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By Benny Smith
Inertia is a perennial problem in efforts to mitigate climate change. The past 30 years have witnessed impressive innovations in carbon-free energy, but a combination of corporate greed, public apathy, and ignorance on the part of policymakers has delayed the implementation of green energy. If we are to adapt to the present and coming climatic changes and mitigate the worst-case scenarios, we must be more prompt in overhauling agriculture in the coming decades.
Alternative proteins (think Beyond burgers, soy milk, or more novel ideas like cultivated meat) may play a pivotal role in this much-needed overhaul. Animal agriculture not only accounts for almost 15 percent of humanity’s carbon footprint, but it also uses more than three quarters of our farmland while providing less than a fifth of our calories and under 40 percent of our protein. Alternative proteins can avoid these inefficiencies, making it easier to feed everyone in a changing climate while reducing agricultural emissions and still providing the sensory experience of meat and dairy products that we enjoy. Unfortunately, the meat and dairy industries are waging a quiet legal war to maintain a government-enforced advantage over sustainable alternatives.
Recently, this legal effort has taken the form of proposed legislation that would restrict the way alternative proteins can be branded and advertised. By preventing words like “burger” or “milk” from being associated with alternative proteins, the meat and dairy industries hope to drive consumers away from plant-based burgers and milk products, thus protecting their bottom line at everyone else’s expense. This strategy is known as label censorship.
Label censorship bills have been introduced in over 20 state legislatures, but have so far either failed to pass or been defeated in court. Hopefully this is a sign that the strategy will not succeed. However, label censorship may only be the tip of the iceberg. If the past few decades’ lackluster attempt at an energy transition is any guide, the climate advocacy community has a long battle ahead of it in order to transform the agricultural system.
The fossil fuel industry has worked tirelessly for decades to disrupt progress on climate change. Climate science misinformation efforts date back to the very beginning of our modern scientific understanding of anthropogenic global warming, and continue today on social media, funded to the tune of millions of dollars.
By some estimates, oil and gas companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars annually on lobbying efforts against climate reforms, such as a carbon tax in Washington state that failed to pass in 2018. It is no wonder that renewable energy still comprises only about 12 percent of U.S. energy consumption, despite the fact that carbon-free electricity is now cost-competitive with fossil fuels.
Like fossil fuels, meat and dairy are supported by tens of billions of dollars in subsidies, and you can bet that they will fight tooth and nail to maintain this massive institutional advantage over alternatives. Climate advocates should be prepared to lobby even harder for policies that transition the agricultural system away from factory farming.
Such policies should include overhauling agricultural subsidies, enhancing regulation of the meat and dairy industries, and incentivizing technological innovation. State legislators in Minnesota have set a good example recently by introducing a bill that would provide funding for plant-based food research. This bill is evidence that breadbasket states like Minnesota can be at the bleeding edge of a technological revolution if their leaders choose to enact forward-thinking policies rather than prop up industrial dinosaurs.
The mere existence of low-carbon technology does not guarantee that society can conjure the political will required to overcome structural and political barriers to the technology’s adoption. To generate that political will, the climate advocacy community must take on agriculture as a key focal point in the coming decades, prioritizing policies that make factory farming less profitable relative to alternatives. We cannot afford to repeat the past 30 years’ mediocre energy policies in the agricultural sector.
Benny Smith is a junior at Brown University studying Applied Mathematics and International and Public Affairs. In the past few years he has done technical research at Brown on alternative protein technology as well as climate modelling. He has also volunteered with a number of climate policy groups, and interned at Climate XChange in 2020. Benny grew up in Rochester, NY and has four younger siblings.