Where resource scarcity is one of many motivations pulling the world away from extracting fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources, clean meat can similarly be seen as a part of the solution to resource scarcity in the agriculture sector.
Energy transition, clean meat use will occur more quickly when economically feasible
By Matt Chester
This article was published by the Chester Energy and Policy blog on Nov. 13, 2018.
Scientists are much closer than you might think they are to creating actual meat products without having to raise and kill animals, thanks to developments in growing identical animal tissue in a process that’s surprisingly similar to brewing beer.
If that idea excites you as much as it does me, I’d recommend pickup up Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World by Paul Shapiro.
In this thoroughly engrossing book, Shapiro travels to various labs working to create meat and other animal products (e.g., cowhide, eggs, and dairy) outside of a living animal.
This dive into the culinary future of clean meat (one suggested name for such products, along with lab-grown meat and cultured meat– each with their own pros and cons) captures the fervour of entrepreneurs working to be the first on the market and brings to life just how close consumers are to seeing such products in their local grocery store.
Earlier this year, I personally switched to a vegetarian diet, with the main reason for doing so being the benefits that plant-based diets offer in fighting climate change, promoting a more sustainable agricultural industry, and preserving the environment.
Studies find that eating less meat is among the most impactful acts anyone can take towards reducing their personal carbon footprint.
I’d say such environmental considerations got me 75 per cent of the way towards this decision, with the remaining 25 per cent coming from the ethical issues with the factory farming industry.
My wife, on the other hand, had committed to a vegetarian diet the year prior for primarily the latter moral reasons.
Seeing how different motivations could lead people to the same endpoint reminded me of how multiple reasons could justify the push for a clean energy transition– such as the morality of protecting the natural environment, the catastrophic consequences of climate change, the economic benefits of renewable energy, the national security benefits of relying less on foreign fossil fuels, and more.
Such a parallel between the energy transition and the push for lower global meat consumption framed my mindset as I read Shapiro’s book, and I quickly realized as I pored through it that many other parallels exist between these technological and cultural shifts.
Besides the obvious connection that both trends provide benefits to the environment and climate, Clean Meat brought to mind the following connections:
Resource scarcity is the common problem to tackle
While climate change is as good of a reason as any to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy, another important consideration has to do with the economic and environmental realities of resource scarcity.
Fossil fuels are limited in quantity by their nature, as they were formed from organic material over millions of years. As such, a finite amount of these energy sources rests underground.
While a degree of R&D has certainly been put in to chemically recreating fossil fuels, the concern about ‘running out of oil’ is overblown and not a realistic issue. The actual issue, though, comes from the fact that the oil and gas that have already been extracted were the easy-to-reach fuels, with the more inaccessible products now requiring the use of technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
As such, these fuels are more difficult and more expensive to extract, not to mention more harmful to the environment.
Similarly, the contemporary meat industry faces a resource scarcity problem. As the world population grows from over 7 billion people today to more than 10 billion by 2050, the demand for meat likewise increases.
Shapiro does a terrific job in Clean Meat of explaining how meat has long been seen as a luxurious meal for the wealthy. As developing nations become more industrialized, people demand meat as a high-caloric status symbol.
However, the problem of resource scarcity– land on which to raise livestock and grow their feed, water to sustain such agriculture, and the energy needed for all those operations– presents a limit to how much the meat industry can grow. However, Shapiro cites many studies about the environmental benefits of clean meat, including one Oxford University study estimating that “cultured beef could require up to 45 per cent less energy, 99 per cent less land, and 96 per cent less water than conventional beef.”
Addressing these resource scarcities requires a myriad of solutions, not a single silver bullet
Note how I said clean meat would be part of the solution and not the entire solution. Many researchers interviewed by Shapiro noted that the coming environmental crises associated with meat industry growth requires attacking from multiple angles.
On the trend of more people adapting a plant-based diet, Shapiro discusses the trend of food companies offering plant-based meat replacements, such as imitation hamburger patties that replicate the taste and feel of the real thing.
Such products help people adopt a vegetarian diet or simply replace some meals with non-meat substitutes, which “would help ameliorate much of this crisis, and it’s important that the plant protein sector continues to grow. But our species– and others with whom we share the planet– can’t rely on just one solution to such a large problem. Just like renewable energy, we need many alternatives to the problem.”
Going further, Shapiro quotes a researcher of such plant-based products who “hoped people would switch to these other plant-based alternatives, but he knew that a problem as big as increased global meat consumption required more than one possible solution. Just like there are many renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, could there be more than one alternative to factor farming animals?”
For this parallel, Shapiro does the heavy lifting of comparing the clean meat revolution with the clean energy transition. Advocates for renewable energy aren’t putting all their (lab-grown) eggs in one basket with just wind energy, they’re also investing in solar power, hydroelectric generation, geothermal energy, and more.
No single renewable energy technology can be expected to work for every situation, so the varied solutions are necessary. Similarly, companies that are promoting plant-based meat substitutes (Morningstar Farmsand Gardein being the favoured options in my household) won’t solve the problem alone.
We also need the aid of lab-grown meat, public education on how and why trends like Meatless Mondays should be adopted, innovation into more sustainable farming practices, and more.
Technology and economics, not environmental or moral sentiment, has always been the driver of societal change
As detailed more thoroughly in my review of Energy: A Human History, the advancement of energy technologies– from the steam engine to burning coal to gasoline-powered engines to nuclear and renewables– has only ever taken hold when doing so brought unquestionable economic sense to do so.
Along the energy industry’s centuries-long history, there have always been moral reasons to embrace the next emerging technology, whether that be freeing labourers from dangerous conditions or minimizing harm to the environment.
