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Ethical arguments won't end factory farming. Technology might.

"This is an insane system." — Bruce Friedrich, The Good Food Institute

Cows in Kusasenri, Aso city, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan
Getty Images / Supoj Buranaprapapong

As a meat-eater, I have a hard time talking about the ethics of animal agriculture. I can’t justify myself. Our industrial farming system is a moral (and ecological) horror, and to the extent that I participate in that, I’m complicit.

But I just can’t kick meat. Like many Americans, I’ve learned to live with my contradictions.

Bruce Friedrich is the Executive Director of The Good Food Institute in Washington, DC, an organization that partners with scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs to create cleaner and safer food products. The institute, as Friedrich wrote in a recent piece for Wired, has a very specific aim: identify and promote market-based alternatives to our current food production system, which is dirty, inefficient, and unsustainable.

I met Friedrich last month at the Vox Conversations conference, where he moderated a discussion about the ethics and economics of the food system.

I spoke with Friedrich at greater length last week about some of the issues he raised in that discussion. I asked him what the future of food looks like and how emergent technologies might solve the ethical dilemmas inherent in industrial farming.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

Tell me why our food system is at a breaking point.

Bruce Friedrich

We are going to have to feed about 9.5 billion people by 2050, and we can’t do that sustainably if we are using a system that requires that we grow exponentially more crops than we're actually eating.

There are two big problems with animal agriculture. First, the most efficient meat is chicken, and it requires nine calories in the form of wheat or soy or whatever other crop you're feeding to the chicken to get one calorie back out.

So there is a lot of consternation about food waste, and justifiably so. But food waste — the food that is thrown away — is about 40 percent of what's produced. When we produce and eat chicken, we're effectively throwing away 800 percent of the food that's produced, because it takes nine calories in the form of bean crops to get one calorie back out.

For pork, it's 15 calories in for one calorie back out. For beef it's 23 to 25 calories in for one calorie back out. This is an insane system when you survey how inefficient and wasteful it is.

Sean Illing

How long can this system sustain itself?

Bruce Friedrich

Right now we have 800 million people living in nutritional deficit, which is a euphemism — they're starving. And a former UN special envoy on food, Jean Ziegler, said that the diversion of corn and wheat to bio-fuels is a human rights crime.

His argument was quite simple: If you're taking that corn and wheat and turning it into bio-fuels, that creates a demand for corn and wheat and it drives up the price. The result is that people are priced out. We’re creating competition for that corn and wheat between people who are starving and our gas tanks. And yet we continue to use vast amounts of wheat and corn to feed chickens, pigs, and other farm animals.

And of course we haven’t even mentioned soy, where more than 80 percent of the global soy crop is fed to farm animals. Rainforests are being decimated in order to graze animals and grow soy for export to be fed to farm animals.

Hence we have not just a human rights issue, but also a sustainability issue. The two complementary existential threats of animal agriculture are sustainability (i.e., pricing people out and causing global poverty) and climate change. It's a scientific impossibility that the 170 plus governments that have signed the Paris Agreement, which pledged to keep climate change to under 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, will meet that goal, unless animal product consumption goes down.

The solution globally is to decrease animal product consumption because of its contribution to climate change. Indeed, the United Nations released a report called Livestock’s Long Shadow in which they said animal agriculture is a significant contributor to every major environmental problem — from the smallest and most local to the largest and most global.

In fact, animal agriculture was found to be responsible for about 18 percent of global climate change, which is roughly 40 percent more than all of the airplanes, cars, trucks, and other forms of transport combined.

Sean Illing

Given the origins and implications of the threats you just laid out, what is your strategy for transforming the system? As you know, incentive structures matter, and it seems there are a lot of impediments on this front.

Bruce Friedrich

At the Good Food Institute, we look at these existential threats and we pragmatically ask: What is the best way to decrease the amount of animal products that are consumed? And it seems to us that the most likely way to do that is to create the products that compete with animal agriculture on the basis of the factors that actually govern consumer choice.

Of course we can and should educate people and ask them to make different decisions because of these environmental and sustainability and health and animal welfare factors. But we're really focused on creating the clean alternatives that will out-compete animal products.

Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute.

Sean Illing

I’ll be honest: I consider myself a moral hypocrite on this issue. I’m aware of the abject horror that is industrial factory-farming, and yet I persist in eating meat. I just can’t give it up. But neither can I deny the obvious conflict between my beliefs and my behavior.

You’ve been at this for a long time, arguing the case from every angle. What do you think will really move people to change their behavior?

