This week in The New Republic, freelance journalist Charlie Hope-D’Anieri reiterated a slate of arguments and barbs at “fake meat” that anyone with a passing familiarity with the sector has already heard. Although a one-off hit piece on alternative meats would not usually afford a full critique, that these arguments are so well-worn warrants attention.
Hope-D’Anieri’s argument goes as follows: fake meat sales are tepid and are already on the slide, which means that it can’t ever compete with real meat; innovation and meat alternatives will not stop livestock agriculture, which continues to grow and get stronger; alternative meats don’t get at the root of the problem, which is capitalism; and meat is of cultural significance, and can’t simply be replaced by a “technoculture” alternative.
These arguments aren’t without reason, but they are not indicative of the failure of meat alternatives that Hope-D’Anieri and other critics like Tom Philpott, Michele Simon, and more seem to believe they are.
It is true, as Hope-D’Anieri points out, that alternative meat sales have declined over the past two years. The plant-based sector saw a boom in 2020, but companies like Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods have not been able to build off that success.
Even so, poor sales for a relatively new product are not too surprising, and projections of the industry’s potential to take more market share from animal-based meats should not be based on either its best or its worst years.
Some of the more exciting technologies—like real meat cultured from cells, or even hybrids between plant-based meat protein and cell-cultured meat fat—have yet to even be commercialized. In turn, the market share alternative protein companies have today, or even next year, may mean very little for their long-term success.
As for critics’ other arguments, my disagreement is not about the ills of the livestock industry, or the cultural significance of meat in American society, and societies around the world—all of which do matter. Instead, it is with what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of both politics and technology, and the interconnections between the two.
As the argument goes, technology alone simply cannot drive the societal transitions needed to challenge the meat industry. Instead, as Hope-D’Anieri urges, we must resort to politics alone to enact strong regulatory oversight and subsequently limit meat production through reduced consumption. Better politics means “better rhetoric about contracting supply” and thinking through and articulating how to make things that are today “unthinkable in mainstream politics,” thinkable tomorrow.
Hope-D’Anieri points to the “enlightened” thinking of climate activists who have realized that cheap renewables won't kill the fossil fuel industry alone, but must be accompanied by strong pushes to stop fossil fuels.
But this is a complete misunderstanding of how the energy transition has worked thus far. Stopping oil, protesting pipelines, and attempting to pass regulations on fossil fuels in the form of carbon taxes have not led to decarbonization.
Rather, the best and largest drivers of energy decarbonization to date have been publicly-funded innovation and investment approaches like the shale revolution, which has been massively effective at replacing coal with natural gas; the clean energy boom, which has seen massive growth in solar and wind power; and the construction of nuclear power plants and hydropower facilities in places like France and Norway.
If there is any political window today for folks like the Just Stop Oil protestors to win public support—which they have not—it is, in part, thanks to the growth of the technologies that have made life without fossil fuels seem relatively possible.
When it comes to meat, the energy transition comparison does fall a bit flat. Plant-based meats today are not the same as what they are replacing. While there is fringe interest in “rolling coal,” few people actually know or care how the power that drives their car, or runs their refrigerators is generated. But people do care that they are eating meat rather than plants.
This is a problem for meat alternatives. They are not good enough yet, and maybe they never will be. But it’s equally a problem for the critics who think that the only way to contend with “big meat” is to go to war against it politically. Pursuing policies that raise the price of meat, or limit its consumption is a political non-starter. In the United States, even the mention of meat in politics should send shivers down the spine of climate activists who remember the backlash that President Joe Biden received when a piece of fake news suggested he was exploring limiting burger consumption. There is a litany of examples of backlash against curbing meat consumption in places like France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and more.
But, as I argued last year, “instead of pursuing marquee legislation that has slim to no chance of passing, those interested in curbing the meat industry’s power should seek out the spaces and corners through which policies can slip. This would amount to a kind of quiet meat politics—that is, a politics that avoids political partisanship and culture warring in favor of creating a technological and infrastructural environment that can achieve long-term sustainable change—centered around public R&D investment, industrial policy, and subsidizing the good, rather than taxing the bad.”
In terms of political feasibility alone, it is worth noting that “subsidizing the good” has clearly won the day when it comes to climate politics. The Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s marquee piece of climate legislation, signals the victory of an investment and innovation-led approach. Governments around the world, including the United States, have begun funding alternative protein R&D, and in some cases, helping build the industry through public lending, public-private development centers, and more. While New Zealand recently announced a planned tax on methane emissions from animal agriculture, giving at least one example for Hope-D’Anieri’s hope of broadscale regulatory oversight on livestock production, backlash in the form of protests was immediate, and the long-term viability and impact of the new tax remains to be seen.
Perhaps this argument is naive and alternative meats will not help shift the politics of meat enough to make real change, but it’s clear that celebrating the early struggles of the industry because you’d rather just have “better rhetoric” is even more naive.