Transcript for Ep1. Meat the four futures
Matthew Kessler 00:00
Are you a herbivore, an omnivore or a carnivore? No matter what, you’re in the right place. Food is a lot more than what we put on our plates. How do you choose what to feed yourself or the ones you love?
What inspires your decisions? Is it the taste, the cost, the ethics? Maybe it’s a meal that reminds you of your childhood?
What we eat – and don’t eat - isn’t only a scientific question; it’s an emotional and ethical one. And it’s exactly what we’re going to explore in this podcast.
Welcome to Meat the Four Futures where we dive into four very different visions of what the future of meat and livestock could look like. We’ll speak to farmers, CEOs, scientists, NGOs and more to hear different arguments hear people make for or against these futures.
One, a plant-based future with no meat and no farmed animals.
Hakeem Jimo 01:01
I’m all in for everything that helps getting animals out of the food chains. Bring it on!
Two, efficient meat 2.0, where we raise more livestock on fewer resources to meet the growing global demand.
Jayson Lusk 01:13
Can we get more pounds from each cow or chicken? Can we use less feed to produce a pound of meat?
Three, a future featuring ‘meat’-alternatives. Like lab-grown meat and insects.
Paul Shapiro 01:26
Where we continue eating all the meat that humanity wants but without the need to cause so much harm to the planet and to animals.
And four, a less meat future - where animals are raised in ways that mimic their natural environments.
Jude Capper 01:39
If we use grazing livestock, we can make use of all the global land that we can’t really grow anything else on.
So no meat, more meat, different meat, or less meat.
I’m Matthew Kessler from TABLE, and I’m very excited, and a little bit nervous, to guide you through this series. I’ve worked on farms and slaughtered and ate animals. But then I became a vegetarian for many years. I’ve walked into the grocery stores and markets and chose the cheapest option. And I’ve worked in restaurants and used only the “best” ingredients. And now, as I think about what to feed my one year daughter - meat or no meat, and if meat, how much and what kind?
I am really fortunate to have had so many conversations and hear so many different solutions to the questions: what should we eat and how should we produce our food in the future?
So in this series we will explore the what, the why and the how. What do each of the four futures look like? Why are people motivated to create them? How would we get there? And do their arguments hold up to scrutiny?
We’ll hear personal stories, dig into the scientific research, and engage with the ethical dilemmas, as we try to depolarize a very polarized conversation.
Jayson Lusk 03:09
What evidence would cause me to change my mind?
Lars Appelqvist 03:13
We are a part of the problem today, but we could actually be part of the solution also.
Emma Kritzberg 03:19
We can eat better meat, but regardless we need to eat less meat!
I can't really see why should I - if I don't have to - start eating meat again?
Are you ready to meet the four futures?
t’s possible that you’ll hate me by the end of this series. I hope not. Truly. I hope to take you on the journey that I’ve been on this last year - talking to people about their vision of what a good future for meat and livestock looks like and how do we get there?
Food has this incredible ability to bring people together. But it can also divide us. And how can it not? The same foods that some find so nutritious, that give us such a strong sense of who we are - are also believed by others to be at the center of so many existential concerns - global malnutrition, climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequality.
So talking about these different futures - no meat, less meat, alternative meat, or efficient meat, can equally inspire or terrify. In this podcast people that support each vision will speak for themselves; all with different values and goals. That means, one thing is for sure: you’ll meet people who you disagree with along the way.
Steve Jurvetson 04:53
It will no longer be a debatable proposition, anywhere on planet earth, that our future will be entirely clean meat.
Per Fredriksson 05:01
I can’t actually see the non-meat future.
Amy Fitzgerald 05:05
The current system, industrialized animal agriculture, I think can be called many things but I don't think natural is one of them.
Iain Tolllhurst 05:15
There is a logical progression from vegetarianism to veganism. If you question everything you will automatically become a vegan.
Jude Capper 05:21
Because we know from a scientific point of view that if we improve efficiency in any system, that will cut the carbon footprint.
