It’s What’s for Dinner

Meat isn’t going anywhere, but we can make animal systems more humane

It is easy to agree on what’s wrong with modern livestock production in the United States: too many greenhouse gas emissions (especially methane from dairy cows and beef cattle), too much polluting waste (from poorly contained manure lagoons), too much land use (to produce all the corn and soy used for animal feed), too much antibiotic use (creating antibiotic resistance), and too many suffering animals (lives spent in overcrowded confinement).

Critics like to blame these problems on one villain: indoor “factory farming,” which in recent decades has replaced traditional barnyard and pasture systems. But the real problem is the production quantity, not the production methods. Americans today are eating five times as much meat as they did in 1940. There is no way to deliver this much animal-based food without significant damage, especially not the barnyard and pasture methods of the past. The best solution is to improve the treatment of animals in modern livestock systems—as Europe has done—while investing more in animal-free meat substitutes.

What Do Animals Want?

Modern indoor livestock systems, called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), were developed over the second half of the twentieth century primarily to reduce the need for human labor. In the late 1930s, using a traditional chicken coop and barnyard system, it required eight and a half hours of human labor to produce every 100 pounds of chicken meat. By the early 1980s, thanks in part to modern automated poultry barns, those labor requirements had fallen to just six minutes.

Modern systems also brought dramatic cuts in land, feed, water, and energy use for every pound of meat produced, reducing pressures on the environment and slashing costs. In feedlot beef production today compared to the 1970s, every pound of finished meat now requires 12% less water, 19% less feed, 30% fewer animals, and 33% less land. It generates 18% less manure. Likewise for pork production, the average feed requirement for every added pound of weight gain in pigs fell almost by half between 1992 and 2004. For chickens since 1950, average feed requirements per pound of live-weight broilers declined more than one-third.

In feedlot beef production today compared to the 1970s, every pound of finished meat now requires 12% less water, 19% less feed, 30% fewer animals, and 33% less land.

Modern dairy systems, compared to traditional pasture systems, require not just 94% less human labor for every gallon of milk, but also 90% less land, about two-thirds less feed and water, and—most surprising of all—79% fewer animals. In 1950, the United States had 25 million dairy cows; now the number is only 8.9 million, even though milk production has increased by 60%. Frank Mitloehner, a professor of animal science and an air quality specialist at the University of California Davis, has calculated that the climate burden of a single glass of milk in the United States today is two-thirds smaller than it was in 1950.

Regrettably, some of these impressive gains came at the expense of animal welfare, which was often compromised due to overbreeding and excessive crowding. In 2011, F. Bailey Norwood, professor of agribusiness at Oklahoma State University, used a mathematical welfare model for egg-laying hens, plus his own judgments, to conclude that hens in small cages have a welfare score of negative eight (on a scale from negative 10 to positive 10). Some of their physical and behavioral needs are met, but “the negative emotions experienced outweigh the positive, and the animal is better off euthanized.”

This is inexcusable because it is entirely unnecessary. Stronger regulations in Europe have shown that animals can be raised indoors both profitably and humanely. Pigs raised indoors in the EU are now required under law to have a minimum area of unobstructed floor space for each pig, including a comfortable and clean lying area big enough to allow all the animals to lie down at the same time (pigs like to do things all at the same time). EU directives also set limits on noise levels and specify brighter lighting for at least eight hours a day. Finally, to help the animals overcome boredom, the directive requires permanent access to “material to enable proper investigation and manipulation activities.” In other words, toys.

These new animal welfare regulations did increase production costs for Europe’s pig farmers. In 2015, after the rules came into effect, one study found that total carcass-weight production costs in the EU averaged 19% higher than in Canada, and 38% higher than in the United States. Yet these differences mostly reflect higher feed and labor costs in Europe, not the added cost of more spacious housing under the new regulations. In countries like the Netherlands, housing makes up only a little more than one-tenth of total production costs.

The EU has also shown that excessive antibiotic use in CAFOs can be controlled. The bloc banned the use of antimicrobials to promote animal weight gain in 2006, and in January 2022 it specified that these drugs can no longer be given preventatively en masse, or used to compensate for overcrowding. In part because overcrowding was also being regulated in Europe, these measures had only a small impact on meat production. Following the 2006 ban in the Netherlands, pig inventories remained essentially unchanged even as sales of antimicrobials fell by two-thirds.

Animal welfare protections in the United States’ confinement systems are gradually improving, thanks to popular ballot issue campaigns state by state, plus food company pledges made in response to activist, consumer, and shareholder demands. The campaigns that have been most effective have avoided extreme demands such as ending the use of animals for food altogether; they call for a cruelty-free industry, not meat-free diets. The Humane Society, for example, has focused first on eliminating small cages for egg laying hens that do not provide enough space for wing-flapping, and tight gestation stalls for pregnant sows that do not allow the animals to turn around.

