THE NEW AGRARIAN REVOLUTION IS JUST GETTING UNDERWAY, AND PERFECTLY TICKS ALL THE BOXES FOR TODAY’S ZEITGEIST. AT THE HEART OF THIS CHANGE IS AN AWAKENING TO THE ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE CAUSED BY OUR FOOD SUPPLY AND CONCERNS AROUND OUR HEALTH AND FUTURE FOOD SECURITY. A NEW AND GROWING GENERATION OF CONSUMERS HAS BEEN PITTED AGAINST THE OLD GUARD OF THOSE STILL ENGAGED IN OBSOLETE FARMING PRACTICES AND THEIR ILL-INFORMED ALLIES.
Unsurprisingly, these groups are particularly powerful in places where industrial animal farming is highly concentrated – the US, China, Brazil, Denmark, France and Holland – and it is fair to say that they are today’s version of the Luddites.
Their support is weakening, thanks to societal shifts in attitudes to food supplies, the environment, animal cruelty and human health. But they represent a real obstacle to the swift adoption of the innovations that are necessary to effect radical change, and thereby to the protection of the environment, the reduction in cruelty to animals, the safeguarding of food supplies and most importantly, the promotion of human health. Yuval Noah Harari, the celebrated Israeli historian and author of the book Homo Deus, has written that animal farming is ‘the worst crime in history’. And yet it persists; at any time there are about 100 billion farmed animals alive on the planet, about 13 times the number of humans. Americans alone each eat an average of 21,000 entire animals in their lifespans, according to the excellent Jonathan Safran Foer.
The Agro-Luddites, generally representing a small but vocal percentage of countries’ populations, have several weapons at their disposal. They can – and they do – advance the narrative of the ‘need to preserve jobs and the old way of life’, but then so did horse carriage drivers in the 1890s, when the automobile came along. They can lobby regulators to slow the progress of cultured foods to the market. They can engender fear in consumers by suggesting that cultivated proteins are somehow ‘Franken-engineered’, and they can mobilise support for anti-progress candidates in the political arena. They can also – as they have been seen to do – impugn the rapidly growing plant-based alternative meat and dairy product sector by suggesting that it represents ‘fakeness’, when it is nothing of the sort.
The intellectual arguments, however, rest with the good guys. Here I will group those arguments into seven key reasons for advancing the New Agrarian Revolution.
First, we live in a world where human health is directly threatened by current farming and livestock rearing methods. The Covid-19 pandemic is just the latest and most severe iteration of a lethal zoonotic disease. These animal-to-human transmissions of disease, both viral and bacterial, will continue to pose a real threat to global health unless we significantly change the way that proteins enter the food supply.
Second, there can be no doubt that climate change is a reality, and that outdated agricultural practices, specifically the rearing of farm animals are a major contributor to the Earth’s warming. A huge reduction in harmful greenhouse gas emissions would occur if farming practices were to change radically. This fact alone should be enough to convince people of the merits of new ways of producing protein.
Third, the industrial farming of animals and their products (e.g. chicken’s eggs or cow’s milk) is almost always cruel at best and abhorrent at worst. Many people are unaware that the food they eat is quite often the result of practices that would disgust them if they were better informed. To this end, clean meat companies, such as Aleph Farms, which has recently opened a visitor centre, have made transparency a focus of the new industry. There will no longer be the need to disassociate the meat product from the actual animal using clever marketing tricks and misshapen designs (such as nuggets and drummers). The majority of people will, for the first time, have a good answer to the question: ‘do you truly know where the meat you eat comes from?’
Fourth, the damage to land used in existing agriculture, which contributes to 80 per cent of global deforestation, and the extent of land use, can and will be reversed by the new production methods that are coming down the line. About 99 per cent of land currently used to rear animals could be released back for other use, making space for housing, rewilding or recreation.
Fifth, water use for animal production is enormous – as shown in the table to the right. In a world where the viability of entire countries’ is threatened by the absence of reliable water supply, the New Agrarian Revolution will dramatically reduce the consumption of our most important but finite resource.
Sixth, the ‘clean’ quality of protein production, and the introduction of healthy supplementation into it, will vastly improve nutritional standards and reduce unwanted and harmful by-products of current food production. This includes faecal matter in many meats; microplastics, mercury and cadmium in fish; and waste such as viscera, bones and tails.
Seventh, the high-tech factories and laboratories of the coming revolution will need workers to turn out clean foods and other products. The vast sectors of employment thus created will more than compensate for the jobs inevitably lost on traditional farms.
Water used to produce one kilogram of meat from livestock. Source: Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
In any case, existing jobs in the supply chain will likely remain, and vegetables, cereals and plants will continue to be grown (although in varying amounts), so farms will persist; just in different forms.
The bucolic narrative that the Agro-Luddite lobby promotes is an unrealistic marketing ploy which falsely romanticises contemporary farming. Two myths in particular need debunking. First, far from being dominated by small animal farms, the industry has seen huge consolidation, and therefore concentration, of animal production in the hands of a small number of large businesses. In 1967 there were 9,627 slaughterhouses in the US, compared with just 1,100 today. According to Bloomberg, of those, just 215 supply the US with 85 per cent of its meat. Agriculture is already big business, and rallying against innovation of the type that clean meat offers won’t change that. Second, the same businesses that rail against the use of new science as ‘unnatural’ use a huge amount of science in their current agricultural practices. The ‘natural’, ‘living off the fat of the land’ narrative advanced by the traditional meat industry could not be further from the truth.
