According to a new report by the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) initiative, a global investor network that aims to put factory farming on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda, animal agriculture is deeply unprepared for the transition to a sustainable food system. But there is one interesting silver lining: 28 out of 60 publicly-listed animal protein companies – almost half – now have some involvement in animal free proteins, which includes seven in cultivated meat.
The shift toward animal free proteins even from within parts of the existing agricultural system is a signal of what’s to come: Precision Fermentation (PF) will disrupt the food industry – a process Catherine Tubb and Tony Seba describe in detail in the RethinkX report, Rethinking Food and Agriculture (2019) – and contrary to prevailing myths, it is already on track to become cost-competitive and eventually cheaper than the conventional livestock industry over the next decade.
But the disappearance of animal agriculture is just the beginning. According to Tubb and Seba, PF means that we will be capable of producing all kinds of different molecules from fats and oils to pigments and vitamins, and will open up endless possibilities for new products in the future. This will bring about profound change to the food system as a whole. And while each class of molecule is important the most important, the one that will drive the disruption, is protein.
This blog contains a summary of Rethinking Food and Agriculture, 2019 by Catherine Tubb and Tony Seba.
What is a Protein?
Proteins are a class of biomolecule that execute an immense number of functions to make life happen. They are found throughout nature, in plants, animals, fungi, and so on, and are responsible for the many key processes that keep them alive. The ability to manipulate proteins confers the ability to manipulate life itself.
There are many different types of proteins:
Structural proteins (keratin, collagen)- Provide structure and support for the cell and the body and allow the body to move.
Antibodies (immunoglobulin G) – Help protect the body against foreign particles such as viruses and bacteria.
Enzymes (Amylase, Lactase) – Assist with the formation of new molecules by reading the genetic information in DNA. They speed up reactions and carry out almost all of the thousands of chemical reactions that take place in cells.
Messenger proteins (Insulin, Growth hormone) – Transmit signals to coordinate biological processes between cells, tissues, and organs.
Transport proteins (Hemoglobin, Ferritin) – Bind and carry atoms and small molecules within cells and throughout the body.
“Every functionality in every living organism on the planet is based on making protein polymers”
-Dan Widmaier, CEO Bolt Threads
The Protein Universe
How many proteins are there in the world? The short answer is that we don’t exactly know.
Proteins are a key part of the inner and outer workings of all living things, which, given the diversity of species, gives a sense of just how much variety in proteins there exists in the natural world. While similar species groups have a similar base set of proteins – i.e., all mammals produce collagen – even the same type of protein in each animal is different, expressing different properties. If we then apply that to every protein within every system within every organism, the total number of proteins appears larger and larger.
When we break down proteins into their components and examine the question from a genetic perspective, the number of possible proteins is effectively infinite.
Proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids (aa) – ranging from about 100 for short ribosomal proteins to over 33,000 for something like titin, which gives human muscles their elasticity. These linear sequences are held together by different peptide bonds and fold into three-dimensional structures, which give proteins their biological and chemical functionality.
The median length of a eukaryote protein (most living organisms, including plants, fungi, and animals) is about 400 aa. While there are about 500 aa in nature, only 20 of them appear in the genetic code. So, the total number of possible unique proteins of length 400 is 20400. Type this into Google’s scientific calculator and the answer is infinite (other calculators simply give an error message).
The same is true for prokaryota (bacteria and archea) proteins. Prokaryota protein length is about 300 aa, so the total number of possible unique proteins of length 300 is 20300. Again, the answer is ‘infinity’. We finally get a number when we lower the protein length to 225 aa, about 10292. To put that into perspective, there are 1080 atoms in the known universe.
If there are an infinite number of proteins that can theoretically be designed, what does that mean for the food system?
The food system as it currently stands may seem diverse but is actually fairly limited. Aside from being one of the 4 macronutrients, proteins act as key ingredients in foods, bringing functionality like taste, texture, and structure to different products. They are responsible for key properties like emulsification, glazing, binding, and frothing that bring complexity and variation to different foods.
We currently use all kinds of different proteins in the food system – largely sourced from the 12 plants and 5 animals that make up 75% of the world’s foods. Despite the fact that each of these plant and animal species contains a wide variety of proteins that we extract for food, materials or pharmaceuticals, and that altogether they do provide access to a large pool of proteins that are available to use, plants and animals still cannot possibly compete with an infinite number of potential types of protein.
