Tomorrow, I head to the University of Ottawa to present at “The Future of Protein” event. When many people talk about the future of our food system, they’re looking at how to produce calories. The reason I’m excited about this event in Canada is because it’s all about protein, not just calories.
We don’t have an issue producing calories. In fact, we are over producing, over consuming and wasting calories. Most of our food waste is from fruit and vegetables, not meat production. Many reports looking at the state of our agricultural system show that we have precious few harvests left. Some think it’s only 60 years at our current production levels, others think it’s even fewer. Given that our current methods of food production are unsustainable, how do we move forward and produce food for our growing population? We don’t need more nutrient-poor human “feed.” What we need to know is how to produce more nutritious food, and how to do this in better way. And while many celebrities and investors from silicon valley think that lab meats are the answer, I question this solution, and I’d like to explain why it’s so delusional.
Enter Regenerative Agriculture
Food that is grown in a regenerative way is really our only hope for our future. This goes way beyond simply growing thing organically. And although my blog is “Sustainable Dish,” I’m actually a huge proponent of producing food in a way that will improve our soils. Regenerative agriculture systems improve soil health, increase the water holding capacity of the soil, promote biodiversity, and lead to greater complexity and resilient ecosystems. I’d like to illustrate how lab meats are actually a false solution.
Let me take a step back…
Life on earth is complex. To help illustrate this point, let’s look at establishing life on one of our closest neighbors to begin unpacking this topic. To better understand both a healthy ecosystem, what’s happening to our ecosystem today, and the ramifications of what some of the anti-meat recommendations are, I’d like to bring you through a thought experiment…
I’ll begin with a place called “Grassworld.” Picture a planet in the middle of the solar system. It’s a completely blank slate, but capable of supporting life. All that currently exists is dirt and a pond. You’d like to turn this into a self-sustaining ecosystem. The first thing you decide is that you should plant some grass. You pick out a variety that seems well suited to the humid climate and mild winters, and buy enough to cover this 3000 acre planet. You spread the seed. It sprouts and grows. At the end of the season, it turns brown and dies back. The next season, it comes back but it’s more patchy, sparse, dry and yellow. The third season comes and the island is desert like. Rain falls but just runs off. Grassworld was a failure.
What does grass need to grow? Do healthy grasslands have no animals on it at all? Are they simply grass, or do they need something else? What about adding something to fertilize the soil? What is natural fertilizer that can be produced from grass? You could bring in chemical fertilizers but because we’re looking to build a sustainable ecosystem, what are the natural alternatives? What about bringing in an animal that can convert the grass to fertilizer? What does this look like?
Let’s start over again. Let’s call this “Grass-and-cattle-world”.
This time, you plant grass and bring in 100 head of cattle and allow them to roam free. Things are looking good. The cattle eat the grass, which actually stimulates it to grow stronger, deeper roots. Their manure also inoculates the soil with beneficial bacteria, helping to grow healthier grass. The cattle drink from the pond. Their urine plus manure also add moisture to the soil. Their stomping on the ground creates divots, allowing the rains to penetrate deeper.
You visit grass-and-cattle world and it’s back to desert again. Everything died. What happened? The cow population got out of control due to all of the rich grass. They ended up eating all of the grass.
Ok, let’s try a third time. We’ll start with the grass again, and 100 cattle, but this time, let’s control that cattle population so it doesn’t get too big. What would naturally control the herd of cattle? What about something that didn’t need any extra fuel or outside inputs? How does this work in nature? Let’s control that cattle population with some wolves. What would this look like?
We’ll call this “Grass-and-cattle-and-wolf-world.”
In this scenario, the cattle are constantly on the move because they’re worried about the wolves. Because of this, they’re not on one particular patch of pasture too long, which allows it to rest after being eaten. The cattle herd is also surprisingly healthy looking. They’ve been getting a lot of exercise. The older cattle have been culled and eaten by the wolves, and some of the young too. This may seem harsh, but the wolves are actually keeping the cattle population in check, which means that their numbers aren’t too large for the ecosystem to support.
There’s now a dynamic equilibrium between the pasture, the cattle and the wolves. But the system is still fragile. What if a disease comes and wipes out one of the three species living here? A cow virus for example would kill the grass and the wolves as well. What is needed for a more resilient system? What if we had many species of grass, a few other grass-eating animals, a few more types of predators, etc.? Are things starting to become clear?
With electric fencing and by harvesting meat, ranchers able to move, exercise, and cull the animals in the same way the wolves did in the experiment. Cattle can improve soil health on land we can’t cultivate, producing nutrient-dense protein. As we introduce different types of grass, different animals (like mobile chickens) we can further mimic natural cycles. This is the opposite of what is occurring when we produce lab meat.
The more diverse an ecosystem, the healthier it is. In fact, according to Webster’s Dictionary, an ecosystem is “the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit.”
They key word here is: complex.
The more complex, the healthier and more resilient the ecosystem is. Deserts and arctic regions are considered fragile because of their lack of diversity. Hillsides need inputs from animals that carry nutrients up from the fertile valleys through their manure. Without these animals, we’re much more susceptible to landslides.
Given the goal of producing more, not less, biodiversity, does lab meat make sense? Is plowing up the soil and cropping every inch possible in the best interest of the planet, or is this simply creating a “grassworld?” A lot of people promoting the concept of lab meat fail to understand that you can’t grow something from nothing, and that lab meat is the result of mono crop agriculture, not a regenerative system.
Impossible Burger Ingredients List: Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Leghemoglobin (soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Konjac Gum, Xanthan Gum, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.
Beyond Burger Ingredient List: Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Contains 2% or less of the following: Cellulose from Bamboo, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Natural Flavor, Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Vegetable Glycerin, Dried Yeast, Gum Arabic, Citrus Extract (to protect quality), Ascorbic Acid (to maintain color), Beet Juice Extract (for color), Acetic Acid, Succinic Acid, Modified Food Starch, Annatto (for color).
For more on why I hate fake meat, read this post.
The Future of food is Regenerative Agriculture
There’s a new certification by the Savory Institute that does get this, and can help ensure that your food was produced in a regenerative way. Their “Land to Market” program is the first verification process looking at the outcome of regenerative farming.
Their EOV (Ecological Outcome Verification) process looks at a range of short and long term indicators of ecosystem improvement and can help ranchers better understand how their practices are impacting the land. Epic Provisions is the first brand to release a certified product under this new program. Their Sweet & Spicy Sriracha Beef Bites is the first product in the world to carry the EOV seal and more brands are jumping on board. This is the future of food. This is where silicon valley and celebrities need to be investing their money, not in fake, ultra-processed meat products made from chemical agriculture.
Learn more about regenerative agriculture and donate to Savory Institute here.
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