wonder how much the mindset in RethinkX is part of a system that is about conditioning the public to accept the new technology, separating us fundamentally with the food sources and environments that have got our species this far.
We’re not going to get the data needed to do any kind of side-by-side comparison if we ditch traditional livestock and dairy farming by 2030, as predicted by the RethinkX authors. My view is that we need to prioritise restoring agriculture, soils and rural communities. It's not about going backwards, it's about going forward, eyes wide open, but recognising the intimate relationship we have with the world around us, and within us.
If we plan for diversity, and we maintain a keen awareness of what works both for people and planet, we have the option of conscious choice, choice made by people, not just business interests or politicians.
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