About a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are traceable to the food supply chain. Animal agriculture accounts for about three-quarters of those emissions and nearly 90 percent of those in the average American diet. A 2020 study found that even if all fossil fuel emissions ceased today, the food system would still push warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which most scientists consider unsafe. “The 7.8 billion of us on this planet cannot have a steak every night,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, told me. “It doesn’t compute.”
It’s these next paragraphs where I fear I might lose you. It’s easier to argue for human welfare than animal welfare. I spent most of my life not just as a meat eater, but as an enthusiastic one. I posted my burgers on Instagram and I sought out the perfect roast chicken. Even now, I don’t believe it’s necessarily immoral to eat meat. What I believe is immoral is the way we treat animals in most factory farms. And the scale of that suffering melts the mind.
A reasonable estimate is that about 70 billion land animals are raised and slaughtered for food each year, a vast majority of them chickens. My colleague Nick Kristof has written eloquently about the plight of Costco’s rotisserie chickens, but the horrors do not end there. I’ve spoken with farmers who lie awake with guilt over the way they treat their animals, but they are so buried in debt to the agricultural conglomerates that they see no way out for themselves.
We treat too many animals like inputs, and their suffering as a mere byproduct. Cheap meat isn’t really cheap. It’s just the animal that paid the cost, living in conditions so gruesome I fear describing them. But suffice it to say: If we could produce the meat we want without the suffering we now inflict, it would be one of the great achievements of our age.
My reason for optimism is technological: There have been remarkable strides made in plant-based meat — witness the success of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — and milks. And the next step is cultivated meat, which is meat grown directly from animal cells. This isn’t science fiction: There’s now a restaurant in Singapore where you can eat lab-grown chicken made by Eat Just. Unsurprisingly, it tastes like chicken, because that’s what it is.
But so far, most of these advances, most of these investments, are through private dollars, with the findings locked up in patents, by companies competing with one another for market share. We’re going to need to move faster than that. “If we leave this endeavor to the tender mercies of the market there will be vanishingly few products to choose from and it’ll take a very long time,” Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, told me.
This is where policymakers can, and should, come in. At its heart, the American Jobs Plan is a climate bill. But there isn’t a dollar for alternative proteins, despite animal agriculture’s huge contributions to both climate and pandemic risk. That’s worse than a mistake. It’s a failure of policy design. Luckily, it’s easily fixed.