The End of Agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.