IN THE NEWS: Ending the age of animal cruelty

shadow

IN THE NEWS: On JAN 29, 2019

Billions of animals die each year for our plates. What if they didn't have to?

You often hear that eating animals is natural. And it is. But not the way we do it.

Industrial animal agriculture relies on engineering broiler chickens that grow almost seven times as quickly as they would naturally. It relies on pumping a majority of all the antibiotics used in the United States into farm animals to stop the infections that overcrowding would otherwise cause. A list like this could go on endlessly, but the point is simple: Industrial animal agriculture is not a natural food system. It is a marvel of modern science.

Although we live in a moment when technology has made animal cruelty possible on a scale never imagined in human history, we also live in a moment when technology may be about to make that same animal cruelty unnecessary. We're getting closer to being able to mimic meat using plant-based ingredients — arguably, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have already done so for ground beef — and grow meat from individual cells. And nothing changes a society's values as quickly as innovations that make a new moral system easy and cheap to adopt.

Bruce Friedrich is the head of the Good Food Institute, which invests in, advises, and advocates for the plant- and cell-based meat industries. That work puts him at the hot center of one of the most exciting and important technological stories of our age: the possible replacement of a cruel, environmentally unsustainable form of food productioncwith a system that's better for the planet, better for animals, better for our health, and better for our souls.

I spoke with Friedrich for my podcast, The Ezra Klein Show. Excerpts of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow.

Ezra Klein

Sixty years ago, could we have had the kind of industrial animal agriculture we have today?

Bruce Friedrich

No. It started with chickens. There was a chicken farmer on the Delmarva Peninsula who got way more chickens than she bargained for. She ordered 100 and got 10,000 or something like that. So she started shoving them into sheds and figured out how to grow more and more chickens. The answer to the question was drugs. Prophylactic antibiotics.

The conditions that farm animals are kept in in confinement is a breeding ground for disease. Massive numbers of them would die. But with antibiotics used prophylactically, so used on animals who are not sick, it allows them to live their conditions that would otherwise be lethal. Then you can cram 100,000 laying hens into a shed. You can cram 50,000 breeder boilers into a shed. You can cram thousands of pigs into a shed.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, about 70 percent of antibiotics are used in farm animals — and it's not to treat farm animals who are sick. It's keeping them from getting sick because of the conditions they're in.

Ezra Klein

There can be a sense that there's something natural about just eating meat, but what we're eating doesn't seem natural to me. It seems like a very strange technological achievement. I know we've been breeding animals forever, and that evolution was doing it before us, but there's a way in which these engineered creatures that can't stand up and can't reproduce don't make sense as animals.

Bruce Friedrich

No. Chickens were created to raise their young and root around in the soil and do all these things they never get to do. Ninety-nine percent of what happens to farm animals is extraordinarily unnatural. At the University of Arkansas, some poultry scientists published a paper and they said broiler chickens today now grow almost seven times as quickly as they would naturally. And they said if a human baby grew as quickly as a broiler chicken, by the time she was 1 year old, she would weigh more than 650 pounds. I mean, imagine that human baby.

Ezra Klein

I got radicalized on this probably six or seven years ago. But even as we talk, I can feel the person I was just before that getting turned off. There's a tendency to make this a moral crusade, but it increasingly seems to me that if there's going to be an answer to this, it'll be technological. I wonder if we won't look back on this era as a strange story where technology enabled terrible, industrial-scale cruelty and then also enabled its end. We have these animals that are basically just pre-meat now, and the work you do seems to be the next step of it, taking the animal out of the meat entirely.

Bruce Friedrich

One thing to say here is it's not intentional cruelty. Surveys show about 45 percent of Americans want to ban slaughterhouses. So it's not cruelty as much as it's apathy. You look at what happened in California and Massachusetts with ballot initiatives to make it illegal to confine animals in cages and crates, and across every demographic, those laws passed overwhelmingly. In California, that passed the same year, 2008, that they banned gay marriage. So this won with the right and the left.

