Can Lab-Grown Burgers Help Stop Climate Change?
My colleague Ezra Klein believes that should change. In an April column, he noted that the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the alternative protein industry, had asked the Biden administration for $2 billion in funding, half of it for research and half of it to set up a network of innovation centers. The institute estimates that with enough investment, by 2030, cultivated meat would be able to compete on cost with some conventional meats, requiring only $2.57 per pound to produce — a stunning reduction.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in terms of the volume of money being talked about and the opportunities to do something transformational,” Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, told Klein. “It wouldn’t take a lot of investment in alternative protein to take it to a whole different level. It’d be a rounding error in terms of the money going through Congress.”
State involvement may be needed not only to accelerate innovation but also to ensure that innovation is widely shared. The international regime of intellectual property law that has governed the world’s disastrously unequal vaccine rollout offers “a troubling preview of how other lifesaving technologies might be apportioned, including those needed to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius,” the climate journalist Kate Aronoff writes. “Setting technology transfer as a baseline at this early stage of cellular agriculture’s development could (optimistically speaking) set a precedent that discourages other sectors from using patents to charge exorbitant rents for everything from cultured salmon to clean energy.”
But some say lab-grown meat won’t be able to start displacing conventional meat in time — or perhaps ever. David Humbird, a Berkeley-trained chemical engineer who spent over two years researching a techno-economic assessment of lab-grown meat, believes the industry faces extreme, intractable technological challenges. In interviews with Joe Fassler of The Counter, he said it was “hard to find an angle that wasn’t a ludicrous dead end.”
Even the chief executive of Eat Just conceded that the challenges Humbird raised need to be reckoned with, leaving it “very uncertain” whether cultured meat can displace slaughtered meat in the next 30 years. In Fassler’s telling, for cultured meat to be a meaningful climate solution would require several scientific breakthroughs worthy of many Nobel Prizes — and in the next 10 years, not 30.
A strong case can be made for the state to stake money on those breakthroughs, just as it did on vaccines for the coronavirus. But then again, conservative members of the Senate have fought to pare back the size of prospective climate spending, potentially forcing policy trade-offs that climate experts and activists would prefer not to make.
“The environmental ravages we face are vast, destabilizing, and encroaching on our real lives right now,” Fassler writes. “The fires, the floods, are already at our door. In all this, it would be so good to know we have a silver bullet. But until solid, publicly accessible science proves otherwise, cultured meat is still a gamble — a final trip to the casino, when our luck long ago ran out. We should ask ourselves if that’s a chance we want to take.”