We Don't Have to Give up Burgers to Address Climate Change. We Just Have to Give up the Cows | Opinion

When talking about the climate crisis, transportation and power plants get most of the attention. But with record heat drying up crops around the world and record storms delaying and even preventing planting in the midwestern U.S., the future of agriculture has never been more in need of active public research and investment.

Climate change will increasingly impact agriculture, so it makes sense for agriculture to be part of the solution. In fact, it's hard to see how we can make much of a dent on climate without addressing farming. Global meat production causes more climate change than emissions from every single plane, train, and automobile in the world. The problem is that feeding crops to animals and then eating part of the animal is inherently inefficient. According to the World Resource Institute, it takes nine calories of crops to get one calorie of chicken meat. A review in the journal Nature found that per calorie of protein, poultry causes 40 times more global warming than legumes.

Documenting the detrimental impacts of industrial animal agriculture has become almost a sport in scientific, public health, and environmental circles. For decades, everyone from governments to green nonprofits to animal rights activists has made their case for dietary change. We've heard the same message time and again (and again and again).

The problem is that none of these reports have had any significant impact on consumer choices. According to the USDA, per-capita meat consumption in the U.S. is currently as high as ever. Global per-capita meat consumption is also at an all-time high and expected to go up for as long as anyone can project.

So we face a paradox. Meat production today causes many severe harms that threaten us all. Yet all evidence indicates that most people will eat as much meat as they can afford.

Luckily, there is a solution that directly reduces impact without consumer coercion. We can produce the meat people want in resource-efficient ways: directly from plants or from cells.

Producing meat directly from plants—as is being done by the wildly successful companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—is inherently more efficient and thus vastly more sustainable. As a bonus, plant-based meat isn't subject to fecal contamination or heavy-metal buildup. It also doesn't drive antibiotic resistance.

Producing animal meat directly from animal cells offers many of the same benefits. Like plant-based meat, cell-based meat will also be more efficient, since there is no need to fuel an animal's metabolism or to grow brains, blood, and bone. Like plant-based meat, cell-based meat won't drive antibiotic resistance or cause food poisoning from fecal Salmonella or E. coli.

In addition to contributing many fewer carbon emissions, plant-based and clean meat use vastly less land than current meat production—approximately an order of magnitude less. By shifting meat production to these more efficient methods, we free up most of the land currently used to grow feed crops. Some of this land can be used for growing more food, along with a greater diversity of crops, for the world's growing population. But much of this land can and should be allowed to return to carbon-storing forests.

We don't have to give up our burgers to address climate change. By changing how we produce meat, we can transform the meat industry from a leading cause of global warming to the main tool for mitigating and even reversing climate change.

But change isn't happening quickly enough. The private sector has given us plant-based burgers that bleed but has yet to produce a mass-market steak we can sink our teeth into. Part of the challenge is engineering—creating production processes that transform plants into a variety of toothsome meats—and part is that we've only begun to explore the diversity of the plant kingdom or breed soy, peas, and other legumes to be optimized for plant-based meat.

Similarly, although scientists clearly know how to make a variety of cell-based meats—companies have hosted tastings for cell-based salmon, minute steak, and fried chicken—challenges remain in scaling up production and keeping costs down to feed millions of people.

Anyone who cares about the future of our climate should, of course, buy these new products. But we should also support public funding for plant-based and cell-cultured meat research. More research in these fields is key to allowing American farmers to continue to feed the world.

Dr. Liz Specht is Associate Director of Science and Technology for The Good Food Institute, a global nonprofit building a sustainable, healthy, and just food system.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own.

A herd of cows. Scientists are working to create lab-grown beef. iStock