Op-ed: We Don’t Need a ‘Moonshot’ for Faux Burgers—We Need To Hold ‘Big Meat’ Accountable.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Ezra Klein proposed a moonshot investment in “Meatless Meat.” Klein makes a cogent, fact-filled case for the government to spend a few billion dollars on public research to increase the commercial viability of plant-based and cellular (i.e., lab-created) meats.

Klein’s objective is straightforward: reduce the climate footprint of meat and dairy, reduce the suffering of animals confined in feed lots and barns, and prevent the next pandemic. He proposes use public funding to accelerate research and development—much like Tesla’s boost to e-cars or the Department of Defense’s boost to the internet—as the best way to move production and demand of alternative meats quickly and effectively.

The stakes are high. And Klein is not wrong. Cheap meat is a problem. The much-loved (recently mythologized) hamburger is brought to us by an extractive industry whose recent record profits come on the backs of disadvantaged workers, animal cruelty, mountains of manure, and a whole lot of public subsidies. But even the quickest, most superficial look at today’s U.S. food system shows the solution to the mess is not public subsidies for petri-dish proteins that will inevitably be produced (or at least funded) by a handful of large, vertically integrated food and feed companies.

Klein’s analysis forgets the first instinct of any investigator: cui bono, or, who stands to benefit? It’s not as if consumers ask for animal suffering, or excess greenhouse gas emissions. Sure, we like burgers—but we like fish and chips, too, and falafels and dumplings and pakora. The great thing about being an omnivorous species is that there is not much we won’t eat. Involve sugar or a deep fat fryer and we’ll eat far too much of it, sadly.

The problem with cheap meat is not that it should cost the consumer more (though it probably should). It is that what looks cheap to the consumer is in fact costing the public all the way down the production line. From unchecked pollution to uninsured workers, cheap meat makes a lot of money for a very few, while costing the earth—quite literally—for all of us.

The challenge is not how to save the hamburger by making an animal-free, lower-emission proxy, nor is it about generating enough chemical compounds to make soy and fungi taste like blood at an affordable price.

The problem is unchecked market power, enjoyed by a small handful of corporations. They often own all parts of the food chain—from the grain silos to the feedlots to the final brand that shoppers see on grocery store shelves. And they make a lot of money by selling unhealthy food, extracting profits from farmers whose livelihoods are squeezed in poorly regulated and noncompetitive markets, using a vulnerable workforce whose rights they violate. Market power is turned into political capital as these corporations use campaign donations to capture state and federal legislators, who have spent decades commissioning reports that document these harm and bemoaning the hollowing out of rural America in public speeches, all the while eliminating the funding for inspectors, enlarging legal loopholes, and handing out public money in support of those few highly profitable firms.

The part of the food system that really needs a moonshot is the human cost. The pandemic brought that cost home sharply: Meat companies such as Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and Smithfield openly put their workforce at risk, with nearly 59,000 meatpacking workers testing positive for COVID-19 to date. They did not provide PPE. At first, companies refused to test, and when they did, they refused to share the numbers. They denied workers paid sick leave and are now denying them disability.

To top it off, the Trump administration used the Defense Production Act to reopen closed or slowed-down meatpacking plant and offered to support meatpackers in any litigation brought by workers related to workplace exposures to the virus. Pandemic conditions aside, workers earn too little to live with dignity, and their earnings are so precarious that a day off work is not an option. Meat plants employ people from dozens of countries in the world—many of them new immigrants—and treat them as dispensable.

Today’s food system is complex.

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Factory farms run on cheap feed, lax environmental regulations, and disposable labor. We do not need rocket science to change that. We just need to enforce the existing labor, environmental, and anti-trust laws. We can stop emissions before they happen. We know how to protect animal welfare. We know how to protect public health, too—the burger is not so bad, nutritionally, just hold the cheese, the extra patty and the sugar-laden sauces that turn the average fast food burger into a high-calorie, low-nutrition meal.

The answer is not a moonshot. Instead we need a government and a public that stand up for workers and demands corporations and their investors obey the laws, pay their share of taxes, and pay their fines when their companies are found guilty of price-fixing, food safety violations, or grossly negligent pollution of the communities where they operate.

What else?

  1. Enforce basic labor rights, legislate a living wage, enforce the right to collective bargaining, and protect the right to affordable and adequate health care. For all.
  2. Fight structural racism in the food system. Keep the money going out to farmers excluded from the last 150 years of public funding. End the abuses encouraged by the U.S. immigration system, the loopholes for farm work that permit human rights violations, and the environmental injustice that pushes pollution onto communities of color and Indigenous peoples’ land.
  3. Use and fund the Packers and Stockyards Act. Provide enough inspectors, make their job worthwhile and fine the operators who break the law. Ensure climate emissions are counted when issuing permits to factory farms. Do that math right—lesson one of climate change science is that cumulative effects matter.
  4. Enforce anti-trust laws. Hundreds of thousands of independent hog and poultry producers have been bankrupted in the last 20 years; many now work on contract for global meat companies. Decades of legal challenges to the poultry sector have left the corporations untouched.
  5. Control overproduction. U.S. land is exhausted, farmgate prices don’t cover the cost of production and high (and highly concentrated) profits accrue to grain traders and meat packers.
  6. Make polluters pays. Fine the operations with practices that lead to excessive nitrogen fertilizer run-off that kills our waterways, and demand protection for biological diversity in farm systems. Insist factory farm permits factor in their climate costs, especially their monstrous sources of methane. Now, that owners of concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs) want public money to turn their hogshit into factory farm gas, or so called “biogas.” The real solution is stopping the waste at the source by enforcing real manure regulation.
  7. Invest in local and regional food systems. Alternatives to cheap meat exist—animal agriculture that is regenerative, supports farmers, and is kind to the animal, soil and water—but they provide only a small share of the market. Now is the time to shorten and diversify supply chains and use public contracts and institutional buying to leverage new revenue streams for producers that build in high standards. IATP’s experience with farm to school and childcare programs shows how well this can work to support an integrated food policy involving education, environment, health and agriculture departments in productive conversation and innovate policies. Create the space to diversify, experiment and reintroduce regional specialty foods.
  8. Reward regenerative and agroecological practices. The U.S. has useful and effective conservation programs, including the Conservation Stewardship Program and Conservation Reserve Program. They are heavily oversubscribed and underfunded. Fund and improve them.

A sustainable, adaptive, and resilient food system is so much more than a low-emitting carbon sink. Animal agriculture must be regulated on a life-cycle basis, from the millions of acres of corn and soy the animals eat to the piles of manure that the industry now wants to convert and pipe like natural gas, in exchange for yet more public money. Nip too-cheap meat in the bud by making sure that at every step companies are held responsible for their own pollution, workers are paid, and animals are treated right.

Rather than asking for a moonshot, let’s shift power away from the small handful of megacorporations that control our food system. Let’s spend public money protecting the health of the whole ecosystem, people included. That way we’ll all win.

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Sophia Murphy

The executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Sophia Murphy is a food systems and international economy expert with 30 years of professional experience, including as a board chair, program director, policy analyst, consultant and published writer. Sophia holds a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University and a MSc from the London School of Economics in Social Policy and Planning in Developing Countries. She is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

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