Precision Fermentation is the technology on which the disruption of food and agriculture depends because it does not just allow us to produce proteins – it allows us to produce any proteins. Using genetic engineering we can take the genes that code for any of the proteins we use today from our collection of plants and animals, insert them into a microbe, and produce them through fermentation. But we are not limited to directly copying the proteins we already use; we can use genetic engineering to mix and match genes from different places and even add in synthetic ones to create completely novel proteins. Ones that are upgrades on the ones we use, and ones we have never seen before.
This means that using PF to make proteins for the new food system is not a 1 for 1 substitution. It doesn’t end at simply replicating the proteins we already extract and use in a more efficient way. Instead, it means that new food products can be designed with functionality in mind. Custom proteins mean that we can essentially make and tailor the taste, texture, and structure of food to do anything we want it to.
PF also puts protein and, later, product design, production and distribution in the hands of many. It enables a distributed network of food production, product design and distribution that is far superior and much more expansive than the centralized production system we currently have. In this way, just like with protein, the disruption of the overall food system is not a 1 for 1 replacement of the one we already have – but instead, a totally new system.
In recent years, consumer demand for plant-based meat has often outpaced the industry’s supply chain capabilities. In order to keep pace with the rapidly expanding demand for plant-based meat in the coming decade, the plant-based protein industry will need to make significant investments to expand manufacturing capacity and scale the ingredient supply chain.
The good news is we already have everything we need to enable such a system of systems.
Based on publicly available forecasts of plant-based meat demand and production needs, GFI’s new report, “Plant-based meat: Forecasting ingredient, infrastructure, and investment needs in 2030”, explores a hypothetical production scenario set in 2030, where plant-based meat has captured 6% of the global meat and seafood market, necessitating the production of 25 million metric tons (MMT) of plant-based meat annually.
Opportunities for Communities to take ownership in their stories: Be the Media.
Our analysis identifies a looming potential for global supply squeezes of cornerstone ingredients, like coconut oil and pea protein, in the coming years while also highlighting opportunities for the industry to proactively mitigate these supply strains. We also conservatively estimate that the industry will need to operate at least 800 manufacturing facilities—each producing on average at least 30,000MT of product annually—at a global capital cost of at least $27B within the decade in order to meet a 25MMT production target. This underscores the importance and urgency of incentivizing bold infrastructure investments to facilitate this transition.
Some of these supply-side constraints are already happening. It is no secret that, in recent years, the plant-based meat industry has been supply, not demand, constrained. Numerous manufacturers are running into difficulties expanding production capacity to meet the needs of restaurants and grocery stores eager to offer novel and sustainable products.
GFI’s mission is to accelerate a transformation in our food system toward alternative protein production platforms as quickly as possible. Encouragingly, several industry analysts and market research reports have projected that this transformation may occur very rapidly. However, the topline projections often understate the real-world challenges of meeting such rapidly growing demand.
Market adoption curves can occur with shocking speed in many sectors, but in the food and agriculture system, transformation entails massive ingredient supply chain and infrastructure implications—not to mention impacts on global commodities markets—that can take time and substantial capital to manifest.
This is not like an app on a smartphone, where—in theory—billions of users can download it nearly instantaneously. This is not even like the conversion from traditional mobile phones to smartphones, where consumers made the switch by virtue of a single purchase of a product containing just a few ounces of material. Sustained transformation of the food system necessitates durable changes in the entire end-to-end supply chain of food production and, of course, lasting shifts in consumer purchasing patterns.
The private sector—investors, ingredient processors, extrusion equipment providers, and manufacturers alike—can realize significant financial upside by appreciating and planning for the enormous plant-based meat supply chain build that must take place in the coming decade. Likewise, governments would be wise to recognize that meaningful climate gains from a scaled shift towards plant-based meat will not be achievable in the near term unless they invest soon in open-access R&D and infrastructure for this burgeoning industry.
Meat made differently
Plant-based meat supply chains have structural efficiency and flexibility advantages over their conventional meat counterparts. Despite these comparative efficiencies, the industry should not underestimate the challenges and opportunities in expanding the plant-based meat supply chain to a scale rivaling that of conventional meat. Our analysis quantitatively demonstrates the enormous manufacturing footprint and level of investment necessary to avoid future supply constraints and successfully hit even modest plant-based meat production targets in 2030.
