How the United States can remain a world leader in agriculture

How the United States can remain a world leader in agriculture
© Getty Images

Agriculture in the United States has changed immensely in just a short amount of time. When my grandmother was a child, nearly half of the country was involved in agriculture. Farming today would be unrecognizable to her. Today, less than 2 percent of the population is producing vastly more food.

Agriculture, food, and related industries contribute nearly $1 trillion dollars to the economy, and farm exports have totaled almost $140 billion in 2017.

ADVERTISEMENT

All this — more food and more value created by fewer people — has been possible because of continuing advances in related science and technology, from GPS-linked combines to active-sensing precision irrigation. The percentage of people living with hunger has dropped significantly over the past five decades because of agricultural improvements. The United States continues to lead the world in feeding the world because of our embrace of continued development.

Today, we face new challenges. The global population continues to expand rapidly, and climate change is impacting agriculture’s ability to feed everyone. As noted by the United Nations in a September 2018 report, global hunger is increasing again, in part because of global warming.

New technologies could help us feed humanity more efficiently and sustainably. One of these is clean meat — meat grown in a clean facility rather than as part of an animal.

It is true that animals have been genetically manipulated to grow much larger much faster. Indeed, a chicken today bears basically no resemblance to a wild bird. 

The problem is that no matter how much we engineer them, animals will always be inefficient at converting food to flesh. The majority of the crops we grow and feed them go to their metabolism. Other calories go to growing brains, blood, and bone. According to the World Resource Institute, it takes nine calories of crops to get just one calorie of chicken meat. That’s 800 percent food waste. It is as if we had nine plates of food ready to feed our growing population, but then just threw eight of them away.

The governments of Japan, The Netherlands, and Israel have already invested in clean meat startups. At the request of the White House in 2016, the National Academy of Sciences evaluated the potential of biotechnology in the next 10 years. They found that clean meat is one of the technologies with high growth potential.

As a nation, we face a question: Do we embrace and encourage this more efficient means of producing meat, or do we seek to hinder its development and protect certain incumbent producers?

Luckily, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueOvernight Energy: EPA weighs tougher pollution rule for trucks | Zinke to visit California wildfire areas | EPA official indicted in Alabama Zinke to visit California to address wildfires Trump, California battle over climate and cause of fires MORE wants the United States to remain a global leader. Perdue recently endorsed clean meat at a North American Meat Institute event noting, “we don’t want this new technology to feel like they’ve got to go offshore or outside the United States to get a fair regulatory protocol.” Talking with Organic Insider, he elaborated: “we’ve got new technology with stem cell protein growth … shouldn’t we in the United States be about how we can grow and feed people more efficiently and more effectively … these techniques need to be embraced, not kept out.”

The industry seems to agree with Perdue’s view. Major meat companies Cargill, PHW Group, and Bell Foods have all invested in clean meat startups. Tyson Foods — the largest meat producer in the United States — has invested in multiple clean meat companies, from the United States to Israel. Discussing these investments, then-CEO Tom Hayes said, “If we can grow the meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we?”

Clean meat will be one of the next major advancements in agriculture’s ongoing evolution. The United States should endorse Perdue and Tyson’s view and lead the world in developing this better means of producing meat.   

Jessica Almy is the director of policy for The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to animal agriculture.