“Updating the way we produce meat will help prevent pandemics, protect public health, and might even prevent the next Great Depression.”
As a scientist and a human being, I’ve been distraught for months over the unnecessary suffering and death caused by the widespread irrational response to Covid-19. But as an engineer, I’ve despaired that we’re doing nothing to prevent the next deadly pandemic and accompanying economic destruction.
Unfortunately, our current food system all but guarantees another devastating outbreak. Both farmed domestic animals and caged wild animals have created the perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases. We’ve seen this from the 1918-19 “Spanish” flu, which started on a farm in Kansas and killed tens of millions, to SARS, MERS, and Covid-19. As hard as it is to imagine, all indications are that the next one could be far worse.
To prevent the next leap from animals to humans, we must completely eliminate high-risk animal-human interfaces. Specifically, we must abolish factory farms and wet markets.
Yes, I know. Every news cycle brings another cry of “This makes it clear everyone needs to give up meat!” Yet demand for meat continues to grow. As a society, we have proven willing not only to slaughter animals but also to sacrifice workers for “essential” meat.
But the choice isn’t chicken or chickpeas. There is a solution today that allows us to have our meat and morals, too: remove inherently inefficient and infectious animals from meat production. It really is that simple to prevent the next Great Depression.
Better meat production is straightforward: use only clean facilities to make meat directly, either from plants or cells. A new generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs is doing just that by developing plant-based and cultivated meat burgers, sausages, and nuggets. We can already enjoy some of these new products at restaurants like Burger King and Dunkin’, or pick up a pack from our local meat aisle. With relatively minimal effort, we can all enjoy animal-free meat without sacrificing taste or breaking the bank.
I’m not just channeling the dreams of Silicon Valley and next-generation startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Nearly every top meat company around the world is producing plant-based meat. Many, including Cargill and the Germany chicken giant PHW Group, have invested in cultivated meat companies from San Francisco to Israel. The largest meat producer in the United States, Tyson Foods, is pursuing both plant-based and cultivated meat. Tyson has gone so far to rebrand themselves as “The Protein Company” to make this change clear.
But companies can’t do this alone. If we want a truly safe and secure food system, we need substantial public investment to perfect and deploy all the processes required to shift entirely to modern meat production.
Despite the press around plant-based and cultivated meat, very little governmental funding has actually been made available for developing the fundamental technologies of alternative proteins. In the last decade, the total global public investment in both plant-based meat and cultivated meat has been less than $50 million.
The difference is stark compared to clean energy. The U.S. government has spurred the renewable energy sector by funding basic research and development to the tune of more than $170 billion. As part of the 2009 economic stimulus alone, the government invested billions in green power research. That’s billions – with a “b.”
Tens of millions have lost their jobs. Millions are sick, and over 100,000 have already been killed by this zoonotic disease. Most of us have spent months trapped in our houses, worried sick about our parents and grandparents while shunning even our closest friends.
We have a moral and economic imperative to fund plant-based and cultivated meat at the billion-dollar level. 2020 has proven that this must be our generation’s moonshot. Channel just a fraction of the current recovery budget into modern meat research and more manufacturers will shift to efficient safe and sustainable production methods. Open-access plant-based and cultivated meat research is the best investment we could make – far cheaper than another pandemic.
Liz Specht, PhD ’14, is associate director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit organization that supports plant-based and cultivated alternatives to conventional meat products. With a decade of research experience in synthetic biology, and a firm belief in how technology can help meet sustainable food demands, Specht is an alumna leading the new wave of new foods.