April 04 2019

Rise of the Petri-Proteins?

Some likely effects of lab-grown meat-like substances on farmers, food systems and the climate

The global meat industry is estimated to be worth over $1 trillion USD in 2019, and is projected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2022. The dairy industry is estimated at $442 billion. Industrially processed meat and dairy are notorious for the inhumane conditions of their livestock, and are a climate menace.

As GRAIN recently reported, if industrial meat and dairy continues its current growth rates, “the livestock sector as a whole could consume 80% of the planet’s annual greenhouse gas budget by 2050.” A global health crisis is also closely connected to the rise in consumption of processed meat in particular.

There’s a clear alternative to industrial meat production, and it already feeds most of the world. 70% of the world’s population relies on peasant or Indigenous food production, which requires fewer or none of the fossil fuel inputs of industrial meat production, in many cases sequesters carbon, cares for the land, and preserves biodiversity. There’s one hitch: peasant and Indigenous food producers don’t generate gigaprofits for investors.

Enter the technological fix. According to a recent wave of media hype, the solution is protein products grown in labs – which we’ll call petri-proteins. And some well-heeled investors, led by meat giants like Tyson ($40 billion in 2018) and Cargill ($114 billion), appear to agree.

The promise is that meat giants can transition into a new role as "big protein" conglomerates to preserve their dominant and profitable role. How would they do it? By growing dairy- and meat-like substances can be grown in vats controlled by artificial intelligence and teams of scientists, using one of two techniques:

  1. Meat-like substance grown from stem cells. Stem cells can be harvested from animals, which are used to grow steaks in a lab environment without a conscious (or flatulent) animal attached. What is mentioned less often is that this kind of production so far involves the use of substances like bovine serum, hormones, amino acids, and food additives to achieve a meat-like outcome.

  1. Proteins from genetically engineered yeast, bacteria or algae. Single-cell organisms are genetically modified to produce compounds that mimic certain qualities of meat, dairy or eggs such as taste, colour or protein content through a closed fermentation process.

Even before considering the economic and social ramifications it should be acknowledged that little long-term testing has been done to determine health effects of the resulting meat, dairy or egg-like substances – we’ll call them “petri-proteins”. The chemical and mechanical processes involved in petri-protein production are in many cases closely-guarded trade secrets or rely on genetic engineering.

When it comes to the health crisis caused in part by the increased consumption of processed food, petri-proteins do not offer much in the way of a solution. While a petri-steak or petri-egg substitute may increasingly imitate flavours or textures, they remain processed foods, and retain many of the ill health effects of the factory-farms of the world.

Petri-proteins and climate claims

Many claims have been made about the potential for petri-proteins to reduce climate emissions. In light of previous technologies that failed to live up to their own sustainability hype – biofuels, for example. There are several reasons to be cautious about climate claims about petri-proteins, at every point of the production chain:

  • Monoculture feedstocks: many closed fermentation processes rely on processed feedstocks like sugar or corn, crops usually grown with intensive pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer use and associated with emissions from poor land use. They are also often linked to human rights abuses (sugar in particular) and land grabbing which dispossesses more sustainable farming methods, causes deforestation or other changes emitting soil carbon.

  • Transportation costs: centralized production means that there is a likely cost in carbon emissions to every chemical or mechanical input, but also to its transportation to industrial parks that house the petri-protein vats, and subsequent regional and global distribution.

  • Industrial ingredients: products like the “Impossible Burger” use monoculture crops like wheat and now soy to create the bulk of their product. The deforestation, biodiversity loss and land use changes from large-scale wheat and soy plantations, in addition to processing and transportation, add to the climate cost.

  • Direct fossil fuel inputs and emissions: next-generation synthetic biology fermentation processes may use fracked or off-gassed methane to feed, which could contribute financially to the fossil fuel industry. Fermentation itself (e.g. of sugar) has its own emissions issues.

By contrast, peasant and Indigenous food production is one of the most effective tools that we have to address the climate crisis. Peasant farmers and Indigenous harvesters are more likely to maintain the land’s productive capacity, maintain biodiversity, sequester soil carbon, minimize fossil fuel use, reduce or eliminate pesticides and herbicides, often produce healthier food, sustain local livelihoods, and create a fraction of the vast food waste of the industrial food chain.

That said, most of the evidence suggests that a world of 7.5 billion people cannot eat an ever-growing quantity of meat – no matter how it is produced – without grave impacts on the climate.

An expansion of localized peasant and indigenous food production and a global stabilization and reduction in meat consumption is unlikely to gain the advertising and PR budgets of a trillion-dollar industry, but it remains at the core of any truly serious climate transition.

Impact on society, relationship to land and livelihoods

While peasant agriculture and lower meat consumption are likely to best both the industrial animal protein industry status quo and petri-proteins in any head-to-head comparison due to their lack of transportation overhead alone, we know it’s not that simple.

