Martin Rowe has published a post on The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) blog called “Moving Beyond the Impossible: Challenges of cellular agriculture.” Continue reading
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.
Kevin Archer is a chef, farmer, and founder of the Peace Meal Supper Club. He had the following response to Beyond the Impossible: The Futures of Plant-based and Cellular Meat and Dairy.
I appreciate the angles you’ve taken, and certainly the research backing up the entire piece. It is a complex topic, not covered easily.
What keeps going through my mind on this is that tech—and I am loading this syllable with all manner of technological exercises; applied science, as it were, not basic science—is not solutionary. It is a commercial exercise which always focuses on its own longevity. It does not seek to finally solve a problem; it looks to supply more products. This is perhaps the most dominant trait of our political economy, also . . . to the surprise of no one.
It is difficult to see these exercises solving world hunger, rampant meat consumption, or really any other problem. They will make gains, grab a little market share, then wax and wane as all such enterprises. I do not view them as revolutionary.
My concerns go beyond the ones you’ve detailed. There are distinct vulnerabilities associated with centralized food production, especially high-tech food production. It is subject to hacking and the incorporation of contaminants just to name a couple.
I believe that the forms you write about—plant-based, cellular, and “better” meats—are extractive by nature. Factories (or labs as proponents might prefer to call them) are aggregators of multiple forms of extraction, including labor, water, and components of plant/animal materials. But we must look deeper than these forms. High-tech production of food requires the constant extraction of copper, aluminum, gold, and other metals. When we think “tech” we must think “mining.”
We also must think software updates, system bugs, endless obsolescence and upgrades, and massive data centers. Here’s a tidbit from inside the sordid world of high tech: service contracts on data servers and processors typically carry a five-year term. The equipment itself can run for up to ten, but corporations are not willing to operate those additional five years without service. Therefore, these massive systems, which can fill a football field, are retired and scrapped. More resources are extracted to build more systems, ad infinitum. Hopefully this practice is included in the ecological footprint calculations you mention.
Your citing of the Land Grant Act is curious, for this has not worked out particularly well. Jack Ralph Kloppenburg details in his book First the Seed, how the LGUs were quickly co-opted by industry, which led to industry taking control of the entire agricultural sector. We have had a steady decline in seed diversity, arable land, and pollinator support, as well as a loss of family farms. The Act has not been a uniformly positive thing.
Hanyu’s vision of the new world of cellular and plant-based meats is certainly rosy, to the point of naïveté. We can apply his promises of personal empowerment to just about every human innovation—and watch the predictable outcomes. A cellular production machine on every home kitchen counter equals just another gadget—like a bread machine, air fryer, slow cooker, George Foreman grill—which will go unused and end up at Goodwill (hopefully) or in a landfill (likely).
While I appreciate your optimistic recommendations, I can’t help think that our political economy has never favored the individual, the environment, or the laborer. Automation has always taken precedence over employment of humans, corporate structures have always resisted diversification, and a factory approach to food has, by and large, led to a degradation in the food supply. To make all this work in our favor would require a re-engineering of humans.
Given the trajectory of the environment generally and our government specifically, I think an agrarian return is inevitable. (I don’t think we’ll willingly go there, nor will we do so easily.) And yes, all forms of agriculture are problematic, but at least small, strategically distributed, regenerative agriculture is oriented towards renewal. Would it not be more sensible to put our energy into making that transition more successful?
For the last two years, I (Martin Rowe) have attended several conferences on, and read widely in, plant-based meat and cellular agriculture (the term used to describe efforts to grow animal protein outside the animal—whether in a medium or enzymatically). I’ve listened to scientists (both natural and social), food marketers, entrepreneurs, investors, and policy mavens. I’ve watched in amazement the extraordinary growth in interest in plant-based meat and dairy products in the media, and have heard from champions and detractors of these industries who are food security activists, environmental researchers, agro-ecologists, animal advocates, and those attempting to reduce food waste and loss.
I’ve gathered the results of my research and attendance in Beyond the Impossible: The Futures of Plant-based and Cellular Meat and Dairy (July 2019). (The brief is available here: Beyond the Impossible: The Futures of Plant-based and Cellular Meat and Dairy (Policy Brief). The paper is both a state-of-the-industries overview and a work of speculation; a critique of the criticisms and an effort to reconcile competing concerns and values. It is, as this website suggests, oriented toward a vegan future, even as it recognizes that cellular agriculture has the means to transform just what the word vegan might mean in that future.
Feel free to download the paper and brief and share them with whom you wish.
As part of its ongoing work, the Vegan America Project was pleased and proud to partner with the Teachers College at Columbia University’s Tisch Food Center in the Program in Nutrition, under the leadership of Pamela Koch. Brighter Green was invited to submit a proposal as part of VAP for the students in the program to work on.
We asked the students to explore how a plant-based diet could support New York City’s climate resiliency strategies and enhance its commitments to food security and food justice. Four students—Jamila Crawford, Lesley Kroupa, Vicky Tong, and Vincent Panza—expressed an interest in the project. At the end of the semester, the students presented the results of their research in class, and, on Thursday June 13th, Lesley Kroupa and VAP coordinator Martin Rowe made a joint presentation to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Mr. Adams is running for mayor of NYC in 2021, and is a passionate advocate of a whole-food plant-based diet. A PDF of the presentation can be found below.
The task set for the students was difficult—not least given the limitations of time during which they had to make their presentations. Nonetheless, they summarized current policy regarding climate change resilience in New York City. They detailed animal agriculture’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. They noted vulnerabilities for flooding in certain areas of NYC—notably Hunts Point in the Bronx (through which a sizable portion of the food that New Yorkers eat is transported) and the many bridges and tunnels that could be affected by severe Sandy-like storms and rising sea levels. This required a more flexible and disaggregated food system.
They drew attention to the many public and private ventures taking place in New York City’s foodshed that not only provide climate remediation, but assist in food security, generate green jobs, and diversify food sources: such as green roofs, community gardens, and vertical farms. They also noted how reducing food waste and loss would lower mean lower carbon emissions, more food security, and, combined with amped-up composting capabilities, lower landfill-based methane emissions.
In the final part of the presentation, the students observed the limitations of NYC in setting state-wide, let alone federal agriculture policy, but showed that by legislating choice with the default being plant-based as opposed to animal food–based, it would be possible to shift the city significantly toward a more sustainable diet for all New Yorkers.
On November 1, Alfonso Daniels of the British Broadcasting Corporation, reported on conflicts between Senegalese and Mauritanian fishermen off the coast of West Africa (“‘Fish are vanishing’—Senegal’s devastated coastline”). Senegalese boats had been moving into Mauritanian waters in search of catch, which had led to clashes with Mauritania’s coastguard and the deaths of perhaps dozens of fishermen.
The causes of the conflict are many and multivalent. Years of (sometimes illegal) overfishing from European and East Asian trawlers have led to a collapse in fish stocks. Mor Ndiaye, a Senegalese fisherman, tells Daniels: “The fish just vanished, what can we do? We used to catch enough fish in a day or two. Now we need to go out at sea for weeks to catch the same amount. It’s terrifying, we can only rely on God.”
Of the fish that are caught in Mauritania, half are now turned into powdered meal in factories that dot the coast of Mauritania, as they do in Senegal. These factories, which are owned by Chinese and Russian companies, employ mainly Chinese and Turkish workers. The meal is exported to China, where it is fed to farmed fish and other livestock.
Fish have long made up a staple diet for the coastal communities of West Africa. Indeed, writes Daniels, fish constitute 75 percent of the daily protein intake for many coastal Africans, as well as those in interior, landlocked countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali. With the reduction in opportunities to fish, some fishermen are abandoning their profession and taking to the open seas in search of a better life in Europe. These perilous journeys, often in craft unsuited for long ocean journeys, can be fatal, whether through starvation, exposure, or capsizing. Those who make the trek north through the Sahara run the risk of exploitation or worse from human traffickers. Crossing the Mediterranean is also extremely hazardous.
Mauritanian and Senegalese governments have recently tried to calm tensions between their fishing communities by establishing quotas. However, Daniels notes, there is considerable dissatisfaction with Mauritanian inspectors, who’ve been accused of accepting kickbacks from non–West African countries to ignore illegal overfishing. As Alassane Samba, who used to direct Senegal’s oceanic research institute, tells Daniels: “Mauritania is protecting its waters not for its people, but for foreigners.”
Daniels’ story highlights the many interlinked and moving parts of today’s globalized extractive animal-agricultural complex, which are worth examining in more detail. Most glaringly, perhaps, the plight of the fishermen of West Africa illustrates the powerlessness of local communities when confronted with either governmental inaction toward, or active collusion with, industrial-scale production aligned with powerful national governments.
The BBC story echoes that of an article on April 30, 2017, in the New York Times (“China’s Appetite Pushes Fisheries to the Brink,”), in which Andrew Jacobs reports on the challenges facing regional fishing centers on a planet where 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or close to collapse. Communities from the Bering Sea to eastern China and beyond now catch smaller, fewer, and less desirable marine life, including the young of species whose exploitation would mean the end of future “harvests.” According to Jacobs, most of the fish that the Senegalese do haul in “is sent abroad, with a lot ending up as fishmeal fodder for chickens and pigs in the United States and Europe.”
The People’s Republic of China offers payments, continues Jacobs, to the country’s enormous fishing fleets to build and maintain its boats, subsidizes fishing communities. It also turns a blind eye to illegal activity. In the case of the Spratly Islands (the set of reefs, islets, and atolls that China is developing in the South China Sea), the PRC’s government is encouraging fishing fleets to colonize the waters to consolidate and extend China’s geopolitical dominance of the region.
It may be easy to blame the PRC for its failure to regulate overfishing and stop poaching, or criticize its use of private companies to extend its political reach. Yet China is merely the most recent manifestation of a public–private accommodation that reaches back to the English and Spanish pirates in the Caribbean, the Dutch and British East India companies, King Leopold II of Belgium’s private fiefdom of the Congo Free State, and on to the proxy Soviet and Western conflicts in Africa and South-East Asia during and after the struggles for independence.
On the high seas of today, whether sailing under flags of convenience or under their own insignia, fleets from East Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States remove vast amounts of fish from the world’s waters every year in an attempt both to meet demand and extend hegemony. As Liu Xinzhong, deputy general director of the bureau of fisheries in Beijing, says Jacobs’ Times article, China is merely following that immutable directive: “‘People come to me and ask, “If China doesn’t fish, where would Americans get their fish to eat?”’”
The complexity of calling out China is further exacerbated by the assiduousness with which the Chinese government has courted African leaders, promising that China will not interfere in these nations’ internal politics, no matter how repressive or kleptocratic. In September 2018, President Xi Jingping pledged another $60 billion (following $60 billion in 2015) for projects throughout Africa, emphasizing that such aid had to benefit Africans, be environmentally responsible, protect wildlife, and combat desertification.
However, as the case of Senegal and Mauritania illustrates, African workers aren’t necessarily benefiting from employment at the fishmeal factories, even as their jobs on the open waters no longer are tenable. Moreover, the practices of all of the boats—whether local vessels or the huge trawlers off the coast of West Africa—are far from environmentally responsible or protecting wildlife. The Chinese workers who staff the fishmeal factories constitute some of the one million Chinese who’ve moved to Africa in recent years. (The numbers of Chinese may now be declining as the economies of some African countries cool.)
The dynamic between China and Africa exemplifies the continued colonial and neocolonial relationship that Western and now East Asian countries have with Africa. Rich in natural resources, weak in governance, and confined by a neoliberal Washington Consensus that encourages free trade, foreign direct investment, privatization, deregulation, and the selling off of natural assets rather than retaining and adding value to them, African governments continue to cede their finite natural resources to industrialized countries that may be deficient in those natural resources, have lots of capital, and need to satisfy a population hungry for commercial products and more consumer options.
As with the colonial powers in “the Scramble for Africa” in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China is looking to feed its expanding middle class and rapid industrialization by exploiting Africa and Africans, and turning a blind eye to poor or corrupt governance and the political and social destabilization that may occur as a result. Meanwhile, as the colonial forces of yesteryear built railways, mines, and capital cities, the Chinese pledge and build much-needed airports, dredge ports, construct railroads, and provide other infrastructure.
Of course, another way of looking at China’s presence in Africa is that Western aid has failed and only created corruption and dependency. It is possible, although not inevitable, that these infrastructure projects, including the fishmeal factories, will spur enough economic growth around them for the African countries to pay back the loans given to them by China. However, the risk is that the burden on the local ecosystems will do the reverse. The irony, as the plight of the Senegalese fishermen illustrates, is that instead of development, the inequitable partnership actually poses a threat—both to the Africans’ native countries and beyond their borders.
No longer able to fish, young men may turn to other ways to make a living. In the Philippines, according to Jacobs’ Times story, former fishermen are burning protected tropical rainforest to plant rice fields. The destruction of roots that keep the earth in place, however, causes landslides, leading to loss of topsoil and ultimately barren land. Sometimes that displacement turns violent. In Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate, social scientists from Adelphi, a German think-tank, identified climate change as a “threat multiplier” for non-state armed groups, who might serve as a source of employment and grievance-redress, step in to control water or other vital services, and further destabilize countries. The Adelphi group cite the presence of Boko Haram around Lake Chad and the Janjaweed in Darfur as examples of this.
As people take to the seas (or cross the desert) in search of a better life in Europe, they join the river of migrants flowing from rural areas who can no longer practice their way of life because of climate change, the consolidation and industrialization of farming, and the destruction of habitat or land grabs. Fleeing to urban areas, rural migrants place further stress on already-scarce housing stock, poor sewage treatment, and high unemployment rates. These, in turn, threaten further destabilization and unrest, which only increase pressures to emigrate.
Population decline in Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere, combined with excess labor pools in Africa and other parts of the developing world would indicate that well-controlled immigration might solve both problems. However, the recent rise of ethno-nationalist leaders in the United States and parts of Europe, stirred by cultural and racial fears of mass immigration and loss of regional identity, suggest that economic realities and confrontations on the border may only reinforce illiberal and autocratic tendencies, exacerbate tensions between nation states, and lead to further instability.
Behind these geopolitical human realities is a mindset that views animal life as an inexhaustible commodity to be extracted, industrialized, and globalized—whether that life consists of the fish ground into meal, or the livestock to whom that meal is fed, in China, Europe, or the United States. Unlike ungulates or monogastrics, fish typically are measured by the ton rather than individually, and so the number of pelagic fish caught may, literally, be countless—although one effort a decade ago calculated the total at 2.74 trillion. This number doesn’t include non-target animals netted (estimated at about 38 million tonnes per year), a figure that, according to the WWF, includes 300,000 cetaceans, 250,000 turtles, and 300,000 seabirds.
The assumption that nature’s marine bounty is infinite runs counter to emerging consensus about the essential role that marine ecosystems play in regulating the planet’s climate. The ocean contains fifty times and twenty times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and soil respectively, and phytoplankton (which are responsible for more than half of all photosynthesis on Earth) remove half the carbon dioxide released via the burning of fossil fuels. Not only does a hotter climate threaten the photosynthetic capabilities of phytoplankton, but rising surface sea temperatures have reduced the number of phytoplankton by 40 percent since 1950. Since phytoplankton are the first link in a food chain that reaches all the way up to the great whales, and spreads throughout the marine food chain, their disappearance threatens fish stocks of all kinds everywhere on the planet.
The core madness of Daniels’ story for the BBC lies in the fact that the fishmeal produced doesn’t even go to feed humans directly, but to fatten farmed fish or livestock. Farmed carnivorous now fish eat fewer fish by consuming meal filled with corn and soy. Some evidence suggests that a supplemented soy-corn meal would perform almost as well (there would be less fat), and have a more balanced “fish-in, fish-out” (FIFO) ratio than current fishmeal. However, as Daniels’ story shows, animal agribusiness and aquaculture is still using wild-caught fish, which does nothing to help West African coastal communities feed themselves. It should be added that continuing to use wild-caught fish also means exposing consumers to mercury, lead, plastics, and other poisons concentrated in their flesh.
One proposed solution is providing insect meal as feed for farm-raised fish such as trout and salmon. A number of insect species, such as the black soldier fly, have been tried, although, like the soy-corn combination, they don’t have enough oily fats. Another option, of course, might be encouraging people to consume insects themselves. A 2013 report from the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, noted that insects “form part of the traditional diet of at least 2 billion people,” and that of the 1,900 different species that had been used for food, most were beetles, followed by caterpillars, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets, among several other orders.
Although, insects (like all animals) contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and require feed in order to grow, their protein and calorie conversion ratios are much superior to ruminants, monogastrics, and fish. (For instance, the report notes, not only do crickets produce 1kg of meat for only 1.7kg of feed, but much more of the animal (80 percent) is available for direct consumption than chicken and pigs (55 percent) or cattle (40 percent). Mealworms have comparable amounts of unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids as fish, and, says the report, “the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat.” The report further notes that raising such animals at an industrial scale would not leave a large environmental footprint, and would “offer important livelihood opportunities for people in both developing and developed countries.”
