The American Century was driven by scientific progress that led to Apollo 11. And today we need no less remarkable achievements from technologists to avoid a climate catastrophe.
The Manhattan Project only inaugurated man’s age, Anthropocene. The dawn of America’s golden era of innovation began with the belch of Saturn V’s ignition and now gassy cows in America’s Dairyland are tantamount to missiles from the USSR. Livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, of which 65 percent is from cows (mainly from the belch of cows!), and 44 percent is methane, one of the worst gases for global warming we must urgently reduce to buy the world time in the climate crisis.
America has every capability to launch climate moonshots and lead the U.N. Climate Summit, COP26 in November. Yes, the Biden Administration must commit to emission reductions as well as invest in technologies to decarbonize the planet with the innovative speed and fervor of the Space Race.
Yet, while high-tech solutions like cellular agriculture are the future, stopping global warming starts with immediate action and awareness. ‘Where’s the beef?’ if Americans and policymakers don’t know that cows, food and agriculture are among the biggest contributors to global warming. Every consumer decision matters in the race against time. We need to address our obsession with beef and dairy for the U.S. to take up the mantle at COP26.
The U.N.’s recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reaffirmed that although CO2 has caused the most global warming, methane’s effects are more powerful. The bitter irony is that the increase in atmospheric methane is in large part due to agriculture and livestock, which in turn threatens global food security. Subsequent media coverage has been dominated by the fossil fuel industry, with little mention of agricultural methane emissions, and still fewer proposals for the obvious quick fix to its short-lived greenhouse effects. Alarmingly too, public disengagement with the IPCC’s widely-cited “code red for humanity” demands direct, actionable facts — less meat means less global warming.
Aspirations for a Green New Deal should aim for tougher regulations, cleaner industry, and affordable food, starting with external costs on the plate, not just at the ranch. Plant-based diets reduce emissions by 50 percent, and even one portion of bolognese with plant-based meat saves the equivalent emissions of a 6-mile drive. Simple reductions in dietary meat and dairy make a huge difference, so getting the highest per capita consumers to cut down the beef is nothing short of existential.
Factor in environmental costs and a beef burger is 15 times more expensive than a plant-based one, including arable land and water to produce a kilogram adds $7-20 to the price on the label, whether USDA Organic or the worst, Brazilian. America’s appetite for beef is beaten only by Argentina, but has a population seven times the size. Surprisingly, 77 percent of American consumers say they would eat more plant-based alternatives if they tasted better.
Cutting the beef for plant-based alternatives will be made possible by solutions at the intersection of agriculture, biology and technology. Alternative proteins specifically are a challenge to develop and mass-produce and must match conventional animal products on taste, texture, and price to satisfy the full spectrum of dietary needs from vegan to ketogenic. Lucky for us, Americans are good at moonshots, especially those attached to a $290 billion market opportunity, which assumes alternative proteins capture only 11 to 16 percent market share by 2035. The American technology ecosystem excels when venture capital meets mission-driven disruption; in 2020, $3.1 billion was invested in alternative protein startups alone.
From Silicon Valley, home to Impossible Foods and Eat Just, challengers are multiplying across the country in the research and production of alternative proteins. Plant-based alternative proteins are the most accessible, and the days of vegetarian mush and tasteless burgers that’d jolt the palate of any red-blooded American will soon be a distant memory. The range of plant-based proteins is becoming ever-more sophisticated, like the high-moisture extrusion production for realistic muscle fibers, which improves texture.
Next-level innovation in taste is underway in fermentation-based alternative proteins. The wonders of science on a plate, via bioreactor tanks full of yeast and fungi, are being used to create the component tastes and textures of meat-like alternatives. From there the journey becomes even more technological with the arrival of microorganism-based meats, improving the appeal and nutritional value of plant-based foods en route to the full realization of cellular agriculture.
Cellular agriculture isn’t science fiction. The question is when, not if, America’s burgers will be grown in laboratories. Production costs have fallen 99 percent already, and could reach price parity with conventional meat by 2030. SuperMeat, Aleph Farms and Mosa Meat are just a few eyeing the market today, following Eat Just’s recent regulatory approval in Singapore, and many more are in active discussions with the FDA and USDA. Despite technical challenges of scale and capacity that could stall the revolution, cellular agriculture promises to deliver sustainable, nutritious and authentic burgers that taste real, and the meat is not from gassy cows.
As the world's largest economy and consumer of meat per capita, America must lead the charge at COP26 and put an end to fossil fuel dependency, while urgently overcoming 'peak meat.'
Sedef Köktentürk is a Managing Partner & Chief Operating Officer of Blue Horizon, a global impact investor focused on the future of food system. At Blue Horizon Sedef leads on impact investing and ESG integration. She has over 20 years of experience in capital markets, including at Generation Investment Management, a leader in sustainable investing.