But our effort doesn’t stop here! Going forward, GFI will add cultivated meat and fermentation-powered proteins reports that answer similar questions about these critical technologies. These forecast reports are critical in ensuring the alternative protein industry can effectively and expediently realize the promise of meat made differently.
Water is a finite, indispensable resource that gives way to life as we know it on this planet. It has immense, multidimensional value to individuals and communities around the world. And yet, precious as it is, many of our systems take water for granted.
We have the opportunity to help a new wave of protein production spring forth, one that puts the foods we love on the table while honoring water as a vital resource and paving the way for its conscionable and equitable stewardship.
To reach Sustainable Development Goal 6, “ensuring access to water and sanitation for all,” United Nations member states are working to ensure that all people have access to clean water and sanitation by 2030. Alternative proteins will be a crucial part of the solution.
Enhancing water access
Alternative proteins allow us to free up our water supply to serve a growing global population.
Producing meat directly from plants or by cultivating cells will allow us to free up freshwater from animal agriculture, which is currently responsible for approximately one-third of all freshwater consumption in the world. As our changing climate places greater pressures on food and water security, we must make better use of our limited resources by modernizing meat production systems.
Improving water quality
According to the United Nations FAO, “global water scarcity is caused not only by the physical scarcity of the resource, but also by the progressive deterioration of water quality in many countries, reducing the quantity of water that is safe to use.” Water pollution does not impact everyone equally: In the United States, contaminated drinking water is 40 percent more likely to occur in places with higher percentages of people of color. By reducing global reliance on animals for meat, alternative proteins can eliminate a major source of waterway pollutants and drive more equitable health outcomes.
Fertilizers used for animal feed crops and improper animal waste management contribute to waterway pollution. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses from manure, as well as antibiotics, hormones, and zoonotic waterborne pathogens can end up in drinking water sources and pollute nearby ecosystems. Fertilizers that runoff into waterways create unsafe levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which stimulate the growth of algal blooms that suffocate aquatic life (called eutrophication) and devastate marine ecosystems, creating vast dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and other coastal waters. Harmful algal blooms are estimated to cost the United States $4.6 billion per year.
By transitioning to alternative proteins, we can mitigate the broader effects of climate change on the water cycle and global water supply. Plant-based meat production uses 47 to 99 percent less land than conventional meat and yields massive reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, cultivated meat outperforms all forms of conventional meat production when renewable energy is used, reducing the climate footprint of beef, pork, and chicken by 92 percent, 52 percent, and 17 percent, respectively.
Cultivated meat reduces land use up to 95 percent compared to beef, 72 percent compared to pork, and 63 percent compared to chicken. With this massive decrease in land use, we can put policies in place to preserve the forests that regulate global temperatures and play a massive part in controlling the planet’s water cycle.
Unmitigated animal agriculture will have ripple effects on Earth’s climate, escalating the global prevalence of drought and water scarcity. The clearing of trees for grazing and crop land is the greatest driver of deforestation, and deforestation in turn can destabilize the water cycle. Recycling water through land vegetation is especially important in giant tropical ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest, which is thought to provide atmospheric moisture as far as the Midwest. Moreover, as global temperatures rise, droughts become more frequent and more severe; increased temperatures lead to increased evaporation and transpiration.
Alternative proteins pave a brighter road ahead
The challenges presented by our global water crisis are large, but not insurmountable. Reimagining our protein supply to make better use of finite natural resources will be key to restoring water health and access to our global communities. This is precisely the opportunity alternative proteins present.
To modernize meat production, we need public investment in open-access research to fill technological gaps and robust public policies to maximize the benefits of alternative protein production. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations specifically calls for policies and incentives that encourage sustainable diets to counter water pollution from agriculture. Governments should include alternative proteins in public procurement policies for healthy and sustainable food in schools, hospitals, care facilities, and other public institutions. This will increase the availability of alternative proteins and will likely help lower prices, because bulk purchasing by institutions can reduce costs. Additional progressive land, water, and energy policy, as well as a renewed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion are needed throughout the food system.
Alternative proteins are critical to building a world where water is clean, plentiful, and valued by all—and every stakeholder has a role to play. The Good Food Institute has defined the key challenges facing the alternative protein field and the open opportunities for academic, industry, and government stakeholders to get involved. Read more about the roadmap ahead.