However, those moral reasons have typically been regarded more as footnotes than drivers of energy transition. The only true causes of history’s energy system overhauls have been economic, when the technology progresses to be effective and affordable enough that its embrace will make people money and ensure increased business profits.
That sentiment, that money and not morality dictates progress, is uninspiring and can even depress the most optimistic clean energy advocates. Unfortunately, the clean meat revolution appears to suffer from the same motivations (or lack thereof).
For years, people have chosen to eat vegetarian because they didn’t want to eat animals, and in the more recent past science has taught us much about the negative environmental effects of elevated global meat consumption.
Despite that, those choosing to minimize meat consumption in their diet remain a distant minority, as the technology and economics need to catch up with the ethical sentiment. In describing the similar moral concerns of exploiting horses for transportation and the environmental concerns of said horses’ excrement on city streets, Shapiro writes:
Yet in the end, what freed horses from labor in our streets and what saved New York City from literally drowning in horse poop wasn’t human sentiment nor environmental concerns. Just as kerosene helped save the whales, internal combustion engines helped replace horses as our primary means of transport. It was an inventor’s imagination, not a social movement’s moral argument, which rescued horses.
Beyond just the technology existing, though, these innovations must also provide benefits by increasing corporate profits, saving people money, and simply making too much economic sense to ignore.
Each researcher Shapiro interviewed for Clean Meat echoed the sentiment that these products will not find success in grocery stores or in restaurants, and thus cannot solve the environmental problems with the agriculture sector, until they approach cost-competitiveness with traditionally-farmed meat.
Once such a price threshold is crossed, consumers will flock to the cheaper alternatives in droves. Not only that, but the list of influential and wealthy investors in meat alternatives that are listed in this book– including Bill Gates, Li Ka-shing, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson– underscores just how much money remains to be made by the companies that successfully corner this market.
Shapiro notes that “by getting in on the ground floor, investors are positioning themselves for a big return, and they’re also enabling a potential solution to two of the world’s most pressing problems: feeding almost 10 billion people by 2050 and helping the nations of the world meet their climate change obligations under the Paris Agreement.”
The same applies for the investors who are betting big on clean and renewable energy sources today. Make no mistake about it though; in neither case would those investments be happening today for solely altruistic reasons. The technology must first exist and then the economics must make the potential profits impossible to ignore.
Optimal solutions will not depend on the responsible choices of consumers
Two of the previously mentioned billionaire investors serve as great representations of the different paths consumers might take.
Branson notes the following:
I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same, and also be much healthier for everyone. One day we will look back and think how archaic our grandparents were in killing animals for food.
As a result of this outlook, Branson has committed to eating lower on the food chain. Meanwhile, Gates is quoted as saying the following:
Even in areas like agriculture we’ll have artificial meat, where there’s already some people doing things here. That’s a big source of emissions there…and if you make meat another way, you avoid a lot of the issues like cruelty, and you should be able to make a product that costs less money.
Despite these appeals to morality, Gates remains a meat eater. The fact that someone like Gates can invest in these clean meat products and extol the virtues of reducing meat consumption but still eat meat himself demonstrates just how difficult it can be to make adjustments to personal habits.
But with products that will one day taste as good (or even better), cost less, and be healthier, consumers might eventually feel as if they have no choice but to switch to clean meat. While consumers will retain the right to eat whichever product they like, relying on them to make the choice that’s more environmentally sound before it’s easy to do so is a tough sell.
In the world of energy, reducing wasted energy parallels this struggle in the clean meat revolution. Shapiro quotes Jason Matheny, an innovator in cultured meat, as saying the following:
You can spend your time trying to get people to turn their lights off more, or you can invent a more efficient light bulb that uses far less energy even if you leave it on. What we need is an enormously more efficient way to get meat.
The similarities in compelling consumers to reduce both energy usage and meat consumption are striking, with the main point coming down to the importance of developing solutions that remove the dependence on humans making the ‘right’ choice. Optimal solutions will come from technology that makes progress towards the end goal with or without individual compliance.
- Content- 4/5: I read this book right as I was transitioning to a vegetarian diet, so it became the perfect accompanying read for that endeavour. Shapiro does a great job showing how clean meat can help make a dent in environmental and climate issues. If there’s anything I wish I got more of from this book, it’d be more detailed dives into the science and technology, as those were left a bit more surface level in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. That said, the tracking of societal and historical trends regarding clean meat were fascinating and truly well done.
- Readability- 5/5: If clean meat is a topic that appeals to you, expect this book to fly by. The benefit to the lack of deeper dives into the science was that the book is certainly accessible to readers even without an extensive scientific background.
- Authority- 4/5: Shapiro interviews dozens of professionals involved with the clean meat revolution, experts in R&D, marketing, history, public opinion, and more. The authority of this book comes from all the times he spends with these aficionados and gathering their wisdom, allowing for a comprehensive coverage of the topics.
- FINAL RATING- 4.3/5: Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro is a great read if the issues of sustainability in the agricultural world concern you, but the thought of vastly overhauling your diet terrifies you. Even ignoring the moral questions around meat production, the climate issues surrounding livestock farming are real. And just as the past 20-30 years have been transformational in the renewable energy field, the next 20-30 years will be the same for clean meat and finding ways to cut emissions from our dinner tables. If you’re curious and just want to be more informed, definitely give this book a read.
If you’re interested in following what else I’m reading, even outside of energy-related topics, feel free to follow me on Goodreads and see my page of energy-related book recommendations. Should this review compel you to pick up Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro, please consider buying on Amazon through the links on this page.
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If you want to read other book reviews, check out the posts on The Quest: Energy Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, The Many Lives of Carbon, and Energy for Future Presidents.
About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.