The End of Agriculture

Two nights before Halloween this year, I attended “Food System Risks and Opportunities,” a panel discussion hosted by FAIRR at the investment company Neuberger Berman on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. FAIRR, which stands for Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return, describes itself as “a collaborative investor network that raises awareness of the material ESG [environmental, social, and corporate governance] risks and opportunities caused by intensive animal production.”

Over the last few years, I’ve increasingly found myself at conferences, seminars, and expos among the money managers, VC mavens, product developers, and techno-utopians of the new food economy. It’s a mostly young, well-heeled, and shiny-eyed crowd, full of newly minted MBAs, PhDs, and/or budding entrepreneurs wanting to grasp the opportunity to “disrupt” the “food space” and make some money into the bargain. It’s a world of acronyms, pitch decks and financial leverage, and strategic interests and market solutions, one that avoids moral exhortations in favor of personal choice and taste-price-convenience. It rarely includes those who pick the food, slaughter the animals, or grow the corn. That the FAIRR seminar took place in an aerie high above the rain-swept streets of Manhattan only rendered its overview even more magisterial.

On my ascent to the upper echelons of high finance, the elevator’s television scrolled through a series of factoids. The first informed me that new research had increased the number of people currently vulnerable to coastal flooding from 110 to 150 million by 2050, with a possible increase to 340 million by 2100 should climate change and sea-level rise be more severe. The second notified me that 75 percent of American men were either overweight or obese, which paralleled an equally alarming statistic I’d learned earlier that current trajectories suggest that half of all U.S. teenagers will be overweight or obese by 2030.

The speakers at FAIRR were, to a person, informed and knowledgeable about the risks that investors in industrial animal agriculture faced of lower returns should other investors switch from animal-based agriculture to more sustainable, plant-based portfolios. They noted the exposure insurers might face should governments internalize the currently externalized costs of animal agriculture. Panelists were bullish on investments in greener technology—especially given that more companies were hearing ESG concerns from shareholders, customers, and consumers.

Yet, as I listened to the presentations delivered and heard by sleek and BMI-appropriate professionals, I couldn’t shift from my mind the picture of inflated Americans bobbing in the waters of downtown Miami or the FDR Drive. Nor could I get past the chasm between these news items, delivered in palatable nuggets as the elevator slid between floors, and the deliberative tones that accompanied the panelists’ strategic financial advice. When one told us that his company took a long-term perspective of three to five years in their investment decisions, I bit hard on my tongue. Three to five years! And when, after we broke for the evening, an investor informed me that he’d gone vegan and had felt fantastic, but had recently returned to eating meat because he’d gotten drunk and had craved cheese pizza, I offered my condolences and fled onto the streets of New York City.

The one question that occupied my mind as I headed home was, When are we going to get serious about climate change? I don’t doubt for a minute the intentions of FAIRR in seeking to divert capital from animal agriculture. I don’t question the aspirations of my pizza-loving, booze-befuddled financial titan. The food at the FAIRR event was plant-based, and it’s possible that the elevator’s messages are tailored precisely to scare away complacency in the tenants.

But, to my mind, seriousness means looking at the future beyond investment strategies of five years, let alone quarterly reports, shareholder dividends, and hockey stick–shaped ROIs. Pending the ending of a capitalist, extractive economic system that externalizes true costs and fails to internalize the damage to natural capital, we need carbon-pricing and an end to subsidized amber waves of high fructose corn syrup and soy-fattened flesh-burgers that are making our fellow citizens as sick and antibiotics-dependent as the animals they consume.

Seriousness entails shifting the discussion of veganism from a virtue-signaling personal choice reflective of moral purity (or addictive shame) to default practices and commitments in policy and investment. Seriousness means a reimagination of a food system to privilege quality over quantity, diversity over sameness, and closed energy loops over waste, junk, and fat-sugar-salt in combination with taste-price-convenience.

A week after the FAIRR event, 11,000 scientists signed on to a declaration published in BioScience to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the First World Climate Conference in Geneva. The scientists noted, that in spite of forty years of numerous meetings and publications rich with documented evidence on the destruction to life on Earth, we were set on a course for warming far beyond two-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. The scientists emphasized the need for “an immense increase of scale in endeavors to conserve our biosphere . . . to avoid untold suffering due to the climate crisis.” They called for “major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.” The paragraph on food was especially damning:

Eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products . . . , especially ruminant livestock . . . , can improve human health and significantly lower GHG emissions. . . . Moreover, this will free up croplands for growing much-needed human plant food instead of livestock feed, while releasing some grazing land to support natural climate solutions. . . . Cropping practices such as minimum tillage that increase soil carbon are vitally important. We need to drastically reduce the enormous amount of food waste around the world.

Untold suffering, major transformations, much-needed human plant food, vitally important, drastically reduce: these are the words, and in sentences with the commensurate tone, that we need to employ. Otherwise, we’re simply fooling ourselves and others into believing that tweaking our portfolios or getting drunk with cheese pizza are “doing our bit” to save the planet. I would say it is time to get serious—except we may not even have the time for that.