Amy Huang UNIVERSITY INNOVATION MANAGER
Amy Huang oversees GFI’s efforts to transform universities into engines for alternative protein research and education. Areas of expertise: university programs, academic ecosystem-building, global health, design thinking, effective altruism, public speaking.
Lauren Stone POLICY COORDINATOR
Lauren advances alternative protein policy by researching, writing, and supporting legislative efforts. Areas of expertise: policy communications, food systems, food policy
With the Sixth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) being released, it’s important to revisit the climate scenarios that are its centerpiece. These scenarios form the basis of the climate science community’s modeling and projections, which in turn affects governance and investment decisions across the world. Trillions of dollars and the policymaking of the entire planet thus ride upon these climate scenarios, and so the cost of getting things wrong is extremely high.
Scenarios past and present
The previous generation of climate scenarios published in the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014 were known as Representative Concentration Pathways, or RCPs. The RCP scenarios were labeled according to the amount of radiative forcing expected by the end of the century in each case. Radiative forcing is the scientific term for the change in the balance between the Earth’s incoming and outgoing energy. The Fifth Assessment Report focused on four of these scenarios, with RCP2.6 having the least warming and thus being the “best case”.
In the eight years since then, a new generation of scenarios has been developed for the Sixth Assessment Report, referred to as Shared Socioeconomic Pathways, or SSPs. The five main SSP scenarios are also labeled according to radiative forcing, but in addition each has a subtitle that tells a story about an imagined future:
SSP1-1.9 – Sustainability (Taking the Green Road)
SSP1-2.6 – Middle of the Road
SSP2-4.5 – Regional Rivalry (a Rocky Road)
SSP3-7.0 – Inequality (A Road Divided)
SSP5-8.5 – Fossil-Fueled Development (Taking the Highway)
Flaws in climate scenarios
A scenario is only as plausible as the assumptions it makes. Unfortunately, the technology assumptions made in both the RCP and SSP scenarios are not remotely plausible, and as a result they are extremely misleading. If there were even one scenario that made genuinely plausible assumptions, then the others could be useful for comparison. But the lack of any properly plausible one means that, taken together, these scenarios will only cause harm by leading decision-makers and the public badly astray.
First and foremost, all RCP and SSP climate scenarios get technology wrong because they fail to understand the forces that drive technological change, how quickly the shift to new technologies occurs, and how quickly old technologies are abandoned as a result.
Our team at RethinkX has shown that the same pattern of disruption has occurred hundreds of times over the last several thousand years. Again and again, for technologies of all kinds – from cars to carpenter’s nails, from arrowheads to automatic braking systems, from insulin to smartphones – we see that technology adoption follows an s-curve over the course of just 10-20 years. The first phase of the s-curve is characterized by accelerating (or “exponential”) growth, which is driven by reinforcing feedback loops that make the new technology increasingly more competitive while at the same time making the old technology increasingly less competitive.
Unfortunately, the RCP and SSP climate scenarios show no sign that their authors understand technology disruption at all. For example, the “best case” RCP2.6 scenario in the Fifth Assessment Report published in 2014 assumed that less than 5% of global primary energy would come from solar, wind, and geothermal energy combined in the year 2100.
Source: Adapted from Van Vuuren et al., 2011, and IPCC, 2014.
In reality, the exponential trend in the growth of solar and wind power had already been clear for over two decades at the time the Fifth Assessment was published in 2014, and the trend since then has only continued – as shown in the chart below.
(Note that the vertical axis of the chart is logarithmic, increasing by a factor of 10 at each major interval, which means the trajectory is exponential).
On their current trajectory, which has been extraordinarily consistent for over 30 years, solar and wind power will exceed the RCP2.6 assumption for the year 2100 before 2030, 70 years ahead of schedule on an 86-year forecasting timeframe.
This is an egregious error that was entirely avoidable. The energy sector has shown every sign of becoming a textbook example of disruption for more than 15 years, and technology theorists were noticing the signs well before 2014. Indeed, Tony Seba – co-founder of RethinkX – had already published an analysis of the energy disruption in his book Solar Trillions in 2010.