Yet another option remains to be realized, and that is the development of cellular meat from fish. Companies such as Finless Foods and BlueNalu, as well as the incubator New Harvest, are looking at the challenges and opportunities presented by growing seafood from fish cell and tissue cultures. Indeed, argue the authors of the article “Cell-Based Fish: A Novel Approach to Seafood Production and an Opportunity for Cellular Agriculture,” aquaculture’s liquid environment and temperate conditions may be the most ideal in which to culture fish-flesh cells—perhaps more so than those of mammals or birds.
Beyond these solutions are indigenous grains and legumes—such as fonio (which is rich in protein), cowpea, egusi, locust bean, moringa, and many others—that offer a continuous means of sustenance. The challenge is persuading a rapidly urbanizing global population that a “Western” conception of “modernity” and “wealth” (which favors the consumption of animal foods, including bushmeat) should not mean the abandonment of the indigenously grown plant-based food that once enabled communities to eat locally and healthfully. These plants and ideas will need to be revived and/or revalorized, should the animals that once provided a source of protein no longer survive on land or in the ocean.
“The fish just vanished,” Mor Ndiaye, the Senegalese fisherman, told Alfonso Daniels of the BBC. “It’s terrifying, we can only rely on God.” One might excuse Mr. Ndiaye’s lament as o overly colorful—that the fishmeal factories suggest that plenty of fish are being caught, and that the situation is remediable not through divine intervention but through potentially straightening but hardly terrifying public policy (establishing marine sanctuaries to retain fish stocks, rigorously enforcing quotas, finding supplementary sources of protein, providing alternative sources of labor, reducing the need for fish meal in the first place). Indeed, the New York Times report observes that the Chinese government is looking to register all its fishing boats to monitor illegal fishing more effectively. As Liu Xinzhong of the fisheries bureau says, “The era of fishing any way you want, wherever you want, has passed. We now need to fish by the rules.”
However, it could be that Mor Ndiaye is sending a signal that officials and officialese ignore at their peril: that ecosystems will not slowly decline but collapse once a tipping point has been reached, as whole species “vanish”—wiped out in a blink of an eye by the severance of the trophic cascade; or a minuscule, but definitive increase in sea temperature that changes breeding patterns; or the slightest shifting of an ocean current that alters spawning grounds and food sources. At that point, given the climatic changes already baked in, the acts of God that may be visited upon us, and the subsequent catastrophes that neither local, regional, national, nor global governance will be able to handle, the future may indeed offer nothing but terror.
In such circumstances, then, it’s clear that those of us who can afford to live without animal products and thrive should do so. As this story so clearly illustrates, to continue consuming fish because it somehow is less obviously harmful to animal welfare, or produces fewer direct GHG emissions, or has a more efficient protein-conversion rate than beef, means ignoring the continuing inequities and colonialism of our diet, and maintains the exploitation of those whose material wellbeing is directly affected by our thoughtless consumption. The story shows how inextricably animal agriculture of all kinds is tied into neoliberal economic model that threatens not merely planetary survival but also is actively destabilizing societies and threatens democracies and the civilizational order.
The story also illustrates that not all “vegan” options are the same: that the opportunities for Mor Ndiaye to eat sustainably and healthfully, earn a living, and look forward to a better future are more constrained than yours or mine. For him and millions of others like him throughout the developing world, farming and eating insects may be essential additional sources of protein, as is a rediscovery of an indigenous and resilient plant-based food culture and potentially the widespread availability of cellular-based fish protein produced on site and made affordable to local communities. The sad truth is that until we in the developed world model the same downscaled protein consumption that we now expect from the developing world, then it is inequitable and unrealistic to expect Mr. Ndiaye and millions of others not to follow us.
Food Tank, an aggregator of trends in the food industry that lean toward sustainability, has organized a number of conferences. I attended the one on food waste at NYU, not only because I live in the city but because I wanted to see whether the discussion about “waste” would go beyond the food that consumers, retailers, and restaurants throw away, and “loss” (the food left to rot in the fields, unpicked, or that never makes it to market), but to the waste inherent in our decisions about what foods we grow and for whom—specifically, energy- and calorie-inefficient feed crops, meat, and dairy products.
As it turned out, not only was this issue only touched upon once, and very late in the day, but meat itself was front and center: Niman Ranch had supplied whole cuts of meat, which sat undressed on large platters at the lunch. I don’t know whether this was meat that would have otherwise gone to waste, or whether the pile was completely scarfed down, thus exemplifying the attendees’ commitment to waste reduction. Nonetheless, it was a stark reminder that waste didn’t extend to the loss of the animals’ lives. Vegetarians, vegans, and “gluten conscious” consumers were, as usual, catered for parenthetically in the program.
The conference began with Danielle Nierenberg, the founder of Food Tank, interviewing chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm. Barber outlined some of the central realities of the current industrial food system, which is that food is currently grown for certain characteristics: weight (much of it water), uniformity, ability to travel, and store-ability. Flavor, taste, nutrient density, and variety of breed aren’t valorized, and nor are regional variations in food. This is why food tastes bland and same-y wherever you are. Monoculturation, Barber continued, has meant that three companies almost 90 percent of our seeds, partly because the cost of R&D in developing varieties is so prohibitive.
Barber is involved with Row 7 seeds, which are bred to be grown in specific regions, an important consideration not only to encourage regionalism and varieties of taste but to provide resilience and adaptability because of climate change. The seeds themselves need to be adaptable, since heirloom yields are typically lower than industrially grown varieties. We also need to use more of the plant, Barber added—such as with broccoli rabe, where the entire plant and not just the floret is eaten.
The next speaker was Tobias Peggs, from Square Roots, a hydroponic, year-round farming operation (using adapted shipping containers) based in Brooklyn, which was also developing a NextGen Farmer program to train indoor farmers. (Peggs’ presentation was the first of a series of 15-minute interludes between panels.) Peggs claimed his company reduced a lot of waste: his plants grew in a controlled environment, which meant consistency; the farm was near the customers, and thus reduced food miles; it was resilient to pathogens, with a modular network that enabled the farmer to isolate problems quickly rather than halt the whole system; and it was precise in how much it could grow. The challenges Square Roots faced was in rolling out their farms around the country, and how waste might be distributed nationwide. Peggs didn’t address energy use growing food without soil and sunlight, and how much this might be considered “waste.”
The first panel, moderated by Julia Moskin, food writer for the New York Times, featured Roy Steiner of the Rockefeller Foundation and Rhea Suh of the National Resources Defense Council. Steiner, head of “food” at Rockefeller, noted that 40 percent of food gets wasted or lost, which amounts to 340 lbs per person per year, as well as 66 trillion gallons of water. Indeed, he said, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) after China and the United States. To deal with food waste and food loss, Steiner said, it was necessary to intervene at every stage of the supply chain. Loss reduction, he claimed, could provide more value for money than breeding a new strain of food with a higher yield.
The Food Waste Program at the Rockefeller Foundation, Steiner continued, was attempting to develop zero waste programs, particularly in the hospitality industry, which was a huge challenge. First, it was necessary to make people aware of the problem and then measure how much food was being lost or going to waste. Secondly, he observed, it was finding ways to help the organization, company, etc. to stop wasting: for instance, by using smaller plates or not cooking so much food, and for the industry to grow more nutrient-rich and -dense foods.
Rhea Suh opined that states and cities could lead the way in creating policies that discouraged loss and encouraged waste reduction. One area, she thought, ripe (ahem) for action was in expiration dates, which, she said, were completely meaningless, except perhaps for baby food. NRDC had put out tips to help folks, but Suh was concerned that the onus was always placed on consumers to make wise decisions rather than the system itself being corrected. She saw opportunities for cities to pass more regulations, but also for the government to provide a holistic food system that would resolve multiple problems simultaneously.
The next panel was a conversation between Nierenberg and the composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Questlove and a 17-year-old vegan food activist called Haile Thomas, who teaches plant-based nutrition at summer camps through her organization HAPPY. Both of them, in the gentlest of manners, raised the issue of food justice. Questlove had been conscientized, he said, from the earliest days of his band, The Roots, as well as growing up in Philadelphia. Thomas had been influenced by her mother’s Jamaican roots. She was the only person to use the “v” word in the entire event—raising the possibility that (a) Generation Z are not afraid to claim the identity, (b) the rest of the audience would have seen her veganism as an extension of a youthful idealism or ideological rigidity out of which she’d eventually grow, or (c) that veganism was becoming some kind of racialized/radical marker. Thomas gave a shout-out to Harlem Grown, which whooped back: it would have been nice to hear more from them from the stage.
Next up with her 15-minute pitch was Homa Dashtaki, who described how her family-owned yogurt company (White Moustache) repurposes the whey it traditionally threw away into new products.
The final panel before lunch featured companies and restaurants fighting food waste. Speakers were: New Orleans restaurateur Dickie Brennan, Dadisi Olutosin at Plated Food Groupe, Brad Nelson of Marriott food services, Marco Canora of Hearth Restaurant, Katherine Miller of the James Beard Foundation, and Joe Folds of Pacific Foods. Environmental journalist Bryan Walsh moderated.
The speakers were practically oriented. Brennan emphasized the importance of reducing portions, educating young chefs, and described how his restaurants had employed oyster shells to rebuild coastal areas of the Mississippi damaged after the BP oil spill. Olutosin suggested redesigning the kitchen from the start to reduce waste: composting was important, as was finding creative ways to use ingredients you don’t normally do things with. Canora stressed the value of a dehydrator, learning to love the freezer, and looking at the food chain differently. He urged chefs to broaden their utilization of ingredients and to ask consumers to be more open to unfamiliar foods. Miller plugged the foundation’s Waste Not cookbook, and Folds talked about how Pacific Foods supplied a lot of plant-based and bone broth, which, as you might imagine, uses a lot of discarded or “waste” material.
After lunch, the audience heard a 15-minute talk from Sheryll Durrant, a member of the International Rescue Committee (a refugee resettlement organization) and the coordinator at New Roots Community Farm and the Kelly Street Garden in the Bronx. Durrant’s message was multivalent: food brought people together, it helped them put down roots (literally), it taught them survival skills, it provided them with healing and green space in an area that was polluted, economically underserved, racially segregated, and poor. Even though the farm and garden were near the Hunts Point Produce Market, the large food distribution center, she said, very little of that produce made it to her neighborhood.
There followed a panel on solving on-farm food loss with Rafael Flor, director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Yieldwise; Marie Haga, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust; Tobias Grasso, president of Sealed Air; Elizabeth Mitcham from the department of plant sciences, UC Davis; Jane Ambuko, a plant specialist at the University of Nairobi; and Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barnes. Caity Moseman Wadler of Heritage Radio Network moderated.
First off, Flor mentioned the importance of locally grown staple crops (mango, maize, tomato, cassava) around the world, and how food loss wasn’t simply a rich indulgence but a crucial issue in the developing world, where much food was spoiled before it got to market through poor transportation networks and no refrigeration. In Tanzania, Flor said, Rockefeller had found that reducing food loss provided 30 percent more food security to smallholders (40 percent for women). Indeed, he said, it wouldn’t be possible to reach the Paris Accord goals without reducing food waste; to achieve those goals would require a different food system—one that was climate resilient, biodiverse, and met more nutritional goals.
Haga emphasized that we’d lost crop diversity and put our food system in peril. Four crops [rice, wheat, maize/corn, soy], she observed, were responsibly for 60 percent of caloric input, in a system that placed yield above all else. We were all responsible for this, she said, but farmers could help by developing plants with a longer post-harvest life before they deteriorated (such as cassava). Governments, to her mind, were vitally important in saving plants and seeds around the world. They needed to train farmers through adequate extension services to develop plants with stronger root systems to deal with rough weather—such as the Bermuda bean, of which there were only 29 left.
Grasso works for a company that wants to swathe food in air surrounded by plastic to preserve it, which seemed a counterintuitive way to consider waste reduction. His contribution was to valorize “ugly” food and call for the network to create streamlined chains.
Both Mitcham and Ambuko were plant scientists with connections to agriculture in the developing world. Mitcham works on produce handling and food and vegetable production. For her the “grade standards” for food were a problem, since they were based on appearance, quantity, and size and not nutritional value; we needed to train ourselves to re-imagine what “good” food looked like, and embrace the “ugly.” She also called for a “dry chain” to keep foods from molding in humid climates. For Ambuko, the problem was the absence of a “cold chain.” She noted the potential for evaporative cooling by using wet charcoal (although that clearly had sustainability issues because of cutting down trees) and zero-energy cool chambers. Keeping crops viable for longer was essential, she said, since mango loss (for instance) was up to 50 percent in Kenya.
Algiere pointed out to food loss from a lack of migrant workers being able to pick it. He, too, called for more diversity in food systems, and more farmers in the system. He said the subsidization programs were fine, but not adequate. We needed carbon sinks, habitats, watersheds, and soil conservation. If we valued those things, he added, we’d have more farmers.
Mid-afternoon saw Nierenberg sit down with Marion Nestle to talk about the food system. Nestle was typically pungent and straightforward. The problem with the American food system was overproduction, she said. It was designed to be wasteful, and produced 4,000 calories per person (far beyond what was needed). The food industry was geared, likewise, to sell calories and not nutrition. All the problems, she said, were political, and that we all voted with our fork. The solution for her was simple (and very hard): to run for office to change the politics.
Following Nestle, Sandy Nurse, founder and co-director of BK ROT, spoke for 15 minutes. BK Rot is a food-waste composting and micro-hauling service in Bushwick that has a close relationship to its clients, since they all live in the same area, and thus to the disposal of its waste. BK Rot processes 10–12,000 lbs of organic waste per month, and has turned food waste that otherwise would have gone to a landfill into 61 tons (!) of compost in a thousand square feet without using industrial machines. Nurse was quick to note that composting created well-paying green jobs (you could earn up to $30,000 per annum working at the site), supported local food systems and economics, and reduced hauling in the city.
The penultimate panel was on improving food recovery. Moderated by Ben Tinker of CNN Health, it featured Bonnie McClafferty, who worked at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition; André Thompson of New York Common Pantry; Elizabeth Balkan, the director of food waste at NRDC; Robert Lee, co-founder of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine; Karen Hanner, v-p of manufacturing partnerships at Feeding America, and Chris Cochran of ReFED.
McLafferty argued for political engagement in an agricultural economy, while Thompson noted that the equivalent of 225 million meals are missed every year in New York City alone. He had 1,600 families a week at his food pantry. He called for food to feed stomachs and not disease. Balkan was skeptical about looking at food provision as a charitable and volunteer endeavor, since it was simply not possible to deal with the logistics of delivering food at scale without a sound economic platform.
Ironically, Lee’s organization uses volunteers to pick up food 365 days a year from restaurants to supply food pantries; Hanner’s task is on an order of magnitude greater. Feeding America serves 46 million people, and, although hers was a charity, she felt it was important to supply business solutions to feeding communities, especially with more nutritious food. Cochran said ReFED’s goal was to cut food waste in the U.S. in half by 2030. It would do this by using data to prevent over-ordering and finding places to give extra food. Cochran also wanted the food system to ask itself not how to produce more but to feed people properly. Could you use a fee-for-service model, he asked? What about tax incentives to lower costs associated with food disposal, finding other earning models to complement charitable donations? And given that 15 percent of food waste was on farms, how would we make food waste everyone’s responsibility instead of no one’s responsibility.
It was during this panel that an audience member (Eric Darier from Greenpeace) asked whether, given the inherent waste, it might be better to move from meat-intensive diets. Cochran replied that plant-based meats offered a longer shelf life, which could cut down food waste, and that the inputs were greater for meat production (although, he added, that pasture might not be suitable for growing human food). McClafferty stepped in. She loved this question, she replied, because it let her talk about the realities facing pastoralists in developing regions. The biggest problem here was anemia, and the heme in meat provided essential iron. We needed a more nuanced conversation, she said.
But how nuanced had the discussion been? According to a 2012 NRDC report (citing a 2011 FAO report) 22 percent of meat and 20 percent of milk is wasted in the U.S. each year, while the FAO puts the global loss of meat and milk at the same amount, and of fish at 35 percent. Given how much caloric energy put in to meat compared to the amount of protein delivered (40:1 in the case of beef, 39:1 in chicken, and 57:1 with lamb), this seems a chronic waste. Nonetheless, the righteous concern for pastoralists was deemed to let everyone who wasn’t a pastoralist in the room and throughout the industrialized world off any obligation to address their meat consumption. After a relieved round of applause, the panel moved on to another question.
The final panel was an end-of-day shooting of the breeze between Tim Ma, chef and owner at Kyrisan, and Gabriele Corcos, the host of the Extra Virgin show, about being a chef, moderated by Charles Passy of the Wall Street Journal. Apart from Corcos’ amused lamentation that one of his daughters was a vegan (perhaps a junior version of Haile Thomas), it held little of note.
What to make of the conference? Clearly, food waste is a massive problem and solving it would contribute mightily to reducing GHGs, enabling food security, saving energy, and giving farmers much more economic value for what they grow. Municipalities are doing something and can do more. Obviously, an integrated, holistic solution from farm to table and beyond is necessary in order to create closed-loop systems rather than plugging leaks in the food chain or relying consumers to practice personal virtue (as has been the case for decades in recycling). Systemic change will require the integration of policy on city, state, and federal levels; and that will be hard to do, especially when the entire U.S. agricultural system is geared toward production at all costs.
