In response to a post about extreme climate and animal agriculture, I received a question on a social media platform about the efficiency of cultivated meat compared to current farming practices. Although not exhaustive, my response covers a variety of points from ethics to supply chain, environment, taxes and more. In this context, we can’t consider efficiency only in terms of the one industry.
We cover efficiency of animal agriculture through a number of subjects in our book, Think Like a Vegan. We don’t deal with it head on in one place like I will attempt to do here.
This time, I want to explore some of the factors I believe we need to include in considering efficiency vis à vis cultivated meat. I’m not covering every single possible factor, just those I believe are some of the largest and often least discussed together.
I also want to illustrate one of my top tips for engaging with others about veganism, particularly on the internet.
What prompted the question?
On the hottest day ever recorded in England, I noted the following and shared it on social media:
The world is either on fire or sweltering from abnormally high temperatures. Everyone’s looking for the gov’t to do something or railing against the oil companies. All legitimate and necessary requests. But if we keep eating animal products, including eggs and dairy cheese, these problems won’t go away. Animal ag is the other half of the greenhouse gases issue* and the one directly in our control on a daily basis.
We can’t really choose how we travel for work or otherwise, how countries are heated and cooled, how our military pollutes. But most of us choose what we eat. It’s the one thing we have control over. And for the most part, we’re utterly uninterested in doing anything about it. We prefer eating oil instead.
Growing that feed for animals, processing, shipping, storing, and then all the process related to the animals themselves, all requires oil.
And no, it’s not more efficient than only eating plants. Globally, animal products provide only 18% of caloric needs whilst using 83% of farmland. What about all that soya planted primarily in the Amazon? 75% goes to animal feed including fish and 19% to biodiesel.
Be vegan and keep advocating for veganism for all the ethical reasons.
*There are a number of studies showing this and we cite them in our book Think Like A Vegan, but bottom line if global trends in meat and dairy intake continue, global mean temperatures will exceed the 2C even with dramatic emissions reductions and carbon management strategies.
There’s an entire chapter dedicated to environment in TLAV. It’s all footnoted to all the legitimate and massive studies. No rubbish or on side type propaganda from animal welfare charities etc. If you want a primer, that chapter is going to cover all the bases.
The map above shows the surface air temperatures across most of the Eastern Hemisphere on July 13, 2022. Scientists produced it by combining observations with a version of the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) global model, which uses mathematical equations to represent physical processes in the atmosphere. Steven Pawson, chief of the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center noted a “clear pattern of an ‘atmospheric wave’ with alternating warm (redder) and cool (bluer) values in different locations.” And he added that “this large area of extreme (and record breaking) heat” – with heatwaves and fires throughout the region – is an example of weather extremes from anthropogenic global warming. Map via NASA Earth Observatory.From “Heatwaves and fires in Europe, Africa, and Asia” EarthSky 16 July 2022
Engaging with others
Whenever I choose to engage with someone about veganism, I have a number of strategies I like to use. In Episode Eight of my Think Like a Vegan: the Podcast, I talk about some of these strategies. One of the critical ones is to make sure I have the other person’s buy-in to talk about the topic. The first thing I do is try to create a dialogue. This is especially important in social media, where often one will simply type out a response, which may be insufficient or unsatisfactory to both parties.
In this case, I responded with the following:
I’d be happy to give you my thoughts on that, so long as you’ll allow me a couple of steps back starting from the ethics viewpoint and then going to whether cultivated meat is efficient. Is that ok?
Often, people really are interested in having a discussion even online, which was the case this time. And they will react positively to this interaction.
Whenever I talk about veganism, I always start from the ethics and the basic premise: using animals is morally wrong. We owe them basic fairness. Basic fairness means treating everyone the same unless there’s a morally relevant reason to treat them differently. Animals and humans are sentient. And by sentient, I mean having the desire to live one more moment.
It’s this shared sentience that connects us and makes us the same. Their differences from us aren’t morally relevant. We’re obligated to include animals in our moral circle with respect to not being used like an object. It’s a most basic and fundamental right.
Since humans began farming, we’ve been using animals as objects with no regard for their inherent right to exist unfettered by us. And animals aren’t objects.
These are the basic premise from where I start any discussion about veganism. All other considerations – health, environment, efficiency – start from this fundamental ethical premise.
Next step in the analysis at hand is looking at the supply chain.
Wait… how many animals are slaughtered each year?
The starting point must be the figures for how many land animals are slaughtered annually, globally: 62 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, 649 million turkeys, 300 million cattle. The citations for this are in Think Like a Vegan.
These numbers exclude dairy cows and fish for a variety of reasons and I go into it a bit in the book. The estimates of animal product consumption continue to increase, despite very slight downward movements due to the various bird flu, swine fever and current economic and political situations. And I also discuss this in Think Like a Vegan.
Land use and soya
We mostly feed soya to these animals. Currently, the soya primarily comes from Brazil and more and more land is being cleared in the forest there for such animal feed. Obviously, once a forest or land is cleared to grow plant for animal feed, it’ll no longer have trees to absorb carbon, or for biodiversity or for the indigenous residents who’ve also been sent packing. Clearing people from land for farming is happening in the forests in Brazil and elsewhere and it happened in Europe too. Look into the Scottish land clearances sometime and see how large scale sheep farming caused untold displacement and suffering for people.