Since 2014, the exponential growth of solar power has become common knowledge, as have similar trajectories for batteries and electric vehicles. It is therefore completely inexcusable that the same mistakes have continued in the new SSP scenarios for the Sixth Assessment Report in 2022. The SSP5-8.5 scenario, for example, is titled “Fossil Fueled Development”. Here is its description:
“This world places increasing faith in competitive markets, innovation and participatory societies to produce rapid technological progress and development of human capital as the path to sustainable development. Global markets are increasingly integrated. There are also strong investments in health, education, and institutions to enhance human and social capital. At the same time, the push for economic and social development is coupled with the exploitation of abundant fossil fuel resources and the adoption of resource and energy intensive lifestyles around the world.”
This logic around “rapid technological progress” is not just wrong, it’s backwards. The faster we make technological progress, the less fossil fuels we will use. The more global markets are integrated and the more human and social capital we have, the faster we will decarbonize.
The SSP3-7.0 scenario contains the same error:
“Technology development is high in the high-tech economy and sectors. The globally connected energy sector diversifies, with investments in both carbon-intensive fuels like coal and unconventional oil, but also low-carbon energy sources.”
Again, the basic premise here is false. Technological progress will result in less fossil fuel development, not more. The collapse of coal demand is already well underway in the wealthy countries of the Global North, and all fossil fuels in all countries will follow suit as clean technologies rapidly disrupt the energy and transportation sectors over the next two decades.
The SSP2-4.5 scenario assumes that, “The world follows a path in which social, economic, and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns.” But the authors of this scenario do not understand what those historical patterns of technological change actually are.
As our research at RethinkX has shown, the pattern throughout history has been an s-curve of rapid technology adoption over the course of just 20 years or less once new technologies become economically competitive with older ones – as is now the case for clean energy, transportation, and food technologies. The data throughout history simply do not support the assumption that the shift to new, clean technologies will be slow and linear between now and the year 2100.
The SSP1-1.9 scenario, “sustainability”, is allegedly the most sustainable, but this too is based on false assumptions – namely that lower material, resource, and energy intensity are necessary for reducing environmental impacts, and that they are compatible with increasing human prosperity. Neither is true. The solution to environmental impacts is not less energy, transportation, and food. That would be like thinking that if your house is on fire, the solution is to extinguish some of the flames. That’s madness. The solution is to put the fire out, which means switching rapidly and completely to clean energy, transportation, and food.
If we want to be truly sustainable, we must have a superabundance of clean energy, clean transportation, and clean (i.e. non-animal-derived) food that slashes our environmental footprint and gives us the means to restore and protect ecological integrity worldwide. Any attempt to mitigate our ecological footprint by reducing economic prosperity would be disastrous because the scale of cutbacks needed to have any significant effect on sustainability would be utterly catastrophic to the global economy and geopolitical stability.
Projections to 2100… seriously?
It is worth stepping back a moment and recognizing that the RCP and SSP scenarios make quantitative projections to the year 2100. This in itself is flatly preposterous.
Five thousand years ago, you could have made a reasonably accurate prediction about what life would be like 80 years in the future. After all, not much changed from one generation to the next. Your children’s lives were likely to be very similar to your parents’ lives.
Five hundred years ago, in the year 1522, it would have been considerably more difficult to make an accurate prediction about life 80 years hence. The invention of the moveable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg 80 years earlier in around 1440 had helped turbocharge the Renaissance, setting the stage for the Scientific Revolution. Life in 1602 was still quite similar to life in 1522, but an explosion in the growth of useful knowledge was laying the groundwork for massive social, economic, political, and technological transformations to come.
A century ago, in 1922, it would have been very hard for anyone to predict with any accuracy what the world 80 years in the future, in 2002, would be like. Nobody could have imagined the role that nuclear weapons or computers or the Internet would play in our lives, for example.
Today, it is absolutely impossible to predict in any detail what the world will be like 80 years from now, around the year 2100. The rate of technological change is so fast now that our team at RethinkX never makes any quantitative forecasts more than 20 years into the future, because to do so is undisciplined in the formal sense. And technological progress is only accelerating.
Although we cannot know what the world will be like in 2100, we can say that it is implausible to presume the conditions and constraints of today will continue to hold. And this is why we can say that all of the RCP and SSP climate scenarios are implausible: they all presume life in 2100 will be more or less the same as today – still governed by material scarcity, regional resource conflicts, food insecurity, demographic transitions, health and education challenges, and even fossil fuel use. None of these makes even the slightest sense in the context of technologies that we fully expect to see from mid-century onward.
So, what happened? Why did the RCP and SSP climate scenarios get technology so wrong?
