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How the climate crisis is accelerating food systems reform

The sector may have been slower than others to respond to climate, but there’s no doubt that things are moving now.

Future Meat Technologies kebabs

Future Meat Technologies, an Israeli startup, can now produce a cultured chicken breast for $7.50. Photo courtesy of Future Meat

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I was chatting recently with a veteran strategy wonk about the world’s stuttering progress toward decarbonization. Electricity generation was an early focus. More recently, the transport sector began to move away from fossil fuels. But what about food and ag? Farm-to-fork emissions are on a par with transport and electricity, said the wonk, yet progress has been lamentably slow in comparison.

It’s true: Food and ag are late to this party. But I increasingly find myself floored by the rate of progress in these sectors. It’s not uniform by any means — in fact, some food systems players are actively resisting reform. Still, the innovation in technologies, strategies and policies is remarkable. Here are three developments — all just from the past week — that speak to the sometimes dizzying pace of change.

The price is (almost) right

A couple of years back, I visited a U.S. startup and saw a nugget of chicken meat the team had grown in the lab. I asked if I could try some. No chance, they said. A plateful would cost several hundred dollars.

This week, Future Meat Technologies, an Israeli startup, announced it can produce a cultured chicken breast for $7.50. That’s many multiples more expensive than the chicken in your local supermarket, but it represents an astonishing reduction in price from even just a few years ago. In a 2013 demo, for instance, scientists showed off a lab-grown burger that cost $325,000. 

It was an "odd demonstration of one view of the future of food," the New York Times wrote at the time. Now the idea is no longer odd, and the future is almost here. Future Meat Technologies just raised $27 million in new funding from a roster of big names that includes Tyson Foods, Archer Daniels Midland and S2G Ventures. The company hopes to start pilot production later this year.

"We remain very optimistic that alternative protein foods will reach price parity and eventually price superiority with animal proteins over the next few years," said Zak Weston at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternative proteins, in response to the announcement.

Why does this matter? Animal products are responsible for an outsized proportion of both food system emissions and the land we devote to agriculture. Shifting some production to a lab potentially could lead to big savings on both fronts.

Carbon neutral, profit positive

Last year, a leading U.S. dairy organization said it would transition the industry to "carbon neutral or better" by 2050. That’s a necessary target, but I found the announcement frustratingly light on specifics. Commitments to change three decades from now don’t mean much without a detailed plan on how to get there.

Well, some details were filled in this week — and they’re encouraging. Using data shared by the industry, the Markets Institute at the World Wildlife Fund looked at the potential impact of emission-reductions options available to dairy farmers today, including feed additives that reduce methane-filled bovine burps and the use of digester technology to produce natural gas from manure. Large dairies, concluded WWF, could reach net-zero emissions within five years and generate a return of almost $2 million per farm in the process.

That’s remarkable potential for an industry that’s responsible for around 2 percent of U.S. emissions. It’s not going to happen without government help, however. Many dairy operators can’t afford the upfront costs of digesters and can’t easily access renewable subsidies for the natural gas the equipment produces. That’s something the new U.S. administration should look at, which brings us to the week’s third development…

Hit the ground running

Rewind to before the presidential primaries. Back then, few environmental advocates would have chosen Joe Biden for president or Tom Vilsack, who led the Department of Agriculture under Barack Obama, as his ag secretary. Neither were deemed hawkish enough on climate.

It’s true that Biden’s record on climate is muted. One of his trademarks as a politician, however, is his ability to sense the mood of his party. And, rIght now, many Democrats are demanding radical climate action. That’s why Biden’s executive order blitz contains several measures that focus on climate, including one that directs Vilsack to begin consultations on how to spread "climate-smart agricultural practices that produce verifiable carbon reductions and sequestrations."

The results of this process could well be this year’s biggest story in sustainable food. As expected, Vilsack received bipartisan support at his confirmation hearing this week. By some analyses, he has $30 billion at his discretion. That’s more than enough to dramatically accelerate the take-up of regenerative agriculture and, if the practices work as hoped, to begin sequestering carbon in U.S. farmland.

I hope that gives a sense of what’s happening in food systems right now. The sector may have been slower than others to respond to climate, but there’s no doubt that things are moving.

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