I’m perfectly fine with inventors working on synthetic meat and competing in the marketplace against the environmentally harmful products of industrial livestock production. But the Belgium-based International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food just cranked out a report questioning whether mass-lab-produced protein can help us escape the harms associated with CAFO beef and other critter-cut protein.
Report author and rural sociologist Philip H. Howard summarizes the argument in Civil Eats, saying, first off, that fake meat brewed chemical wizardry may do their own environmental damage:
Firstly, the idea that these alternative proteins can save the planet is highly speculative. These claims are based on a narrow assessment of which products can deliver the most protein for the least CO2. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger source their ingredients from chemical-intensive (and therefore fossil fuel-intensive) monocultures and rely on heavy processing—all of which has major impacts on human health, biodiversity, and climate change [Philip H. Howard, “Fake Meat Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis,” Civil Eats, 2022.04.07].
A shift to fake meat could also harm farmers—not the rich corporate bastards for whom Amanda Radke so radically shills, but the world’s poorest farmers, who can raise a few goats and chickens but lack the capital to build their own protein synthesis factory:
Factory farming clearly has huge impacts of its own, but the environmental and social impacts of livestock vary massively. In some parts of the world, raising animals helps to use limited land and resources efficiently, buffer against food shocks, and provide livelihoods where few options are available. Livestock contributes to the livelihoods of 1.7 billion smallholder farmers in the Global South, and plays a crucial economic role for approximately 60 percent of rural households in developing countries [Howard, 2022.04.07].
Howard notes that while the little guys may be left out, the corporate overlords are already moving to control the fake-meat market. A shift to fake meat could thus be the same stuff, different day both economically and environmentally.
But hey, Big Meat, don’t throw your hats in the air and shout “Pass the barbecue sauce!” Howard and IPES-Food aren’t saying we should just keep eating all that good manly CAFO beef and Smithfield wieners. Howard’s report reminds us that industrial livestock production generates loads of greenhouse gases, infectious diseases, antibiotic-resistant pathogens, unsafe working conditions, and bad health outcomes for consumers duped into thinking you gotta eat meat to be a manly, Godly patriot. IPES-Food says producers of hoof-meat and lab-meat are overemphasizing protein:
For decades, the perceived need for more protein has led to distractions and distortions in development programs, flawed marketing and nutritional campaigns, and calls to increase the production and trade of meat, dairy, and protein-enriched foods. Today, the evidence clearly shows that there is no global ‘protein gap’: protein is only one of many nutrients missing in the diets of those suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and insufficiency of these diets is primarily a result of poverty and access. However, debates remain protein-centric, with the focus now on producing enough protein to feed the world in the face of supply constraints and rising demand. In this context, animals are consistently reduced to meat, and meat is reduced to protein. The ‘protein obsession’ is now shaping the political agenda and setting the parameters for scientific studies, media coverage, and public debate, with farming systems assessed primarily (or solely) in terms of protein production per unit of GHG emissions, and the need for a ‘protein transition’ guiding the various solutions on the table [IPES-Food, “The Politics of Protein: Examining Claims About Livestock, Fish, ‘Alternative Proteins’ and Sustainability,” April 2022].
Among other things, IPES-Food calls for breaking up corporate power (ah! the morning’s unexpected theme!) to protect diverse means of production, including chicken coops and test tubes, that respond to diverse local needs and voices:
Secondly, actions are required to address concentration of power across the food system, including through new approaches to antitrust and competition law. Targeting the practices of a limited number of dominant ‘protein’ firms could have major ripple effects. Further actions are required to promote organizational diversity and strengthen alternative supply chain infrastructures in a way that rebalances power relations and shifts discussion beyond a narrow choice between industrial meat versus industrial substitutes. Finally, debates on meat and protein must be rebuilt on the understandings and perspectives of diverse actors, including groups whose voices are rarely heard (e.g. pastoralists, artisanal fishers, Indigenous peoples, food insecure groups). This means reinvesting in deliberative democratic processes and consultative decision-making spaces, and resisting attempts to fast- track agreement around seemingly consensual ‘solutions’. It also means entering into genuine conversations where ideas are scrutinized, opposing views are confronted, uncertainties are recognized, and normative biases are acknowledged. Only by engaging in inclusive dialogue and overcoming polarization can misleading claims, false solutions, and the vested interests behind them be definitively called out, and transformative change pathways be set in motion [IPES-Food, 2022].
Meat with eyes may have its place. Beaker-brewed protein may, too. Corporate propaganda and control do not.