Nonetheless, for all the technocratic competence and entrepreneurial zeal on display, this conference, like so many I’ve attended, appeared to hold a blithe trust in corporate responsibility, hi-tech wizardry, and “data-driven solutions,” and a reverence for the maverick genius and the cultural celebrity. In spite of the five-alarm warning raised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report (released five days after the conference), the majority of the panelists retained an assurance that left me cold. Haile Thomas who won’t even have reached thirty by the time the IPCC report says our window to keep global temperature increase to 1.5°C below pre-industrial levels will close. Her generation faces incredibly stark realities unless we make uncomfortable, and perhaps very un-nuanced choices about our comfort foods.
I take some hope from the fact that running through the conference was a more subversive, underground stream that ran counter to Big Picture/Big Business solutions. It was voiced by speakers (all of whom were women of color) working at the grassroots to integrate food into a model of social justice, resilience, and commensality. Here, food (from growth to decomposition) knitted together disparate communities not currently served by the capitalist-techno-consumerist model.
Listening to these women, it struck me that one solution to the waste problems raised by the monoculturism of food production was to stop treating everyone as waste. Perhaps if we genuinely valued farmworkers, the marginalized and diverse communities who worked that land (whether in rural areas or in the city), and the domesticated animals whom we discard, ignore, and lay waste to, we’d discover a resilience: a closed-loop holism that not only provided food security, remediated GHGs, and reclaimed land for people and not cars or luxury condos, but also generated social resilience, reduced ignorance and violence, and fostered human dignity. Perhaps that was the nuanced discussion we should have been having about food waste.
In July, I (Martin) attended New Harvest’s 2018 conference on cellular meat at MIT’s Media Lab. I wrote an extensive report on this valuable, informative, and very well-organized colloquium—partly as a means of grappling with the science, but also as a way to think about what role cellular meat might play in imagining a vegan America. Over the next four blogs—divided into Friday morning, Friday afternoon, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon—I report on what was said, and reactions to it, as well as my own observations. Note: New Harvest will no doubt be putting all the talks on YouTube, and so you can check out what was said (and whether I accurately reported it) at a later date.
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The third New Harvest conference, on cellular agriculture (hereafter cell-ag) convened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab on Friday July 20 and Saturday July 21, 2018. About 150 people were in attendance.
The conference took place in the context of a public meeting held on July 12 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to consider the following questions:
- What considerations specific to animal cell culture technology would be appropriate to include in evaluation of food produced by this method of manufacture?
- What kinds of variations in manufacturing methods would be relevant to safety for foods produced by animal cell culture technology?
- What kinds of substances would be used in the manufacture of foods produced using animal cell culture technology and what considerations would be appropriate in evaluating the safety of these uses?
- Are the hazards associated with production of foods using animal cell culture technology different from those associated with traditional food production/processing (such as, for example, insanitary conditions, improper temperature controls, or control of contaminants)? Is there a need for unique control measures to address the hazards associated with production of foods using animal cell culture technology?
Further context for the conference was supplied by a petition from the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association to the government, requesting that beef and meat labels not be allowed for products “not derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered.
After introductions by Isha Datar, the CEO, and Erin Kim, the communications director at New Harvest (a self-described non-profit “research institute accelerating breakthroughs in cell-ag”), Eric Schulze, a molecular and cellular biologist and vice-president of product and regulation at Memphis Meats, gave a presentation entitled “Food and Agricultural Innovation as Tradition.” Schulze averred that cell-ag was intended to add to existing food systems and that it was necessary for those working within the space to go forward carefully and deliberatively, working as collaboratively as possible. He noted that the costs of production (at this moment, of prototypes) were falling and that the next hurdles awaiting the cell-ag industry were scaling the product and making sure it was safe: two phases he thought wouldn’t take a long time. Schulze observed that, technical obstacles aside, the industry had considerable work ahead to educate the public about its products, which was why transparency and emphasis on safety were necessary. Understanding (whether among regulators or the public), he emphasized, wasn’t a given but needed to be built.
Schulze foresaw immense challenges ahead if these elements were ignored, especially for the regulation of the industry’s products by the FDA and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), both of which had strong claims to be the principle regulators of cell-ag. Schulze, who was himself a regulator at the FDA for six years, said that he believed that both agencies were currently open to considering cellular meat within existing regulatory structures, but that the process of considering the safety and labeling of cell-ag products was still at an early stage.
Schulze added that Memphis Meats’ position was that its process and putative products belonged within the current regulatory system and the regulations themselves, slotting next to conventional agricultural meat as a protein source. He urged respectful and open dialogue among stakeholders in cellular and traditional agricultures, and said it was vital to remain open to a plurality of views.
Schulze admitted that how to define cell-ag’s products remained an open question, but that it would ultimately be necessary to settle on a terminology that made clear to consumers that cell-ag companies took seriously matters of safety, transparency, and feeding people sustainably. Reflecting a concern that would be raised throughout the conference, Schulze urged those working within the cell-ag space not to think of themselves as Silicon Valley technologists developing the latest app or gadget; but as nourishers of billions of people. It was, therefore, imperative neither to expect nor to desire shortcuts to the market or to consumers’ hearts or minds. We—by which Schulze meant the various companies involved in cellular meat creation and production—were in it together. “We can’t break things,” he said.
In the question-and-answer session following the talk, Schulze was asked what he’d recommend people say in the public comments that the FDA had opened following the July 12 meeting. Schulze responded that it was important for all interested parties to take advantage of the comment period, which was open until September 25, and to address the questions asked by the government and offer opinions in line with their organization’s goals. He stressed again the need for the industry to work together, and to submit comments that oriented the industry in a particular direction.
Schulze’s opening talk was interestingly bifurcated: at once a passionate evocation of the potential of cellular agriculture and an admonition to the industry to be ready to assume the self-governance, market, and regulatory responsibilities of its counterparts in animal agriculture. Schulze’s studious efforts to resist the language of disruption or of “replacing” animal agriculture, and his emphasis on the cell-ag industry’s compatibility with existing food-production norms, reflected perhaps not only the reality that meat-industry representatives were in the room, and that more were paying more attention and scrutiny elsewhere, but more pointedly the FDA’s early and considerable scrutiny of cell-ag—perhaps earlier than his industry had expected, or, perhaps, were prepared for.
Schulze’s caution may had been influenced by revelations over the last two years of cavalier attitudes toward transparency and public trust from Silicon Valley companies—such as Twitter, Facebook, and Uber—and perceptions (at least) of their indifference to political niceties, sound governance, or the role of regulators. On the one hand, such caution might suggest the maturation of an industry beyond technical wizardry or promotional hype; on the other, it may not reflect the goals or impulses of many of those involved in the cell-ag space to dismantle current systems that favor environmentally destructive industries with considerable lobbying power in Washington.
The next talk was by Marcela Vilarino, a PhD candidate in the UC-Davis Department of Animal Science. Vilarino, whose PhD focuses on her development of “gene-edited livestock and embryonic stem cells to produce human organs/tissues by blastocyst complementation,” announced that her team had produced the first embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from cows. This process, which had been twenty years in the making (following the successful derivation of the first human ESCs in 1998), had taken so long because of the absence of suitable conditions for a medium in which these cells could grow. In her team’s case, the breakthrough had been achieved by taking embryos from slaughterhouses, and developing culture cells over three weeks using the medium of mouse cells in order to get a cell-line.
The essential challenges in developing cell technology, she (and others in this meeting) indicated was in assuring that a cell’s pluripotency—in other words, its ability to differentiate into multiple forms—was captured before it was lost as the organismic properties of that specific cell developed. A cell that was fully pluripotent (or totipotent) could develop three germ layers: the endoderm (the stomach, gastrointestinal tract, and lungs), the mesoderm (muscle, bone, blood, and the urogenital formations), or ectoderm (skin and the nervous tissues). Cells at totipotency, therefore, offered maximum flexibility in developing flesh, skin, and so on.
The applications, said Vilarino, of her team’s breakthrough were substantial. It would now be possible to speed up the time an embryonic cell line could be produced for cloning. In-vitro breeding could be conducted to derive specific genetic traits for animals, skipping over the necessity of using animals for genomic selection. A traditional breeding program for a cow, she observed, might take two to three years; employing this technology would mean the production of gametes in three to four months, allowing improved selection much more quickly. It would, in theory, be possible to derive any kinds of cells from embryonic stem cells in vitro: nerve, muscle, blood, and adipocytes (fatty tissue), without the need to use an animal.
The fundamental bottleneck to making cultured beef grow faster and cheaper, said Vilarino in the question-and-answer session, was the difficulty of getting exact and reliable media conditions, and the expense of that medium: the entire production of cells in terms of volume needed to be more efficient. Establishing stem cells from farmed animals was so difficult because of the conditions surrounding the culturation of cells—especially making sure that in their earliest stages they maintained pluripotency. Vilarino was asked when she thought it would be possible to derive embryonic stem cells from chicken or fish. She said that she didn’t know.
Clearly, the possibility of using embryonic stem cells within the cultured meat process (in addition to the regular replication of cells) represents a breakthrough . . . of sorts. What was still noticeable (and was rarely addressed throughout the remainder of the conference) was that so much of the science, let alone the production, of cellular meat was dependent on animal-based media: whether fetal bovine serum (FBS) or the use of embryos from slaughterhouses, or cell lines from mice, or, indeed, the very fact that such research is currently contained within the animal science departments of universities. The fact that this was not the subject of widespread discussion by presenters at the conference doesn’t mean that attendees weren’t aware of the paradox, or the discrepancy between the cost of developing the product in the lab and the challenges of scale and costs of production for retail.
Following Vilarino’s talk, William “Benjy” Mikel, the Chief Business Development Officer for John R. White & Co., a food development company, spoke about the “science of meat.” Mikel was a meat scientist and had worked for several decades within the extension services of universities attempting to ameliorate the “problems” (my quotes) associated with handling the flesh and byproducts of dead animals. Mikel reminded attendees that meat was a composite of nerves, fat tissue, blood vessels, and muscle; that muscle tissue itself could be striated or smooth; and that, furthermore, in addition to hide and flesh, the animal’s body delivered organs and “offal” that the meat industry had turned into added-value products. In fact, Mikel observed, the profit margins for the cattle industry were so slender that byproducts were the main reason that those involved in animal agriculture made any money at all.
The reason why Mikel was glad to be at the conference, he said, was because of currently irresolvable problems associated with killing cows for food. Meat, he observed, consisted of 75 percent water, 18 percent protein, three percent fat, and 3.5 percent other minerals. When rigor mortis set in to the cow’s body, he continued, it was hard for the meat to retain moisture, which led to undesirable loss of flavor, a hardening of the texture, and discoloration. The meat industry had dealt with this problem by adding phosphates and salt—along with pigmentation—to create a meat product that was juicy, tender, and (to the consumer’s eye) looked like what cow’s meat should look like. Indeed, Mikel counted it as progress that more and more non–animal based items (such as water, salt, sodium phosphate, modified food starch, soy protein isolate, carrageenan, gums, seasonings, and flavorings) had been added through the process of marination to make meat last longer, look more attractive, and taste better.
Mikel felt that biotechnology in general, and cell-ag scientists in particular, could develop items to generate more “opportunities” and “product enhancements”—especially around processed meats, which, he noted, constituted three-quarters of the market of all meat products. He urged scientists at the conference to work with their colleagues in meat science to understand one another’s work, and turn low-quality products into higher value items.
In the question-and-answer session following his talk, Mikel was asked what criteria he, as a meat scientist, would consider optimal for Memphis Meats’ products. Mikel said that he’d be concerned about its pH value, its water-binding capacity, its protein make-up, and how it compared with conventionally produced meat products. He was also asked whether he thought that cell-ag products should be called meat. Mikel knew the question was loaded and announced he wouldn’t touch that issue. However, he continued, definitions within the meat industry weren’t fixed and had, indeed, changed over the years. He was asked whether he was concerned about the growth factors and hormones that were being added as food ingredients in cell-based cultured meat. His response was similarly diplomatic and noncommittal. Any time anyone looked at ingredient technology, he said, it was necessary to evaluate those technologies and ingredients.
Finally, Mikel was asked whether he agreed that “happier” animals (the quote marks were the questioner’s) produced better food products. The questioner was undoubtedly referring to the stress hormones produced by animals at the point of slaughter that are said to taint the meat. Interestingly, Mikel chose to answer the question by observing that in his experience every animal he had seen was “pretty happy,” and that he believed in humane slaughter. He then informed the audience that he believed God had allowed Man to be His steward and to use what was available for his own use. He didn’t know whether a happy animal produced better-tasting meat, although he admitted that stress might lead to an “uncharacteristic product.” He had, he concluded, seen many pigs smile at him in the course of his work, and he’d enjoyed eating every one of them. The audience laughed.
Mikel’s presentation was at once curious and supple. Echoing the calls of Eric Schulze, Mikel emphasized that cellular meat and conventional meat scientists were in the same business—of delivering a safe, reliable, and desirable animal product to consumers. To that end, therefore, it was logical that the skills of each should be placed at the other’s disposal to enhance their products; indeed, given the multitude of items produced by the animal, it should be possible to add value to a range of processed foods.
There was a studied politesse (as well as cooptation) in the means by which Mikel flattened the ethical landscape within which science was operating into one of product development as opposed to no longer harming animals and ending the negative effects of animal agriculture on the environment, land use, and climate change. In Mikel’s answer to the final question presented to him, it was striking he didn’t respond scientifically, but immediately raised the issue of welfare and contextualized it with a dominionist framework. Finally, he dismissed the entire subject with a joke about happy animals apparently wanting to become meat.
To me, Mikel’s performance revealed some essential narrative strands that threaded the entire conference and weave through thinking about the future of meat. The first strand is a useful (if perhaps obvious) reminder that scientific inquiry and industrial activity don’t take place in an ethical vacuum, but are rather buttressed and framed by preconceptions about the “proper” relationship one has with what or who you’re studying and/or exploiting. Mikel’s dominionist response was a useful reminder that, although Eric Schulze and others may wish to tamp expressions of ideological fervor within the cell-ag community in order to smoothe regulatory feathers and not alienate powerful lobbies such as the Cattlemen’s Association, conventional animal agriculture is not a neutral ideological space, but is driven by convictions about the appropriate use (and control) of nature, animals, land rights, and, it may be extrapolated, the manifest destiny inherent in the spread of cattle-ranching throughout the continental United States.
A second strand, however, complicates this “reading.” As Vilarino presented her work on bovine ESC research, it didn’t seem obvious to me at all that her work occupied an entirely different conceptual space from conventional animal agriculture’s manipulation of the reproductive processes of non-human animals. Indeed, as an advocate for the end of the exploitation of animals for their flesh, milk, and skin, I found myself constantly suspending my judgment over the efficacy, practice, and motivations of scientists working within the cellular-agriculture space—making the utilitarian calculation that the ultimate development of cellular meat, leather, and so on is worth both the utilization of animal- and/or slaughterhouse-derived sera, embryos, and media (such as rats and mice), and the belief system that buttresses it.
As I listened to the talk, I realized I might be naïve in assuming that the end result of that research would be the elimination of animal production and slaughter, and that the end result might be, in fact, the integration of cellular science into animal production. By essentially declaring that his work and those of the cell-ag scientists was the same, Mikel was both de-moralizing and dominionizing the work of cell-ag scientists—in order to include both in the broader animal agriculture industry and thus remove any need to replace it. Ironically, Eric Schulze was in effect asking for the same thing, even though it’s very hard to believe that, at this moment, both parties don’t see one another as threats to their very existence.
In listening to the laughter that followed Mikel’s joke at the expense of pigs, I wondered whether some (many?) cellular scientists might, in an effort to demonstrate their ideological disinterestedness, argue that their technology’s application—if it led to, say, longer-lasting meat—would be as ethically valid a commercialization of their science as, for instance, making the slender margins for raising cattle even thinner. It was thought-provoking to hear Mikel not only admit to, but make a virtue of, the fact that meat by itself was unappetizing and that its flavor, texture, and durability were functions of the non-meat enhancements provided by scientists such as himself. In aligning his process with cell-ag scientists, was Mikel in essence forewarning cell ag that it could no more claim to be a more “natural” or “cleaner” process than conventional animal agriculture—precisely because they were both in the business of the technological enhancement of the look, feel, and taste of animal flesh?
In July, I (Martin) attended New Harvest’s 2018 conference on cellular meat at MIT’s Media Lab. I wrote an extensive report on this valuable, informative, and very well-organized colloquium—partly as a means of grappling with the science, but also as a way to think about what role cellular meat might play in imagining a vegan America. Over the next four blogs—divided into Friday morning, Friday afternoon, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon—I report on what was said, and reactions to it, as well as my own observations. Note: New Harvest will no doubt be putting all the talks on YouTube, and so you can check out what was said (and whether I accurately reported it) at a later date.
* * *
The final panel in the afternoon, which was also moderated by Isha Datar, concerned itself with the issue that was shadowing the entire conference: that of regulation.