The bottom-up, state-by-state U.S. approach to improving farm animal welfare is slower than the more centralized European approach, but there has been progress. Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Rhode Island have banned the use of sow gestation crates. California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington have nixed battery cages for hens. And thanks to parallel consumer demands, corporate meat buyers have started making changes. More than 60 companies—including McDonald’s, Burger King, Oscar Mayer, Costco, and Kroger—have now promised to buy and sell only crate-free pork. Whole Foods Market and Chipotle met that goal by 2016.

With widespread protections along these lines, animals on indoor farms can lead decent lives. When properly managed, farm animals are safer indoors, because they are less exposed to temperature extremes, wild predators and parasitic disease. For poultry, the spread of disease worsens outdoors, especially where mosquitoes are active. “Free range” egg-laying hens with access to the outdoors can experience mortality rates three times as high as caged birds. Meanwhile, tapeworm parasites were not eliminated from the meat supply in Europe and North America until small-scale pig rearing was replaced by confinement production. Better control of infections in modern American pig farming also reduced the incidence of trichi­nosis in humans, from four hundred clinical cases a year in the 1940s to only 10–20 cases now. “By bringing the animals indoors and creating biosecurity,” Rodney Baker, a former president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, asserts, “we’ve truly eliminated about 15 diseases and parasites we had back to the 1980s.”

Farm animals also tend to feel safer indoors. They cannot speak to us, but we can learn a great deal about their preferences simply by giving them a structured choice. Delia Grace Randolph, an Irish epidemiologist and veterinarian who has done research on animal health and welfare issues since 1995, concludes from her work that domesticated farm animals—which all descend from wild species that were prey, not predators—do not like being exposed to nature all that much. As she told me in a 2018 interview:

We know that if farm animals have a choice between outdoors and indoors, they will prefer indoors; if given a choice between harassment by predators and safety from predators, they will prefer safety. But once they are safe indoors, they also want comfort. Given a choice between a pen with slats and one with hay, they will always prefer hay. If you ever see cattle on deep straw bedding, they are so happy, they love it. They will always choose to go to that straw bedding. So why can’t we give them that? It doesn’t cost a lot. We’re very rich people, with many resources.

How Can We Reduce Livestock Emissions?

Indoor confinement does not have to compromise farm animal welfare, and it can also help in reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle raised entirely on pasture, rather than being finished in a feedlot, will emit more methane, in large part because it takes each animal longer to reach a market weight compared to feedlot cattle. By most standard calculations, feedlot beef has a climate burden 18.5–67.5% lower than fully pastured beef.

Advocates for what is called “holistic” grazing have disagreed, saying properly managed pasture growth can sequester enough carbon dioxide in the soil to fully offset the climate damage from emissions of methane. Such claims are hard to test, since gains in sequestered carbon across a large pasture are not certain to be permanent (if the soil is later disturbed) and are nearly impossible to measure with confidence. Soil conditions can differ every 10 feet or so, and also at different depths. The extensive sampling and testing required to establish a confident baseline, and then to measure added carbon over time, is too costly for widespread use.

Stronger regulations in Europe have shown that animals can be raised indoors both profitably and humanely.

These measurement problems have not deterred some advocates from making dramatic claims. Allan Savory, who grew up in Zimbabwe, promotes “holistic” grazing methods that fence off separate paddocks in a pasture and periodically move all the animals in a group from one to the next. He first developed these methods decades ago to combat desertification, but now he says they can fight climate change as well. Will Harris, who runs White Oak Pastures in Georgia, has been following this method for the past quarter century, and in 2019, General Mills—which buys and promotes White Oak’s beef for its Epic jerky product line—hired a private life-cycle analysis firm to study the results. This sponsored study found that White Oak’s grazing practices sequestered enough carbon to offset “a majority of the emissions related to beef production.” Later, however, a peer-reviewed study found that the system required 2.5 times more land than conventional systems. Some studies claiming miraculous results include suspicious details. One claimed negative net emissions but it was based on an assumed rate of carbon capture nine times as high as the rates previously measured in “management intensive grazing.”

Even if the carbon sequestration claims are true, the land and labor requirements associated with pasture-based animal systems will keep them non-competitive on commercial grounds. One famous outdoor grazing system was developed by Joel Salatin, at Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, as profiled by Michael Pollan in his 2006 bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Agricultural specialists at Michigan State University subsequently calculated that Salatin’s pastured beef cattle required roughly 43% more total land per pound of meat produced, compared to conventional systems. This helps to explain why Salatin’s livestock system is admired and sometimes imitated, but not widely adopted.

