The Trump Administration’s budget proposal raised a lot of eyebrows around Washington for its drastic and sweeping cuts to numerous federal agencies.
But for a president with a huge – and not unfounded – fear of food poisoning (represented by an affinity for fast food and well-done steaks), it makes sense that the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative appears to have escaped the chopping block.
More tellingly, the president’s first budget emphasizes the importance of USDA-led research related to food safety, nutrition, productivity, sustainability, and preserving our natural resources.
Advancing each of these critical goals at the same time is a tall order. But what if the USDA could pursue a specific course of action that would simultaneously tackle our nation’s challenges when it comes to ensuring food safety, protecting the environment, and helping to feed a growing population?
Such a tangible action does in fact exist, and it’s what people like Bill Gates and Google co-founder Sergey Brin are calling the future of food. The USDA can efficiently address each of these key initiatives by funding research into “clean meat” and plant-based alternatives to the animal products produced through the destructive factory farming system that takes a staggering toll on public health, our environment, and worker and food safety.
Plant-based meat refers to the innovative foods produced by companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which are replicating meat’s taste and texture using plant proteins. Clean meat is 100-percent real meat grown directly from animal cells outside of the animal.
The unfortunate reality is that the way we commonly produce meat, dairy, and eggs poses serious risks to humans, the environment, our food supply, and to the animals themselves. According to the United Nations report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector combined and is a leading driver of pollution and environmental degradation.
What’s more, the inefficiencies of meat production mean that huge quantities of grains, corn, and soy are being grown simply to feed farm animals. Even chicken – the most efficient meat to produce – requires nine calories from plants to produce one calorie of meat. We will not be able to safely and sustainably feed our growing population with this inefficient system.
Fortunately, transformative solutions already exist. Plant-based and clean meat can meet consumer food preferences without further destroying the planet.
And make no mistake – use of the word “clean” is not an exaggeration or marketing gimmick.
Anyone who’s spent time inside a factory farm or slaughterhouse knows well the public health risks that abound in these facilities. And anyone who’s suffered from a foodborne illness after eating a tainted piece of meat will recognize the value of a production method that nearly eliminates E. Coli, salmonella, campylobacter, and other deadly contaminants.
While the USDA spends vast sums on research and development for all manner of things, not all of this spending is useful for solving the entrenched problems in our food system. Each year the conservative “Wastebook” report chronicles the surprising use of taxpayer dollars by a host of federal agencies, and the most recent editions had plenty to say about USDA projects that didn’t seem to go anywhere or serve a broader purpose, such as research into how people react to someone wearing a fat suit and studies that involved speeding trucks hitting birds.
I don’t mean to give short shrift to the vital work that USDA does; rather, I cite these examples to underscore the important role that legislators can and should play when it comes to directing funds to those priorities that we, as a nation, believe should be emphasized.
Each fiscal year Congress appropriates billions of dollars to USDA and provides guidance and direction into how much of that money should be spent. The best way Congress can ensure that USDA funding doesn’t turn into pork-barrel spending is to invest in technologies that will alleviate global problems.
By investing in R&D now, Congress and the USDA will be setting the country on a far more sustainable path. With significant expertise and resources at its disposal, the USDA is the department best poised to take a leadership role in advancing environmental protection, food safety, and food security, bringing our food system into the 21st century and beyond.
Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., is the Senior Policy Specialist for The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to animal agriculture.
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