Irish Times Column, July 7th 2022.
Preventing climate disaster requires transformational innovations well beyond historical precedent. Extensive changes in the global food system, responsible for about one-third of global greenhouse gases, are necessary to meet the Paris Agreement goals, include a shift away from animal-based diets in rich countries.
Ireland could play a part in this transformation by pivoting our food system towards the rapidly advancing, disruptive industry producing meat, dairy and egg proteins without animals. Variously called animal-free meat, cultured protein and cellular agriculture, this industry offers a solution to the significant climate, environmental, animal welfare and food security issues associated with rearing livestock, which also has a vast land footprint that prevents the restoration of native forests and wetlands.
Ireland specialises in producing some of the most carbon-intensive food products, particularly beef and lamb, for export to rich countries. The current approach to reducing planet-warming gases from the sector through incremental efficiency improvements is not working: emissions continue to rise as the sector expands. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the sector is now responsible for over 40 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, which will continue to rise with current policies.
Ireland, with world-class expertise in biotechnology and food science, and huge offshore wind energy potential, could be an ideal location to spearhead advances in cellular agriculture and alternative protein.
This would be a gamechanger for reducing the climate and environmental harm from animal agriculture at home. The carbon saving from moving from beef to synthetic meat is on par with using solar power rather than coal to generate electricity. An even greater prize for the climate could be in creating global knowledge spillovers and exporting know-how.
The commercial potential for these products is huge, as countries and individuals increasingly pursue the deep emissions cuts required to address climate change. People are more likely to adopt food which tastes and looks like regular meat rather than switching to plant-based alternatives.
This new way of producing protein also has immensely important potential to improve food security for the world’s poorest, who are suffering the gravest impacts of climate change without having contributed to it. If powered by solar energy, synthetic protein bioreactors could be modular, self-contained and off-grid, thus resilient to the impacts of climate change, drought and conflict that are currently causing famine and a catastrophic humanitarian disaster in the Horn of Africa.
Robust policy support is necessary to realise this transformation.
First, subsidies must be reformed. According to the OECD, high public subsidies for agriculture globally have not led to a reduction in planet-warming emissions: half are harmful to the environment and food security. Instead, subsidies should be linked to public goods, including absolute emissions reductions in line with the Paris Agreement goals and the restoration of nature.
Second, strong public R&D funding is necessary to achieve breakthroughs in alternative protein, bring down costs and harness the entrepreneurship of the private sector by de-risking investments.
Policy can also provide a supportive regulatory environment, create markets and promote demand for new low carbon foods through early-stage procurement, and disincentivising the consumption of high-carbon food, for example with a carbon tax as we have for fossil fuels.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, winning hearts and minds will be a major challenge. As with all disruptive technologies, not everyone will benefit from a transformation, and powerful interest groups will oppose a new approach. But the status quo is not working for many farmers: Beef and lamb production is uneconomical without subsidies and will become less so as cellular meat reaches scale. A just transition for farmers is as important as it is for fossil fuel workers.
Critically, the discourse on the economic implications of climate mitigation in agriculture is still framed only in terms of loss, neglecting opportunities like new jobs in biotechnology (as well as ecotourism and nature restoration which could come from freeing up land used currently for animal agriculture), and exporting low-carbon food, with its huge commercial potential, and the technology to make it.
Primary agriculture generates only about 1 per cent of Ireland’s gross domestic product and requires substantial public subsidies. It is also vulnerable to disruption from the changing climate and the global alternative protein industry.
The wishful thinking that business-as-usual agricultural intensification is compatible with the deep emissions cuts required to tackle climate change does not serve the long-term interests of farmers, the public, nature or future generations. If Ireland wants to remain a cutting-edge, food-exporting country while meeting the deep emissions cuts necessary to stop damaging the climate, a new, transformational approach is required.
Hannah Daly is a Professor of Sustainable Energy at University College Cork and the SFI MaREI Centre for Climate, Energy and the Marine.