The TED talk given in Vancouver, Canada in April 2019 by Bruce Friedrich, the Executive Director of the nonprofit Good Food Institute in Washington has received over 500,000 views within 24 hours of its online publication this week. Entitled “The Next Global Agricultural Revolution” the talk is a clarion call for an urgent look at world farming. Friedrich’s view is that the planet must eliminate traditional animal meat production as part of a coordinated strategy to deal with climate and health concerns.
Friedrich’s message is quite clear: something must be done. Information about impending ecological disasters is coming to us regularly. This year it is the turn of the United Nations-backed report from IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). Its message is quite stark. That report compiled by over 145 authors from 50 countries concludes that human activity will cause one million of the earth’s eight million plant and animal species to become extinct mostly within decades and that the biggest human activity responsible for this is animal agriculture.
“Humanity now poses a threat to the stability of the planet … [This requires] nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution” said one of the study’s authors. In other words, meat production is both destroying planet Earth and severely endangering global health.
Similar tales of gloom have been given in 2018 in the journal “Nature,” in 2017 from “Bioscience Journal” and in 2016 by the National Academy of Sciences. So the conclusions in the IPBES report are neither new nor unexpected.
We have been warned. They talk a great deal about climate change, but they also talk a great deal about another threat which is equally as big: antibiotic resistance.
So one conclusion of these studies taken together is that climate change and antibiotic resistance are individually and together both global emergencies.
For some fifty years environmentalists, global health experts, as well as animal activists, have been beseeching us all to eat less meat – a lot less meat. But this simply has not worked. Meat consumption remains now as stubbornly high per capita as it has ever been. Americans have always traditionally loved meat. The Standard American Diet leads to the average North American consuming more than 200 pounds of meat a year.
Farm animals are fed massive doses of antibiotics. As Friedrich points out, these antibiotics are causing bacteria to mutate into superbugs that threaten to render antibiotics obsolete within all of our lifetimes. The antibiotics do not themselves mutate into superbugs, but actually, create the superbugs themselves. Researching into “the end of working antibiotics” is not for the faint-hearted.
The numbers of people dying annually from antibiotic-resistant superbugs are already quite staggering – tens of thousands died from this in 2018 in North America alone. By 2050 it is estimated that that number will be 10 million annually worldwide.
To counter this, Friedrich advocates for a radical reduction of global meat consumption. This could be brought about through a “global agricultural revolution” whereby meat production would transition to focus exclusively on plants and cellular agriculture. Friedrich also urged governments to divert some of the research money earmarked for health and environment into “optimizing and perfecting the production of plant-based and cell-based meat.”
Increased meat production: a global suicide note
The way the world population is heading, the planet will need to produce 70 to 100 per cent more meat by 2050. Friedrich describes this as “a global suicide note”.
Is there a solution? Mr Friedrich’s idea is that we have to produce the meat that people love but in a completely new way. It involves both plant-based meat and cell-based meat. The meatless meat products are developing all the time and more and more plant-based meatless options are now available to consumers.
In addition, there is the option of actual animal meat cells being grown directly from animal cells, rather than growing live animals. Mr Friedrich called this “your friendly neighbourhood meat brewery”. In theory, chicken cells could be grown in six days as opposed to the six weeks it takes to grow a chicken to a suitable weight for slaughter. There are now dozens of companies growing actual animal meat directly from cells though this technology is a way behind the production of plant-based foods. The commercialisation of cell-based meat is a little way off.
Mr Friedrich calls for a unified approach with the meat industry. Many companies are already investing in alternatives to conventional animal meat – PHW Group, Tyson Foods, JBS and Cargill Foods have all taken this path. We do need the present meat industry he concludes. Rather than disrupt it, we need to transform it. The industry is established with an infrastructure entailing their global supply chain, their marketing expertise, their economies of scale and above all their massive consumer base.
Plant-based food market burgeoning
There will be roadblocks ahead. The plant-based companies have spent small fortunes on their research and development to produce their bleeding burgers that look, feel and taste like a traditional hamburger. But just look at the stock market debut of Beyond Meat and the private equity success of Impossible Foods, and the foray of the traditional meat companies into this market, and we see a burgeoning new industry.
Barclays Analysts recently published a research paper called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat” on 23rd May 2019 giving the City’s blessing to the meat industry. The report predicted that the vegan meat market will be worth $140 billion in a decade. More importantly, it predicted that the animal-free industry will have captured a full 10% of the global $1.4 trillion meat industry. It stated quite clearly that vegan food is not a fad – it’s here to stay.
But looked at in terms of the global emergency that we are facing, that kind of growth rate just simply is not enough according to Mr Friedrich. Capturing 10% of the global meat industry by 2029 will be quite a change but according to the message in this TED Talk, nothing less than radical transformation will now do.