In this podcast, we will let people elaborate on these arguments; giving you nuances and perspectives that maybe you haven’t thought of so much before?
Maybe we’ll find that theirs is more common ground than we expected?
But first we should establish some baselines, because this isn’t an “anything goes” podcast. It’s clear that from an environment, a health and a social perspective, “business as usual” is not working and urgent action is needed.
So let’s take a look at how meat is eaten and produced across the world today.
Part 1 Current picture – according to science
Elin Röös 06:15
My research aims at figuring out how we can feed a growing population without destroying our environment.
Elin Röös is an associate professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and a researcher director at TABLE.
So a lot of what I do in my research is to try to calculate how different foods and different diets and agricultural systems affect things like climate, biodiversity.
Elin has looked at some key trends with animal agriculture around the world.
Both meat consumption and production has increased massively during the last 50-60 years. So if we look at 1961, the average global meat consumption was 23 kg of meat per year per person. And now that has risen to 44kg of meat per person and year. And of course, in the same time, population increased also.
So in the last 60 years the population has doubled, and we're eating twice as much meat as we used to. Which means we're producing and eating 4 times as much meat as we did in 1960.
And I want to break this down a little more, since these global averages can hide the differences of how much meat people eat across the world.
So in affluent, high meat consuming countries like Australia, the United States, Spain - people are consuming over 100 kilograms of meat each year. Which translates to two to three that include some meat each day. And then you have Bangladesh, India, Rwanda, where people are eating on average 4-5 kg of meat throughout the whole year.
So people are eating different amounts of meat, and they’re also eating different animals.
There has been a massive rise in poultry production. So chicken has overtaken beef and pig meat globally in the last 20-30 years. So chicken is now the most commonly consumed type of meat globally.
And that doesn’t look like it will slow down either. Poultry consumption is expected to increase 8 times in India and 5 times in South America in the coming decades.
And I should add here that we’re talking about land animals. If we think about animals from the ocean and the seas, there are over 2500 edible species. And aquaculture, farmed fish, is the fastest growing food production sector; demand is expected to double by 2050. So this is clearly a very important industry with lots of diversity. Unfortunately fish is not a focus here, for now at least.
One stat that really blew my mind was realizing that if you add up all the biomass of all mammals on earth, livestock makeup 62% and humans 34%. And only 4% of this total mammal biomass are actually wild animals. When I first heard this, it just shows so clearly how humans and our animals really have total dominance over the planet.
So why is that there are 15 times more livestock than there are wild mammals? We’ve been trending in this direction since the rise of human civilization. This was first driven by over hunting, and then mostly by converting the habitat where wild mammals lived into land where we can grow food.
Elin Röös breaks down how much land we use for agriculture.
So if we look at the globe - about a 1/3 is land and the rest is water. Out of this land, some of it is of course like mountains and deserts and glaciers that can’t really support any life, and what’s left is 70% that could support life. And out of that, half of the habitable land is used for agriculture.
You heard that right. Half of the habitable land on the planet is used to grow food. The rest is mostly a combination of forest, shrubs and grasslands.
Agriculture is really using a lot of the land that can support life. And out of that land, livestock uses approximately 75% of the agriculture land.
75% seems like a really high number. And when I’m driving around the midwest of the United States or where I live now in Sweden, I typically see a lot of crops being grown rather than animals grazing on pastures.
The 75% includes both grazing lands and land that is used to grow feed for animals. But it depends on the continent and the country, of course. For example Norway has only a few percent of arabIe land that it can grow crops. And some countries have massive grazing land so if you would drive through you would only see grazing animals.
So each country is different. Not only when it comes to what land and resources are available for certain types of agriculture, but there’s other considerations. Like what are people’s current diets, how many people live there now and in the future, and how much power do they have in influencing global food trade.
And when you look at the global picture where three quarters of agricultural land is used for livestock, what’s actually being produced?