If we went back to outdoor grazing systems while attempting to produce today’s quantity of meat and milk, the calculations mentioned earlier imply that we would need to increase the amount of land used for beef by 49%, and we would need nine times as much land for dairy products. Greenhouse gas emissions from dairy production would triple.

Rather than dreaming of a return to outdoor pasture systems for animals, then, we should continue to make our indoor systems as good as they can be, with improved methods for managing waste and methane emissions in particular. Anaerobic digesters, which are coming into wider use on large dairy farms, trap methane from covered waste lagoons. Farmers can then sell the gas into pipelines to fuel renewable natural gas (RNG) vehicles. Compared to gasoline vehicles, RNG cars burn 49% less carbon. There are now a total of 185 digesters either functioning or under construction to service 194 dairies in California alone.

Another forward-looking approach is to give cattle feed additives that reduce the methane produced in their digestive system. In February 2022, the Dutch company DSM received preliminary approval in the EU for an additive named Bovaer that suppresses the triggering enzyme for methane in the cow’s rumen. A quarter teaspoon of Bovaer per cow per day reduces enteric methane emissions by 30% for dairy cows, and by as much as 90% for beef cows, with no adverse health consequences.

How to Reduce Meat Consumption

A remaining imperative is to reduce today’s still growing demand for animal products, both in and beyond the United States. Annual meat consumption in America has continued to increase, even on a per capita basis. It appeared to be peaking at 272 pounds in 2006, but after a brief dip it reached a new peak at 278 pounds in 2019. Vegetarian and vegan lifestyles have recently become more popular in some circles, but one online survey in January 2022 found that only 10% of American adults fell into one of those two categories.

One encouraging change in the American diet, for environmental purposes, has been a shift toward poultry consumption, and away from ruminant animal products. These animals, including cattle, sheep, and goats, emit methane from their digestive systems. On a per capita basis, beef consumption in the United States peaked in 1976, and by 2021 it had fallen by 42 percent.

This progress in the United States needs to continue, for human health as well as environmental health reasons. One 2019 report that looked at human health and climate protection together concluded that North America’s red meat consumption needed to fall by an additional 84% to be within “planetary health” boundaries. State and federal taxes cannot easily be used to push red meat consumption down further, as they did with cigarette smoking, because the personal health justifications are far from equivalent, and because elected officials have shown zero interest in this option. State and local governments in various parts of America have been willing over the years to target dozens of different products for taxes—including chewing gum, potato chips, pretzels, milkshakes, playing cards, and plastic bags—but never meat. Even politicians who are both vegans and CAFO critics, like Senator Corry Booker (D-NJ), have not signed on to meat taxes.

Another possible pathway for reducing animal product consumption in the United States is substitution, through accelerated development of plant-based and cell-grown products that simulate the look and taste of meat, but are “animal free.” Plant-based milk, meat and egg products designed to simulate the real thing have recently become more widely available in the United States, and consumption has begun a significant increase.

Instead of waiting for market forces to deliver better meat substitutes, governments should recognize such products as a potential win for the environment and direct more public money toward them.

Total refrigerated plant-based meat sales increased 75% between 2019 and 2020, and this growth spurt accelerated when COVID-19 momentarily disrupted the supply of conventional meat choices. Simulated ground beef from Impossible Foods was available in only 150 stores nation-wide at the start of 2020, but by April 2021 it could be purchased in 20,000 stores, and as availability increased during the pandemic so did sales. Today’s imitation products are still significantly more expensive than real ground beef, but Impossible Foods recently cut its retail price by 20%, narrowing the gap.

Market shares are still small. Plant-based meat, with $1.4 billion in total U.S. sales in 2020, made up just 2.7% of all U.S. retail packaged “meat” sales. Sales of “milk” from plants, like almonds and coconut, stood at $2.5 billion by the end of 2020, making up 15% of all retail sales in the milk category. Together, all plant-based foods generated $7 billion in retail sales in the United States, a bit more than total retail sales for baked goods.

Significant future growth in imitation animal product sales, both in and beyond the United States, is clearly in prospect. In August 2021, Bloomberg Intelligence produced a report which predicted the market for all plant-based imitation animal foods (eggs and dairy, as well as meat) would reach $162 billion within the next decade, a 451% increase. Sales of alternate meat, specifically, were projected to increase in the next decade from $4.2 billion to $74 billion by 2030. By comparison, however, the global market for real meat in 2021 was $867 billion and still growing annually at a 3.5% rate.

While plant-based meat substitutes have been taking off, a second approach to alternative meats—culturing real animal cells outside of living animals—has moved more slowly, due to higher costs plus regulatory uncertainties. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) have not yet ruled on how cell-cultured meat can be produced and sold; Singapore is the only country so far to have granted regulatory approval for these products, and Singapore’s first sales in 2020 were made in a private club rather than in supermarkets. The first cultured meat sales in the United States will likely be chicken from Upside Foods, sold in expensive restaurants in the Bay Area. That’s hardly an avenue for broad uptake, though it is a start.

