Transcript for Ep8. Looking back, looking forward
Welcome to the concluding episode of the Meat the four Futures podcast presented by TABLE. I’m your guide for the series, Matthew Kessler.
Over the last few months, we explored what the future of meat and livestock could look like. We’ve talked about how our values, ethics and where we live in the world can impact our desired futures for meat. And we did a deep dive into four potential futures – starting with an efficient meat future, where we produce more meat using fewer resources.
Jayson Lusk 0:34
We know people like to eat meat. How can we give them what they want while reducing the impacts that that consumption has on the environment, and one way to do that is to increase efficiency.
Next, we looked at an alternative-meat future that aims to replicate the taste and texture of meat in labs and kitchens to reduce our dependence on industrial livestock production.
Isha Datar 0:47
To hear that we can grow meat from cells made me feel like oh my gosh, this is such an obvious next step for humanity and a real win-win-win, when you think about not just reducing environmental impact, but also animals need not suffer anymore for food.
Third, we visited a less meat future, where we ate fewer animals that were raised in ways that mimic their natural environments..
We can use food and farming to sequester carbon in soils, to create habitats, rather than destroying them. My cows are bringing in nutrition from part of the landscape that I cannot otherwise make a part of my food system.
And fourth, we spoke to advocates of a plant-based future and saw what that would look like on people’s plates, on farms and across society.
We're really thinking about how to make a more sustainable and just food system, from the perspective of animal ethics, public health ethics and environmental ethics.
These visions of four futures for meat and livestock go beyond describing what types of food we should eat, and how these foods should be produced. They reveal distinct worlds. Each with its own set of beliefs, values, and assumptions about how the world works.
Some of us find it simpler to try to change our diets. And others are trying to revolutionize how we produce food. Some put more faith in technology and industry to innovate us out of environmental crises, while others put more stock in collective action.
In this episode I’ll share some personal reflections on what I learned about the future of meat and livestock after making this series; and we are going to begin this episode by listening to the listeners. We asked you to share your thoughts and you came through.
As always, if you missed an episode, we hope you go back to hear the whole story.
Part 1. The listeners talk
I’m excited to share some comments and thoughts from the listeners. One thing that came across clearly - not only from podcast guests, but also from you - is that while this is an important topic to discuss, it’s even more urgent that we act.
I think we need to take actions right away.
It’s easy to forget about how urgent the problem is.
Yeah I do agree we are running out of time definitely.
I’m not sure how well known this is, but the food system is responsible for ¼ to ⅓ of human caused global greenhouse gas emissions. So even if we completely decarbonize the energy sector, if we don’t address the impacts of food production and consumption on the climate - we will blow right past the 1.5 degree Celsius target set at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.
Some of you called in to say that we shouldn’t be betting on a single future.
My name is Dr Mike Rivington. I’m a scientist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland. The arguments around less meat or more meat can become quite polarized. I don’t think it has to be an either / or; the solution somewhere is a balance. It’s a compromise in the future for how much meat we consume, and where it’s produced and how it’s produced.
Mike says that advocating for a sustainable and equitable future involves endorsing a combination of scenarios.
He also raises an important research question, can we meet health goals and environmental goals at the same time?
If increasing meat consumption in some parts of the world for health benefits is countered by decrease in other parts of the world, what’s the net effect on things like greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental factors?
My name is Kamil. I’m a development professional based in Islamabad, Pakistan. I’m very glad to see that the nutritional value of meat is being juxtaposed with the nutrient deficiency that is present in many nations of the global south, where meat often provides the easiest and quickest way to remedy many of these deficiencies.
Kamil says that it’s incredibly important to contextualize these conversations about meat and livestock in different geographies.
Pakistan is a highly geographically diverse country, it is a country that contains many different kinds of topographies and many different ethnicities and subcultures. The province of Punjab is often called the country’s breadbasket, due to the presence of 5 rivers and fertile soil. Which allows crops to grow a lot more easily. Therefore, there is greater diversity in the types of food that are available and also more of a selection to be had in how one is able to obtain nutrition. Other parts of the country however aren’t nearly as fortunate. Crop growth is not nearly as prodigious or efficient in provinces such as Balochistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which means that food has to be brought in from other regions. And also there is generally lower availability compared to say Punjab.
In these more rural regions, Kamil offers that livestock is better suited to the terrain and that animal foods play an important role in meeting nutrient deficiencies.
Some of you commented on specific episodes - like the less meat future.