The opening talk was given by Deepti Kulkani, formerly a lawyer at the FDA and now, like Kathi Cover, at Sidley Austin. Kulkani’s aim was to address the key regulatory questions facing cell ag and what could be answered now and how. She explained how both the FDA and USDA worked. The FDA, she said, was tasked with regulating food and ingredients and determining the safety of ingredients, including those in meat, poultry, and biotechnology. The USDA, on the other hand, was responsible for meat and poultry and their products. It regulated establishments that slaughtered or processed meat and poultry and determined the accuracy of labeling and the suitability of ingredients. In regards to new ingredients in meat and poultry, the FDA, said Kulkani, had authority over “food additives” and whether they were GRAS. (Indeed, two days after the conference ended, the FDA generally recognized as safe the “heme” GMO additive that Impossible Foods had added to its burger to give it its “bloody” taste and texture.)
Kulkani then described what might be regulated and how. She mentioned that the government would be concerned with the safety of substances used in manufacturing cellular meat before it came to market: such as animal cells, the growth medium, and the scaffold. Obviously, the agency would be interested in ensuring that the finished product was safe; and it would want a clear sense of the identity and history of safe use and common knowledge of safety, as well as the margin of exposure.
Kulkani then stated that regarding the manufacturing process, the government would want to know whether the process had changed the ingredient, whether there were controls set up to control for or prevent unique hazards, levels of purity, or toxicity—a process known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). The government would also be concerned about the labeling of the product or elements of that product, and they’d wish to inspect the facility.
Kulkani noted that it was not yet self-evident that the FDA would be the ultimate agency making judgments on cell-ag’s processes and products. That the FDA had opened such hearings suggested that it certainly believed it had a role to play, but the USDA, she added, was beginning to throw its weight about by claiming that the FDA was overreaching its jurisdiction. This, she added, might simply be intra-agency chest-beating. As far as she was aware, the agencies had begun communicating with one another, which might indicate that the agencies might collaborate or divide the process under their various jurisdictions. Kulkani added that it was indicative that the FDA acknowledged in its preamble to the meeting of July 12 that although its primary concern was the safety of cell ag, how it might be labeled was also an area of interest.
As for what might happen next, Kulkani advised people to continue to make comments; that there would be a meeting before the FDA Science Board; and ultimately there would be a USDA/FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) decision on the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association petition (or on naming of the product more generally). However this process continued, Kulkani concluded, it was likely that political interest would continue as would potentially federal legislation on cell ag.
Next up was Larisa Rudenko, who, like Kulkani, had formerly worked at the FDA. Rudenko’s role in the conversation was to layout the conceptual landscape from regulation to product delivery. Echoing the writer John Gardner, Rudenko noted that when it came to biotechnology, the story of innovation was either perceived as “a journey” or “a stranger comes to town”: in the former, the innovator is subject to whims of a peripatetic trek until he or she arrives at the destination; in the latter, the innovator is either perceived to be a threat to the status quo and ultimately ejected, or after initial resistance, through persistence or because she or he brings something new and valuable to the status quo, the innovator changes the nature of that place for the better, or is him- or herself incorporated into the status quo.
Last but not least was Ronald Stotish, CEO at Aquabounty, and who had been a member of the team that had “produced” the AquAdvantage Salmon, the first FDA-approved genetically modified food animal. Stotish described the long and tortuous process from the creation of the fish in 1989 to the FDA approval in 2015, the first commercial sale of the fish in Canada in 2017, and the company’s current inability to bring the fish to market in the United States.
Whether it was wise (commercially or otherwise) to produce a GMO salmon was not the reason that Stotish was addressing the conference. His purpose was to provide a case study on the problems of bringing an innovative, scientifically engineered animal-based foodstuff to regulators and thence to market. Stotish could barely contain his contempt for, animus toward, and mystification about the environmental NGOs (such as Food & Water Watch) whom, he felt, had mischaracterized the data around the salmon, had disregarded the science, had engaged in scaremongering; and had failed to engage in good faith with industry—all (so he said) in order to generate donations to their organizations.
The lessons Stotish wished to communicate from his attenuated experience to attendees who might find themselves on a similar trajectory was to be an optimist, engage early and often with those who might oppose you, and to communicate what you’re doing and why. It was vital, he said, to conduct the best science you could but not to assume it would insulate you from attack. He urged the conference to resist assuming the regulatory process was free of politics (it most emphatically wasn’t), but instead to interact politically and to develop coalitions with like-minded organizations. He added that innovators should be prepared for delays, media attacks, and setbacks, but to believe in the product and to persevere.
In the conversation following the presentations, Isha Datar asked the panel what they felt would be the worst-case scenario for cellular meat. For Rudenko, the biggest danger was that a manufacturer moved too fast, broke things, and brought a product to market without any regulatory oversight and with a safety problem. She recommended that the audience read two books: Innovation and Its Enemies by Calestous Juma and Sheila Jassanoff’s The Ethics of Invention. These two books, she said, bracketed the two viewpoints on emerging technologies that she’d mentioned in her talk. Larisa admitted that the regulatory process could also prove fraught because it was difficult to provide expertise in something that hadn’t been around before.
Datar asked the panel how concerned the USDA and traditional animal agriculture industry should be about the role of the FDA. Kulkani replied that there was a long history of the FDA and USDA working together on issues, but that there was clearly a basis of concern in the USDA’s robust criticism of FDA “overreach,” especially on a political level.
Fielding a question from the audience, Datar then asked whether the cell-ag industry should hire lawyers and lobbyists. After the titters had died down, Rudenko recommended inviting regulators to industry meetings. “Regulators are people,” she announced: they would welcome learning more about the subject they were going to regulate. With respect to politics, Rudenko continued, fearlessly mixing her metaphors, it was important to take the temperature of the landscape. Kulkani urged the industry to use the processes the agencies were making available to make the best possible case to them.
The final talk was by Nadia Berenstein, a food historian and cultural critic, who through the lens of the history of (oleo)margarine, showed how perceptions around the product (and its comparison with the more “natural” butter) altered from its inception in the late nineteenth century as an untested product, technological breakthrough, and threat to the honest dairymaid churning her butter. Berenstein reminded the audience (as if it needed reminding) that it was necessary to supply people with the cultural and social context within which to eat the food.
The conference ended with one-minute pitches from various organizations that were present, including: New Age Meats; 3-D Heals (bioprinting and lab-grown solutions); the Good Food Institute’s Good Food Conference; Higher Steaks; a cultured meat podcast; cell.ag (a website on clean meat); New Culture (a company promoting clean dairy cultures in New Zealand; George Zeng (a producer of mushrooms, known as Loop foods); the New Omnivore (which would begin a discussion group in the Fall).
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What to make of a conference that had so many themes running through it—some of them contradictory? Many of the presenters (and not a few of the audience) were clearly driven by evidence-based convictions that traditional animal agriculture presented profound, even existential crises for food security, human wellness, environmental protection, climate-change mitigation, and animal welfare. Yet these same individuals were being urged by former regulators, fellow entrepreneurs, and their colleagues in cell ag to “play nice” with that same industry, the representatives of whom (as far as this correspondent can recall) refused to admit that their business needed to change at all, except in as much as cell ag might “improve” its products and thus, one assumes, allow for even more production of more efficient animals, more value-added processed meats, and better profit margins for beleaguered farmers.
The youthful scientists were likewise urged to make sure the safety of their products was backed up with solid data, to be transparent, to resist the siren song of systemic “disruption” in favor of incremental change, and not to be the company that ruined it for everyone else by bringing a product to market too soon. Yet nobody, as far as I can remember, asked why it was that current agribusiness was not held to account for its colossal waste of natural resources (not to say of the product itself), its poor safety levels regarding disease and meat recalls, its lack of transparency, and its manifest cruelty toward animals.
Beyond this, the presenters urged the scientists, entrepreneurs, and audience to attend closely to the construction of the narrative they wished to tell consumers and regulators about their industry and its products but to be leery of telling a story that contrasted too sharply with the prevailing story of America feeding the world—a narrative that remained unquestioned as the unimpeachable base narrative of American and global prosperity.
Ironically, the skewing of perspectives at this conference may have been a consequence (however unintentional) of not featuring plant-based companies and their ongoing inroads into the meat and dairy markets. Presenting cellular meat within the context of alternatives to conventional animal-based agriculture may have provided a focus for attendees. As it was, we were reminded that everyone in the space was in the business, in some way, of either growing animal flesh or supplementing it in some way. This may have made sense strategically—smoothing the pathway to regulation by not unnecessarily antagonizing the meat industry, its lobbyists, and vested interests in government. However, it may also have provided an opening for that same industry to coopt those seeking an early return on their investment to literally incorporate their technology within the bodies of animals destined for slaughter.
In fact, at the end of this conference, it wasn’t at all clear to me that the end of this process was a dramatic reduction in the number of farmed animals destined for slaughter, or, for that matter, a redefinition of the meaning of “meat.” Was this a diversion, a game-changer, or merely another option? Could this meeting be, in effect, a parallel to a motor carriage convention in 1895, where multiple start-ups and technologists were attempting to master a technology with huge potential and bring their various inventions to the market, all the time awaiting the scaling-up, economies of scale, and market penetration that Henry Ford would achieve with the Model T? And where should we place the emphasis: on the product itself or on the process? On the regulatory framework or the story? Did customers really care how their meat was prepared as long as it was cheap, readily available, and tasty? Would technology be a boon or a curse?
None of these questions were any clearer to me at the end of the conference than they were at the beginning. I await the Good Food Institute’s conference in September with interest.
In July, I (Martin) attended New Harvest’s 2018 conference on cellular meat at MIT’s Media Lab. I wrote an extensive report on this valuable, informative, and very well-organized colloquium—partly as a means of grappling with the science, but also as a way to think about what role cellular meat might play in imagining a vegan America. Over the next four blogs—divided into Friday morning, Friday afternoon, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon—I report on what was said, and reactions to it, as well as my own observations. Note: New Harvest will no doubt be putting all the talks on YouTube, and so you can check out what was said (and whether I accurately reported it) at a later date.
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The next morning began with an overview of the cell-ag industry by Tobias Citron of Radicle Labs, which had recently published a hundred-page report on the future of cellular meat (available for $4,000).
Citron told the audience that the nineteen companies involved in cell ag had raised $767 million in total funding, which placed them in the top quartile of sectors that Radicle had analyzed. The stated reason for this interest, Citron said, was concern for the planet, animal welfare, and feeding 11 billion people by 2100. The startup landscape that Radicle analyzed, Citron explained, consisted of companies engaged in cellular meat production (such as Memphis Meats, Wild Type, Finless Foods, and Supermeat) and production involving yeast or bacteria (Clara Foods, Bolt Threads, AMSilk, Geltor) to create biomaterials and animal byproducts. It did not include plant-based companies, such as Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat.
Within the cell-ag space, Citron continued, developments were in three areas: the first was in creating the technologies (such as Future Meat Technologies) that would form the infrastructure for the development of products; the second was in developing inputs or sidelines (such as silks and leathers); the third was in direct meat products—such as Mark Post’s Mosa Meat. The money for these startups was coming from VC companies such as Khosla and Spark, with other funding coming from grants, joint R&D projects, and strategic partnerships.
What excited investors about this space, Citron asked? He observed increased interest in replacing animal consumption, the evolution of cell ag, and the possibility of regulatory change. He said a recent survey had revealed that 63 percent of respondents were more interested in replacing animal-product consumption than they were five years ago—not least because the total addressable market for full replacement of animal products was $1.6 trillion. Even a more realistic assessment of the serviceable market potential nonetheless presented a $44 billion opportunity.
Where in terms of market readiness were these startups? Citron pointed out what had been fairly clear from the previous day’s presentations: that biomaterials were on the cusp of breaking through into the general market, although they represented much less of a potential market; meat and seafood products weren’t ready, although they held much greater market potential. Overall, Citron commented, the cell-ag space was well-funded and had various business models; VC interest was increasing and startups were pursuing diverse funding sources in a sector undergoing significant change with several novel opportunities for disruption. Alongside the enormous market opportunities, risks existed, and tradeoffs would be necessary between market readiness on the one hand and the “size of the prize” on the other.
In the question-and-answer session that followed the presentation, Citron was asked whether he saw collaboration between plant-based and cell ag. He replied that such collaboration would likely occur with blended products—such as plant-based fillers for cellular meats. Citron was asked whether he thought investment would increase over time; to which he replied that he thought investment patterns would depend on the timeframe of expectations of delivering a product, at which point he foresaw dramatic increases in investment. That said, he was fairly certain that investment wouldn’t decrease over the next three to five years.
After Citron’s overview a panel of four voices was convened to discuss the parallels between existing industries and cell-ag startups, to see if any lessons might be learned. The first panelist was Adam Flynn, the founder of ForeLight, which was engaged in creating “naturally derived replacements for synthetic ingredients used in the food & beverage, animal feed, health and cosmetic industries” using algae, cyanobacteria, and other photosynthetic organisms.
Flynn cast an acerbic eye over the landscape that Citron had just painted for us, and the enthusiasms of the day before, based on his knowledge of the failures of the algal biofuel industry from the 1990s, when it, too, had been the Next Big Thing. Both algal biofuel and cell ag, he said, made huge claims about their environmental impact and both were attempting to solve problems orders of magnitude beyond their current capabilities. Both, he felt, had dozens of applications for the technology they were developing that were ahead of that required to solve this massive problem, and that were more immediately and perhaps actually profitable than the final solution. It was folly for these companies not to concentrate on those.
Meat, Flynn commented, was very important to many people, and any industry that claimed it was going to replace it was being utterly ridiculous. Why, he asked, were entrepreneurs and scientists going for the highest goals first rather than the more profitable route—developing technical solutions, expertise, and capacity (as well as earning revenue) along the way? By way of example, he mentioned the viability of developing collagen for the spinal disk–replacement market (where the product could sell for hundreds of dollars a piece) rather than concentrating on collagen to marble meat (a marginal addition at best).
Flynn added that he feared for the future of cell ag because it had, like the algae biofuel industry, failed to bring in engineers at an early stage of development. Engineers, he pointed out, were much better at systemic thinking and providing scalable solutions than either scientists or product-development specialists. “You’re building a machine, not an animal,” he said.
Flynn’s astringent comments were greeted with laughter that was at once nervous, relieved, and amused—much as a cold shower can dampen enthusiasm, refresh a body, or wake or sober you up. It wasn’t clear to this correspondent whether the audience felt the comparisons between the biofuel industry were stretched or highly applicable or merely sour grapes. Perhaps different constituencies felt all three were relevant.
Flynn was followed by Niyati Gupta, the founder of Fork & Goode, which is a vertical farming operation based in Singapore. Gupta’s aim had always been to produce high yields for her vegetables close to where they were in high demand: i.e. the city. To her, the parallels between vertical farming and cellular agriculture were numerous: both offered the potential for an efficient, shorter supply-chain from farm to table in urban areas; both were (in theory, at least) more robust than conventional agriculture in reacting to market and climate volatility; both offered traceable supply lines (unlike industrial agriculture); both had the potential to grow what was needed (and thus to cut down on food waste); and both offered the prospect of a smaller environmental and energy footprint than traditional methods of food production. As it stood, Gupta acknowledged, both technologies were very expensive—a situation that would require increasing yields to bring down the product-to-expense ratio.
Gupta pointed out that vertical farming was considerably more developed as a production-method than cell ag. Hundreds of companies (with more than $500 million in funding in the U.S. alone) were generating billions of dollars globally: companies such as Plenty, Bright Farms, and Aerofarms. Although the vertical farming companies had originally been vertically (!) integrated, new industries were springing up to supply materials for such farms—such as more efficient LED lights for indoor growing.
The lessons for cell ag, Gupta concluded, were threefold. First, cell ag should focus not only the reduced footprint and environmental benefits of its products but on leveraging technology to deliver superior products that were safer, easier to cook, and as (or more) shelf-stable than traditional agricultural products. Secondly, Gupta argued that it was unlikely cell ag would consolidate behind one technology, but there was plenty of room for (and need of) further technological development. Finally, Gupta urged those involved in cell ag to consider themselves “part of the solution” and to act as responsible food producers. All parties should start planning engagement with the community and the government; the latter that might require a more formal industry organization than was currently the case.
The third speaker on the panel was Vince Sewalt, who had worked for several decades on enzymes with DuPont. For Sewalt, the enzyme industry (now more than three decades old) offered useful comparisons across the board for the cell-ag space. Both enzymes and cell ag involved proteins “packaged” with other “stuff.” Both involved genetic selection; both offered the option of genetic modification; and both contained the possibilities of protein engineering. Both had similar manufacturing processes, using cell cultures with “recovery” steps.
Sewalt observed that the trajectory of enzymatic production had followed a path of removing the “natural” source for enzymes (my quotes) in favor of expressing them in microbial production: he mentioned that chymosin (found in rennet) was no longer generated from calves’ stomachs nor was papain (used to tenderize meat) any more extracted from papaya. He added that the sustainability, healthfulness, and affordability of enzyme production was not easily solved by non-biotechnological means, and foresaw that cell ag (like the enzyme industry) might end the wasteful and unsustainable practices of intensive animal agriculture. In the medium term, however, he said that “enzyme technology” would continue to supplement current meat-culture technologies, and that the risk for cell ag was that a lack of standardization (which had dogged enzyme-manufacturing in its earliest days) might inhibit general acceptance. Perhaps, he added, these issues could be tackled now rather than later.
Finally, Katharine Kreis, of Mission Driven Food Science (PATH Innovation) offered a perspective on using new technologies as a means of addressing malnutrition throughout the developing world. Her perspective was that the essential amino acids found in animal-sourced foods had been “proven” (my quotes) to be necessary for the linear growth of children, and that cellular technology might be useful in offering added nutritional value to these foods.