Anti-technology sentiments in conventional environmental orthodoxy
At least part of the explanation for fundamental errors and misunderstandings around technology we see in the RCP and SSP climate scenarios is that they were developed by a small group of academic authors operating inside an ideological bubble.
One of the features of this ideological orthodoxy is that it holds long-standing anti-technology sentiments dating back over two centuries to the rise of Romanticism and Transcendentalism. On the one hand, the orthodoxy holds that the arc of history ought to be viewed largely through the lens of human behavior and institutions, minimizing or outright rejecting the causal power of technology to shape societies. There even exists a pejorative term, technological determinism, that is used to label and reflexively dismiss any claims that technology has played a key role in steering the course of human affairs across the ages. Yet, at the same time, this orthodoxy holds technology largely to blame for the massive ecological footprint humanity has imposed upon the planet.
It can’t cut both ways. Either technology has enormous causal power, or it doesn’t.
If it does, then that means technology is also the key to transforming our world in positive ways – including achieving genuine sustainability. We don’t see this accurately reflected anywhere in the RCP or SSP climate scenarios because it runs contrary to the anti-technology sentiments of the prevailing orthodoxy.
When you don’t know enough to know you’re being fooled
The climate science community failed to realize the importance of consulting technology experts in the development of climate scenarios. Instead, they made the mistake of relying on conventional forecasts for technologies like solar and wind power from incumbent energy interests such as the International Energy Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This would be a bit like relying on Blockbuster Video to accurately forecast the future of streaming video, or Kodak to forecast the future of digital cameras, or the American Horse & Buggy Association to forecast the future of automobiles.
The charts below show the laughably poor forecasting track record of the IEA and U.S. EIA.
Note that the unreliability of these two ‘authoritative’ sources was already clear when the Fifth Assessment Report was published in 2014. Would you depend on advice in a critical situation from someone who had gotten things wrong over and over again?
More cynically, it’s very difficult to see how the IEA or U.S. EIA making the same “errors” year after year for almost two decades could be an honest mistake. At the same time, it’s very easy to imagine that there are powerful incentives for these incumbents to ignore technological change, or even to deliberately troll others about it.
Regardless, trusting the wrong sources and failing to consult actual technology experts was an inexcusable mistake that the climate science community is unfortunately continuing to make.
Predicting the future is hard
The future is obviously uncertain, and the further ahead we look, the blurrier the picture becomes. At first, it might seem reasonable to err on the side of conservativism – after all, if you don’t know exactly how the world will change in the future, isn’t it best just to assume it won’t change much from the present? The answer is no, but the reason why this logic is flawed is rather subtle.
There are dozens of major dimensions and countless minor ones along which change can occur, all of which move us away from our present condition. The fact that these changes are unpredictable does not imply that the noise will somehow cancel out and leave us close to where we started.
By analogy, imagine assembling a complex machine like a car. If you don’t follow the exact steps in the exact order with the exact parts, you aren’t going to end up with a working car. And if you randomize the assembly process, you’re going to end up with a useless pile of junk. This is why tornadoes don’t spontaneously assemble new cars when they pass through a junkyard. The reason why has to do with entropy: there are almost infinitely more ways to incorrectly assemble things than to correctly assemble them.
This analogy helps show why any movement through a large possibility space is only likely to take you away from your current position. This is why the future will be very different from the present, even though those differences are unpredictable.
So, how should we deal with all the uncertainty of the future? The correct response is indeed to construct multiple scenarios that chart the general trajectory and broad outlines of possible futures based on plausible assumptions about what might change between now and then. The trouble with the RCP and SSP climate scenarios, however, is that none of them make plausible assumptions about technological progress.
Refusing to admit past mistakes only feeds conspiracy theories
The climate science community has made very serious technology forecasting errors in its climate scenarios, but has so far refused to acknowledge and take responsibility for them. This is a losing strategy.
Failure to admit and correct the technology forecasting errors in climate scenarios plays right into the hands of conspiracy theorists, because the longer we refuse to admit we’ve made mistakes, the more it looks like they were deliberate. These mistakes are too large to brush under the rug, and so there is no painless option here. We either admit we were fools, or we look like we are liars.
Admitting our mistakes and taking the heat for it is the right move. The alternative only indulges the worst extremist narratives that claim the scientific community has deliberately inflated the threat of climate change and misrepresented our options for solving it in order to advance an agenda of more taxation and more government control over private industry and individual consumer choices.