My name is Minna Kanerva and I work as a postdoc at the University of Bremen, doing research related to sustainable meat consumption. As you say, in the less meat episode, a meat tax or meat being expensive, due to different production methods, would both be politically difficult and likely be seen as unjust towards consumers.
Minna suggests taking a different approach to achieving a less meat future that we didn’t discuss in the podcast.
A way that could support higher meat prices and make that actually more palatable to the public would be a rationing system. Rationing meat sounds extremely radical. But it has already been suggested as a way to handle the environmentally necessary sharp cuts in meat consumption in a more fair and realizable way.
Minna says it’s still an open question on how to do it, but is an important option to begin discussing.
Another listener, Guy, commented on the efficient meat episode and questioned the idea that ‘the most productive animal, grown in the least amount of time, for the least cost, is the best definition of efficiency.
Think of the chickens. They saw that when they tried to go more and more efficient, and they say efficient they mean less space, bigger birds, it hurt the bone density. I don’t agree with the determination of efficiency only in the matter of less expensive and more money. Because It’s short term thinking.
It may be beneficial that they have more space because then they can charge more for the product or get the chickens bigger and stronger, and then the product would be better.
As we were developing this series, we had lots of discussions about what to call the four scenarios. One listener suggested alternative names for the futures, which I thought were pretty decent suggestions - 1. Efficient meat as ‘More from less’, 2. Alternative meat as “technology will save us”, 3. Less meat could be ‘Eat less, farm better’ and the fourth one could be “Plant-forward”, since no meat isn’t a realistic goal or outcome for all.
For the project we developed a values-based quiz which plots you onto one the four futures, which many of you took and shared your comments on. It’s still available on our website- tabledebates.org/meat, if haven’t you tried it yet. One listener landed right between the alternative meat and the plant-based no meat future.
I am vegan myself and I took the quiz. And I was aligned, of course with the plant based future, but also with the alternative meat one, which makes sense. But then listening to the alternative meat episode, I actually think I shifted away from that a little bit. And I want to explain why. Both the CEO of better meat and the investor in the company are making analogies around cars.
And I think that in the same way that many of us would never dream of using a horse drawn carriage to get around to anywhere today, our descendants will never dream of locking animals up in cages.
A lot of the urban parking lots that are probably not going to be needed once we have fully autonomous cars, and you don't need to park so much could be converted to meat manufacturing locations within city centers.
That made me reflect on how much this future relies on technology and less on structural change. Of course, having a lot of horse poop around isn't very nice. But the larger pollution that was caused by moving from horses to automobiles isn't really considered, which is of course, much, much larger than having horse manure around. And the idea of having vacant parking lots because we're going to have automated cars. Well, why not have a future that is based on public transportation that is a lot more equitable and less polluting. And these two ideas really made me think, well, there are a lot of people involved in this future that are just not really willing to let go of privileges and are more invested in kind of keeping the system as it is with just a different kind of burger.
And really bringing that up was hearing Hakeem Jimo saying “we don't have time for this. And we have plants and plants are great.” And then hear Jan Dutkiewicz talking about beans and how wonderful they are and cheap and nutritious and available. And I think I would actually be quite curious to take the quiz again and see if I am now more vegan and I was, you know at the beginning of this podcast series.
This listener makes a great point, and makes me wonder how all of you have changed your views at all before and after listening to the podcast. It could be a good time to take the quiz - either for the first time, or again, to see if you’ve moved at all.
Jasmina van Driel
I'm Jasmina van Driel. And I'm working with ZahnMW, which is the Dutch health research funding agency. And I ended up in the scenario with “no meat”, but that was a bit conflicting with my personal value. I think at this point in time, from a health perspective, we should be eating a little bit of meat. The Eat Lancet report gives guidelines on that. But if I look at the urgency of the climate situation I should not be eating meat at all at this point. So that’s a bit the conflict I have there. But of course, I'm a woman, a middle aged woman that has different needs from children and elderly. So I think we should be careful to distinguish between those needs.
I want to thank all of the listeners who have called and wrote to us to share your thoughts across the series. I’ve read and listened to every one of them. You’ve just heard from Mike, Kamil, Minna, Guy, Doron, Jasmina.
And thanks to the Uppsala Health Summit for letting us host a workshop where we met and recorded some of the listeners.
And piggybacking off what some of the listeners said about not focusing too much on a single solution, I want to highlight the findings of a few recent studies. Which show how it’s incredibly important to have multiple strategies to reduce the emissions coming from the food system. If we make significant cuts to how much food we waste, if we continue to boost and improve farm yields, and if many of us switch to plant-based diets or eat less meat, we could be on a path towards reaching the 1.5 degree target. But if we only focus on any one of those strategies individually, we would likely fall short. We’ll link to this research in our show notes.