The point of Kreis’ presentation was on the risks and challenges associated with introducing a “novel” product (my quotes) in a global context, even for philanthropic purposes. As a cautionary example, she used the introduction of golden rice. Golden rice, a genetically modified form of the staple that had enhanced Vitamin A, has still not been grown commercially because of fears that it would: promote the use of monocultures, limit farmers’ choices, threaten biodiversity and conventional rice breeds, and jeopardize food sovereignty. Independent of the worth (or otherwise) of these arguments, Kreis observed, it was important for the cell-ag industry to make sure it handled the regulatory process, consumer perceptions, and market dynamics adroitly, lest they become insuperable problems to acceptance. She emphasized how important it was to avoid technical jargon surrounding procedures and the product and to focus on the familiar aspects of both as opposed to the novel or cutting edge elements of either.
To that end, Kreis observed, it was essential to consider a multisectoral approach when exploring the market potential of cultured proteins, especially in low- and middle-income settings and countries. She advised that, should the market be oriented toward the developing, it was advisable to model environmental, health, and agriculture outcomes, and perhaps offer a carbon-offset model for how production methods compared with conventional agriculture. Such an approach might not necessarily help one’s business model, but it might lower or remove hurdles to acceptance and therefore enable more market penetration.
The ensuring discussion, which was moderated by Don Atkins of BIO (Biotech Innovation Organization), focused mainly on parsing Adam Flynn’s caustic observations. Flynn reiterated that a task of the magnitude that cellular ag’s typically required the financial resources, technical skills, and all-round capacities of major corporations or governments (and around $12 billion of investment), and not private or venture capital or labs. It was self-evident to Flynn that the market for byproducts and enzymatic-, yeast-, or bacteria-based technologies would find the market sooner, and thus should be the focus.
Sewalt echoed some of Flynn’s caveats. It was vital, he said, not to underestimate the difficulties along the entire research–production axis, and essential that companies do the homework necessary to make sure their products were safe so that they received regulatory approval. Responding to this observation, Flynn was withering. Safety, he acknowledged, was essential, but that the cell-ag industry needed to take a more critical view of itself. Too many bad ideas were getting funded, and a supportive come-one-come-all culture was standing in the way of clear thinking about development. He felt it was obvious that cell ag was a business-to-business and not a business-to-consumer industry, and would always be that way: it was the only way it could benefit from the economies of scale already embedded in the agriculture and food delivery systems. As such, cell ag was crying out for streamlining and consolidation—with the remaining organizations either forming their own trade association or joining existing ones.
Kreis advised companies to value the role that academia and civil society could play as neutral, third parties providing necessary checks and assessments on the entire chain from development to product roll-out. Gupta in turn stressed the need for industry standards and definitions for the product. Sewalt agreed with Kreis that NGOs had a crucial role to play and that it was important for companies to engage with them.
Flynn had not finished his naysaying. Commenting on what balance might be achieved between the excitement and hype surrounding the new technology’s possibilities and skepticism and humility regarding whether that technology would work and how big of an impact it would have, Flynn was astringent. He told the audience that, as it stood at the moment, he could not recommend anyone fund cell ag. He repeated that this industry was not the Internet or a dot.com start-up or app developer: the premature launch of a product that was unsafe or a huge monetary loss for investors could hold back acceptance or development for a decade or longer.
Sewalt affirmed that danger and how thorough safety assessments and minimizing timelines would help reduce false expectations. If both were not done appropriately, he added, then regulatory agencies would be more skeptical and place more hurdles in the way due to heightened concern. Echoing this, Kreis urged companies to be realistic and appropriate with their ideas on the scale of their delivery, and only bring a product to market when the time was right—a timing that would be helped if the products were buttressed by third-party literature.
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The next panel was a discussion on audiences and conversations, featuring Jack Bobo, Cody Creelman, Patrick Hopkins, and moderated by Isha Datar.
First up was Jack Bobo, the chief communications officer of Intrexon, a company “whose mission is to address some of the world’s greatest challenges through the application of biology,” but whose expertise in this panel was on public perception and consumer preferences as they might relate to cell ag. Bobo argued that the 1950s and 1960s (at least in the U.S.) had been perceived as the “age of technology,” in which food was tied to technological advancements in entertainment (TV dinners), refrigeration, cooking, and so on. The 1980s and 1990s, he continued, was the “age of aspiration,” in which people were encouraged to imagine their food-consumption as a means of personal development. Now, he said, we were living in the age of “conspicuous production” (using “conspicuous” in the sense of “making visible”). Consumers wanted to know the story behind what they ate, and bought items as an extension of their values—whether that might be environmental sustainability, social justice, or animal welfare.
Influential in his thinking, Bobo continued, had been three books, which he strongly recommended attendees to read. First was Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet, which, Bobo said, discussed two different ways of thinking about social amelioration. The wizard believed that science was the solution to our problems, and this thinking had characterized American thinking in the 1950s and 1960s. The prophet, however, considered science a problem to be solved, and this had been the zeitgeist of the environmental movement as it emerged in the 1960s. Bobo also recommended Danielle Nierenberg’s edited volume, Nourished Planet, and Hans Roslin’s Factfulness.
Bobo argued that we live in a paradoxical time. By objective measures, he said, the rates of human population growth, child mortality, poverty, and deaths through famine were all heading in the right direction—although we needed to get better faster. However, our perceptions were that things were growing worse. This was not necessarily false reasoning, he argued, but that it was safe to say that the current global food system was the both the best it had ever been (never as many people fed) and the worst it will ever be (because of its environmental consequences).
The next speaker, Cody Creelman, a farmed animal veterinarian from Canada, offered an interesting contrast. Creelman, a young man with an extensive social-media presence, was very concerned to present an image of the cattle-ranching industry as cognizant of its responsibilities, technically savvy, and willing to engage in dialogue. It was not immediately clear, listening to his talk, just what he felt he might contribute to the discussion, other than to express his feelings that calling cell-ag “clean meat” (and other terms) hurt his and other ranchers’ feelings (!). Much as in Benjy Mikel’s discussion a day earlier, Creelman was eager to emphasize that everyone was in the same business and that it was important to engage with traditional farming communities. To the delight of Xun Wang (of Triton Algae Innovations), Creelman suggested that it might be possible for algae to be fed to cows instead of wheat and corn, thus reducing the need for feed crops. The audience broke into applause.
The third speaker was ethicist and technologist Patrick Hopkins, who examined how the media and audiences responded to cellular meat’s arrival in public consciousness. Hopkins talked about how Mark Post’s public presentation and the tasting of the cellular meat hamburger in London in 2013 had been viewed by the media. Journalistic reactions, he said, had mainly been about the novelty, weirdness, and sci-fi aspect of the meat, supplemented with observations on its taste and cost and questions as to why someone would develop the product in the first place (with the observation that it was mainly for lowered environmental impact). Hopkins was struck by the fact that virtually all media turned to vegetarians for comment; meat producers weren’t approached at all. It was, said Hopkins, as if they didn’t exist.
Hopkins expressed skepticism about relying on the media to market the product successfully. He noted that sixty percent of people who signaled that they were vegetarians in a survey had, when the question was reframed as “When was the last time you ate meat?”, admitted to eating meat within the previous forty-eight hours. Behavior, said Hopkins, was a much truer reflection of market penetration than identity.
Hopkins then contrasted reporting on the 2013 hamburger-tasting with coverage of the recently concluded meeting at the FDA. He noted that most mainstream outlets hadn’t covered the meeting at all (the only one that did was ABC), and that the media that did made no mention of vegetarians. Instead, they concentrated exclusively on potential conflicts or otherwise between convention meat and cell-ag producers. One of the major issues, he observed, in the coverage was regarding what the appropriate naming might be—for both products: “pasture-raised,” “traditional”?
Hopkins observed that when people were given an opportunity to express their feelings about meat, they did so in sharply contrasting ways. Negative reactions typically revolved around disgust, which was he suggested, perhaps a latent primate response to food contamination. Most of us, he added, respond much more strongly to rotten meat than we do to rotten vegetables; likewise, we express more disgust at animal–animal and animal–vegetable hybridization than we do for vegetable–vegetable hybridization.
Our innate sense of categorization, appropriateness, and an aversion to contamination, Hopkins continued, should be considered in thinking about the market acceptance of cellular meat. To that end, he said, defining the emotion around the product would be essential. Would consumers feel that the food was coming to them in the “right” way? Clean meat, he added, was supposed (perhaps unintentionally) to be the counter for “disgust” (because of how its “cleanness” of production in contrast with intensive animal agriculture), but there was no guarantee that the purchasers’ emotions would respond to this aspect of their disgust and not their disgust at a hybrid product. Data and information could affect how acceptance of a product might grow within a market, he said, but they had only a limited effect—unlike emotion.
The moderator, Isha Datar, asked the panel whom they thought was missing from the overall discussion at New Harvest. Creelman observed that there needed to be more people from the agriculture industry. Bobo reflected on the question of how people with different philosophical perspectives could work together. For him, it made sense for individuals to pursue their own projects and make their products better than the competition’s, rather than spending time trying to undermine them. Hopkins disagreed with Bobo’s characterization of wizards and prophets, arguing that when consumers wanted something they didn’t stop to reflect on how it might affect their perceptions of a larger society or movement. Creelman and Bobo, however, thought that storytelling mattered. What, Creelman asked, was the story-telling approach within cell ag? Bobo reiterated the importance of making the story of the process and product the framework for both facets of the industry.
Datar asked the panel what common terminology for cell ag would sit well in the marketplace. Here, Creelman said that he found the phrase clean meat inflammatory. Hopkins opined that there was likely to be strong pull for either side (conventional or cell ag) to go for the term with the most emotional impact. This might have short- or even medium-term advantages, he said, but that over time the emotional impact associated with the term would loosen and become commonplace. He cautioned that an emotional impact was not necessarily confined to an obvious word, and that there were sometimes emotional reactions to something unobvious or non-contextual. However, he suggested avoiding unnecessary confrontations and emotions by using terms with the least direct emotional impact. His choice as a descriptor at the moment, he said, was cultured meat; clean and lab were too emotional.
Bobo said that he was fine with cell-based or craft meat. The latter, he observed, was valuable in that it connected the food with a place as well as processes that reduced anxieties about too much technology, over-mechanization, or mad scientists being involved. He used the analogy of Bourbon as an example: it denoted place as well as quality. Datar reflected that, as a scientist, she found cell-based problematic, since that included just about every kind of food.
Hopkins added that, as someone who’d grown up in the rural South, he’d been intimately familiar with the everyday cruelties of life for animals. In his experience, he continued, the people who had a romanticized view of nature—of the idyllic farm and humans and animals in harmony—lived in the city, and that it was folks such as these who were most concerned about food. To the extent, therefore, that attitudinal surveys weren’t very good descriptors of people’s behavior, it was wise of cell-ag companies to stay away from ethics and morals in defining their product. Concentrating on the five percent who might care about it seemed self-evidently a bad business decision.
In terms of terminology, Creelman and Hopkins both thought that cellular agriculture was the most neutral and most “un-emotional,” as well as most accurate, although Bobo said that (where appropriate) he liked plant-based and cell-based, too.
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In the afternoon panel, attendees heard from Jess Krieger, a New Harvest research fellow and PhD candidate in biological sciences at Kent State. According to her LinkedIn page, Krieger’s ethical and scientific goal is clear: to utilize “biomanufacturing processes to produce organs and tissues that replace the use of animals in research and the livestock industry.”
Krieger reflected on what she thought would be the trajectory of the science of cellular meat. Initially, she said, animal cells would be food additives in plant-based products; the next stage would see pure animal-cell products created; finally, full-animal products would be manufactured. In short, this development could be characterized as cell manufacturing leading to tissue biofabrication, and then to tissue manufacturing.
Krieger noted the many processes that were involved in cellular reproduction, from myogenesis (the development of skeletal muscle cells), vasculogenesis (the production of endothelial cells), and adipogenesis (which marbles the meat with fat). She also pointed out the various means by which meat cells can be developed, such as through extrusion or stereolithography (a form of 3-D printing), or a combination of the two. Krieger observed that tissue might require different kind of media formulation to differentiate and grow.
In addition to her research, Krieger and her team had developed a lab-scale bioreactor for cultured meat (the 2.0 version of which develops tissue more quickly, and will be available in December 2018). In the bioreactor a perfusion system pumps “blood” through tissue—delivering hormones, growth factors, trace elements, nutrients, and oxygen, and removing waste and other factors. In the question-and-answer session, Krieger was asked whether this process produced the meat quality of muscle. She replied that theoretically it could, but that it hadn’t been tested.
Krieger was followed by Glenn Gaudette, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Gaudette is a tissue engineer, whose research was galvanized by the 100,000-person gap between those who needed organ replacements and the organs available. This was a moral as well as a technical challenge, and he thought about how to grow human muscle cells that might, for instance, take the place of the heart.
Gaudette knew that cells needed oxygen to grow, but that if they grew beyond the limit of 200 microns, they died—unless they had a vascular system that provided a regular and sustainable supply of the nutrients (much like Krieger’s bioreactor). Gaudette told the audience that he and his team had been eating lunch one day when a member had observed that the spinach leaves in their salad had veins that approximated the vascular structure of the human heart. Using detergents to kill cells that might contaminate or block the perfusion process, they then poured red dye and eventually blood into and through the vasculature of the now-transparent leaf to form a scaffold. They injected human muscle cells, which through the electrochemical reactions of calcium within the cells, created contractions that pumped the blood through the veins of the leaf.
For Gaudette and his team, the potential of such leaves to develop human heart cells was obvious. They’re now examining the structure of broccoli as a framework for the bronchi and bronchioles of the human lung, and bamboo for establishing bone growth. Both require much more research, but the theoretical possibilities are manifold.
Gaudette noted that using plant products for scaffolding to develop cells beyond the small-lab sample was not only more environmentally friendly than employing tissue-engineering scaffolds from animal or synthetic materials, but might well be cheaper. Plants were abundant, readily available, could be grown in different shapes and forms, and could be genetically engineered. Gaudette pointed to an article by George Toulomes called “Making Steak out of Spinach” for more information on his research and the elements of cellular biology that made it—and other tissue development—possible.
In the question-and-answer session, Gaudette was asked whether there were alternatives to spinach that might provide greater vascularity. He replied there were many types of spinach, let alone other forms of plants, such as lettuce (and its numerous forms) that might be employed.
Following Gaudette was a panel on a different form of transparency than see-through spinach: that of sharing research data within the scientific community and with people.
Andrew Stout was another PhD candidate and New Harvest Research Fellow working on “biomaterial functionalization, genetic engineering of skeletal muscle development, and computational approaches to understanding and directing cell metabolism,” at Tufts University. He discussed his work on manipulating cells to increase un- and polyunsaturated fatty acids and lessen saturated fatty acids within meat. He admitted there might be effects on flavor and texture (and cost) in this process, but that the possibility of adding value to cultured meat products by, for instance, reducing carnitine and lowering saturated fat might be worth it. Stout’s key point, however, was that in conducting his research, he’d made considerable use of open data and metabolic models drawn from research by government and meat-producers.
Next up was Kathi Cover, who worked as an intellectual property (IP) lawyer at Sidley Austin, with a focus on how one might go about formalizing one’s work on cellular agriculture. Cover described the four kinds of IP: patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. Patents were for inventions that had to be new, couldn’t be obvious, and had to be useful. A patent typically lasted for twenty years. Copyrights were the original expressions of idea or authorship, and lasted the life of the author, plus another seventy years. Trademarks applied to words or symbols with a commercial value, and lasted a decade, with options to renew. And trade secrets were confidential information with a commercial value; by definition, they had to remain secret.
Cover observed that each of these IP forms offered pros and cons to those working within the cultured meat space—especially on the question of whether it was wise or not to publish one’s work, patent it, or keep it secret. Publishing one’s research was free to do, and in theory it prevented a competitor from patenting your idea. The downside of publishing was that it only offered you limited rights (such as copyright) and removed your ability to leverage your research as an asset. Patenting your product had its benefits: a patent gave you exclusive rights, powerful leverage, and a valuable asset. However, patents were expensive and time-consuming to obtain, and were of limited duration. A trade secret, on the one hand, was a valuable asset with possible leverage; it was low-cost with a potentially infinite duration. On the other hand, trade secrets were easy to lose. All these factors, Cover observed, needed to be considered in thinking about how or whether to communicate one’s work or announce one’s product.
Yuki Hanyu from Japan was next, speaking on building a cultured meat community. Hanyu, who runs the Shojinmeat Project and Integriculture Inc., offered perhaps the most polemical and visionary definition of transparency. Hanyu argued that it was one thing to produce a safe product through regulation and legal transparency; it was quite another matter for consumers to feel safe, which was a psycho-cultural phenomenon. Hanyu was convinced it was necessary to develop a positive and accessible climate around cellular meat, emphasizing safety and trust-building; thus, he’d developed two strands for his interests: Integriculture for the commercialization of cellular meat, and Shojinmeat Project as an open source for information and imaginative constructs around cellular meat.