The public needs to be able to trust the environmental science community, and they can’t do that until we come clean about how wrong we’ve gotten renewable energy and other technologies in our climate scenarios. The longer we pretend nothing happened, the more our legitimacy will erode in the public sphere at a time when trust of scientific authority is already low in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Getting technology wrong in climate scenarios does real harm
Given the enormous stakes involving trillions of dollars and all of the world’s policymaking, the errors around technology in the RCP and SSP climate scenarios have had serious consequences. They have misled policymakers and the public alike into believing that the only means to solve climate change are punitive – that we must atone for our past environmental sins by sacrificing human prosperity, tightening our belts, and giving up our indulgent personal lifestyles. They have demonized the prosperity of the rich nations of the Global North as unsustainable, and condemned the aspirations of poorer countries of the Global South as unattainable. They have led nations to waste time and resources trying fruitlessly to achieve sustainability through austerity, when this approach is hopelessly counterproductive as I have previously explained.
Austerity cannot solve climate change even in principle, let alone in practice. Prosperity has always been a necessary precondition for solving big problems, both personal and collective, and so it is the only real path to sustainability as well. Technological progress in general will inevitably play an outsized role in bringing the prosperity we need to tackle major challenges to billions worldwide, and specific technologies like solar power and electric vehicles will give us the tools we need to directly reduce emissions and draw down carbon. The IPCC climate scenarios must reflect these facts so that we can all make well-informed decisions about how best to solve climate change together.
Agriculture is at a climate crossroads. Alternative proteins are a global solution.
Source: Good Food Initiative
The math and science are clear.
To have a shot at achieving net-zero emissions by 2050—the universal goal the world needs to hit to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and have a shot at a sustainable future—we must halve emissions by 2030. Alongside transitions in energy and transport, a food system transition is needed to get on that path. Within that food system transition, alternative ways of making meat can chart a new course for agriculture—one defined not only by lower emissions but by greater food security, global health, and resilience.
The world’s climate experts weigh in on food and agriculture
As part of its Sixth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that “the extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments.” Some losses due to climate change are already irreversible, while others are approaching irreversibility. In the face of this escalating crisis, mitigation, adaptation, and innovation must go hand in hand. For our food system, that means significantly and quickly reducing the climate impact of agriculture and finding more sustainable, secure, and just ways of feeding billions of people on a rapidly warming planet.
As the IPCC report lays out, agriculture is both a driver and victim of climate change’s ecological, economic, and social impacts. Today, food systems cause approximately a third of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Our current system is heavily reliant on conventional animal agriculture, which alone is responsible for more than half of those emissions. Emissions from conventional animal agriculture not only increase global temperatures but reduce crop yields, contribute to devastating droughts, and cause even greater instability within an already vulnerable and complex global food system and supply chain.
Alternative proteins as a climate solution, with co-benefits for land, water, global health, and food security
Fortunately, we have options available that can transform our food and agricultural system into one that is both sustainable and resilient. Alternative proteins—including meat made from plants and cultivated from animal cells—reduce emissions caused by our current system while also providing a host of environmental benefits. The IPCC’s draft report on climate change mitigation names plant-based and cultivated meat as transformative solutions that, alongside transitions in the energy and transportation sectors, can significantly reduce emissions. The report explains that not only do alternative proteins emit far less greenhouse gasses compared to conventional meat products, they use less land, water, and soil nutrients and result in less pollution. In other words, alternative proteins are a multi-solver: a climate solution with co-benefits.
Globally, more land is dedicated to animal-based food production than any other purpose. Given the forecasts by agricultural economists that show global meat production and consumption more than doubling by 2050, we are headed for what the World Resource Institute describes as the “global land squeeze”—ever-increasing competition over finite land resources driven by agricultural expansion and the rising demand for meat. With business-as-usual meat production, the basic land math doesn’t pencil out: We will be short by approximately 593 million hectares. In addition to reducing direct emissions, changing how we produce meat could free up three billion hectares of land—a land mass larger than China and India combined and then doubled. That land and the livelihoods it supports could be repurposed for regenerative farming, reforestation, renewable energy production, ecosystem recovery, and more.
