Fort Report Column: Fake Meat

Fort Report Column: Fake Meat
February 19th, 2021 | Congressman Jeff Fortenberry

Here’s a tweet I wrote this week: “I’ve been in meetings with @BillGates.  I respect his intellect and desire for social responsibility by the world’s wealthy.  On this idea, though, maybe he should come to #Nebraska and learn a little more.  #NoFakeMeat.”    

I was responding to an interview Gates did for the MIT Tech Review in which the Microsoft co-founder opined on climate change: “I do think all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef.  You can get used to the taste difference, and the claim is they’re going to make it taste even better over time.  Eventually, that green premium is modest enough that you can sort of change the [behavior of] people or use regulation to totally shift the demand.”    

I have no beef with Bill about transitioning from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a more sustainable one.  I support many initiatives in Congress that are prudently moving us towards that renewable energy future without economic disruption in the process.  But making supper from a lab?  That’s not a solution, that’s a chemistry experiment.      

Gates’ push for lab-grown meat is rooted in a belief that if we slowed the production of cow-based methane we’d make a huge dent in global warming.  Though potent, methane is a short-lived “flow gas” that often gets destroyed in the atmosphere within about a decade.  The CO2 generated by the burning of fossil fuels is a “stock gas” that builds up in the atmosphere and can stick around for over 100 years without sequestration.  Per the EPA, livestock contributes less than 3% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  Switching to meat substitutes will not appreciably affect the climate crisis, though an obsessive focus on the U.S. beef industry as a mythical key contributor to global warming will blind us to its primary contributors, such as large coal-burning countries like China and India.    

Here’s another overlooked fact: the role that real beef plays as a cornerstone of nutrition and rural livelihood.  Nebraska is world-famous for its high-quality beef.  According to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska is the only state that is a national leader in every aspect of beef production: cow/calf, backgrounding, corn-growing, cattle feeding and processing.  Cattle outnumber people here by more than three to one.  What wine is to France, beef is to Nebraska.    

As the Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, I joked on a recent radio program about inviting Mr. Gates to the West Point Livestock Auction, where he can present his lab-based meat proposal to the cattle producers and farmers there.  We’d have a fun, healthy debate.    

In Congress, I co-chair the Congressional Beef Caucus to provide Members of Congress the opportunity to discuss the importance of the U.S. beef and cattle industry.  Nevertheless, I tried a vegan hamburger once.  Not my thing, but I get that it’s a fast-growing market.  In this case, however, you’ve got to follow the desire of vested money interests to conflate environmental protection with their profit-driven efforts to get Americans to eat meat substitutes.    

Cattle numbers have remained relatively flat for several decades.  Couple that with methane’s short atmospheric shelf-life, it seems to me a stretch to single out cattle as a significant contributor to global warming.  Curtailing beef production makes about as much sense as banning all travel by plane.  I bet Bill Gates knows that won’t fly.    

Lab-grown meat, in particular, is not a good cultural fit for Nebraska.  Think about going to Misty’s Steakhouse in Lincoln: “I’ll have the synthetic medium-rare steak with that special A1 C02 sauce, but with a little less red dye this time, thanks.”     

Synthetic meat is, at the end of the day, fake meat.  I had some fun coming up with creative slogans.  How’s this?    

        “Carefully Chemically Crafted”    

        “From Our Lab to Your Table.”    

Madison Avenue doesn’t even have to pay me.    

Part of my responsibility in Congress is to oversee both the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration.  Watch the process closely in Washington, particularly over labeling this product.  After all, it’s about what’s for dinner.  

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (NE-01) is the Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 

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