Although the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow is fast approaching, it’s already clear that the scope of proposed solutions is far outweighed by the scale of the problem. Because slowing human-induced global warming will require far more imagination than what is currently on the table, the time has come to think bigger about how we can build a more sustainable future for our planet. Transitioning away from industrial animal agriculture must be part of the process — and there are solutions the Biden administration can implement now.
For thousands of years, humans have relied on domesticated animals for our survival. But while many of us may imagine the animal products we consume come from free-range animals roaming idyllic ranches, the ugly truth is that most of these products come from industrial animal farms that brutalize animals and put the health of both humans and our planet at risk.
Although industrial animal farming, and government subsidies supporting it, have made animal proteins more affordable for consumers over past decades, these products are by no means cost-free. To spur the growth of the over 70 billion land animals slaughtered each year globally and prevent cramped and inhumane conditions from making them sick, many of these animals are pumped full of antibiotics, leading to growing antibiotic resistance that undermines the efficacy of critical human medical interventions.
Industrial animal agriculture is also placing unsustainable stress on the natural ecosystems that sustain human life — and all life.
According to a recently released study, global food production contributes around one-third of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, the majority of that stemming from animal agriculture. Deforestation resulting from expanding industrial animal farms is destroying the natural barriers between humans and wildlife and increasing the risk of pandemics.
As the human population grows from nearly 8 billion today toward an estimated 10 billion by 2050, and as billions move out of abject poverty, overall demand for animal-based products is expected to grow by an astounding 70 percent over the coming three decades. Expanding our current models of industrial animal agriculture to meet this need would be catastrophic to our health and our planet, not to mention the animals themselves.
Clearly, something has to give.
One obvious option would be for all of us to become vegetarians.
Given the broader costs of industrial animal agriculture and the extreme inefficiency of feeding animals in these farms far more calories than they produce for our consumption, this approach makes intellectual sense.
But it would be self-defeating to rest our entire strategy on changing a behavior that has been so essential to our survival for hundreds of millions of years. Even as environmental consciousness has grown recently around the world, per-capita consumption of animal products has increased dramatically, not least because poor people generally consume more animal products as they grow wealthier.
While it makes great sense to encourage a shift away from animal products and toward a greater reliance on plant-based foods in our diets as one pillar of our strategy, we also need to focus on making the production of animal products more sustainable.
There are lots of great ways to make traditional animal farming safer, kinder and more environmentally friendly. While building on best practices for sustainable animal agriculture from across the globe must be another pillar of a successful strategy, this approach cannot possibly reach a scale sufficient to meet our demand for animal products.
Meeting our global demand for animal products therefore also requires the responsible application of revolutionary science. As unnatural as applying the new tools of synthetic biology to animal agriculture may seem to many people, this approach has the potential, over time, to help ensure that people everywhere have access to high-quality, safe, affordable and tasty animal products — while decreasing the environmental footprint, cruelty and adverse human health effects of industrial animal agriculture.
The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines have helped people internalize, quite literally, that our increasing ability to hack the code of life has real benefits, but few of us fully appreciate how broadly these new capabilities will apply well beyond healthcare.
A new generation of technologies and young companies are developing animal and animal replacement products from both plants and animal cell cultures, many of which have already hit the market. The cell-cultivated meat products are biologically nearly identical to traditional meat, just grown in a bioreactor rather than in a cow, pig, fish or chicken. Despite this promising start, however, there’s still a long way from here to where we’ll need to be to alter the trajectory of industrial animal agriculture.
That’s why we now need to jump-start a process to speed up the development of alternative animal proteins — call it a “moo shot”.
Because food is so essential to our cultures and lives, this effort must begin with broad and inclusive public dialogues on all levels exploring the benefits and tradeoffs of rethinking how we produce and consume animal products. No transformation will be possible without public engagement and acceptance. While cell-cultured meat may sound like weird science to many people, we need to remember that agriculture itself is a revolutionary biotechnology from an earlier era to which our ancestors adapted.
Nationally, the United States should also create a food research agency as part of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better initiative. It could be based on the model of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — which spurred the creation of the internet, stealth technology, mRNA vaccines — backed with significant funding and a mandate to bring together academia, industry, government and civil society players. This agency — the Agriculture and Food Advanced Research Projects Agency — let’s call it, could be co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. This food research agency could help ensure American leadership in this critically important area and spark a transition away from industrial animal farming and toward alternative and cellular animal agriculture.
We’ll also need new international frameworks for fostering technological innovation and sharing best practices for transitioning away from industrial animal agriculture while protecting the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers by decentralizing the production of alternative animal proteins and fostering a premium market for sustainably produced traditional animal products. The UN COP26 conference will be a critical opportunity to chart a path toward this more sustainable future.
None of this can be realized on its own or without downside potential risks needing to be managed, but the alternative of continuing with business as usual while poisoning ourselves and the world around us is not sustainable.
This would be a generational transformation that can’t happen overnight, but we now have a historic opportunity to take a critical step forward in how we produce and consume animal products that can help us build a safer and more sustainable future.
Do we have the imagination to take it?
Jamie Metzl is founder and chair of OneShared.World, a movement facilitating global collective-action, a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and special strategist for the WisdomTree BioRevolution Exchange Traded Fund. He is the author of five books, including “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity.”He previously served as director for global and multilateral affairs the National Security Council, coordinator for international public information at the State Department and as a human rights officer with the United Nations. Follow him on Twitter: @jamiemetzl