Conventional animal agriculture is also responsible for about 30 percent of global agricultural water use. Such use impacts both water quantity and quality for communities worldwide. Animal-based food systems lower water tables, dry floodplains, and cause eutrophication in both freshwater and marine ecosystems, which can harm native species and reduce food sources for rural and coastal communities. In the United States, livestock production causes more than half of soil erosion on agricultural lands and a third of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in freshwater sources. According to the IPCC, “current food system trajectories are leading to biodiversity loss, land and aquatic ecosystem degradation without delivering food security and nutrition.” If these impacts are not mitigated, the environmental impacts of our agricultural system could increase by 50–90 percent by 2050, reaching levels beyond our planetary boundaries.
Ironically, agriculture-driven climate impacts threaten our ability to continue feeding the world, causing an increasingly problematic feedback loop. Droughts and extreme weather reduce arable land and threaten water supplies, while rising temperatures increase the prevalence of heat stress, infectious disease, and vector-borne disease among livestock. Likewise, marine fisheries are threatened by heat, eutrophication, reduced oxygen, toxic algae blooms, and sedimentation. These impacts on agriculture and global food security will become increasingly severe as climate change progresses. Major shifts in how we produce food are needed quickly if we are to stand a chance in halving emissions by 2030 on the path to a net-zero food future by 2050.
GFI’s expertise and insights in action
We’ve come to the proverbial fork-in-the-road moment of our times, and face a choice: If we are to feed, fuel, and future-proof the planet, do we continue down the business-as-usual road or chart a new path via sustainable agriculture?
Recently, GFI urged the authors of the Fifth National Climate Assessment to consider alternative proteins as a key aspect of sustainable agricultural systems. The National Climate Assessment is a congressionally-mandated report that helps the U.S. government “understand, assess, predict, and respond to” climate change. The purpose of the report is to set forth the current state of the science and potential solutions to help inform policymakers. The Fifth National Climate Assessment is currently being drafted by representatives from several federal agencies including USDA and NOAA.
In its written comment on the zero order draft of the Climate Assessment, GFI details how alternative proteins can transform our agricultural system:
Compared to conventional animal products, alternative proteins emit fewer greenhouse gasses. Compared to a quarter pound of conventional beef, the plant-based Beyond Burger generates 85 to 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions and requires 46 percent less energy. Cultivated meat produced using sustainable renewable energy sources reduces global warming impacts by 17 percent, 52 percent, and 85 to 92 percent compared to conventional chicken, pork, and beef, respectively. By switching from conventional animal products to alternative proteins, we can cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 8 eight metric gigatons per year globally.
In our comments, GFI emphasizes that alternative proteins can both mitigate the impact our agricultural system has on the climate and help the system adapt to better withstand the very real impacts of climate change. In other words, alternative proteins are better for the planet and better for agriculture. Alongside other food system innovations and solutions, they can play a starring role in agriculture’s next chapter around the world.
Through timely actions like these, GFI’s expert policy teams around the world are placing alternative proteins on the agendas of governments and agencies working at the intersection of agriculture, climate, biodiversity, and global health. This summer, look for GFI’s first-ever State of Global Policy Report, a comprehensive overview of government policies and programs that are investing in open-access alternative protein R&D, easing the path to market for novel products, and spurring whole new bioeconomies, jobs, and livelihoods. The report itself will bring much-needed transparency and visibility to how governments around the world are accelerating the transition to far more efficient ways of feeding a growing world.
A full draft of the Fifth National Climate Assessment will be published later this year. Interested stakeholders will have the opportunity to provide comments. If we want federal policies that promote climate-forward agriculture, ensure food security, and protect our planet, it is critical that reports like the Fifth National Climate Assessment reflect the realities of our current agricultural system and highlight the role alternative proteins play as a key solution required for a more sustainable, secure, and just food future.
Madeline Cohen REGULATORY ATTORNEY
Madeline Cohen works on regulatory and policy issues affecting cultivated meat and plant-based foods. Areas of expertise: regulatory landscape, domestic policy, and litigation
Sheila Voss VICE PRESIDENT, COMMUNICATIONS
Sheila Voss oversees GFI’s strategic awareness and action campaigns, data-driven storytelling, and communications-related partnerships. Areas of expertise: plant science and sustainability, agricultural education, biodiversity and climate change messaging.
Shira Fischer POLICY PARALEGAL
Shira provides support to GFI’s policy team to level the regulatory playing field for alternative proteins. Areas of expertise: regulatory processes, policy research, project management