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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Curb Your Food Tech Enthusiasm

Food has long been the third rail in climate politics. Though agriculture makes up about 30 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, about half of which comes from animal agriculture, climate experts and politicians alike have been reticent to deliver the unpopular news that people should eat less meat. Nowhere was this more visible than at the recent COP26 climate conference. Even though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had warned in August that all emissions, including methane from agriculture, must be reduced, while in Glasgow the world’s climate leaders chowed down on decidedly climate-unfriendly burgers and haggis and copped out of committing to reducing agricultural emissions.

But the discussion at the summit’s edges showed that there is a growing interest in actually addressing agriculture’s climate footprint, and technology is often at the forefront of this conversation. US secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters, “I do not think we have to reduce the amount of meat or livestock produced in the US … The question is making production more sustainable.” This echoes comments made earlier this year by John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy. Meanwhile, at one of the conference’s side events focused on the future of food, the CEO of cellular agriculture company Aleph Farms claimed that “a second category of meat” grown from cells could help reduce the meat sector’s emissions.

While politicians, tech-boosters, and eco-modernists love to champion an exclusive focus on reducing emissions in food systems, and tend to suggest that technology by itself is the way to get there, this approach misses the bigger ethical and political questions of what sort of food system we should be using technology to build. This also conveniently allows politicians, companies, and think tanks to sidestep the issue of fundamentally unsustainable systems and habits, like our global meat addiction, that no amount of technology, no matter how sophisticated, will ever be able to correct for. There is a difference between a low-carbon food system and a sustainable or ethical one, and it is only by treating emissions reduction as one of the many broken parts of our food systems that we can responsibly decide which technologies to pursue, and what the limits are of relying solely on technology to build the so-called future of food.

It’s not cows’ fault that humans have long relied on them for their milk and meat. But as the world’s population and its demand for beef and dairy grows, cows have become unwitting culprits in driving climate change. Every year, the world churns out more than 70 million tons of beef and more than 840 million tons of milk. The well over 1 billion cows needed to produce all of this food emit 9 percent of all greenhouse gasses. A growing global population of vegans notwithstanding, global meat and dairy production and consumption are rising. Even if we were to massively reduce all other sources of greenhouse gasses, emissions from farming alone at their current rates would push the world past the already tenuous 1.5 degree warming goal.

Those with a vested interest in beef and dairy, and those who doubt that a rapid enough shift away from animal agriculture is possible, have supported band-aid fixes with the help of agricultural technology. We ought to invest, this school of thought goes, in methane-reducing feed additives and anaerobic digesters that convert methane into natural gas. Universities around the world are conducting extensive research into developing novel animal feeds; the Foundation for Food and Agriculture recently announced a $5 million investment into this sort of research to make cattle “climate smart”; the White House’s “US Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan” throws its support behind mass adoption of biodigesters and manure management; and the eco-modernist Breakthrough Institute recently released a 54-page white paper titled “The Clean Cow” arguing that we could reduce cows’ emissions by 18 percent with existing technology and up to 48 percent with a full technological reengineering of cattle agriculture by 2030.

There are two problems with this approach. First, the promises of technologies meant to reduce emissions from agriculture often far exceed what they can actually deliver. For instance, as Matthew Hayek and I wrote in WIRED earlier this year, widely publicized claims that feeding cows algae feed additives could cut their emissions by 80 percent actually work out to be closer to 10 percent when you take into account when and under what conditions you can change a cow’s diet. Biodigesters, meanwhile, are very expensive and only address the 10 or so percent of agricultural methane emissions that come from manure. And whether either of these can be massively scaled is an open question. With these realities in mind, the modest 18 percent decrease in emissions from currently available technology outlined by the Breakthrough Institute’s report looks dubious. But even if its more ambitious goal of developing new technology that reduces beef’s methane by 48 percent were to work, the resulting emissions would still be higher than the currently worst-emitting pork and chicken, and well over twice as much as plant-based meats and four times as much as tofu. The clean cow, in other words, is a lame duck.

The second issue with this techno-optimistic approach is that even if these technological fixes are as effective as promised, they will perpetuate a food production system that will continue to be harmful to animals, workers, and the planet. There are scores of other impacts of beef production, including overgrazing of land, deforestation, harmful runoff and odors, animal welfare issues, and the treatment of workers in slaughterhouses. What good is investing in technologies to reduce emissions if their sources are industries that should be phased out rather than saved? Indeed, an exclusive focus on emissions reductions in food systems can lead to potentially far worse outcomes, like replacing high-emitting beef with lower-emitting chicken. Chicken production emits relatively little, but it does so at the cost of cramming animals into factory farms, where they suffer horribly, are more prone to disease outbreaks, and can be pumped full of antibiotics, contributing to the global crisis of antibiotic resistance.

Then there’s the technology-driven “solution” of alternative proteins such as plant-based and cellular meat. On the one hand, these products actually aim to create a more sustainable way of producing meat, both lowering emissions and removing many of the other harms of conventional meat production, including factory farms and slaughterhouses. Investing in the development of this technology might help usher in a far more ethical food system, one better for animals, consumers, and the planet. What the clean cow is to clean coal, clean meat is to renewables like solar.

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But alternative protein still operates within the confines of existing, highly problematic systems. To realize its full potential in creating a better food system, we need to look beyond its advantages over conventional meat. The technology itself does little to address other major structural and ethical issues within the food system, including corporate concentration and the treatment of workers. As alternative protein companies break into the mainstream, many are being bought up by large incumbent food companies, including those they are ostensibly trying to disrupt. Most recently, the Brazilian cattle behemoth JBS invested $100 million in a Spanish cellular agriculture startup. Given JBS’ abysmal environmental record, this is hardly good news unless the company actively reduces its meat production to focus on alternative proteins.

There is also the question of whether consumers will actually make a wholesale switch away from animal flesh, no matter how good or cheap the high-tech plant-based alternatives, including if cellular agriculture overcomes its many scientific hurdles to mass-produce real meat without animals. It’s unlikely that this shift will happen without both individual changes in habits as well as active government policies aimed at incentivizing the new technology and disincentivizing conventional meat production.

Meat, of course, is not the only culprit; but it’s a microcosm of the food tech debate. Genetic modification, vertical farming, and even low-tech approaches like regenerative ranching are all guilty of overselling solutions to entrenched food system problems. It’s time to curb this techno-enthusiasm and instead embrace cautious techno-pragmatism. The question we should ask of technology is not simply what it can do, but what sort of new systems and new worlds it can help us build. This means being selective about which technologies open up possibilities of more ethical and sustainable worlds, which make harmful industries slightly greener, and which changes don’t require technology at all.

In the case of reducing the impact of meat-heavy diets, likely the lowest-hanging fruit—as many experts have argued—is people simply eating less meat and more plants, supported by government policy to make these foods more accessible. Alternative proteins can go a long way in helping people make that shift, especially since they plug pretty seamlessly into existing food value chains and eating habits. These technologies would benefit from robust government investment. But by themselves they won’t do nearly enough. Policymakers should also work to limit the influence of massive food and meat corporations on policy, including by using antitrust laws. They could also make mass-produced meat more expensive by passing and then enforcing more stringent animal welfare and environmental laws against companies like JBS, or imposing Pigouvian taxes on meat. And if we are to actually have a more just food system, workers’ wages and safety will have to be prioritized just as much as better technology.

It’s not that technology won’t save us. In fact, making a better world and a better food system will rely on it. But, trite as it might sound, the future of food will be made first through politics and policy. Technology might make that more palatable, but by itself, it won’t ever be enough.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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