One of the really great things about the technological ability to create meat from plants and to grow meat directly from cells is that what people like about meat is not that a live animal had to die. They like the taste, they like the texture. And these processes [of making plant- and cell-based meat] are so much more efficient — they don't require antibiotics — that we can absolutely scale them up, and they will cost less and use fewer resources as we scale them up. So I think they're the future and there won't be that much resistance because people already prefer not to have slaughterhouses and factory farms.

Ezra Klein

There's a bunch I want to pick up in there, including the question of whether there'll be resistance, because I think there will be. But what you said about cruelty reminds me of Kate Manne's book Down Girl, which is a book about misogyny. One of the points she makes, which I found really helpful for thinking about a lot of different things, is we tend to apply terms like misogyny to people's individual motivations, and so if you can't prove they personally hate women, then there's no misogyny. She frames misogyny as a social force, as an environment women experience, as something that affects their lives.

I think there's something similar here with cruelty. Part of the difficulty of this conversation is that when you talk about the cruelty in our current system, people experience it as an indictment of their choices, and reject it for that reason. But when I talk about the cruelty here, what I'm saying is that the reality is cruel to the animals that experience it. It feels like a language problem that harms a lot of our discussions. We almost need a tense where we can make clear we're describing, like, an outcome not a motivation.

Bruce Friedrich

If people stop listening, that's not very helpful. For the Good Food Institute in particular, we have really good relationships with Tyson Foods, with Smithfield Foods, with Purdue, with huge chicken conglomerates and meat companies. It's helpful to recognize that the people who run those companies want to do something noble. They want to feed the world high-quality protein — that's their goal. The cruel treatment of animals is nobody's motivation. It's an ancillary effect of our food system.

It's interesting to see these companies reconstituting themselves as protein companies and excited to move in this direction because it's a more efficient way of producing meat, so it will be more profitable over time, but also excited because human beings want to be part of doing good in the world and this is a way to do even more good in the world.

Ezra Klein

One of the places where it does seem to me that there'll be resistance is around the idea of "naturalness." A lot of these plant-based or cell-based meats seem like Frankenfood to people. Michael Pollan has that line to eat food that your grandmother would recognize. How do you think about getting over that?

Bruce Friedrich

Look at what happened with plant-based milk. Fifteen or 20 years ago, you couldn't find plant-based milk in grocery stores. You couldn't find it in coffee shops. If you did track down a carton of the stuff, it tasted like liquefied paste. It's gone from essentially 0 percent of the market to 13 percent of the market. Plant-based meat, right now, is about a third of 1 percent of the market. So even just replicating what has happened with plant-based milk takes us from about $700 million to $26 billion, and that's without accounting for market growth.

I also think you may be buying into the foodie myth. Foodies care a lot about what you're talking about now. But when researchers do weighted analyses, it's really just price, taste, and convenience that even break zero. That's the stuff that really matters. So I'm extraordinarily bullish on the idea of taking legumes and processing them and turning them into plant-based meat. It will be a healthier product. It will be a significantly less resource-intensive product, and so it'll be a less expensive product. If we can replicate what people like about meat, which is the taste, the texture, and the fact that it's inexpensive, but make it even less expensive, we will have a massive shift over.

And then for the people who don't shift to plant-based for the reasons you just enumerated, then we have meat grown directly from cells. So then you would have to make the argument that what people like about meat is that it's an animal that was grown and slaughtered. But people don't like the way that chickens and pigs and other animals are raised and slaughtered today. The meat that's grown directly from cells doesn't have antibiotic residues. It doesn't have any of the Campylobacter or other food pathogens. It's actually pure meat.

Ezra Klein

What is the year that you think there will be cell-grown meat in a grocery store that I can buy?