And don’t forget the soil and water pollution from vast amounts of pesticide and fertiliser use. Again, I go into a little more detail in the book about this.
The soya is fertilised, which too is manufactured and shipped. The raw soya is then shipped, mainly to China, to be processed into feed. Then it gets shipped back all over the world to feed animals on farms.
Comparative land use in UK and USA
The image below should be read as a pie chart, not a geographical image of the UK and what grows where. The image shows UK land area divided up by purpose. About 70% is devoted to agriculture, mainly livestock and livestock feed and pasture. The right-hand side of the chart, using the same scale, shows how much land is used overseas to produce food for the UK. About half of the total land use takes place overseas. The combined land area for rearing beef and lamb for UK consumption is larger than the UK itself.
The USA has similar land use in that it’s mostly to do with animal grazing or feeding. Pastures and cropland to feed the grazing animals (mostly cows) make up a whopping 41% of US land . Of the 391.5 million acres of cropland most is used for livestock feed and only 77.3 million is used to feed Americans.
Ethanol production makes up over a third of the entire corn crop.
A startling image of land use in the USA.
After they’re bred and farmed, the animals are slaughtered, processed and shipped. Each and all these steps takes lots of energy/oil with very little in terms of global calories it provides to people.
To ship animals products you have to use refrigerated transport much of the time. The more you need to heat or cool something, the more energy you’ve got to use.
Also remember this: farmed animals convert that soya, hay, grass and whatever other plant feed to nutrients, including protein, which we could’ve gotten directly from all those plants in the first place.
Subsidies, are they efficient?
There are large subsidies for animal agriculture in the West (see this summary for the US, for example). These subsidies tend to favour very large operation and landowners. We discuss this a bit in the book, particularly as related to the dairy industry in the USA. Mega corporations amass vast landholdings and squeeze out small farms. With so much land, these corporations able to create efficiencies of scale and secure larger amounts of subsidies and financing.
Is it efficient for tax funds to prop industries which would fail without them? Industries leaving behind as much death and destruction as animal agriculture? Is a different reality possible, which would also benefit farmers themselves?
We can have many interesting discussions about subsidies and in particular, repurposing those subsidies for the same farmers, whether for shifting to plant agriculture to feed people or to improve the land for ecological and biodiversity purposes.
Ok. Now we’ve got some of the basics…
Efficiency of cultivated meat
The question was whether cultivated meat is efficient in comparison to current farming. The answer is yes.
Look at all those processes, the sheer numbers and volume of everything required to keep it going, from animals to fuels, land and more they require. Consider the land clearances with the concomitant negative effects discussed above, the vast amounts of antibiotics and other medication given to the animals, shipping, slaughter (carry to and from the slaughterhouse), refrigeration before and after packing and everything that’s involved with creating and maintaining an animal from conception to the moment it hits the shelves in supermarkets.
Yes, cellular meat is more efficient than the current system we have simply because it will not require we breed, feed, medicate, slaughter, package and transport this many animals.
Some problems to think about
There are some caveats to cellular meat. It’s made in a variety of ways (this is a good primer). Some will require the cells to continue to come from live animals. If this ends up being the primary manufacturing method, then we have the same problems all over again, likely on a smaller scale.
Ethically, the animal will be used like an object, bred for a purpose and disposed of when that purpose is satisfied – so still morally wrong. There are other methods which won’t require returning to a source. It’ll be interesting to see which method ends up being the preferred one and what that will mean.
It’s a nascent industry. We don’t know if it can be scaled and what that will look like, whether there will continue to be demand for animal product equivalents in the long-term and at what quantum. All the products we see today aren’t so much a result of meeting demand. They’re a result of packaging and repurposing the vast quantities of animal flesh and byproducts the animal agriculture industry has on its hands. Will we always need or want this many products?
A few more considerations
Do we need cellular meat to live a healthy and delicious life? No. Just like we don’t need anything other than whole plant based foods either. Do we want it because that’s what we’re used to, tastes good, fun to have choice and whatever else strikes our fancy? Yes, sure. Can we move away from that? That’s possible in terms of the quantities demanded if we have the right types of education campaigns coming from both grassroots and governments. If people realise it’s as easy to cook tofu, tempeh, lentils and green vegetables as it is to cook animal products, then they might at least vary their choices.
Is it daft to think a government could or should influence a nation’s diet? They already do! It’s government money funding animal agriculture, supporting the current system politically and educationally. Governments have been instrumental in propagating the idea we need to eat animal products as part of a balanced diet.
Yet, the Western diet is responsible for so many health problems. We don’t hear cardiologists and oncologists saying please eat more animal products to help your recovery. Nope, the advice is always eat more grains, vegetables, fruit and non-animal proteins.
It’s also governments who are minimising or ignoring the role of animal agriculture in the climate crisis. They could be instrumental in shifting the narrative if there’s strong grass roots support for it. Hint: more vegans = more grass roots support for it.
Full picture for efficiency
The term efficiency… it seemed so easy to define, didn’t it. Then, when we zoom out from our immediate assumptions and add in components from the ethical fundamentals to the entire process, we see there’s so much more to consider.
We need to have conversations where we look at the whole picture. These aren’t easy conversations to have but they’re also necessary and many people have never looked at the whole picture like this.
So get out there and make these topics part of your life. Maybe don’t have them at parties though…
Updated. First published on 24 July 2022