Hanyu’s purpose at Shojinmeat, he enthused, was to democratize cell ag: to encourage DIY bio-fab enthusiasts, students, researchers, artists, and writers to provide familiar contexts for people within which to imagine cellular meat—such as comic-cons and fantasy fiction featuring cellular meat. Hanyu claimed he saw no reason why, instead of using FBS or growth factors to develop cells, you couldn’t use the cells from the organs of the animal body that already performed that function. Thus, he and his team were growing the liver and other organs to produce a growth medium.
Hanyu offered his audience his vision for cellular meat. Brand ownership and regionalism could open up opportunities for local farmers and hobbyists to develop their own cellular meat recipes. He even raised the prospect that you could enjoy a burger and video-link to the individual cow from whose cells your meal had been cultivated, grazing peacefully as you ate her cells. He imagined industrial meat breweries with steaks developing inside would be accompanied in the marketplace by home-brew meat kits on the kitchen counter. Why stop at meat? he asked. You could do your own tissue-engineering, or grow your own kidney, or add your own components to meat to make it even tastier by, for instance, creating an algae–meat composite. At some point, one might ask, he said, whether the product even is meat?
For Hanyu, the appropriate trajectory for the widespread adoption of clean-meat technology was for academia to hint at the way forward, citizens to act and set the direction of where they wanted it to go, and businesses to scale and deliver. That, he felt, was democratized citizen agriculture.
The final panelist was Caleb Harper, the Principal Investigator and Director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. The mission of OpenAg, he said, was to record, decode, and recode—particularly through genome-editing technology such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), gene drives, and daisy chains that would allow facets of an organism to be altered not only for that organism and all its offspring, but that would, likewise, change the ecosystem in which that organism operated.
In that regard, Harper noted, it was now possible to move biology into computation and so predict (or perhaps estimate) a yield and biochemical outcome within any given environment, allowing for a maximally efficient or desirable outcome for the organism within that biome. By way of an example, he suggested that it was now possible to calculate which plants within which part of a field would grow under which optimal conditions, rather than a single monoculture.
Such amalgamations of computational science with genetics obviously meant, Harper continued, that society needed to open up a conversation about what “science” and “natural” would mean in the Anthropocene. Through its plant and other programs at PFC_EDU, the OpenAg Initiative was growing, sensing, and producing enormous amounts of usable data (alongside its plants), and doing so for under $300. Data were gathered as part of the Open Phenome Project, “an open-source digital library with open data sets that cross link phenotypic response in plants (taste, nutrition, etc) to environmental variables, biologic variables, genetic variables and resources required in cultivation (inputs).” The MIT team was farming microbes and diving into the biochemical machinery, evolution, and ecology of plants to make growing programmable food for nutrition, flavor, and fragrance a reality.
In the question-and-answer session, the moderator Karien Bezuidenhout of the Shuttleworth Foundation, an NGO committed to an open-knowledge society, asked the panelists what they saw as the fundamental reason for transparency. Hanyu argued that openness was necessary for consumer acceptance; Cover said it was important that companies and scientists were transparent about the financial sources of their work and products; Walker warned attendees to be clear about the huge amount of risk in the space; indeed, he added, $20 million bankruptcies were common. Though risk was important, even necessary, he observed, taking it on wasn’t for the faint of heart.
Evidently, the reason for this panel was to figure out how open source and transparent (and therefore altruistic) one should be as a scientist or entrepreneur, given the potential demands of one’s investors and the possibilities of considerable wealth. It’s impossible to determine where on the spectrum the majority of attendees lay between absolute mercantilism and complete altruism, but it’s reasonable to assume that this space will reveal its sinners and saints in due course.
* * *
The next three presenters focused on using cellular technology to create products that would form part of the ecosystem of the cellular meat universe.
First up was Prakash Iyer of Gingko Bioworks, which describes its work as “biology by design.” Biology, Iyer noted, was the most powerful manufacturing tool on the planet: self-repairing, self-assembling, self-replicating—a proven form of nanotechnology on a global scale. At Gingko, teams worked on perfume and flavors, as well as the fermentation of design and built products, using yeast, enzymes, or bacteria over substrates of sugars, oils, and alcohols. The applications, Iyer suggested, lay in an analysis of products that might, for instance, provide “off-notes” (scents detected by the nose that couldn’t be determined by technology alone).
Next was Xun Wang, whose company (Triton Algae Innovations) was attempting to make animal proteins from algae—most particularly Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (“Chlamy”), a single-cell green alga that tasted like sweet parsley. Xun listed the many environmental and human–population growth reasons why it’s necessary to curtail animal-based agriculture (several presenters at the conference did the same), and argued that, as the mother of all plants and animals, microalgae offered many benefits to address the deficits caused by consuming earth’s resources feeding animals to feed to feed to humans. Chlamy, Xun reminded us, was distributed worldwide and was the ideal host for mammalian proteins, monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, and hormones.
As it stood, continued Xun, Chlamy production and utilization had not been economically scaled, but production costs for fermentation could range from between $7.75 per kilogram (of dried powder) to, under full-scale operations, $2.17. As a supplement, Xun said, Chlamy was not only safe to eat, but had a pleasant taste, was nutritious (it contained 847 percent of the recommended daily amount of Omega-3 fatty acids), and contained no pesticides or bacterial contaminations. Xun cautioned that not all algae were the same; Chlamy checked all the boxes in terms of its advanced genetic tools, its scalable production, its fermentation capability, and its standing as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).
Xun reported that Triton was attempting to replicate what Impossible Foods had done with its plant-based burger by developing “heme” legehemoglobin from Pichia (a yeast) and adding it to a plant-burger. Finally, Xun, said, Chlamy should be suitable as a “feedstock” for clean meat.
Third was Eben Bayer, of Ecovative, which uses mycelium (the vegetative part of fungus) to grow materials such as packaging and mycobricks, with the aim of using it as a scaffold on which to grow leather, bone, and meat. Mycelium, he observed, was earth compatible, could grow in nine days, and was durable and strong. Their leather-like material (textile.bio) and fabric design (partnering with Bolt Threads) was available for a limited market. In terms of cellular meat, Bayer observed, Ecovative had developed a mycelium scaffolding that was programmable, biocompatible, and edible; the strain of fungus the company used didn’t have a special flavor, so wouldn’t necessarily change the taste of the meat.
In reflecting on the panel on transparency and the technologists working with organismal components, algae, and mycelium it’s hard not to be impressed by the technical sophistication, state-of-the-art biochemical, computational, and genomic skills employed by these companies. It was hard to know exactly quite how market-ready any of these companies was, and what the ratio of pitch to scientific explanation to development overview to market scale was in each presentation. As it turned out, the following day provided a little perspective on what we’d heard.
I’ve been a regular attendee at Brooklyn’s quarterly plant-based/vegan meetups organized by Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Borough President, for the last year—and they always offer considerable food for thought (as well as considerable quantities of food), particularly when I think about the Vegan America Project.
Adams has been evangelical about the health benefits of a plant-based diet for more than a year now: crediting it for saving him from diabetes-induced loss of vision and allowing him to lose weight and improve his overall health. He has promoted plant-based eating in the newsletters that go to every home in Brooklyn (population 2.47 million), and all his staff in Borough Hall are encouraged to follow his diet. Recently, his 79-year-old mother came off insulin following a transition to a plant-based diet. Adams uses the meetups to showcase NYC-based doctors, food experts, and community activists advocating for the plant-based lifestyle. Such was the case this last Monday (February 5th).
As in previous meetups, the attendees numbered around 500 people, and diverse—but it was a noticeably older crowd. Indeed, a panelist ruefully observed that the young rarely care about the consequences of their diet. The panel’s message remained mainly about personal responsibility (changing one’s diet to help oneself and one’s family) and educating your doctors about nutrition (or getting another doctor). Distinctions were drawn between a vegan diet that might contain a lot of processed foods, sugar, and salt, and a whole-foods, plant-based, oil-free diet. The first question was about dealing with gas; the second was about finding vegan restaurants in Brooklyn.
I find it difficult to calibrate what’s happening here. That a political figure—even one whose job comes with few real powers—is so committed to getting people to transform their diets is remarkable. Unlike Bill Clinton or Al Gore (both of whom have flirted with veganism), Eric Adams is still in office and is clearly interested in becoming NYC’s mayor in 2021. He obviously feels that the benefits of his diet outweigh any political risks he might face with the dairy, meat, and soda lobbies. It’ll be interesting to see if Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who also has his eyes on higher office, will make the same calculation regarding his veganism.
Even though Adams’ meetups remain light on public policy, Adams has talked about food justice and the disadvantages that economically marginalized communities, many of color, face in accessing healthy foods. At some point, the meetups (personal redemption narratives and cool start-ups) are going to have to confront the systemic reality that, for many, “food” is sugar-saturated, calorie-dense, and processed, and that its ubiquity and affordability is a consequence of economic and political structures that disincentivize the affordability and availability of whole foods.
In the years ahead, all of us, including elected politicians, must turn personal conviction into public policy—even as we confront huge vested interests, such as the soda lobby, that cloak the pervasiveness of unhealthy food under the rubric of “choice” and “personal responsibility.” Individual lifestyle change is not enough. A comprehensive strategy that incorporates climate-change adaptation, urban resiliency, and animal welfare is necessary for the approach to succeed. To that end, we might ask the meetup to discuss and develop various strategies that will address these different areas of public policy. The following (very preliminary) suggestions straddle the line between the ideal and the “do-able,” and between what the public sector can demand and the private sector can deliver:
Food Procurement Policies
1. Mandate that 50 percent of food purchased by municipally owned and operated institutions (e.g. schools and hospitals) as well as food served on city property (e.g. stadiums and convention centers) be plant-based.
2. Reduce portion sizes of meat and dairy in such institutions.
3. Encourage restaurants and private-sector food operations to adopt climate-friendly menus and use behavioral-science insights to encourage “plant-forward” options, including through changing cafeteria layout, menu design, and food pricing and promotion.
4. Promote Meatless Mondays widely when it’s instituted by NYC, by implementing advertising using city property about climate change, public health, and animal welfare.
5. Offer tax incentives for businesses that only sell plant-based foods.
6. Make it a requirement for all restaurants doing business in NYC to offer at least five items (including at least two entrees) on the menu that are wholly plant-based.
Public Health Measures
1. Institute a city-wide public-health insurance plan that would offer discounted rates for residents who demonstrate a commitment to a plant-based diet.
2. Make it necessary for all insurance plans in NYC to offer instruction on plant-based eating and cooking plans in order to receive that plan’s services.
3. Work with gyms and rehabilitation centers to provide whole-foods, plant-based cooking demonstrations and services.
4. Mandate that all medical doctors licensed to work in NYC take a City-accredited course in plant-based nutrition.
5. Ban all soda machines and fast-food restaurants from within NYC hospitals, or only provide plant-based, low-sodium, and low-sugar meals.
Food Equity and Justice
1. Mandate all stores that sell food to sell a significant percentage of fruits and vegetables. Provide tax incentives for stores to do so.
2. Mandate all stores to place fruits and vegetables at the front or in a highly visible location in the store.
3. Provide incentives, mandates, or tax abatements for supermarkets to service underserved communities in Brooklyn and to provide healthy food.
4. Provide tax incentives to supermarkets to offer instructions to local schools and cafeterias on using vegetables and preparing them.
1. Incorporate meat- and dairy-production and consumption goals into all policy decisions for reducing the carbon footprint of New York City.
2. Emphasize local fruits and vegetables in NYC purchasing policies to support “foodshed” and reduce the carbon “foodprint.”
3. Diversify food resources and encourage carbon sequestration in all neighborhoods in NYC by supporting the development of, and sustaining, community gardens, CSAs, gardens in vacant lots, and rooftop gardens.
4. Expand bioswale programs in all neighborhoods to retain storm water and encourage planting of food crops and/or fruit-bearing trees.
1. Pass a tax on items that contain large amounts of sugar.
2. Ban plastic bags.
3. Pass a local carbon or consumption tax, which would include meat and dairy products, at source.
As with all policy proposals, the devil is in the details and folks will employ numerous caveats and seek to carve out exemptions that overwhelm the goal and ensure the status quo. In NYC, the mayor’s power is circumscribed by the City Council, which, in turn, is hedged in by state and federal political bodies. These realities are why public policy is hard and often ugly, and why individual change is so attractive: because it threatens nobody and makes you feel virtuous. However, as Eric Adams is showing (perhaps inadvertently) through his meetups, personal virtue is not enough.
It’s been several months since my last blog, and there are a number of reasons for that. Work and life are two. A third is that the revelations about Harvey Weinstein have set off an avalanche of accusations against other men in Hollywood and politics, that has now engulfed the animal advocacy movement. Meanwhile, the current administration continues to generate more outrage, seemingly every day—even though the US (and global) economy grows and the US unemployment rate remains low.
These three factors (#metoo, politics, and the economy) respectively reinforce introspection and retrospection, preoccupy us in day-to-day scandals, or lull us into believing that good times will last forever. To speculate now about the future can seem indulgent, even a flight from a difficult reality, even if all three of these portend potential realignments. The #metoo revolution promises to upend gender relations and power dynamics within society and politics. The danger is that it becomes only about weeding out obvious bad actors while leaving “good” men in charge, or supplanting male leadership but leaving organizations without policies that support whistleblowers or foster a healthy working environment that ends unprofessional or potentially criminal behavior. The large number of women running for political office in 2018 suggest momentum for systemic change, but it’s far from obvious that more women in power will mean a new way of conducting politics—or, more importantly, different policies altogether.
The daily churn of news makes it hard to look beyond the current administration’s reactionary policies on energy and land use to anticipate whether, for instance, the renewable energy sector is now robust enough to continue growing even when public policy is oriented toward fossil-fuel extraction and expanding markets for dirty energy. A roaring economy, driven by quarterly earnings reports, also obfuscates signs of another crash—either from the bursting of a housing bubble, banking malfeasance, rising inflation, or political instability—and how or whether we should imagine systemic change emerging from a crisis or from a confident, buoyant market with access to considerable liquidity.
That said, I see signs of change everywhere, and in the next few weeks, I’ll talk about them. Here’s one from a slightly unusual source. In a “Shouts & Murmurs” (i.e. humor) column in the February 12 & 19, 2018, editions of The New Yorker magazine, entitled “What Will Food Be Like in the Future,” Mia Mercado has fun speculating how, “In the future, food will be similar to what it is today, only bigger and with much better Wi-Fi,” and “there will be no more hunger, because hunger will get rebranded as ‘opposite full.'” She concludes her piece with the prognostication: “Everyone will be vegan in the future, so eventually we’ll all run out of things to talk about.”
On one level, Mercado is responding to the fact that, as the joke has it, “‘How do you know if someone’s vegan?’ ‘They’ll tell you.'” Veganism here is the ultimate “talking point,” the catalyst for numerous, socially embarrassing or irritating intimate or public conversations about food choices, etc. On another level, however, Mercado is perhaps echoing my own intuition that veganism is not merely a talking point but “good to think with“: that it offers us a chance to reflect on resources, culture, nutrition, sustainability, race, justice, and resilience. To “be vegan,” therefore threatens or promises the possibility of difference or distinctiveness that encourages conversation or makes life interesting—depending on your perspective.
So is the vegan future a mic-drop gag or throwaway last line? Perhaps it’s both, or neither. At the very least, much like a joke, it’s entered the conversation with all its destabilizing tendencies and threat-grins of social anxiety.
The decision on June 21st by the New York City Council to end the use of wild animals in circuses within the five boroughs offers, I believe, valuable lessons in thinking about how change happens in society—and perhaps some insights into the Vegan America Project. New York City wasn’t the first major city in the U.S. to ban wild animals (Los Angeles was, in April), and many other places have done it already and on a larger scale. Furthermore, the ban is not effective immediately (there’s a one-year phase-in), wild animals can still be used for entertainment (such as in The Tonight Show‘s longstanding segment), and the circuses could set up camp on Long Island, in Westchester County, and over the Hudson in New Jersey, and still draw a sizable audience. Yet, in the wake of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s closing, the vote (by the substantial margin of 43 to 6) is a further step toward kindness and respect and away from exploitation and cruelty.
I should confess to a personal stake here. When I first arrived in New York City in the early 1990s and became interested in the plight of animals in the human environment, I joined the regular protests outside Ringling. Thirty to forty of us would stand with our placards and hand out literature to people passing by or entering Madison Square Garden, where Ringling set up shop. The police regularly corralled us into certain areas (so we’d avoid advocating on private property) and we’d do our best to model appropriate behavior—some of us well-socialized, others more feral. It’s impossible to know how many audience-members we dissuaded: when you’ve bought your tickets and your kids are excited, you’re heavily invested in avoiding posters depicting violence and enchainment and block your eyes and ears to the imprecations of demonstrators. But, I find it hard to believe we made no difference at all. And here’s the first lesson.
1. It’s important to show up.
It’s a blindingly obvious point that, if you’re an advocate, you turn up: you protest, you write letters, you call your representative, you lobby, you vote, you sign a petition, you . . . advocate. It’s easy to be cynical about politics; one can be fashionably jaded about how venal or mercenary politicians are and rightfully infuriated about gerrymandered districts and the power of money and lobbyists to shape change. But politics has always been about the application of pressure in favor of a group’s interested; disinterestedness and the public good are usually only recollected in tranquillity. Because while showing up isn’t the only reason why change happens, change isn’t complete until laws are made and enforced, and that means showing up.
