Is there a single topic that excites foodies more these days than the fake meat debate?
The latest flashpoint is an IPES report on “Protein Policy”. Its stated goal is to encourage a less polarized conversation about the future of meat and the place of protein in the food system. But ultimately, the report paints the world of “alternative proteins” — including plant-based meat products like Impossible and Beyond, as well as the emerging science and industry of cell-cultured meat — as useless at best. and an obstacle to progress in the food system at worst. The food media lined up uncritically in support of this conclusion, with Forbes explaining “Why ‘Alt Protein’ won’t save the planet”, the author of the IPES report stating that “Fake meat won’t solve the climate crisis ” in Civil Eats, and Food Tank involving new protein technology is a “false promise”.
On the contrary, the debate seems more polarized today than ten years ago. The concept of plant-based meat is relatively simple: sell a tasty equivalent to conventional meat that appeals to carnivores and vegans alike without harming animals or the planet as much as conventional animal agriculture. The idea has already appealed to food writing luminaries like Mark Bittman, who wrote in 2012 that alternative proteins were preferable to factory-farmed meat, especially in mass-consumption spaces like fast food. On more high-tech and speculative cell culture products, Bittman was more ambivalent, opting for a wait-and-see approach to the viability of the technology.
Flash forward to today and alternative proteins seem to be progressing as expected. Herbal products are experiencing rapid market growth. Many studies have demonstrated their relative environmental benefits, especially when compared to conventional meat production. The science of cell-cultured meat has also continued to advance, buoyed by an influx of recent investment, though big questions remain about its long-term viability as a consumer product.
This success, however, has now drawn the ire of thought leaders and academics, including Bittman himself, who seems to have completely changed his mind about alternative proteins and their promises. The critique by countless food writers tends to revolve around a core set of claims about the environmental and health impacts of these technologies, as well as their place in the political economy of food. food and agriculture. As critics tirelessly point out, alternative proteins are not a silver bullet to many problems in the global food system.
We write this as two researchers who support the alternative protein business, for a myriad of environmental, ethical and public health reasons. But we’ve also long argued that technology isn’t and can’t be a magic bullet. In our experience, this is also the position of the vast majority of alternative protein advocates.
Critics can certainly find some examples of hyperbolic solutionism and silver bullets in alternative protein circles. Reports that predict the impending replacement of animal protein with plant- and cell-culture alternatives are often aimed at investors and likely intended to generate public interest. But these are outliers. The most serious analysis of the potential shift to alternative proteins is modest and incremental, even among some of the biggest boosters in the industry.
The most salient point raised by critics of alternative proteins is that the technology’s current trajectory does little to challenge the broader political, economic, and social dynamics of the food system. Technological innovations do not address corporate concentration, the plight of small-scale farmers or workers in the food system, or inequitable access to nutritious food.
This is undoubtedly true, but it is also not at all clear how the development of alternative proteins hinders these goals. Some critics of alternative proteins warn that, given how big incumbent food companies are investing in the sector, it risks making these trends even worse. Again, we see no clear evidence behind this claim. Many proponents of alternative proteins have also been strong advocates for food system policy reform. Collaboration with incumbent industry certainly entails risks of co-optation, but complete detachment entails risks of irrelevance.
Critics also insist that investments in alternative proteins – around US$5 billion in 2021 alone and more than US$11 billion since 2010 – should be redirected to promote more holistic food system solutions. However, it is unclear how these funds, which come primarily from private sector actors outside the food industry, could or would be invested in other approaches to food system change. More likely, it is capital that would be allocated to entirely different industries.
The IPES report, however, goes even further by raising doubts about the value of public funding of research into alternative proteins. Guided by the precautionary principle, he suggests that channeling public funds into alternative proteins “risks giving protein companies more power to set the terms of the debate.” Not only does opposition to public STEM research border on technophobia, it also misses the point that public investment might offer the best path to move alternative protein production away from corporate capture and into the mainstream. service of the public good. And, at this point, public funding for protein alternatives is miniscule, well below the level of funding that already goes to the kind of community-based and agroecological alternatives that IPES champions (although both are peanuts compared to public investment in conventional approaches).
On the contrary, by presenting investment in new technologies and progressive agricultural policy as contradictory, this framing misses the fact that the two can coexist. Take the example of the Netherlands, which recently invested 60 million euros in the creation of a center for research and commercialization of cellular agriculture shortly after investing 25 billion euros in a program of transition of farmers that will reduce the country’s herd due to environmental concerns.
The bigger problem, however, is that the solutions offered by some of the most vocal critics of alternative proteins lean towards their own form of miracle thinking. The answer to the problems in our food system, they insist, is agroecology and various forms of regenerative meat production. To its credit, the IPES cautions against this oversimplification, although that caveat is buried deep in its report. But while these other approaches may indeed have their merits, their large-scale viability also raises big questions, including labor costs, the climate implications of land-use change, and the dramatic transformation of consumption habits, food costs and social relations that would be necessary in the context of an agroecological or disindustrial shift. These critics also continue to overlook animal welfare considerations, which often go unmentioned or are simply assumed to be addressed by small-scale, diversified agriculture (which is not the case), and which arguably remains the biggest win for alternative proteins.
Basically, everyone in the “fake meat” debates agrees that the stakes in the food system are considerable. But if we really want to depolarize the conversation, it’s time to understand what alternative proteins might bring to the table, the limitations of low-tech alternatives, and the policies and politics we might agree to, even if we agree to disagree about where our burgers come from. After all, there is no magic recipe for health and durability.
This is an opinion editorial submitted by Jan Dutkiewicz and Garrett Broad.
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Photo courtesy of Milada Vigerova, Unsplash