One more listener weighed in.
I come from a point of view where I tend to be quite idealistic.
You may recognize this voice from the first episode. Tara Garnett, TABLE director and researcher at the University of Oxford, and original author of the four futures, shares some of her own reflections on the series.
And really, really, I guess I am more in the less meat, no meat camp. And have perhaps an excessively strong faith in, in the ability of larger influences than the individual to shape our behavior.
And I think what I got from the efficiency perspective, which is the perspective that I am least disposed towards. I nevertheless got the sense that people here are coming from a perspective of, let's call it quite a realistic, pragmatic approach to how people are right now and where people are.
You can look beyond your position and return to your original position with a deeper insight into firstly, why people hold different points of view. And secondly, this is really important in today's very polarized society, an insight into the fact that other people with whom you might disagree are nevertheless acting in good faith.
Part 2. Forest. Trees. Identity.
There are a lot of potential takeaways from this series. It’s almost certain that you’ve heard people you agree and strongly disagree with. Our hope is you found yourselves exposed to new points of view that help us better navigate these discussions.
Some of us, like the guests we heard from in this podcast, see our relationship with eating or not eating meat as a core part of our identity. Identities are powerful. In both good and bad ways. Identities like meat-eater, vegan, locavore, vegetarian, paleo - they can bring us together and unite us under a common cause. On the other hand, especially when it comes to politics, they can polarize us. Move us further apart. You see this in many countries in the world where it seems harder to find common ground with fellow citizens, and you see it online – where the loudest voices that provoke conflict and debate are rewarded with more attention.
Do you think setting this series up exploring four different futures further polarizes us, or does it help us better understand where people are coming from?
For now, I can share what I've learned from this experience - from going on this journey and examining these four futures.
We started this series when my partner and I were expecting a baby. Now she’s one and walking with purpose. Asking “What’s a good future for meat and livestock?” That became a much bigger question for our family. Instead of thinking about what I should eat and how can I have a more informed view of what to advocate for in the future. I now wonder: what will we feed our daughter and what world is she going to grow up in?
You’ve probably heard the expression “You cannot see the forest for the trees.” This basically means that you can get so involved in the details that you lose sight of the big picture.
And as much as we can argue about the trees, the big picture is remarkably clear: Meat has a high environmental impact. Different livestock species have different impacts, but on the whole, meat uses more land and water, and emits more greenhouse gasses than eating plants directly. And on the consumption side, the diets of rich, western countries are completely unsustainable - and unhealthy too.
Now let’s put that big picture into an even bigger context. The planet recently surpassed 8 billion people, and we’re moving towards 10. We use more than ¾ of agricultural land and about 40% of arable croplands to raise livestock. And meat currently supplies less than 20% of global calories and about ⅓ of global protein. And rich countries are eating 5-10 times more meat than low and medium income countries.
So while meat makes important contributions to diets, to cultures and to livelihoods across the globe, the current system needs urgent addressing. Now placing these set of facts into this narrative isn’t a fringe, environmentalist view. We’ve had livestock farmers, people who call for more efficient production, and plant-based and alternative ‘meat’ advocates all land on a fairly similar assessment.
This to me seems to be a really straightforward and important starting point. I don’t see livestock or meat as the enemy, because it does play an important role on some farms and in our diets. But we need to acknowledge that the scale of production and consumption in the global North is not sustainable.
Most of the global scientific community and stakeholders across the food system agree. And even the meat and livestock industry have been diversifying their portfolio to include more plant-based products. And many companies are investing in cultivated meat research and instart-ups. Their motivations for this aren’t perfectly clear, but it’s an interesting trend to follow.
For the most part, we’ve kept politics out of this series. But I want to say now that it’s a shame that many politicians are slow to acknowledge that the evidence clearly points to the need for wealthy countries to reduce how much meat they farm and eat. This is something that we should be able to agree on, even within this polarized conversation.
Again, looking at the forest - the big picture - I want to highlight five important points that nearly all the guests in the series agreed on. And honestly it’s refreshing to know that we have more common ground than I thought when I started speaking with everyone.
- As countries grow richer and populations grow across the global South, we can accept and expect that people are going to eat more animal protein. The western diet should absolutely not be a model for how much meat to eat, but increasing animal sourced foods in some places are a really important tool for reducing hunger and undernourishment in these regions, especially when alternatives do not exist.
