A Response to Beyond the Impossible

TechnologyKevin 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?

Beyond the Impossible: The Futures of Plant-based and Cellular Meat and Dairy Published

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.



Teachers College Students Work on VAP

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.

From Left: Martin Rowe, Rachel Atcheson, Eric Adams, Lesley Kroupa, and Mia MacDonald at the Vegan America Project presentation at Brooklyn Borough Hall, June 13, 2019

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.

Martin Rowe, Lesley Kroupa, and Mia MacDonald with print-outs of the presentation made to the Brooklyn Borough President, June 13, 2019

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.