So animal source foods supply 17% of global calories and 33% of protein, and 43% of fats. Of course these foods, they make vital contributions to diets globally when it comes to nutrition, but they also use a lot of land.
One of the reasons we’re talking about meat is because of its impact on the environment and specifically on climate change. There’s an increasing awareness that animal agriculture is up there with energy generation and the transportation sector as one of the biggest global emitters. The most cited studies suggest that 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock industry, although some estimate it to be a little higher or a little lower.
Elin explains the main sources of these emissions that come from animal agriculture.
There’s basically four sources you can say. So first you have methane emissions from the ruminants - so ruminants are animals like cattle and sheep and goats. And these animals, they have multiple stomachs. And that makes it possible for them to break down fiber rich material in their feed like grass and straw. They can eat and extract the nutrients from these materials.
So while these ruminants can take advantage of feed that humans can’t eat directly, methane is formed through this process.
And methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. It’s much more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term, so that’s why methane emissions from ruminants is a very significant source of greenhouse gases from animal agriculture.
The second source is from growing large amounts of crops to feed to the animals. To produce 1 kg of pork, for example, you need to grow around six or seven kilograms of feed like wheat, oats and corn, to feed to the pigs.
Growing of crops causes greenhouse gas emission from the fertilizer we use, the soil, and also of course the energy used in machinery on fields and so on.
And the third source?
Manure from animals also causes GHG emissions. When manure is stored and spread on fields it also leaks some greenhouse gas emissions.
And then lastly, livestock production is also driving deforestation. So the cutting down of forest to make room for either croplands to grow feed, or pastures for grazing animals. And deforestation causes large amounts of GHG emissions. And it also has very negative effects on biodiversity.
So the four main sources are methane burps from ruminants, the emissions from growing feed for the animals, the manure from the livestock, and deforestation.
We’ve been talking about some of the problems associated with livestock, but there’s also benefits. Meat provides many essential nutrients including iron, zinc and B vitamins. While these nutrients are found in other foods, some like vitamin B12, are much harder to get from plant-based sources.
For many children in poor settings, that don’t have access to a healthy diet. For these children, an egg, a glass of milk or a piece of meat per day can be extremely important. On the other hand meat consumption is very unevenly distributed with people in rich countries like Australia, the US and Europe eating many times more meat than people in poor countries.
And we look at this global picture, there are up to 1 billion livelihoods and families connected with some form of livestock production, typically on a much scaler-scale. And as we’ll explore in this series – livestock in particular contexts can have some really positive impacts on the environment.
To wrap up I asked Elin Röös why she sees focusing on meat and livestock as such a pressing issue?
Livestock production uses so much land and resources already and then we have this expected increase in demand, so it is absolutely central to discuss the future of meat and livestock when we think about how to feed the world in a sustainable way going forward.
This subject is also a very sensitive subject. We like our meat. And there are strong vested interests in livestock production. There are also so many different ways to solve the problem with livestock and the solutions really depend on where you are in the world and what things you prioritize.
And what are her hopes for this series?
I hope this series will bring some clarity to some important questions. First, what facts can we actually trust when it comes to livestock and meat production and consumption and its consequences. What do we actually have good evidence for and where do we need more research still? And why do people disagree on what are the best solutions going forward and why do people come to such different conclusions?
We hope to bring some clarity to you and to Elin Röös, professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
Part 2 - The origin of the four futures
Tara Garnett 17:40
Every time I was in a room I heard a different analysis of what the livestock problem was, and a different nightmare that they feared and a different solution that they were arguing for.
Matthew Kessler 17:54
Tara Garnett is a researcher at the University of Oxford and the director of TABLE.
TABLE tries to look at the big debates people are having about a desirable future for food and it really tries to look at how and why people disagree.
Back in 2015, Tara Garnett wrote Gut feelings and possible tomorrow's: (Where) does animal farming fit? This report is the origin of the four futures that we’re exploring in this series. These scenarios were prompted by over a decade of experience speaking with researchers and professionals working on the food system and hearing their different views.
