The Case for Investing Billions in Lab-Grown Meat

A new report argues for a massive federal investment in food system innovation.

Chef Jun Sog slices a piece of cultivated salmon in Wildtype's test kitchen.
Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Solutions Law & Policy Policy

What would it take to solve meat’s climate problem? While there is no single answer, a new report suggests there are lessons to be learned from the clean energy sector. The Department of Energy invested close to $8.4 billion in renewable and clean power technologies in 2020, which in turn kicked off a massive surge in solar and wind power capacity over the next four years. But when it comes to our food system, government investments have not kept pace. We spent as much as 49 times more on energy innovation than food technologies, the researchers found, even though food, especially beef, continues to fuel climate pollution

What’s needed now to address emissions from food, which make up 10 percent of all U.S. emissions and more than a quarter of global emissions? Deeper public investment in food system innovation, argue Breakthrough’s researchers Alex Smith and Emily Bass, who say the U.S. Department of Agriculture could use an overhaul in the way it funds innovation, including plant-based burgers and cultivated chicken.

Ambitious Funding Could Spur Ambitious Research

One path forward would be to model a unique funding program called the Advanced Research Projects Agency or ARPA. Established in 2009, the ARPA-E program aims to reduce emissions from the energy sector, with an eye towards ensuring U.S. technology companies stay competitive in the global market.

Between 2009 and 2016, the program funded over 500 projects — faster charging for electric vehicles, better batteries for electric grids and improved wind turbine technology are a few examples — to the tune of more than three billion dollars in investment.

Part of the program’s success comes from the flexibility it affords its decision makers, Bass tells Sentient, which isn’t always the case for federal agencies. “A lot of latitude is given to project managers to set goals,” she says. If the agency is initially funding three different solutions to a problem, but only one emerges as more effective, project managers can decide to pivot to invest more in what is actually working.

Despite the success of the model, a similar agency for food and farming receives only a fraction of the funding that ARPA-E gets, Breakthrough’s researchers say. Introduced in the last Farm Bill, Advanced Research Authority, or AgARDA, was created to fund “high risk, high reward research projects in the agriculture space,” Bass tells Sentient. The idea was to invest in projects that could help take food technology solutions stuck in the lab development phase to market. But to date, the initiative has received no more than $1 million per year, as compared to the billions in funding on the energy side.

There are other U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that could fill the funding gap as well, including loans and tax credits. In the past, the agency loaned money to a plant-based yogurt company that operates in Iowa and Massachusetts for instance, thanks in part to a USDA loan. Smith and Bass also recommend a “sustainable agriculture tax credit” as a way to offset the high costs for startup operations in the alternative protein space.

The Case for Public Funding of Alternative Proteins

Whether pea protein burgers or cell-cultivated salmon, the alternative protein sector could certainly use the funding at this moment. Both of these still-nascent industries were able to grow rapidly at first, but these days they are a long way from making a dent in traditional meat consumption.

Replacing some of the meat we eat with analogues like an Impossible burger could have a big impact on climate pollution. By replacing 50 percent of the meat and milk we consume with plant-based substitutes, one study predicted we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 31 percent, and there are other benefits too, including protecting biodiversity and reducing use of antibiotics in farm animals.

A jolt of funding right now could help the industry push through its current stumbling blocks. Many companies use their own bespoke systems for operations like manufacturing and delivery, sometimes under the guise of protecting their trade secrets, but those choices end up costing more in time and money, and have broader economic ripple effects.

“We see companies, as they reach the point of moving towards larger scale manufacturing and deployment, taking their operations, their manufacturing, their sales, abroad,” says Bass. Larger federal investments could help companies scale up here in the U.S. instead.

The Farm Bill Could Provide a Path Forward

In the fall, Congress will have an opportunity to fund more food system technologies. As Congress begins to bridge the divide between Democratic and Republican proposals for the Farm Bill, funding for alternative protein research could end up appealing to both parties, as manufacturing and other supply chain operations also create new jobs, whether in cities or in rural communities.

On the other hand, opposition to cultivated meat can be a bipartisan stance, as we’ve heard from Democratic Senator John Fetterman from Pennsylvania and Republican Governor Ron DeSantis from Florida, one of two states that recently banned lab-grown meat.

There are policy roadblocks too. The techno-forward Breakthrough Institute would like to see the USDA evolve into a more robust and holistic ecosystem for food system innovation. Bass describes this as a more forward-thinking USDA, one that considers “what these emerging industries are, where they’re located, who they’re serving and how they’re supporting economies.” In other words, a public agency that advances credible technologies for food rather than just doles out cash.

These technological solutions are not without limitations. Their success depends on large-scale interventions and funding that may not always be feasible, and there are other policy strategies to explore. New York City’s Cool Food Pledge aims to reduce food-related emissions by about a third in this decade, mostly through food procurement policies that nudge cities towards buying more bean burgers than beef. Addressing emissions from the food we eat will probably require a bit of both, tackling meat’s climate problem with a mix of ambitious new technologies and more dogged efforts to shift our food choices.

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