Any climate transition will have to examine not only the immediate impacts of food systems in terms of emissions, but the political effects as well. What kinds of economic practices and social structures will be empowered, and what kinds will be diminished? What kinds of relationship to land will be deepened, and which ones will be deemphasized?

To understand the political, economy and cultural impacts of increased petri-protein production, what we know about petri-protein production will be assessed according to some of the strategies and values expressed by a 2015 Agroecology declaration.

Do petri-proteins enhance territorial and holistic approaches to social, economic and natural resources issues?

To the extent that petri-proteins are scaled up, protein production will take place in windowless buildings in industrial parks, while fertile land may be increasingly devoted to the cultivation of feedstocks for these processed petri-protein products. These labs will rely on highly controlled lab environments, energy-intensive computational power, a variety of chemical inputs and mechanical processes. The economic incentives for centralization and large scale will be significant.

The likely result will not be territorially-based. indeed, the stability of ecological systems and biodiversity may be further marginalized within food systems as investment capital pools around warehouses filled with stainless steel vats and rooms full of biotech researchers and data analysts warmed by rows of humming server racks.

This is a vision of detachment from the land in favour of flexible no-place production factories that can be moved at the whim of capital and to chase energy sources.

Nor will the result be holistic. Breaking down protein production into its chemical components, reimagining food as just an assembled complex of amino acids and sourcing the feedstocks from suppliers in a global market will increase the likelihood that ecological impacts will be externalized, and not accounted for in the production process.

Will petri-proteins help secure access to land and resources in order to encourage long term investment by small-scale food producers?

The core of the current high-tech business model in which petri protein startups find themselves is “disruption” of existing production through economies of scale, dematerialization of assets and concentration of capital. Corporations like Uber and AirBnB seek to dominate markets by centralizing the costs of maintaining their platform and using big investments to drive out competition. The main selling point for startups, in this ecosystem, is that they will eventually be acquired by one of the conglomerates.

The new food companies are relying on a similar disruption model, based on leveraging the centralization of intellectual property, computational power, and data for massive profits with an eye to being acquired by food and agribusiness conglomerates… at the expense of decentralised food systems.

If petri-protein startups supersized by venture capital cash create a similar chilling effect on investment in local food production with a concurrent increase in land-grabbing for monoculture production, the results could be devastating and – if the dreams of the petri-protein investors are realized – potentially lead to reduced food security for billions of people.

Will petri-proteins ensure an inclusive and accountable approach to the stewardship of resources?

There is no sense in which the petri-protein push is a democratic enterprise open to all. Shaped by a small club with millions to invest, the secrecy of production techniques for all forms of petri-protein production run counter to an accountable approach to the stewardship of resources or food systems.

Some of the same players are also pumping millions of dollars into policy shops such as the “Good Food Institute” in an attempt to clear away regulatory or oversight barriers.

Will petri-protein promote decentralized and truly democratized planning processes?

If petri-protein plays out the way investors hope, a handful of protein corporations will buy up the startups and their intellectual property, establishing a near monopoly. This would allow them to control the price at which meat substitutes are sold, to ensure big profits.

A concentrated petri-protein industry (especially in the hands of big protein players like Tyson, Hormel, or Cargill) would have tremendous leverage over suppliers.

Their global reach and integration with supply chains could allow them to play monocrop cultivators and chemical suppliers off of each other in the same way that Uber or Amazon force drivers or publishers to compete for the chance to sell their services and products at a discount.

As in any other globalised commodity business the likely result will accelerate a global race to the bottom in terms of Indigenous rights, labour practices, corporate tax rates, and human rights. The result: decreased accountability, incentives against stewardship of land, decreased investment in infrastructure, and disempowerment of local governments when it comes to planning and procurement.

Would a petri-protein industry promote health and safety regulations that do not discriminate against small-scale food producers?

Petri-protein mega-corporations would not be serving their investors if they did not mobilize their political clout to shift regulations to shut out competitors. The image petri-protein producers are currently projecting is one of clean, scientifically precise food production.

Petri-proteins are presented as “clean” due to the supposed sterility of the lab environment. While this is in itself maybe more PR that reality – the inclusion of chemical additives and mechanical processing is likely to mean the product is “polluted” in ways difficult to understand – the idea that food should be sterile is itself out of date.

Every complex organism is a community of species, and years of research shows that microbes are an essential part of the human diet. The antiseptically sterile vision of “clean’ food adopted by petri-promoters directly contradicts the agroecological movement’s notions of health, which focus on healthy soil and dirt – communities of microbes co-evolving with human culture.

Will petri-protein producers promote policy to integrate the health and nutrition aspects of agroecology and of traditional medicines?