Assuming the retail price of plant-based imitation meat continues to fall, the consumption of real meat will fall as well, but probably not by much. According to one market model simulation, a 10% fall in the retail price of plant-based imitation meat might, by itself, result in only a 0.15% fall in the number of domestic cattle slaughtered. To get a steeper fall, the willingness of consumers to pay for substitutes will have to increase. The best solution to this problem will be the development of improved substitutes, and a wider variety of products beyond just ground beef.

How Can We Encourage Meat Substitutes?

Instead of waiting for market forces to deliver improved substitutes, governments should recognize such products as a potential win for the environment and direct more public money toward research and development, just as we use public money to speed a transition away from exclusive reliance on fossil fuels. In this case, the primary goal should be further innovation; too often in the energy sector, we subsidize today’s non-fossil options rather than investing in new science to develop future technologies. Plant-based substitutes are attracting considerable private funding already, but more is needed. In 2021, the Breakthrough Institute produced a report making the case for public R&D investments, pointing primarily to the prospective environmental benefits. The environmental case is strong for plant-based alternatives; per pound, both Impossible Burgers and Beyond Burgers have an emissions intensity less than one-eighth that of real beef. These plant-based meat alternatives are also 98% less land intensive than beef, per 100 grams of protein. Compared to animal meat, the environmental gains from cell-cultured and fermentation alternatives might be equally compelling.

Soon after the Breakthrough report was published, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, told Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, that the United States “should pursue parity in research funding for alternative proteins,” presumably meaning parity with USDA research funding for food animals. Organizations are already taking small steps in this direction, through grants of $3.5 million to UC Davis from the National Science Foundation, and $10 million to Tufts University from the USDA, all for research on cell-cultured meat.

One surprising impediment to this important public policy opportunity has been the cool response to animal-free products from longtime critics of the livestock industry. Mark Bittman, the prominent food writer who once accused the livestock industry of “torturing billions of animals,” has nonetheless dismissed imitation meats because they are manufactured and inauthentic: “If you’re combining a bunch of powders and turning it into something that looks like meat, I’m not sure you’re doing anybody any good. I don’t think it moves people in the direction of real food—which is the ultimate goal.” Michael Pollan, another prominent CAFO critic, is also wary of the substitution approach: “Foods that we’ve been eating for tens of thousands of years have kind of proven themselves out, and we are talking about introducing some novel foods and so we need to be careful.”

The fashion industry learned how to substitute synthetic fur for real animal fur, and the shoe industry learned how to make imitation leather to substitute for animal hide. The food industry is only now beginning to do the same.

For other food movement progressives, the fact that plant-based substitutes are heavily processed is enough reason to object. Brian Niccol, CEO of Chipotle, says he won’t serve plant-based meats “because of the processing.” Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, despite being a vegan himself, has a similar reaction: “If you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods.” Even some environmental groups have attacked simulated meats, despite the clear environmental benefits. In 2017, the ETC Group and Friends of the Earth called on Impossible Foods to remove their burger from the market, pending further safety testing and stronger regulation from FDA. They accused Impossible Foods of “attempting to capitalize on animal welfare concerns” in the service of “molecular farming.”

But if livestock industry critics don’t want to endorse animal-free meat products, what will they endorse? Some fall back on dubious claims that beef cattle can become net negative emitters if grazed properly. Others bravely hope eaters will finally see the light and drop the “meat experience” from their diets. Another far-fetched alternative, recently promoted in a New York Times opinion video, is a switch to eating insects. This video advises us to simply “rein in our disgust response.”

Instead of switching to crickets, the United States should address its livestock problems by continuing to contain land use with CAFOs, while adopting European-style animal welfare regulations on those facilities, along with innovations like waste digesters and feed additives. The total number of ruminant animals we raise will still have to be diminished, but that can be done in part through a continued dietary shift against red meat, plus new public research investments in animal-free substitutes, including plant-based, cell-based, and fermented alternatives.

We already spend public money to develop substitutes for fossil fuels, and the same needs to happen for livestock. The fashion industry learned how to substitute synthetic fur for real animal fur, and the shoe industry learned how to make imitation leather to substitute for animal hide. The food industry is only now beginning to do the same for animal flesh, milk, and eggs, but with adequate investments, the science will keep improving. This will bring these products steadily closer to the tastes and textures desired by consumers, the price points will become more competitive, and market shares will grow. De-animalization can eventually become a valuable part of America’s escape from its livestock problems, and our success can then serve as a worthy example for other countries with still-growing meat appetites.