Leaving aside any clear link between advocacy and results, I believe it’s right to bear witness. Bearing witness says to those passing by that what is taking place has not gone unnoticed, that some find it objectionable, and that even if you may disagree with those protesting, you should ask yourself on what basis you agree with what is being protested—whether that’s active support or tacit accommodation. None of us likes to be confronted with our own privilege or moral shallowness; we much prefer to think we’ve figured everything out. It pains us (or should pain us) to know that not only have we failed to consider an issue, but that we’re so comfortable with our assumptions and prejudices.
2. Public policy matters.
The reason why Ringling Bros. closed are many and various. People have more contemporary, digital means of being entertained than the old-fashioned circus—including TV documentaries and even 3D representations of wild animals. We’re more aware as a society about the inner and outer lives of wild animals, and of how threatened they are in the natural world, so their representations in the circus as “performers” may feel forced or belittling. Nostalgia, custom, tradition—the words by which supporters of the socially unacceptable often justify their previously unexamined practices—ultimately cannot hold our wallets. I’m sure poor management and the rising costs of transporting animals from one place to another also had an effect.
To that extent, public policy—the passing of legislation to enshrine a set of principles—doesn’t drive change so much as reflect it. Nonetheless, public policy can also galvanize further change. That the two largest cities in the U.S. now are limiting the market for circuses that use wild animals presents a raison d’etre for other cities and municipalities to follow suit, which will put financial pressure on the remaining wild-animal circuses. Social stigmatization will likely follow. Furthermore, activists will turn their attention to other animal-welfare issues as change occurs.
3. Build relationships and form alliances.
The passion and commitment of activists are only worthwhile if both are turned into action. Action means persuading others who are in positions of power to make that change happen, and that depends on building relationships and forming alliances. In the case in point, Joyce Friedman, John Phillips, Allie Feldman, and others cultivated like-minded councilmembers, such as Rosie Mendez, to sponsor legislation and rallied advocates to support them. The advocates didn’t ask for the moon, they didn’t over-promise, and they offered a sharply defined deliverable. They took their defeats in their stride, they kept positive, and they kept at it. It’s hugely to their credit that this bill was passed.
It’s far from accidental also that many of the supporters of the bill, both activists and legislators, were LGBTQ-identified. It’s possible that “out-groups” are naturally more empathetic or in tune with the marginalized or abused, although I shy away from either essentialism or “victimology.” But the passage of Intro. 1233 provides confirmation that alliances across social justice movements help rather than hinder progressive causes. The animal rights cause hampers itself when its members don’t show up for other causes. Not only is there strength in numbers, but there’s organizational, strategic, and public policy wisdom in genuine solidarity.
4. Victories are essential.
I know very well how impossible the Vegan America Project may seem. Even I consider it absurd, utopian, rife with exceptions, and potentially oxymoronic. Indeed, it may seem an indulgent fantasy and merely an onanistic thinkpiece to those who oppose it—among whom may well be animal advocates and vegans who share the ideal. I have two, apparently contradictory responses to VAP’s impossibility.
As Tobias Leenaert argues in How to Create a Vegan World, his persuasive and pragmatic new book from Lantern Books, while “veganism” itself may feel impossible or a vegan identity may seem undesirable to many, “vegan food” or a “vegan meal” appears much more encompassable. On the long journey to animal rights, he suggests, victories—especially on behalf of those animals whom the vast majority of our fellow citizens aren’t deeply interested in eating—may incrementally but inevitably change the landscape for those animals whose welfare or rights we are currently not interested in protecting. So, while it may be hard for us to imagine now, the circus ban makes a vegan America that fraction more likely.
My other response is that a vision matters. Many of us who stood outside MSG or the Barclays Center on a bitterly cold morning a few years ago to protest Ringling had no idea that change was around the corner. In many cases, change seems impossible until it becomes inevitable, even foreordained. We look back at the struggles at the past and not only does it seem obvious that those injustices would end, but we find it astonishing that people like us held contrary views. We forget about the indifference to, ridicule of, ostracism of, or even physical violence meted out on the activists. We forget that their vision of equality, shared wealth, or common justice was once considered by the opposition and even well-meaning supporters as too great an ask, too big a lift, or too much too soon.
So, while we activists should not be frightened of pragmatic change, incremental steps, and concrete (if minor) victories to encourage supporters, alter the situation on the ground, and develop more credibility within the halls of power, so we shouldn’t be shy of laying out a vision—even if it seems far-fetched or intimidating to others. After all, leaving wild animals out of circuses seemed that way once.
5. Individual animals matter.
All social justice movements know that it’s important to register victories—and not just to raise money or prove to your backers that you’ve got clout. Celebrations are markers of achievement: they honor the sacrifices of the past and fortify activists for the challenges of the future. Because animal advocates are surrounded by an apparently unrelenting cataclysm of slaughter, abuse, and extinction, we sometimes fail to acknowledge our achievements. It seems indulgent to honor the saving of a few animals from cruelty when so many billions more are suffering.
Honestly, I don’t think we help ourselves in the movement when we ask everyone to concentrate on reducing the suffering of farmed animals above all, since they are by far the greatest number abused. I’m a fairly level-headed individual, but I am moved to tears by the plight of primates in laboratories, animals bored out of their minds in zoos, and magnificent megafauna beaten, shackled, and tortured so they will offer a few minutes of distracted amusement to circus-goers. I don’t see how it helps those like me who are drawn to these individual animals to tell us we’re wasting time, resources, and money on these few when we should be alleviating the suffering of billions of chickens in factory farms.
First, I don’t see why they have to be mutually exclusive; and, secondly, I think the heart has a role to play in changing attitudes and not simply calculating reason. When I think back to my fellow protesters of the 1990s, and even to the ones of a few days ago, I’m struck by how motley a crew we were and are. We weren’t on the same page on every social justice or even animal advocacy issue. Some of us weren’t ready for prime time. And a few—judging by their disruptive and aggressive attitudes—were probably agents provocateurs (or might as well have been). But seeing them yesterday—after all that work and the countless and often thankless hours they spent holding their posters, handing out their leaflets, and calling for change—I found my heart warming to their idiosyncratic and deeply held passions for these animals who will never know what they tried to do for them. (Or, more particularly, the animals of the future who will never be mistreated in such a way. The fate of those animals currently in circuses may not be as kind.)
As Pascal observed, the heart has its reasons that reason cannot understand: pragmatism, strategy, and the law have their place, but so does care, empathy, and compassion. Incremental victories are essential, but so is a vision to inspire and challenge. Economics and technology can shift societies dramatically, but public policy instantiates social change and catalyzes it also. Coalitions and organizations are essential, but we can’t lose sight of individuals—human or otherwise.
When the scattered human communities of the twenty-second century tell their various stories about just how badly we screwed up the planet in the previous century, alongside the emergence of factory farming, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and our failure to move on from our addiction to “cheap” energy from fossil fuels, they might reflect on the use and abuse of one mineral: phosphorus.
Phosphorus, as the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Program dryly puts it, “is an essential element for plant and animal growth,” and mainly used in fertilizers. The site goes on to state that once the element runs off the land into the waterways it (along with the nitrogen in the fertilizer) is responsible for eutrophication, which, observes the site with admirable sangfroid, causes “increased growth of undesirable algae and aquatic weeds, as well as oxygen shortages resulting from their die-off and decomposition,” restricting “water use for fisheries, recreation, industry, and drinking.” These are the “dead zones” where no aquatic life exists and bacterial infestations make water poisonous for everyone.
The website goes on to describe how best to apply phosphorus to avoid run-off and eutrophication. However, noticeably absent from this site geared to farmers is the fact that phosphorus is a finite resource, of which ninety percent is only available in five countries: Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States. The U.S. imports most of its phosphorus, since it has only 25 years’ supply left. As Renee Cho of the Earth Institute of Columbia University notes, “Morocco . . . controls up to 85 percent of the remaining phosphate rock reserves. However, many of Morocco’s mines are located in Western Sahara, which Morocco has occupied against international law. Despite the prevalence of phosphorus on earth, only a small percentage of it can be mined because of physical, economic, energy or legal constraints.” She continues:
With a world population that is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and require 70 percent more food than we produce today, and a growing global middle class that is consuming more meat and dairy, phosphorus is crucial to global food security. Yet, there are no international organizations or regulations that manage global phosphorus resources. Since global demand for phosphorus rises about 3 percent each year (and may increase as the global middle class grows and consumes more meat), our ability to feed humanity will depend upon how we manage our phosphorus resources.
Unfortunately, most phosphorus is wasted. Only 20 percent of the phosphorus in phosphate rock reaches the food consumed globally. Thirty to 40 percent is lost during mining and processing; 50 percent is wasted in the food chain between farm and fork; and only half of all manure is recycled back into farmland around the world.
Let’s be clear here. Phosphorus is non-negotiable necessity. We need it in our bodies, we need it in our soils, and we need it to grow all the things we eat. Yet, not only are we using up the precious available resources rapidly, but we are wasting a lot of it in run-off and on growing vast acreages of crops to feed to animals—a process that is itself a deeply inefficient and wasteful use of land, water, fertilizer, and fossil fuel energy.
Now, it may be the case that in thirty years time humankind will have found a way not to need so much phosphorus to grow its food. Certainly, as Ruth DeFries argues in The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis, the harnessing of phosphorus and nitrogen in the use of fertilizer radically altered how food was grown and how much of it could be grown. It ensured that the Malthusian fear of vast, starving populations has yet to be realized. That “pivot” (as DeFries calls the technological shift) in the face of the need to feed a population of 9, 11, or even 13 billion might occur again.
But that’s a very, very big gamble. In the meantime, surely, rather than rely on magical thinking about human ingenuity rescuing us from our own short-sightedness, we should apply a precautionary principle and move away as quickly as possible from using artificial fertilizers to grow massive monocultures of crops to feed to ever-increasing numbers of animals whom we eat. And even if we can’t have that conversation among policy makers at the moment, at the very least it would help if extension services, governments, and agencies concerned with food security faced up to the reality that phosphorus is only theoretically abundant and acted accordingly.
Two weekends ago, I had the good fortune to attend the Rethinking Animals Summit in New York City. As is the way with events such as this, panelists were alotted a brief amount of time for their presentation, during which most of them pitched their organization’s work (in one way or another), and then responded to questions and answers. In spite of the limitations of the format in engaging discussion and going more deeply into issues, however, two main themes stuck out for me.
The first is that conservationists—individuals who are primarily concerned with ecosystems, species survival, the wild, and “Nature” writ large—are finally recognizing the significance that the consumption of animals has for all of their concerns. From the outset, animal advocates (who’ve over the decades tended to focus on the welfare of individual animals within the human environment, and whose movement has defined itself through moral and social reform rather than environmentalism’s scientific analysis or transcendentalist aesthetic of the sublime) have found themselves at odds with those who’ve considered animals raised for food either as “unnatural,” or an invasive species, or a subject best not talked about for fear of appearing sentimental, unscientific, ideological, or insensitive to the realities that face subsistence farmers and the malnourished around the world.
The impact of globalized factory farming and monocultures of feed crops on fragile, vital ecosystems (either directly in terms of deforestation, resource use, pollution, and biodiversity loss or indirectly through adding to GHG emissions) is making it impossible to claim that our food preferences are merely personal choices with no policy or economic ramifications. This is a welcome realignment, offering the genuine possibility that we’ll finally see large environmental and social justice organizations start to work with animal protection organizations to offer a new vision of protecting the planet.
The second theme of the conference was the vital importance of the oceans. Anna Cummins of 5Gyres.org talked about the five major sites of plastic debris in the oceans; Carter and Olivia Ries, the dynamic 16- and 14-year-olds who run One More Generation, described their One Less Straw campaign, in which they are trying to make a dent in the percentage of the 500 million straws used each day in the U.S. alone that end up in the ocean and animals in that ocean. Others talked about the loss of tropical reefs and trophic cascade collapse.
Until recently, it has been hard for animal advocates to talk about fish: unlike land and air animals raised for food, fish caught and eaten are measured by the ton and not individually. Fish don’t look like us, they don’t rear their young like us, and their medium is alien to us. Furthermore, their emotional and social lives were unfamiliar, until scholars like Jonathan Balcombe gathered the research. Even so, advocates have tended to talk about high mercury and other toxic elements in fish and overfishing rather than no longer eating fish, whether wild caught or raised in tanks, because of the pain they feel or the societies we disrupt.
After this conference, it’s my judgment that animal advocates and environmentalists need to be much more forthright in how we approach the subject of eating fish. Even if it might not be possible to extend cetacean rights to fish, it seems self-evident now that those of us who can afford not to eat marine protein should stop doing so—to protect ecosystems and to allow those communities in the developing world who depend on them for their major source of protein to do so. We should argue that we need to do all we can to allow the fish populations to rebound—not just for us, but for all the other species that depend on them for survival.
A couple of weeks ago, members of Brighter Green attended the Sustainable Energy for All Forum (SE4All) at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Like many parts of the New York City shoreline, the Navy Yard has been undergoing considerable (re)development—not only in terms of converting old warehouses or brownfield sites into high-priced condominiums or tech start-ups, but also in industry (a new loading dock/pier was being built outside the Duggal Greenhouse, where the Forum was staged).
As a colleague and I waited at the entryway to the Greenhouse for the bus to take us back to the subway station, we fell into conversation with a man standing by a heat vent (it was a chilly morning). His name was Antoine Faye and he is Chief Resilience Officer for Dakar, the capital of Senegal in West Africa. He was set to go to Manhattan to meet with his counterpart, Daniel Zarilli. Both New York City and Dakar are part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. The aim of the initiative is for major urban centers to develop strategies to cope with the effects of climate change over the next several decades.
Mr. Faye was in a gloomy mood. His appointment, he said, was only for two years, during which time he had to forge a viable future for Dakar, which (like many cities in the developing world) was growing rapidly as populations moved from climate-stressed rural areas into informal settlements nearby in search of work and a livelihood. He told us that one of his major tasks was to figure out how to relocate inland tens of thousands of people from low-lying regions along the shoreline. This was difficult as institutions like the university were already packed with four times the number of people they were built for. He mordantly noted that a further influx of still more unemployed young men would only lead to trouble. Even more depressing from his point of view, he added, was that even were he to come up with a plan for the city, it could simply sit in a drawer and not be implemented precisely because it required forced removal of populations, unemployment, and the kind of tough decisions that not only could end someone’s time in office but throw the entire country into political turmoil.
As he looked out at the bustling Navy Yard, Mr. Faye observed that resilience for a city like New York was a much easier prospect. It had political structures, a private sector, and a civil society that might support the kinds of systemic changes that would enable a city to cope with a meter or so of sea-level rise. (I kept my mouth shut.) Dakar did not, he observed, and so would have to cede part of its land to the sea—perhaps those very areas that formed the more desirable parts of town.
At that point, our bus arrived and we parted ways, but not before my colleague and I had been given much food for thought. It would, indeed, be comforting to believe that New York City’s plans for the next century offer a genuinely resourceful (in both senses of the word) means of responding to climate change (especially in low-lying areas of the Rockaways, Staten Island, lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens that were most affected by Superstorm Sandy). But it’s only human to retain a connection to the sea, to want to rebuild in the same spot you’ve always lived, and to defy nature and the odds: that’s no different in Dumbo or Dakar.
It’s an irony that SE4All took place in industrial Brooklyn—a place that for decades (like so much of New York City’s shoreline) was a place that the well-to-do and respectable avoided. As On the Waterfront or Last Exit to Brooklyn attest, for much of the twentieth century, the harbor and industrial areas were locations where organized crime, violence, prostitution, and the bodies ended up. When NYC developer Robert Moses ringed Manhattan and other boroughs with roads, he reinforced the separation of the shore from the interior, the poor from the rich. Now the shore is being reclaimed for the wealthy—even as it is threatened once again by violence and disruption, this time from climate change.
One final observation: SE4All serves as a forum for philanthropists, investors, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and civil society activists to collaborate on meeting the energy needs of the world’s populations while also reducing our carbon footprint to levels in the timeframe agreed upon by the United Nations. Despite the positive vibes and can-do spirit emanating from the participants on the panels, the globe is failing to meet any of the goals allotted. And even were renewables to become even cheaper and more widely available, and even if the grid delivery systems and storage capacities improved, and even if governments set a carbon price that pushed the market further away from fossil fuels, and even if developing countries leapfrogged old-school industrialized development based on extraction and the externalization of environmental costs—even if all this happened, it still wouldn’t obviate the terrible decisions that face Dakar now and New York City in the future. That will require the kind of political leadership, civil society engagement, long-term thinking, and realignment of values of what it means to live well that we are woefully ill-equipped for.
Under such circumstances, “resilience” acquires an altogether deeper psychological and even moral underpinning than building climate-surge barriers or phasing in our withdrawal from the coast. It means basing our decisions on equity and shared sacrifice, closing the gap between rich and poor and learning to live with uncertainty and scarcity. To that extent, the Vegan America Project can only offer gestures of support and solidarity, recognizing (humbly) that dietary and lifestyle change will only take all of us (human or otherwise) so far. Much of the remainder is, because of our behavior, now out of our hands.