While plenty of claims have been made about the hypothetical health benefits of adding petri-proteins to our diets, they are almost entirely framed around the health benefits of not eating industrial meat and dairy, not about the direct health and nutritional impacts of the highly processed foods that this industry is offering.

To take advantage of current consumer trends petri-proteins will be sold as “plant-based,” but an artificial protein extracted from a genetically engineered yeast or a cultured stem cell steak are as far from a “plant” as is imaginable.

Will a petri-protein industry ensure pastoralists’ access to pastures, migration routes and sources of water?

ETC Group’s report Who Will Feed Us found that more than 190 million people in the planet rely on pastoralism as an important source of protein and income, and 1 billion urban peasants (66% of whom are women) earn 33–55% of their household income from livestock.

Pastoralism is simply not compatible with the core ‘non-animal’ ideology of the petrivore evangelists. When Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, tells investors that his company’s mission is to entirely do away with animal food production, it’s clear that he’s not concerned with pastoral livelihoods. As such, a petri-protein industry whether driven by vegan evangelists or big protein companies, would ultimately have no interest to defend the small-scale pastoral farming rendering practices that maintain the livelihoods of those who care for the land.

In other words, scaled-up petri-protein production has the potential to destabilize the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Will an increase in petri-protein production ensure customary rights to the commons, and access to seeds?

Structured around private investment and models of disruption, the more likely endpoint for petri-proteins is patent-based monopolism, and the placing of proprietary technological infrastructure between the world’s majority and their food sources.

The feedstock requirements of a scaled up petri-protein industry will likely drive the enclosure of commons. Beyond the question of feedstocks, genetic engineering technologies being used by petri-protein companies may involve acquisition, utilization and monopolization of genetic resources leading to further biopiracy as corporate power seeks to enclose the genetic commons in search of new profits.

Will petri-protein techniques attract and support young people to join agroecological food production and strengthening their access to land?

A mature petri-protein industry wouldn’t just serve to enclose land and genetics. It would also serve to enclose knowledge of food production in order to protect its monopoly. Instead of millions of farmers working in cooperation with the land and local ecological systems worldwide, the premise of vat-farming is that it’s more efficient to create replicable patterns with a small and centralized pool of genetic technologists whose work is easily owned and controlled by a corporation.

Recent developments in AI-enabled genetic engineering mean that increasingly, even the engineered microbes are not really being designed by people but by algorithm. From drone-farmed fields of commodity sugar feedstocks to robotic genetic engineers and quiet bubbling fermentation tanks, petri-proteins can in many ways be conceived of as a people-free production system.

The result could be a deskilling of rural work and a depopulation of rural areas as automated monocultures become the norm and more and more food production moves off the land and into digitally-monitored vats. What’s also clear is that many food companies are also using petri-protein as a stepping stone to a whole world of industrialized applications of genetic engineering. In other words, the enclosures won’t stop at meat, milk and egg production.

Will petri-protein production ensure the rights of fishing communities?

Companies like Finless Foods are seeking to bring petri-protein disruption to the seafood industry as well, selling what CEO Michael Selden calls “clean fish”.

While there is a pressing need for regulation of fishing, especially in international waters, the most viable path to sustainable fisheries is through expansion of artisanal fishing and fisher rights. Growing the power of big protein and its investors doesn’t help the situation.

Does petri-protein production recognize the role of women in food production?

In many countries of the Global South, women play a central role in food production. Biotech, by contrast, is known for its male-dominated culture. One study found that women made up 20% of management teams and 10% of corporate boards in the industry. Fermentation and laboratory-based jobs are also male dominated.

A note of caution

During a crisis, it’s easy to pick up the solutions that are ready-to-hand. The ferocity of debates about meat consumption serves to increase the temptation to accept any solution that won’t rely on challenging and reversing precipitous growth in meat production.

Petri-protein-based “solutions” to the industrial food system’s role in the climate crisis, will come armed with ever-growing marketing and PR budgets. A quick “will X save the planet?” article is too often an irresistible pitch for journalists looking to meet deadlines and rack up clicks.

All of these are reasons to carefully evaluate the claims made by the emerging petri-protein producers. We must continue to ask:

  • How much is the petri-Protein hype driven by corporate strategies to create investment bubble in a “big protein” vision that maintains their control of protein markets?

  • What are the real numbers on total climate impacts and wider biodiversity impacts

  • What are the secondary climate and biodiversity impacts of changes in land use and impacts on livelihoods?

  • Are we ignoring less glitzy solutions that don’t have billions in profits and giant marketing budgets attached?

  • What are the health impacts of consuming processed food?

  • Do we know the health risks posed by new genetic engineering techniques and new combinations of chemicals, hormones, and mechanical processes?

As the petri-protein industry passes from hundreds of millions in investment and makes a pitch for billions, and as CEOs face increasing pressure to deliver big profits, these and other questions posed above will loom ever larger.

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