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What can fight climate change and antibiotic resistance? More sustainable meat

What can fight climate change and antibiotic resistance? More sustainable meat
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The United States government has addressed many threats and met many challenges in the past. From the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression to the Defense Department creating the precursor to the internet, our government has a long history of solving problems and creating entire fields.

It makes sense that when facing overwhelming problems, we call for the next moonshot. At a time when we couldn’t even put a satellite in orbit, President Kennedy called for us to land someone on the moon and return them safely to Earth — and to do so not sometime in the future but before the close of that decade. Many people thought this was impossible, but with strong leadership and huge mobilization of resources and talent, we did walk on the moon just eight years after Kennedy’s speech.

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Today, climate change is drowning cities, generating killer heatwaves, burning forests, wiping out crops and spreading diseases — and getting worse every year. The scope and severity of this threat requires a new moonshot.

Yet, according to a review by the UK government, global warming may not even be the greatest threat to humanity. We are staring down the barrel of antimicrobial-resistant superbugs. These superbugs already kill hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year and are projected to soon kill many millions. Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, has repeatedly warned that the world faces an antibiotic “apocalypse” in which common illnesses become untreatable and now-routine operations become deadly.

It has been generations since a paper cut could be a death sentence. But that is the coming world if we continue on our current trajectory. It is no exaggeration to say we need a moonshot here too.

What is remarkable is that these much-needed moonshots are one and the same: developing cost-effective ways to produce meat cleanly and efficiently.

Globally, livestock is responsible for 14. 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And the vast majority of antibiotics don’t go to making sick people healthy. Rather, they are fed to chickens, pigs, cows, and turkeys at subclinical doses — the perfect approach for creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

For decades, many have argued that the solution to the problems caused by industrial animal agriculture is for people to give up sausage and steak for beans and greens. Yet, per-capita meat consumption continues to go up, both nationally and globally. The world's human population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050, with total meat consumption expected to nearly double by then.

Given this reality, we need to find a way to produce the meat people want without endangering humanity. Luckily, we have two things going for us:

1. We’re not starting from square one — not promising to send a man to the moon before even launching a satellite into Earth’s orbit. We already know how to produce meat more efficiently and sustainably: directly from plants (plant-based meat) or directly from cells (cell-cultured meat).

2. Government research has already furthered the fields of plant-based meat and cell-based meat (also called clean meat). USDA-funded research at the University of Missouri led to advanced plant-protein production methods. Burgers and sausages made this way are popular in several countries, and these products are available at chains including Carl’s Jr., TGI Fridays and Del Taco.

But there is still much work to be done. Plant-based meats must continue improving while diversifying their range. Currently, no restaurant chain offers plant-based chicken options. Optimizing crop breeds, improving supply and distribution chains and scaling up production will leverage economies of scale and bring down prices.

Cell-based meat faces different technical issues to go from experimental bench-scale to cost-competitive large-scale production.

Given the breadth and depth of the harms caused by current meat production, public investment in plant-based and clean meat should be a top priority for everyone concerned about the future. The governments of Japan, Singapore, The Netherlands, India and Israel all recognize this. Each one of these governments understands that we are on the cusp of a new and necessary advance. They are investing in these more efficient and sustainable forms of meat production.

Just as past federal R&D funding by the United States has sparked revolutions in computing, genomics, manufacturing and other fields, federal funding for research on plant-based and cell-cultured meat could help accelerate progress in these two sectors. As past experience has shown, federally ­funded research can add energy and momentum to a sector in a way that private proprietary research simply can’t.

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The U.S. government currently puts $3 billion a year into agricultural research. China puts in even more. Imagine if the United States funneled these resources into plant-based meat and cell-based meat research at universities like Clemson, Penn State, Oklahoma State, Purdue, Texas A&M, and the University of Nebraska. Such investments could firmly establish our leadership in these emerging fields and create many good-paying, secure new jobs. But even more importantly, these leaps forward in food production would mitigate climate change and safeguard public health.

We don’t have to go to the moon. Powerful solutions are right in front of us. It’s time for our government to mobilize resources and talent to make plant-based and clean meat production optimal, cost-effective, and widely undertaken, thus providing a safe, secure, and sustainable food system.

Jessica Almy is the director of policy of The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of food innovation and markets to accelerate progress toward a better food system.