Bruce Friedrich

Probably two to five years away. That could be accelerated, though. If governments want to meet their obligations under the Paris climate agreement, or they look at antibiotic [resistance], which is the end of medicine as we know it, they should be sinking billions of dollars into plant-based and clean-meat R&D. If they do, it could happen a lot more quickly.

Ezra Klein

Give me your conservative case for what is available to me in a supermarket in 30 years.

Bruce Friedrich

There's the optimistic case, which is that the only meat in the grocery store is either plant-based meat, clean meat, or regenerative agriculture with truly high-welfare animals. That's optimistic, but it's also entirely doable. We just have to stay on our current trajectory. Plant-based meat sales were up 23 percent year on year in the most recent statistics. If you continue to grow at 20 percent per year, in 30 years, it's 100 percent plant-based. And it could happen a lot more quickly than that. So I think both the optimistic but also realistic trajectory is in 30 years we're just not making meat from animals anymore.

Look at what has happened with our phones: We went very, very quickly from landlines to cell phones. Look at what's happened with cameras: We went from film to digital cameras pretty quickly. Look back further, the transition from horse and buggy to automobiles happened very, very quickly.

Ezra Klein

But let's say you're listening to this and saying, "There's no way you're going to get rid of most meat." Think of this from a more consumerist perspective. What will be available? Can I get lab-grown shrimp?

Bruce Friedrich

But wait a minute, why not? Meat is an extraordinarily inefficient commodity. The most efficient meat is chicken and it takes nine calories into a chicken to get one calorie back out in the form of that animal's flesh. Nine calories in, one calorie out. So that's nine times as much land, nine times as much water, nine times the pesticides and herbicides, and then you're shipping those crops to a feed mill, you're operating the feed mill, you're shipping the feed to the farm, you're operating a farm, shipping the animals to the slaughterhouse, you're operating in a slaughterhouse. This is an inefficient and expensive system.

Ezra Klein

That's actually the part I'm trying to get you to draw the picture of, though. I would say in the last three or four years, we got pretty good plant-based burgers. I'm a big fan of the Beyond Meat Burger. The Impossible Burger. That stuff is a real jump forward. The thing that I don't know how to rate is in 10 years, what do I have access to as a consumer? What about in 20 years? Right now, I can get burgers, but I'd say there's no good vegan bacon. It does not exist. Can I get good vegan bacon in 10 years?

Bruce Friedrich

I think you'll be able to get pretty much anything in 10 years. The more our scientists dive into the idea of growing meat from cells, the more enthusiastic they get about the possibility of scaling it up. And if we can scale it up with anything, we can scale it up with everything.

Ezra Klein

You've made the point a couple of times that, given the stated environmental and health goals of our government and a lot of peer nation governments, if you began seeing year-on-year investments of $5 billion or $10 billion into basic research in this space, it would accelerate progress a lot. But the political economy of that would be very hard. The meat producers might think it's fine for these individual companies to be doing their work, but if the state got behind it, that would be different, How do you think about that state funding question?

Bruce Friedrich

With all of the renewable energies, there's a base of scientific research from which private industry is building. With plant-based meat and cell-based meat, there's really close to nothing in terms of a base of scientific research. All the work that's happening at Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods or these other companies is proprietary.

So not that much money could do a tremendous amount of good to accelerate these technologies. It's our legislative priority No. 1. Because it's so new it's not happening yet, but I'm super optimistic about our capacity to make this happen. We're meeting with enthusiasm in the US government. We've already gotten the [National] Institute of Food and Agriculture to do a call for proposals focused on plant-based meat and cell-based meat.

Ezra Klein

Tell me a bit about the scientific challenges here, recognizing that I'm someone who did not do great in science classes. What are the real obstacles to scaling in this space?

