An important milestone went largely unnoticed at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this fall. Israeli President Isaac Herzog has become the first head of state in the world to try “cultured meat” – made from real chicken cells, but without slaughtering animals. After sampling it, Herzog declared it delicious and said the technology was critical not only for Israel’s security, but for the entire world.
I had heard this message before. As Assistant Under Secretary of Defense under the Obama administration, I met with a head of state from a Middle Eastern country for highly classified war planning. It was in 2013, when the Iran nuclear deal was in the works. He surprised me by saying that his worst fears were not about an Iranian nuclear weapon. Instead, he said, it was about how his country would feed itself if it ran out of water and land to grow food as temperatures rise. It was his real nightmare.
It was mine too. During my time at the Pentagon and the National Security Council, we not only prepared for war, but we also sought opportunities to deal with global risks without conflict and used technology to deal with long-term security risks. term.
One of the most immediate, politically feasible, and high-impact ways to achieve this is for the US government to invest in and accelerate alternative means of producing meat.
Full Disclosure: I work with companies that develop such technologies. But I do this precisely because I believe deeply in their mission and I am very concerned about what will happen if we do not continue this work. Alternative proteins are a new way to produce meat, either directly from plants or by growing it from animal cells. Singapore is already sells meat made from real animal cells; if it is produced on a large scale using renewable energy, it could produce meat at a fraction of climate emissions to kill chickens. In the United States, the USDA and the FDA have announced that current regulations are sufficient to ensure food safety and regulatory approval for this innovative new method of meat production, and several companies are awaiting approval. There is a lot of reason to believe that consumers will be open to buying it. Already in the United States, nearly 40 percent of households drink plant-based milk and nearly 20 percent of households eat plant-based meat, according to a study commissioned by the Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization that promotes alternative proteins.
Industrialized agriculture is a greater contributor to methane emissions than any other source. Meat is the first contributor to deforestation. Chicken, pork and beef production all use 20 times more land than vegetable meat. Per pound, conventional meat production produces more than 10 times more air pollution and more than six times more toxic chemicals than vegetable meat. A 2018 study suggests that replacing a chicken patty with a plant-based alternative could cut emissions by two-thirds.
The evidence clearly shows that eating less factory-farmed meat will be good for the planet. But it’s also good for our national security.
To be clear, food security is national security. Around today 2 billion people live on a meat-based diet, while 4 billion people mainly consume only plants. As incomes rise, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America, people want to eat more meat for the nutrient density and accessible luxury that this represents. These demands increase the pressure on arable land and scarce water resources, as meat is very inefficient to produce. For example, chicken is the most efficient animal for turning crops into meat. Yet, it takes 9 calories of food to produce one calorie of chicken meat for human consumption. It’s like making nine plates of food and throwing in eight. For beef, it’s like making 40 burgers to throw away 39. Alternative proteins are a much more resource-efficient way to fuel our growing global demand for meat.
Global warming only exacerbates the problem, with global crop yields ahead drop 3 to 6 percent each decade. Where these dynamics lead and converge, war and conflict follow. Already, countries are facing the first famines caused by climate change. While leading Middle East policy in the Pentagon, I saw how ISIS took advantage of drought and crop failure to gain the support of vulnerable populations and expand its reach. Meat produced with less water and soil is a more efficient way to meet consumer tastes without depleting resources.
This solution also enjoys greater support from established industries than other climate change mitigation solutions. Shifting to more efficient alternative proteins has the potential of electric vehicles to reduce emissions, but without political opposition now. It’s hard to imagine the world’s largest gas and energy company investing to move its customers away from fossil fuels a generation ago. But that’s what’s going on in the diet now. Global powers like Nestlé, Tyson Foods, JBS, Archer Daniels Midlands and Danone have invested millions of dollars in alternative protein startups.
Additionally, alternative proteins are a critical, but unrecognized, part of America’s relationship with China. China is already investing to become a leader in 5G networks, semiconductors, rare earths and quantum computing. It is also the largest market in battery electric vehicles and invests in the production of fuel cells to win the “battery arms race”. And this year China announced it would put more emphasis on food security. The world leader in food technology has yet to be determined, so we need to act now. Ensuring our ability to feed our people is at the heart of national security.
And on the other hand, food technology also offers a rare new area of cooperation with China. Earlier this month, I participated in a task force on the US-China digital economy with former senior government officials. Technology was once a potentially easy fruit of cooperation across the Pacific. But conflicts over semiconductors, market access, and “dual-use” civilian and defense technologies have made the technology another loophole. Food security, like climate change and infectious disease, affects the United States and China, and scientific and technical cooperation can mobilize resources to address these challenges more effectively.
Whenever I went to the Middle East as a senior defense official, the leaders told me more about the technology of tomorrow than the bombs and missiles of today. Accelerating the development of alternative proteins is a major politically feasible and technologically possible step in advancing our national security.
“Safety is like oxygen,” was the refrain. But the same goes for arable land and drinking water. “You don’t know you need him when he’s gone. “
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of his employer.