And the more I got listening and talking. The more I felt that these different visions of good and bad seem to cluster into different futures. And I thought it might be interesting to try and explore what those futures look like.
She used these different visions to try and imagine four different worlds and considered how each might develop politically, socially and ecologically.
And I should say that with all such thought exercises, there's a whole load of oversimplification involved, and most people are very thoughtful and nuanced, and all the rest of it.
Let’s have a closer look at the four futures.
The one vision which you might call an efficiency scenario, takes as its starting point, this idea that the global population is growing. It's becoming wealthier and more urbanized, and it is increasingly wanting to eat more animal products.
Animal products are delicious, they are nutritious, and they have negative environmental impacts. So what we need to be doing is producing this: more animal product with less environmental costs.
So this way of thinking would mean we should be eating the kinds of animals that can turn animal feed into meat at a more efficient rate, like pigs and chickens.
And we need to be producing this in cleaner, greener ways, which we can do through breeding and feeding formulations, by perhaps rearing animals in confined animal feeding operations, by recycling their waste into anaerobic digesters to produce energy. And indeed, you know, if we're getting a bit science fiction-y about it by producing animals that overcome those welfare challenges by breeding them to be more docile, to feel no pain.
Since we've spent the better part of the last century optimizing livestock production for yield and building efficient global infrastructure, this is an approach we're really good at. So isn't this the most practical way to meet the growing global demand for meat?
Well, a second scenario claims there is an even better way to meet this demand.
This one does a little leapfrog and says, “Well, let's actually just bypass the animal altogether.” We can actually produce this animal protein in cleaner and greener ways using cellular agriculture and other forms of innovation.
In this future, we explore the role of insects as a meat alternative, and novel foods like cultivated meat or cellular agriculture to free up land for nature. This future contains both the most uncertainty - since it’s banking on a technology that hasn’t yet proven itself to scale - and it also holds the greatest potential to disrupt how we eat and produce food today.
The third possible future presents a completely different option.
It says, “Hey, we've completely missed the point with animals. Yes, we want meat. Yes, we want milk. And these are natural foods, they are good for us in their place.” But the whole point of rearing animals has been to use them as nutrient recyclers. As animals that can consume byproducts, grass, things that we can't eat directly, and turn them into nutritious food for humans.
What we need to do is harness that cyclicality. And remember what animals are for. And get back to rearing livestock on leftovers. And if we do this, and if we adapt our appetites to match the biophysical capacities of the land, then we will have good quality nutrition in harmony with nature.
Here we have what we're calling the less meat future, which calls for those in affluent countries to match their diets with what the land can provide without robbing resources from future generations.
Is this the best way to continue to eat meat while staying within planetary boundaries? And finally,
A fourth scenario is: we can modify our appetites. That demand is a human construct. And that what we ought to be doing is leaving animals alone entirely, and switching to a more plant based future that really, really focuses on optimizing human nutrition at least environmental cost. And that allow for large tracts of land to be sequestering carbon through rewilding, reafforestation, and so on and so forth.
This plant based future sees little benefit from livestock. Instead, land that could be grazed could be turned into forests, and land that previously grew feed for animals can now be used to grow food directly for human consumption.
Is a shift towards more plant-based diets the best way to improve the health of humans and the environment?
In Gut feelings, Tara Garnett imagines the environmental, the social, economic, and political consequences of fully embracing each of these four possible futures. But near the end of each scenario, she also imagines what might go wrong; like mass starvation or widespread obesity. And some very strong backlash that might produce the opposite of what was desired. So why does Tara end each section that way?
I just don't feel happy with the idea of wholeheartedly embracing one thing. Because for a start, I feel that's where fundamentalism lies. And it excludes the possibility of understanding other ways of doing things and other people's points of view. So I feel that any unified vision of a future contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.
There are always problems, you know, or new solutions breed new problems. I mean, that's the history of humanity, isn't it? So, I think it's realistic to highlight what those might be.