These seven virtues (a Harvard study suggests that there are 90 such reasons, but I am sticking with the biblical allegory) are of such potency that they represent, alongside healthcare and climate change, one of the key pillars of the new economy that will define our decade, and therefore the most important investment opportunities of our time.
In later pages in this book, I will outline those opportunities, but for now I turn to the reasons why we must, as a species, fully embrace the change that is coming, nurture it and shift our consumption patterns. We will end up healthier, the world will be healthier and safer, and future generations will applaud us.
Graph reproduced from Tuomisto and Mattos, ‘Environmental impacts of cultured meat production’ (2011) 45:14 Environmental Science & Technology, courtesy of the American Chemical Society.
PUBLIC HEALTH WILL IMPROVE IN AN AGE OF EXPANDED LONGEVITY
It is thought that humans, first as hunter-gatherers, and then as farmers, have been eating meat for 2.6 million years. Latterly, the process of farming animals and plants has become industrialised, and this evolution into ‘mass production’ methods of farming animals has had direct consequences on human health.
There are multiple reasons to cheer on the New Agrarian Revolution in respect of human health. The most obvious and immediate one relates to the zoonotic diseases that have ravaged the world, including the most recent and current Covid-19 crisis, which is believed to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China. The transmission of novel disease as a result of unsafe farming and wildlife consumption in developing nations has been shown to be disastrous for the health and economies of almost all nations.
Closing these types of markets, banning the consumption of exotic wildlife and better monitoring intensive farming methods in countries including China, and many others besides, would be a step in the right direction. This might be achievable given the reach, for instance, of the Chinese state, and the horrors that these cultural habits have imposed on us all, but it would merely be one step.
It takes only one person, from any part of the world, to eat an infected bat or pangolin; just one farm to harbor a swine fever; just a single flight to bring infected people from one geography to another, and we would have the basis of another pandemic.
There is currently no safe way to commercially farm or husband animals, but safety can be and is engineered into plant and cell-based products. With health safety and food safety key concerns for today’s generation of consumers, clean food will not be a niche food category. It is projected to represent the bulk of protein consumption within 30 years. Cows, pigs, sheep and chickens will still exist, but they will, in my opinion, be ‘hobby’ animals, and only eaten by an affluent few.
Engineered plant and cellular foods, ranging from all the principal meat categories to fish, dairy and possibly novel proteins, will have replaced ‘traditional’ sources of food, and they will come to be cheaper within the next fifteen years.
From a health perspective, this shift towards clean foods will represent a huge leap forward from current methods.
Clean foods will radically reduce the incidence of harmful viruses entering the human population. The way we currently farm swine, for example, creates the conditions for incredibly deadly avian flus to enter the human population. Pigs become the perfect incubator for the genetic exchange to take place between human and avian flus which would otherwise find the leap into humans difficult. Keeping chickens and pigs in proximity is therefore a ticking time bomb. In fact, this is most likely what happened with the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 which probably originated on a farm in Arkansas.
Antibiotic and hormone use in animals will be eliminated. Antibiotic use in farmed animals is estimated to be four times that of human consumption. If this usage is not curbed, there is a significant risk that the next pandemic could be microbial in nature, rather than viral, and that the death toll caused by a new superbug could be even worse than Covid-19. By eliminating antibiotic and hormone use we will eliminate swine fever, along with all other zoonotic diseases.
The incidence of E. coli and botulism will be eliminated in the animal food chain due to lack of faecal contamination. Furthermore, animal diseases caused by mistreatment and transmitted to humans, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob (a human variant of mad cow disease), will be eliminated.
Engineered food products, both those that are here now and those that are coming down the pike, can be made to taste better, have zero impurities, generate no waste, can be supplemented to achieve superior nutrition, have cholesterol removed, and will have longer shelf lives than traditional meat and fish products. Additionally, because production of fish products can and likely will be inland, the constant threat posed by flooding, natural disasters and contamination from, for instance, oil spills to fishing grounds, will also be eliminated.
Cultured poultry meat experiences negligible bacterial growth after 48 hours, compared to conventional and organic poultry. Reproduced courtesy of Memphis Meats.
The risk of famine will likely be significantly reduced, if not eliminated. The vagaries of the weather, the effect of climate change and the need to produce vast amounts of crops to feed animals – which are inefficient convertors of protein into meat, producing only thirty calories for every hundred a person would get if they ate the crop directly – will be vastly lessened in their negative effects.
Cultivated meat, insofar as it is concerned with the hyper specialised scientific control of optimal conditions for growing food is in this respect, a successor to innovations like hydroponic farming. The amount of science in use in our agriculture industries is already significant; the New Agrarian Revolution simply marks the introduction of radically better science. Science which can improve food security while solving the problems created by our increased demand for animal proteins.
One such example is in the area of food processing. New science can eliminate substances used in meat processing (nitrites etc.) and with that the release of harmful compounds when cooking ‘traditional’ red meats at high temperatures. This in turn, could reduce the incidence of colon cancer and heart disease by a signifi...