With soaring demand for meat, it’s time to fund animal-free protein research

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Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) recently wrote, “Nearly 10 [percent] of the world’s population today is experiencing hunger.” He called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “to invest in alternative proteins research to improve the sustainability and resiliency of our food systems and help put us on the path to ending hunger around the globe.”

Khanna is hardly the only member of Congress interested in seeing more agriculture research and development (R&D) dollars flowing toward animal-free protein. House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has also embraced the need for the U.S. to be a leader in the clean protein space, recently telling USDA that “we should pursue parity in research funding for alternative proteins” as a means of “combatting climate change and adding resiliency to our food system.”

It’s no longer a secret that raising billions of animals for food is at the heart of so many of humanity’s most pressing problems, from environmental degradation to pandemic risk and more. With groups like the United Nations and World Health Organization touting the benefits of shifting toward plant-based foods, it seems like there must be a role for public policy to help nudge us in the right direction. 

Case in point: The Netherlands, increasingly worried about the impact of its livestock sector on the Dutch environment, has hatched a 25 billion euro plan ($28 billion USD) simply to pay farmers to raise fewer animals. But without addressing the root of the concern — increasing demand for animal protein — such a policy is likely just to shift the environmental harms of animal agriculture from Holland to somewhere else, like the Amazon rainforest.

Congress members like Khanna and DeLauro are proposing a smarter and much more cost-effective way. Rather than spending tens of billions of dollars paying farmers to raise fewer animals, why not just spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fund R&D into creating meat-type experiences without animals? After all, we’re funding research into methods of producing energy without fossil fuels; it’s time to do the same with producing protein without factory farms. 

While it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to what the USDA spends supporting animal agriculture (for example, half a billion dollars recently to increase U.S. slaughter capacity), this kind of federal support is starting to trickle toward the alt-protein sector. Nonprofits like the Good Food Institute have been instrumental in helping garner a $3.5 million National Science Foundation grant to UC-Davis to study cultivated meat (real meat grown from animal cells) and a $10 million USDA grant to Tufts to do the same.

Former USDA secretaries from both Republican and Democratic administrations seem enthusiastic about such promising new technology that could help satisfy humanity’s meat-tooth in a far more efficient and sustainable way.

For example, former Trump administration Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue noted that “we’ve got new technology with stem cell protein growth there. While some people may be anxious about taking their markets, 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 of.”

Similarly, former Clinton administration Ag Secretary Dan Glickman found common ground with his Republican counterpart when he observed that “cellular agriculture may supplement conventional agriculture,” and concluded about such technology that “innovation offers a variety of additional ways to feed a hungry and growing world.”

The United States has already fallen behind Asia in the production of clean energy technologies such as solar panels and lithium ion batteries. We can still be a leader when it comes to the clean protein that will be needed to sustainably feed humanity meat into the future. With the right kind of R&D incentives to those seeking to recreate the meat experience without such a heavy hoofprint on the planet, the federal government can help the U.S. maintain our leadership as a “meat basket” to the world.

Paul Shapiro is the CEO of The Better Meat Co. and the author of “Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.”

Tags Agriculture Climate change Deforestation Environment farming Meat meat alternative Paul Shapiro protein Ro Khanna Rosa DeLauro Sonny Perdue USDA

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