You know, that said, I certainly am not a wholehearted endorser of any of those futures. But I see myself positioned in a sort of combination of them. As in, I have my biases towards a few of those scenarios.
So what are some of the problems?
With the efficiency future, you could lay charges of animal cruelty, animal commodification, propping up the status quo, with all its problems of obesity and resource extraction and concentration of power in the food system. So that's one set of accusations.
With the alternative proteins, you could argue that it hits the target and misses the point, it might take animals out of the system, it might lower some of those greenhouse gas emissions, but it props up a food system based on the consumption of highly processed foods; that it perpetuates our ongoing alienation from the natural world; and that it risks further concentrating power in the hands of a small number of large companies.
Tara Garnett continues her criticisms of each future, with the less meat scenario where livestock is raised in ways that mimic the animal's natural environment.
You could argue that it's extremely elitist because meat availability would go down. It would become a luxury; only affordable by the rich, unless there was some radical redistribution that was going on as well. If people didn't like it, then it would give rise to further land use change and deforestation to up the output in order to meet that demand.
And then finally, with the kind of plant based future. One level, you could say, well, that's the old hippie project, isn't it, “we all love our lentils,” and go around sort of dancing with daisies in our hair, and that's never going to happen, and that people like meat.
Another risk for that scenario that I see is that this focus on healthy and sustainable diets can risk becoming quite fascistic in its focus, and that it can lead into a certain kind of eco fundamentalism, which risks apart from anything else being quite joyless. That's why I feel they're all dangerous at the extremes.
Since writing this report eight years ago now, Tara has two key observations about what has changed. One, the less meat or livestock on leftovers scenario, has entered more mainstream debates and has been flying under the flag of regenerative agriculture. And second, the plant base and alternative meet scenario have started to merge a bit.
As we’ll explore in these futures, there's probably a lot more overlap of motivations and visions than you might initially expect.
To wrap up, I asked Tara what her hopes are for the series?
I really, really want to hear how advocates have these different futures, and variants of those futures. I want to hear what their arguments are, what the best possible versions of those futures might be, what risks they recognize there to be, and how they feel that those risks can be managed.
I feel that the biggest need that we have these days is to be open minded. And because that is the way to having better and more constructive communication and interaction with one another. So I'm hoping that this podcast will contribute to more open minded discussions.
That said, obviously, there is a fine line between being open minded and never knowing what you think. But I do hope that this podcast will help. Hopefully it will be able to get people to understand what their views are and why they hold their views, while also having some kind of empathetic understanding of how and why people come at things from a different perspective.
Thanks to Tara Garnett, researcher at the University of Oxford and the director of TABLE. We’ll link to the original Gut feelings report in the episode show notes.
So whether you’ve sworn off eating animals, whether you enjoy meat every day, or whether you're in the middle – this podcast is for you.
We hope you join us through to the end – and we want to hear from you along the way. We’re going to feature listener comments in a later episode and we want to know what you agree and disagree with and whether your views have changed from the beginning. You can add your voice to the podcast - record yourself in a quiet room and send it to us by the end of May 2023 to email@example.com
And there’s more to Meat the four futures than this podcast. We also invite you to try out a values-based quiz that we developed for people to reflect on where they enter these debates. Depending on how your own values guide your answers, you’ll be plotted onto one of the four futures – and the result just might surprise you! The quiz is like a ‘what Disney princess are you?’, but instead for the future of meat and livestock.
And we’ve launched a newsletter where you can see videos and more bonus content. You can subscribe to the newsletter, take the quiz, read the report and find more information on the project, all on our website: tabledebates.org/meat
Thank you all for listening. You can subscribe, rate and review us on Apple podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen. And tell your friends about us- so you can argue with them over your next dinner together!
This is a Formas funded project presented by TABLE - a collaboration between University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. This episode was edited by me, Matthew Kessler and Ylva Carlqvist Warnborg with help and support by the wider TABLE team. Music by Blue Dot Sessions and Epidemic Sound.