- We also have heard people on different sides of the debate agree that meat is highly nutritious, when consumed in sensible quantities, and that human bodies are physiologically adapted to eating meat. And we know at the same time that meat is not essential to maintain a healthy diet, but it does make it more complicated to meet all of your nutritional needs. So in short, from a health perspective, a diversity of foods is very good, meat isn’t essential, but it’s a great source of nutrition, and we shouldn’t be eating too much of it.
- Another point that guests across the futures agreed on is that we can’t continue to chop down tropical rainforests for food production. It’s having a devastating impact on climate, biodiversity, and local livelihoods. It’s a complicated picture, but the two main causes of deforestation are growing soybeans to feed to pigs and chickens, and converting rainforests into pastures for cattle. So besides eating less meat, two important ways to address this are demanding large companies pledge that all parts of their supply chain are deforestation-free, while simultaneously developing and scaling out alternative sustainable feed sources for pigs and chickens.
- We also have heard that livestock can play an important ecological role in farming systems. They help recycle nutrients by breaking down plants that humans can’t digest, and ruminants can graze on lands where we can’t grow crops and turn that into meat and milk. It’s important to note that while grazing animals do have this potential, much of the meat we eat today is not raised in settings that deliver these environmental benefits.
While we mostly agree on this assessment, people will continue to debate how many and what types of animals should be grazing on different landscapes. Either domesticated or wild animals. And whether we should be thinking about quote ‘marginal’ landscapes as areas for food production, for carbon storage,as habitat for biodiversity - or some combination of them.
Now staying true to the form of the podcast series – we’re going to take the same expression: you cannot see the forest for the trees – and take away a different lesson, which is that trees - the details - do matter. Specificity and context are really important in these discussions!
So what trees matter the most? As I’ve said before, there are different environmental, ethical and health considerations in every region of the world. So let’s call the first one the “geography tree”.
There isn’t a one-size fits all solution here. From a health and social perspective, a fair and resilient solution would involve eating and farming fewer animals in some areas and increasing in others. And as inequalities exist within places and not only between places – an equitable solution may involve some people in rich countries increasing their meat intake - especially populations whose health would benefit from the nutrients supplied by meat or other animal source foods.
A related context tree is the “animal” tree. Let’s not always, as I have done throughout this series, just call meat “meat”. Chickens and pigs may share a similar diet, and emit less greenhouse gasses than cattle, sheep and goats - but they are also eating what humans can directly eat. Cattle and sheep on the other hand use more land and emit more greenhouse gasses, but they can turn landscapes we can’t eat directly into food for humans. And we barely talked about goats. Goats are a fantastic animal. They thrive in lots of settings, they're smart and curious, they are more hygienic than most livestock; and you can harvest both milk and meat. I digress.
One important point is that when we talk about livestock solutions in different world regions – let’s be more specific. For example, there’s an expected increase in poultry consumption in South Asia - should that demand be met with intensive chicken farms, which would make sense given the scale of that demand, or with “chicken” like products made from plants or fungi? Or, if there is a global technology breakthrough that makes scaling cultivated meat accessible and affordable, then you could add chicken grown from animal cells as an option. This is a much more useful framing than just saying we need more meat in the global South!
Another tree is – let’s call it the “scale” tree. We all agree these problems are urgent and they’re huge. So what solutions can be scaled up and scaled out to have a large and fast impact. For example, a low-tech food additive that reduces methane from cattle without affecting animal health or yields. We also spent a whole episode on alternative “meat” and talked about scaling cellular agriculture or cultivated meat. This one remains a big question mark. On one hand, two companies just received federal regulatory approval from the United States to produce chicken meat grown from animal cells in bioreactors to the public. This is a big breakthrough, as there is now a clearer path to getting these products onto shelves and available to millions of people. But as I’ve also said before, there are massive technical challenges around scaling this technology that haven’t yet been solved.
And then there is maybe the simplest and also the most difficult solution to scale. Which is getting people to eat more plants! Plants are here, they’re efficient, they’re delicious, they’re nutritious. And yet, people who have the choice don’t eat many of them. So finding models of wealthy countries who have decreased their meat intake and increased how many plants are eaten is worth interrogating. Germany is a pretty well known example here, where over half its population has declared it has been eating less meat in the last few years. And tis is confirmed with a steady decline in average meat consumption, with a drop of 4.2 kg of per capita meat consumption in 2022.
There are a few factors at play here. Some meat eaters cut back on how much they eat adopted a more flexitarian diet; there has been an increase in the people eliminating meat or going vegan; and many alternative-meat products are now available - sales of plant-based products have been steadily increasing in the last 3 years and in 2022, sales from the industry totaled to 1.9 billion euros. This has been supported by political leadership from Germany’s minister of health and minister of food and agriculture minister calling for the nation to eat less meat. The United Kingdom and Sweden have also had drops in average meat consumption across the population in recent years, but it’s worth keeping in mind that these countries start from a very high baseline.
