• Aron Penczu

The Revolution will be Fermented

Moving to plant-based diets remains one of the single most effective paths we could follow when transitioning to a greener society. From smallholder farming and meat taxes to producing cultured meat, Aron Penczu takes an in-depth look at the future of the meat industry for IFLA! issue 5. He argues that transformation is possible, but that it demands pragmatic, decisive action.

Illustration by Joey Yu

Defenders of meat-eating sometimes argue that the real problem is ‘intensive’ farming – industrial factory-farm based production – and suggest shifting to pasture-fed, ethically produced meat and dairy. Few explain that to do so without reducing our meat consumption would require several new planets worth of land. The fantastic inefficiency of ‘extensively’ farming animals, as George Monbiot has argued eloquently in the Guardian,[1] renders it worse, even, than factory farming. Extensive livestock farming has a higher ecological cost per unit of food by almost every metric, including water use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, and phosphorus and nitrate pollution.

Globally, livestock agriculture accounts for half our total land use, and four fifths of our agricultural land; yet it provides less than a fifth of our calories. Without animal products we could feed the world while reducing global farmland use by more than 75%. Incredibly, this would return to nature an area as large as the US, China, Australia, and the EU combined.

Because this freed-up land could then be used to store carbon, the ‘opportunity cost’ of meat production is enormous, and causes its true carbon footprint to skyrocket. A kilogram of beef protein has a carbon cost of 1250 kg: roughly equivalent to carbon released when heating an average European home for a year. That is 73 times the carbon cost of sourcing the same protein directly from plants.

These statistics, published in Nature and Science over the past few years, reinforce the existing consensus that we must cut our meat and dairy consumption. Though a meat tax will likely remain political anathema for years, this reduction could be achieved incrementally with softer policies. Even limited changes could have outsize impacts: cutting consumption of animal products in half by avoiding the most polluting producers would achieve three quarters of the emissions reductions achieved by going fully plant-based.

Illustration by Joey Yu

If the UK switched entirely to a plant-based diet, meanwhile, the land now used for pasture and feedstock would absorb 150 million tons of CO2 annually – over 40% of current annual emissions. Once we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit of decarbonising our energy supply, nothing offers comparable reductions with regards to climate impact. Aviation will not be decarbonised in our lifetimes,[2] and other areas – heating homes, generating electricity – will take decades of investment. We can, however, begin cutting meat from our diets today.

Environmental consciousness is percolating into new segments of society, and increasingly affecting business decisions

Competition will be one major driver of the shift toward plant-based diets. Environmental consciousness is percolating into new segments of society, and increasingly affecting business decisions: investment firm BlackRock’s recent advice against investing in coal is a case in point. According to Sainsbury’s analysis of 2019 consumer spending habits, one in 8 Britons is vegetarian, and by 2025 that number will double, while another half of the population identify as flexitarian. For multinational corporations, the enormous profits on offer matter far more than ethical exigencies.

Moreover, while current plant-based alternatives can rarely compete with the foods they replace on both taste and price, the next generation of products promise to be indistinguishable at the molecular level. ‘Clean’ or ‘cultured’ meat is already here, though prohibitively expensive to most consumers. Returns on scale and tech-driven increases in efficiency could soon render it commercially viable. One think tank, RethinkX, even predicts the collapse of the US dairy and cattle industry by 2030. The fundamental technology enabling this transition, they suggest, will be the programming of micro-organisms such as yeast and bacteria to produce complex organic molecules. 

‘Precision fermentation’ is already the source not only of Quorn, insulin taken by diabetics, virtually all our vitamin C, and the heme protein that gives leading burger alternatives their meaty taste. Dozens of companies are now using this method to produce everything from starch for pasta and crisps, to proteins for ice cream and egg analogues, collagen scaffold for clean meat, and fats for sustainable palm oil.

Precision fermentation of complex organic molecules has dropped in cost from $1 million per kg in 2000 to $100 today. RethinkX argue that existing technologies will push that cost under $10 by 2025. By 2030, they claim, proteins produced with this process will be five times cheaper than animal equivalents. To ‘disrupt the cow’, precision fermentation need only replicate about 3% of the milk bottle – the key proteins. ‘Industrial cattle farming industry,’ RethinkX predict, ‘will collapse long before we see modern technologies produce the “perfect” cellular steak at a competitive price.’

Between them, the commercial opportunity and the ethical imperative ought eventually to render animal-based foods expensive delicacies at best, like Wagyu beef today.

The genuine difficulties associated with precision fermentation, including that of separating molecules from the bacteria or fungi that produce them, are easy to gloss over. It’s also easy to overestimate the scale of the shift in attitudes so far: globally, plant-based alternatives account for less than 1% of the $1.8 trillion meat market. Growing affluence in developing nations continues to drive year-on-year increases in demand for animal meat, which has not yet peaked. But this techno-utopian vision of the future of food is still compelling. Between them, the commercial opportunity and the ethical imperative ought eventually to render animal-based foods expensive delicacies at best, like Wagyu beef today. If clean meat and dairy products can be produced at a fraction of the cost – financial, ethical, and environmental – of their equivalents, it should become easy to eliminate animals from our diet, and to extend to cows, pigs, and chickens the concern we routinely show for wild animals and domestic pets. What’s still uncertain is the pace of change.

Infographic by Matthew Lewis

Both civil society and the government have a clear role to play in encouraging the shift towards sustainable diets. Pragmatic, incremental policies within reach include pushing for plant-based options to be available without special request for every public sector meal (30% of meals served), as is already the case in Portugal. Mandating better data collection around the costs of animal food production, both directly and with regards to carbon opportunity costs, could pave the way for an eventual meat tax that reflects the real costs of rearing animals.

Since red meat has been linked to cancer and plant products generally contain far less saturated fat than their animal equivalents, the dietary shift will also deliver a host of so-called ‘co-benefits’. Longer life expectancies, better health, and lower healthcare bills for taxpayers ought to be emphasised, as Dr Carmichael pointed out in his recent report for the CCC UK,[3] because they’ll be visible long before the benefits of decarbonisation themselves. This report is notable for its debt to the teachings of behavioural economics, and its savvy navigation of the complex politics of meat-eating. 

Ours is a transitional moment, perhaps the most important in the history of animal consumption.

Ours is a transitional moment, perhaps the most important in the history of humans-eating-animals. We slaughter more land animals than ever before – 50 billion every year, most of whom live tragically short lives of needless suffering – but there’s a real possibility of ending factory farming in our lifetimes. The next generation of activists must blend idealism with pragmatism, learning from the successes and failures of past movements, as well as the (often vegan) scientists and entrepreneurs leading the plant-based revolution. Rather than confrontational tactics which risk alienating meat-eaters, they seek to offer better products with wide appeal, and frame behavioural changes as easy, painless, and attractive.

The moral imperative is clear. The Earth’s population is projected to grow by 25% – an additional two billion people – in the next three decades. Massively reducing the amount of meat and dairy in our diets is the only way to feed everyone, reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture, and return land to nature that is desperately needed to protect ecosystems at risk, while offsetting our emissions. 

1 Spectre at the Feast, 2019.

2 For a 2 minute explainer, see: www.tyndall.ac.uk/ideas-and-insights/aviation-shipping

3 The Committee on Climate for the UK gives independent advice to government on building a low-carbon economy and preparing for climate change.

With thanks to Josh Flack for additional information on cultured meat

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