Bruce Friedrich

Well I think you are not dissimilar from an awful lot of the population.

There is certainly a portion of the population that learns about these issues and they go either entirely or mostly plant-based. But there's also a portion of the population that learns about these issues and they're too busy or it just seems insurmountably difficult to change. And they live with the cognitive dissonance of caring about these issues, and yet contributing to these problems.

And we see what we're doing as an answer for those people, and also an answer for those people who don’t much care about these issues. Our goal is to take ethical considerations off the table, and to make the best choices from the perspective of sustainability, climate change, global health, and animal welfare.

In other words, we want to make the best choices the default choices because the products are delicious, price competitive, and convenient.

Sean Illing

Convenience and price are simple enough to measure, but what about the taste? I realize the technology is young, but do these products taste as good as regular meat?

Bruce Friedrich

I have tasted cultured meat from Memphis Meats, and it tastes exactly like conventionally created meat. That makes sense, since the point of clean meat is that it is the exact same thing. There is no difference, so there is no difference in taste.

Sean Illing

How price competitive is clean or cultured meat now?

Bruce Friedrich

Well, it's a little bit like asking how price competitive the iPhone or some other smartphone was in 1995, or a few years before it was released. The technology is new, but once it scales up, the significantly greater efficiencies of clean meat will make it cost competitive.

Eventually, clean meat will be less expensive than conventionally raised meat, because it requires far fewer resources.

Sean Illing

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but perception will be a big hurdle in terms of getting people comfortable with eating meat grown in a lab, no matter how it tastes or how molecularly similar it is to regular meat.

Bruce Friedrich

One thing to stress is that it's not grown in a lab. Look, every processed food starts in a food lab, and clean meat is at food lab status now. Just like Cheerios are made in a factory, although they originated in a food lab, so too clean meat will be made in a factory, despite the fact that it was originally created in a food lab.

But it's wrong to ask people if they would eat meat grown in a lab. Just like it would be wrong to ask people if they’d eat bread grown in a lab or Cheerios grown in a lab.

Right now people eat meat despite how it's produced, not because of how it's produced. And anybody who looks at what's happening on a modern chicken farm or a pig farm or an egg farm is horrified. Anybody who looks at what's happening in a modern slaughterhouse is horrified.

And if you go out on the street and ask 10 people if they’d eat chicken from animals who are boiled alive if they’d eat meat from animals who've had their genetics so grotesquely manipulated that they grow seven times as quickly as they would naturally, I’ll bet most of them would say no.

So once you have two products and one of them doesn't require the same amount of resources, doesn't cause all that climate change, doesn't have a significant possibility of poisoning you, doesn't require animal slaughter, and doesn’t require laws to make it illegal to find out how the product is produced, I don't think we're going to have a tough time selling the better product.

Sean Illing

Of course, there’s also this false assumption that eating factory farmed meat is “natural.” But these farm animals are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics and they're raised in utterly perverse conditions. There's nothing natural about that process at all.

Bruce Friedrich

Exactly.

Sean Illing

People like Bill Gates have said that clean and cultured meats are the future of food. How far away from that future are we? How long, in your estimation, until I can walk into any corner grocery store and find it littered with these clean products?

Bruce Friedrich

That's a really good question. I think the plant-based products are getting there. There are several products that will be rolling out in the fairly near future, and companies like Impossible Foods have received $180 million from some of the smartest venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.

And there are a lot of other companies that are up and coming. The most knowledgeable people about clean meat are saying that we’re roughly five years away from wide availability, and 10 years away from price competitiveness.

Sean Illing

So it does seem inevitable that we'll reach a point in the not too distant future where it will be unthinkable to not eat clean meat.

Bruce Friedrich

I think that's exactly right. And I think you can look at what happened with horse-drawn carriages as illustrative. So in 1894 there were 175,000 horses in New York City. They were laying down 50,000 tons of manure per month. It was a mess: The streets were lined with rotting carcasses, full of manure and flies, traffic accidents from the horse-drawn carriages were constant — it was a nightmare.

In 1908, however, Henry Ford introduces the Model T, and by 1912 there are more cars than horses in the streets of New York City. And remember the ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? They were formed because of cruelty to horses. But it was technology rather than ethics that relegated horse-drawn carriages to tourist attractions.

I think in the same way that it would be absurd for us to travel up to New York City for a conference on horseback, it will be absurd for us to grow crops, to feed those crops to animals, with all of the inefficiencies and cruelty involved. It will be as absurd to use live animals to create meat, rather than eating plants or clean meat, as it is now to hop on a horse and go across the country.