One last tree that I’ll point to is the culture tree. The tree that connects meat to our identities and informs our habits. It’s the Sunday roast, the lamb kebabs, chicken wings, steaks that are bigger than your plate, the healing power of chicken soup when you’re not feeling well. This tree bears some responsibility for our consumption patterns in affluent countries. And it’s also the tree that politicians and businesses are best at exploiting when someone suggests: “we should eat less meat.” They say you’re taking away our cultural heritage, our identity. And this tactic is pretty effective. Political science research confirms that people go out and protest and show up to vote more on issues that connect more to their emotions and identities. It moves people more than say, responding to the cold hard facts or the evidence.
Moving on from the forest and trees metaphor, there are some important questions we need to ask: Will we as a global society continue to eat and desire meat at the same rate? Will people from rich countries eat significantly less meat that even with increases in other parts of the world, we still have a net loss of how much meat we’re producing and eating.
The alternative meat and the efficient meat future assume we are going to eat the same or more meat in the future. So if they’re right, we absolutely have to produce meat in more efficient ways, either through farming animals or through a lab. Meanwhile, the less meat and no-meat futures say diet change is actually possible. Across the world, we’ve doubled how much meat we’ve eaten in the last 60 years, so why can’t we reverse that? Can we change what’s a normal amount of meat to eat?
This takes us back to where we started - talking about identities.
Part of our identity is having a view of ‘what is normal’ or ‘what should be normal’. And that’s bene a goal of this project, to make our views and values more explicit and use that to build more constructive conversations.
And obviously, this isn’t easy. People on both sides of the debates feel threatened by the future. They worry about their livelihoods and family traditions, about the state of global malnourishment, and or the ongoing threats of climate change and biodiversity loss.
So how do we at the same acknowledge these different values and feelings and recognize the scientific evidence that reflects meat’s outsized environmental impact.
We can’t leave this at: point sides have a point - so let’s delay action. Unfortunately I don’t have a neatly packaged answer on how to move forward. But I do know that if how people’s livelihoods, cultures and identities are tied up with meat and livestock, we’re not going to make progress in these conversations.
I’m going to end with a reflection on my own food identity has changed throughout the project So I’m an omnivore who eats very little meat. I still enjoy meat, maybe even more now because I only have it on fewer occasions. But the area where I’ve changed the most since the start of this series is my openness to different solutions – even if they might seem ideologically inconsistent. Whatever combination of technological innovation, government intervention, or grassroots action to achieve my ideal food system.
One that makes sure everyone is well nourished; where there is a much fairer distribution of access to healthy and nutritious foods; that reduces the land needed globally for food production; and on the whole greatly reduces animal suffering. There’s a lot that needs to happen to ensure this, but the bottom line is clear: all of this entails raising fewer animals for meat and cutting back consumption in the global North.
And now the credits. First, a huge thank you to you for listening throughout the series. A big thank you to our funders who have made this podcast project possible. This project started with an application to Formas, a Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development, a big thank you to Formas for accepting our proposal. A nd also to Quadrature Climate Foundation has funded TABLE staff at the University of Oxford who have given the project invaluable support throughout podcast production.
I want to shout out Tamsin Blaxter at TABLE – who has fact-checked, sense-checked and meticulously marked up every single script making me reflect on my own views and the framing of every episode; Another shout out to Tara Garnett at the U of Oxford, and Elin Röös at SLU for all your invaluable feedback, notes and friendly disputes that have improved these episodes immensely; shout out to Jackie Turner at TABLE who besides editing the first draft of the plant-based episode, helped source most of the catchy music you’ve heard throughout the series - a related to thanks to Blue dot Sessions and Epidemic Sound. And I want to thank M4F field producer Ylva Carlqvist Warnborg , my colleague at the Future Food Platform at SLU, for capturing tape across Sweden and one trip to the UK to help bring these futures to life.
Other people who have given me amazing notes on earlier versions of the episodes include: Al Town, Lauren Marr, Martin Palmqvist, Trevor Lauber, Jesse Puka Beals, Walter Fraanje and Helen Breewood.
If you want to let us know what you thought of the series you can always send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org And if you like the way that we navigate and explore contentious food system debates - you can subscribe to TABLE’s newsletter Fodder, and follow another food systems podcast that I host called Feed.
Thanks for going on this journey with us.