The following is a guest post from Dan Glickman, a former USDA secretary and member of the advisory board for cultivated meat company Good Meat, a subsidiary of Eat Just.
This holiday season, as families gather to enjoy their favorite festive dishes, we should contemplate what recently transpired an ocean away at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). It demonstrated the global urgency and shared commitment to constructively deal with climate change, which if left unaddressed, will impact every aspect of human existence, especially food production. We should also recognize the importance of innovation as a driving force in food and agriculture at a time when food safety, security and scarcity are top of mind for many.
Disruptions of weather patterns, excessive rainfall, droughts, water shortages, heat and rising temperatures, combined with carbon and methane emissions, directly affect the ability to produce crops, raise livestock and fish the oceans worldwide. These activities lead to food shortages and rising prices for us all, and they are especially calamitous for those in poor areas of the developing world. Agriculture is a major contributor to this situation and farmers and ranchers understand this.
Smart people in the food and agriculture community are actively working on solutions that improve soil health, as well as better water conservation techniques, no-till agriculture, carbon sinks, enhanced animal feeding methods and more sustainable animal production practices. According to reports, farm-tech investing soared to $7.9 billion in 2020, and 2021 is on track to exceed that number. But these solutions are not embraced by all, and some of these efforts don’t address changing consumer attitudes to protect the environment.
Modern science has demonstrated that agriculture writ large is a major contributor to carbon and methane emissions, but that is not to say that the burden in solving our climate crisis should fall disproportionately on it. However, the agriculture community has an opportunity to play a crucial role in creating a healthier planet for us all today and keep it that way for future generations.
Considering the options
What is needed — in addition to improving the conservation practices of conventional plant and animal production — is to actively work to give consumers choices that will produce food in new, safe and sustainable ways. Our nation’s leading food and agriculture research institutions and efforts in the public and private sector should be unafraid to look at all the options to help feed a hungry world and adopt innovative production techniques that are consistent with reducing carbon and methane emissions.
In the area of alternative protein sources, there have been significant advancements in the last five years. Plant-based protein products are becoming ubiquitous, and they are often marketed as a way to give consumers who want to decrease their reliance on animal agriculture necessary nutrients without compromising on functionality and flavor. From mung bean eggs to burgers made from peas and potatoes, consumer demand for plant-based versions of kitchen staples is growing and the products themselves are getting tastier.
Another exciting alternative protein opportunity is cellular agriculture — the production of animal-based meat, poultry and seafood products from cell cultures rather than directly from animals. Although nobody will be carving a “cultivated” Christmas ham this year, a growing number of well-funded startups want to bring their products to market in our lifetimes. Those entrepreneurs are motivated by a range of factors, including environmental awareness. While it is still too soon to know for sure, cultivated meat manufacturers believe if they source sustainable energy, their industry could play a meaningful role in combating climate change.
Consumers are demonstrating an appetite for all of these products, in large part to reduce the impact on the environment, and they look to regulators to conduct objective and science-based reviews of these and other new protein sources that are consistent with ensuring the safety of the food supply. At the same time, conventional agricultural and livestock industries should continue making improvements to their environmental footprint and that of their products.
With the global population increasing and the climate challenges impacting the food supply — which are further complicated by COVID-related supply chain woes — it is imperative that we embrace opportunities that scientific and technological advances offer so that we can feed a hungry world sustainably.