The Veggie Pride Parade is an annual event in New York City that brings vegetarians, vegans, and interested parties together. Five hundred or so folks march through the West Village and then gather at the northern end of Union Square for talks and food sampling, and to pick up literature from the assorted tables. The organizer of this festive occasion is Pamela Rice, whose 101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian we published at Lantern Books.
This year’s event had extra zest. Toward the end of the afternoon, a blond and hairy young white man stood near the assembly, brought out a banner that read “Down with the Vegan Agenda,” and proceeded to use his teeth to pull strips of raw flesh from a skinned rabbit. He soon attracted a crowd of passers-by who snapped photos and shot videos of him as folks on a nearby dais told their stories about how they’d become vegans.
I was about twenty-five feet away from the man, who goes by the name of “Mr MilkJar,” and who had the forethought to bring along a cameraman to record the proceedings. MilkJar has his own YouTube channel, onto which he’s uploaded this stunt and others like it—and which I can’t be bothered to link to. Tellingly, MilkJar’s avatar is Pepe the Frog, an otherwise blameless cartoon character who has recently become a symbol of “alt-right” nationalism that these days is welcome in the White House. Milkjar’s Twitter account extols the virtues of raw meat and milk—which has also, it appears, become a symbol of white supremacism, according (oh the irony!) to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an organization that has in the past also used dead animal flesh to make a point and, like MilkJar, isn’t afraid to perform stunts to attract the media and épater la bourgeoisie.
So, just what is going on here beyond the normal eccentricities of New York City, or the exercise of freedom of speech in a park that for centuries has been a public space dedicated to heated expressions of unpopular and sometimes conflicting opinions? And how might we understand this event in the light of the Vegan America Project?
On the face of it, MilkJar is simply practicing his first amendment rights. Pamela Rice asked the police in attendance if they could do anything about MilkJar. The officers, however, rightly pointed out that it wasn’t a crime to eat in public (drinking alcohol is a different matter). MilkJar wasn’t interfering with the gathering, wasn’t using an amplifier without a permit, and wasn’t physically threatening anyone. The cops did ask MilkJar to move further away from the dais, but that was all the conversation I was privy to. (Actually, I don’t think Pamela was that annoyed. In fact, she seemed to be relishing the amount of extra attention that MilkJar was bringing to her parade.)
Freedom of speech, of course, can be rude and objectionable—and MilkJar was interested in neither Socratic debate nor Demosthenic oratory. He was out to offend the sensibilities of vegans the most direct way he knew how. And, truth be told, some attending the parade were upset and disgusted. They felt “their” special day and space had been coopted and invaded by a publicity-seeker who merely wanted to gross people out. Why pick on a poor defenseless being to make his point, they asked? Why be so willfully cruel? And it’s true: there’s something particularly Westboro Baptist Church–like about MilkJar’s self-serving assholery.
On reflection, however, MilkJar’s presence proved a fascinating (if unwelcome) addition to the proceedings—if not, perhaps, in quite the way the rabbit-eater intended. First of all, he made no effort to disguise the corpse that he bit into. He held it by its rear legs and allowed the torso to dangle in front of him. In so doing, he showed how much we gourmands rely on butchers and chefs to cut and prepare our meat to obliterate the structure and outline of the animal that the flesh originally composed. He wasn’t just eating a cut of meat; this was clearly once a living being. To use Carol J. Adams‘ terms, he made the absent referent present.
Secondly, by eating the rabbit raw, MilkJar was also demonstrating how most of us cook the land and air animals we eat. Cooking, after all, is one of the ever-diminishing markers of our distinctiveness from other animals. Indeed, Michael Pollan argues that cooking led to civilization, in that it allowed us to gather around a fire and shape the mythopoetic identities that led us to plan and organize our social groupings. (Some folks’ disgust was not simply because of the presence of the animal body but an autonomic response to the risk of food poisoning posed by eating raw meat on a warm day. This is another reason why we cook our meat—because animal flesh rots rather than decomposes.)
Thirdly, in making a case for a kind of originalism, naturalism, or authenticity to his food choices (no processed foods, or processing of foods, for me!), MilkJar was echoing many vegans who also shun processed foods and argue for a raw, plant-based diet that, so the notion goes, most accurately reflects our true identities. Aside from any health benefits cited by followers of such regimens, MilkJar and raw foodists rely on a notion that “civilization” has corrupted or removed us from a Rousseausque innocent and honest engagement with nature that can be reclaimed by returning to a pre-industrial “right” relationship—whether it’s a prelapsarian paradise or a Darwinian struggle, red in tooth and claw.
But the ironies and contradictions don’t stop there. In choosing a rabbit to eat, was MilkJar echoing the suggestion that veganism equals “rabbit food”? By eating the rabbit, therefore, was he consuming vegans and veganism at the same time as he was critiquing the social niceties, amnesia, and comforting bromides we tell ourselves about the “civilizational” qualities of cooked meat? Was MilkJar wanting to claim a savage primitivism in opposition to vegans’ effete civilizing influence; and declaring that a society that eschewed raw meat by either cooking it or not consuming it no longer had the animalistic élan vital to continue?
These questions aren’t as far-fetched as they may appear. My table shared space with a tribute to the life and work of vegan historian Rynn Berry, himself a sometime raw-foodist, and author of Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (with a foreword by yours truly). In the book, Berry tries to lay to rest the canard that the Nazi dictator was a vegetarian; in my foreword, I try to argue that, even if it were the case that the Fuhrer ate a plant-based diet, it hardly follows that eating lentils will turn you into a genocidal dictator. That MilkJar should now accouter himself with the symbols of neo-Nazi ethnochauvanism in opposition to veganism makes our points—if not in the way MilkJar may have intended.
As promoted by Goebbels, the Fuhrer’s vegetarian identity was intimately associated with his asceticism, his dedication to the Fatherland above family, and a racial purity that literally embodied the desired body politic. Yet Hitler ate meat, his own body was routinely injected with animal parts (bull’s semen, to be precise, for sexual potency), and he received a vast amount of other drugs, especially during the War. Hitler’s physical insecurity and his avoidance of animal flesh show that he may have wished to escape the bodily corruption of meat, but his belief that powerful male animal bodies would animalize and empower his own illustrates that he couldn’t escape the carnophallologocentrism (to use Jacques Derrida’s term) that he believed the animal body would supply him with. Hitler/Germany’s pathogenic body—desperate to cleanse itself of “enemies within” (both social, racial, and biological)—collapsed because of the microbial and military invasion of the very foreign bodies that he sought to expel.
MilkJar’s protest (and PETA’s counter-argument that milk drinkers are white supremacists) highlight the dangers of naturalistic arguments or simplistic comparisons devoid of context or critical thinking. MilkJar’s presence should likewise remind vegans of the insulting triteness of comparing animal exploitation to the Holocaust or ante-bellum African American slavery—especially as MilkJar’s alt-right paraphernalia shows us how manipulable shallow symbolism and agitprop thinking can be.
But we vegans actually have more to be grateful to MilkJar for than unpacking meat eating! When I saw his sign (“Down with the Vegan Agenda”), I joked to a friend that not only did I not know we had an agenda, but I hadn’t even received the minutes from the last meeting. As it turns out, and as the Vegan America Project highlighted at its inception, the questions accidentally raised by MilkJar are valid: Do we have an agenda, and, if so, what is it? An “agenda” suggests a level of organization, coordination, planning, and centralized authority that has so far eluded the various affiliations that constitute . . . what? Our movement? Who is the “our” here and where is the “movement”—from what to what? As this blog has relayed in detail, there are many impulses, dispositions, passions, and sociopolitical orientations that drive people to stop consuming animal products. But “agenda”?
Of course, MilkJar’s goal in condemning “the vegan agenda” is to stigmatize veganism—in the same way that others attack LGBTQ activists’ attempt to protect vulnerable communities as “the gay agenda”; or how anti-Semites talk about a “Jewish conspiracy” or a cabal of “international bankers”; or how Protestant evangelicals once spoke about the Vatican; or how climate change deniers now describe scientists. They/we are the fifth columnists whose goal is to undermine society, enrich ourselves in the process, and establish a New World Order where ethnic and national boundaries are compromised and individual freedoms are quashed.
We might (very) charitably call such attempts blunt efforts by individuals to express their right to dissent and exercise those freedoms. But in every case, the word agenda is code for those whom the ethnochauvanistic, nominally Christian right believes should know their place. It disguises, even as it proclaims to be honest (I’m not politically correct!), a pre-existing agenda that the protesters against the “agenda” have ensured isn’t even considered an agenda—because it’s normative: that white, heterosexual, Christian men who eat meat and run the country is the “natural” order of things.
It’s, therefore, not merely coincidental that MilkJar’s whiteness and masculinity is tied to his explicit consumption of the flesh of an animal. The freedom of speech that he’s championing is expressed through his control of and power over an animal’s flesh: the sexual politics of meat. MilkJar wants to offend, to counteract, to occupy another’s space, and to do so using an animal’s body. That is his right. But it is a right and it is a space that white men in the United States have always claimed for themselves, and which they have routinely denied to people of color, women, and other animals by threatening, colonizing, manipulating, and killing their bodies.
Ironically, MilkJar’s words should inspire us: to get “down with the vegan agenda.” Certainly, the Vegan America Project considers itself one draft (among many) of an outline for such an agenda. It’s an attempt to explore a genuinely intersectional approach that looks at the physical and conceptual space represented by Union Square—a location for rallies, a safe place for dissent, a spot for visionary thinking—and asks whether we can expand our notions of individual rights to allow MilkJar and the rabbit he consumed to live their own lives with a measure of each’s basic interests respected.
Finally, what does MilkJar’s protest have to say about “conservative resistance” in the Vegan America Project? I’m always struck by those who take time out of their lives to protest—and to do so in a way that could leave them appearing to onlookers to be foolish or mean-spirited. Something about that degree of commitment and energy suggests that the object of their contempt holds a fascination, a shadow (to employ a Jungian idea), that makes them fertile ground for conversion.
I’m reminded of the book of Revelation (3:15), in which the writer has strong words to say about faith: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” MilkJar is clearly not lukewarm, and nothing is being spit out of his mouth. He’s engaged and, in his perverse way, represents the case for animal rights and veganism very well—perhaps uncomfortably well, given our mutual claims to naturalism and purity of living. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him at many more such events in the future. In which case, we vegans may have to engage more seriously and profoundly with just what he portends (both for ill and good) about what a vegan America might look like.
A January 2017 report by the UK Global Food Security (GFS) programme provides sobering reading for incrementalists, ameliorists, and technologists everywhere. I’m surely not alone in imagining climate change as a series of stepped intensifications and unusual temperature alterations—manageable (if you’re in a rich, developed economy) but not necessarily catastrophic, especially if measures are put in place to mitigate or adapt to those changes.
The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Instead of incremental changes, the report argues, there are tipping points. The organization BBSRC puts it this way:
Environmental tipping points occur when a biophysical system experiences a shift from one stable state to another, thereby altering its function. These ‘step-changes’ deviate from the linear way we might usually expect a system to behave, and pose a serious threat to global food security because they could bring about profound changes in the provision of environmental goods and services that are difficult to reverse, which in turn could have serious effects on global food production.
Most people think we live in a “linear world” where small changes have small effects and can be reversed. This report highlights that this may be far from the case: sometimes small changes can have big effects. Climate change may not be about gradual adaptation to a globally changing climate: it might “tip” suddenly into a new and very different state, for example, incremental degradation of soils leading to large scale soil loss under certain conditions, as happened in the Midwest Dust Bowl.
So, my imagination (along with that of many others) is not commensurate with the evidence: which is that a series of ecosystemic shocks and collapses may define the next several decades. In other words, the proverbial and apocryphal frog won’t be slowly heated up over a stove; it will be tossed into a pot of boiling water without its legs. One stable state—comfortable cool—to another—insufferable heat. Adaptation, schmadaption.
Given this reality, the Global Food Security programme offers some recommendations: these involve including food systems in risk management, conducting more research on how to tell when a tipping point is being reached, and doing a cost-benefit analysis on whether it would be better to act now or wait until later to prevent that tipping point.
If these “solutions” strike you as remarkably weak responses to what is clearly a profoundly alarming analysis, then you’re not alone. There is neither retreat from a tipping point nor is there management: it’s a systemic destruction that, as the report suggests, leads to paradigm shifts and potentially further cyclical changes that are themselves impossible to forecast in their impact. The Dust Bowl was a stable state; so is nuclear winter. Neither is desirable.
Yet, blithely, we—global citizens—continue to consume more animal products and set aside more land, water, fossil fuel, topsoil, and phosphorus for this wasteful and environmentally devastating addiction. All the while we pretend to ourselves that a little more organic farming here or a little more rotational grazing there will slowly and surely ameliorate the situation. This report—like so many others—continues the mantra of “further study and more analysis,” which itself is part of a consciousness that believes, somehow, that someone somewhere will make a decision or invent something that will make climate change “go away” before any “tipping point” is reached, or any public policy is required to force necessary change. Ribbit. Ribbit.
In reading books (published and unpublished) about veganism and animals, I’m struck by how often writers want to take us to “the beginning” to ascertain a kind of ur-relationship with the natural world or diet from which we have strayed.
This pursuit of an originating myth is neither a new phenomenon nor one confined to vegans or vegetarians; nor has it been, is, or ever will be, disinterested. How, when, and why human beings domesticated certain species of animals is a contested space, because the study of the origins of human societies has always been colored by race and gender as well as notions of human difference and supremacy and the normativity of meat-eating.
Take, for instance, paleoanthropologist Richard Bulliet’s Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human–Animal Relationships. Bulliet traces human societies from “separation” (when hominins began to recognize themselves as separate from other animals) to predomesticity (when humans lived among animals), to domesticity (when they tamed some of them), and then to post-domesticity or urbanization, and the separation of humans from animals used for food or clothing. Bulliet argues that predomestic civilizations had diverse ways in which they recognized their connection to and disconnection from animals. He suggests that the arrival of agriculture didn’t necessitate the immediate domestication of some animals and the rejection of other animals as pests and predators. He further points out that, pace those who assume that economic issues were the main reasons why humans domesticated certain animals, sacramental or ritualistic needs may have played more of a role than the desire for meat, dairy, wool, labor, transportation, and so on.
In arguing that these transitions were both less uniform, specific, or dramatic, Bulliet explicitly or implicitly questions a number of long- or at least passionately held beliefs about our origins and attitude toward animals. The first is that human society had a golden age of human–animal connection that was disrupted by agriculture, which forced humans into an adversarial relationship with animals whom they’d once revered but now competed with for resources. The second is that our exploitation of animals is coexistent with, and a function of, the emergence of homo economicus—that proto-Enlightenment creature of reason and civilization rather than superstition or anthropomorphism, which itself a manifestation of the scientific method and the necessary disenchantment of nature. The third is that meat-eating was essential for the development of the human brain and that the need to hunt animals led to cooperation and organization among humans and thereby to social organization and civilization. Fourth, that gender roles (Man the Hunter; Woman the Gatherer) whether negatively or positively valorize or essentialize meat’s primacy. And fifth, that a prehistoric vegetarian, collective, matrilineal, harmonious social order was disrupted by a meat-eating, hierarchical, patriarchal, warlike social order.
The point here is not to argue that Bulliet is correct to be skeptical but to emphasize how seductive are dichotomies in Western attempts to understand human origins and, by extension, what our appropriate relationship is with other animals. Bulliet at least shows that assumptions about human social evolution following a neat trajectory (whether up or down) or even a kind of universal, axial shift in consciousness are problematic. It was in all likelihood messier, more fractured, more diverse, and more hybridized than our taxonomizing brain would like to believe.
That’s true of vegetarianism itself. As Tristram Stuart shows in his magisterial survey of the subject The Bloodless Revolution, vegetarianism has been associated with godlessness and heightened spirituality, political conservatism and radicalism, ancient religious mandates and contemporaneous understandings of physiology. From the beginnings, vegetarianism was syncretic, scientific, crackpot, philosophical, ascetical, libertine, and a host of other contradictions.
The need to complexify and problematize easy dichotomies can be represented by the views of two famous philosophers. René Descartes is widely reviled for promoting the notion that animals were mere machines and unable to feel pain, and thereby consolidating an instrumental attitude toward animals that remains the scientific paradigm to this day. Jeremy Bentham is famous for his argument that an animal’s sentience and not its intelligence or other capabilities should be the sole consideration of whether it is treated well. What is less well-known is that Descartes was a vegetarian, who believed that meat-eating was injurious to a long and healthy life, whereas Bentham not only was not a vegetarian but believed that animals killed at human hands might suffer less than their wild counterparts. Neither philosopher was being hypocritical or inconsistent.
The Vegan America Project inevitably finds itself in the middle of these paradoxes and, equally inevitably, pulled and pushed by those who believe in any of the above theories of what is the original, most natural, scientific, godfearing, consistent, equitable, or purest way to eat or live in the world. VAP can no more escape the times or the cultural milieux of its contributors than all the other scholars or activists from antiquity to the present.
And it shouldn’t try to. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to argue rationally and with the best evidence available for a cause or position, while at the same time recognizing that it won’t get to the root of all problems or satisfy our hunger to seek an originating diet, relationship, or beinghood. This decision doesn’t spring from VAP’s anti-utopianism; it is merely the most honest position we can take.