Bruce Friedrich

When I started working on the Good Food Institute three years ago, I assumed the cell-based meat would probably be the tougher scientific nut to crack. It turns out that's not true. The reason is that therapeutic tissue engineering for medicine cross-applies to food. What we assumed to be true three years ago was you had cell lines that you had to cause to multiply and grow, you had scaffolds that they would multiply and grow on as you fed them, and then you have to put them into bioreactors and make the bioreactor bigger and bigger. All of that is still true. Nothing about the science of cell-based meat has changed significantly.

But up until Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, plant-based meat was basically taking soy or wheat — and really the waste products of oil and wheat carbohydrates — and shoving it through an extruder, which is a decades-old technology. Now they're innovating.

Bill Gates points out that the vast majority of plants have not been tried for their capacity to turn them into plant-based meat. Soy and wheat was really just an accident of, "There's all this protein, we don't know what to do with it, so let's cram it together and make vegetarians eat it." Pea is all the rage right now. You've got the pea milks and pea proteins. But peas was just because Ethan Brown stumbled on some research at the University of Missouri and turned it into a company. Now there are people experimenting with oats, with lupin, with canola, with garbanzo beans.

This is one of the reasons we're so excited about doing more and more of this research. GFI just got $3 million for grants focused on plant-based meat and cell-based meat R&D, and that's basically doubling the amount of open access research that has been done in all of human history in these fields.

Ezra Klein

What is cell-based meat better at than plant-based meat? Long term, do we need both, or will one just eat the other?

Bruce Friedrich

Plant-based will still be more efficient, most likely. And most likely, the scientists will be able to bio-mimic everything about meat that people like. So that would cause you, and that does cause [Impossible Foods CEO] Pat Brown to say, plant-based is absolutely going to win.

In my experience, there are a lot of people, like the people you mentioned, who just want meat from an animal. They will be, I'm convinced, fine with meat as long as it's real meat, even if it is grown in essentially a meat brewery. If we can give them meat that is more pure, more clean, costs less, requires fewer resources, and doesn't have the antibiotics, then I suspect it'll be roughly half [the market] or even more.

Ezra Klein

Let me ask you about humane meat. I get a lot of emails from people who agree that the suffering we inflict on animals in confined-animal feeding operations is wrong, but they say, "Look, I hunt my own meat," or, "My uncle has a ranch where the cows are treated well." Is it possible that over this same period of time, there are technological advances that allow the meat industry to give people the amount of meat they want to eat, at prices they can afford, with practices that a reasonable observer would consider humane?

Bruce Friedrich

No, I don't think so. First, there's not enough land. There aren't enough resources. Literally nobody in the regenerative movement thinks that's possible. If you talk with people like Michael Pollan or Joel Salatin and other people that are the icons of this movement, they say, "No, people need to eat a lot less meat." Less meat, better meat, is basically their mantra.

And then it would just cost so much more to treat animals well. One of the things about intensive farming of animals is it's cheap. That's why we do it. So in the world that I envision, where in 30 years the vast majority of meat is plant-based meat or cell-based meat, I think there could be more regenerative agriculture then there is now, but that's because regenerative agriculture right now is just a small fraction of the overall meat industry.

Ezra Klein

It sounds like this is about which trade-off we're most willing to make. We can have the industrial agriculture system we have now, with all the meat we have now, but there's this externality of enormous cruelty and terrible environmental damage. We can have regenerative agriculture, but we're going to have to eat a lot less meat because of the price and the land use and so on. We can have plant-based and cell-based, assuming the scientific hurdles are cleared, but then we have to get over the idea that it's made in a brewery.

That's the landscape?

Bruce Friedrich

I think that's right. If you look at what people eat on and why people eat it, they eat food because it tastes great and it's reasonably priced and it's convenient; 100 percent of people take those three things into account. The meat industry is limited by how far you can get with an animal, whereas with plant-based, they can continue to tweak and tweak and tweak until people actually prefer it, and because it's so much more efficient, it's going to cost less, and then the market takes over.

Read the full article...

 
Make a difference for animals...

www.animalsaustralia.org