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Climate change and energy

How I learned to stop worrying and love fake meat

Let’s stop inventing reasons to reject cultured meat and other protein alternatives that could dramatically cut climate emissions.

closeup of cultivated chicken being shredded by two forks
Good Meat's cultured chicken.Eat Just

Fixing our collective meat problem is one of the trickiest challenges in addressing climate change—and for some baffling reason, the world seems intent on making the task even harder.

The latest example occurred last week, when Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a law banning the production, sale, and transportation of cultured meat across the Sunshine State. 

“Florida is fighting back against the global elite’s plan to force the world to eat meat grown in a petri dish or bugs to achieve their authoritarian goals,” DeSantis seethed in a statement.

Alternative meat and animal products—be they lab-grown or plant-based—offer a far more sustainable path to mass-producing protein than raising animals for milk or slaughter. Yet again and again, politicians, dietitians, and even the press continue to devise ways to portray these products as controversial, suspect, or substandard. No matter how good they taste or how much they might reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, there’s always some new obstacle standing in the way—in this case, Governor DeSantis, wearing a not-at-all-uncomfortable smile.  

The new law clearly has nothing to do with the creeping threat of authoritarianism (though for more on that, do check out his administration’s crusade to ban books about gay penguins). First and foremost it is an act of political pandering, a way to coddle Florida’s sizable cattle industry, which he goes on to mention in the statement.

Cultured meat is seen as a threat to the livestock industry because animals are only minimally involved in its production. Companies grow cells originally extracted from animals in a nutrient broth and then form them into nuggets, patties or fillets. The US Department of Agriculture has already given its blessing to two companies, Upside Foods and Good Meat, to begin selling cultured chicken products to consumers. Israel recently became the first nation to sign off on a beef version.

It’s still hard to say if cultured meat will get good enough and cheap enough anytime soon to meaningfully reduce our dependence on cattle, chicken, pigs, sheep, goats, and other animals for our protein and our dining pleasure. And it’s sure to take years before we can produce it in ways that generate significantly lower emissions than standard livestock practices today.

But there are high hopes it could become a cleaner and less cruel way of producing meat, since it wouldn’t require all the land, food, and energy needed to raise, feed, slaughter, and process animals today. One study found that cultured meat could reduce emissions per kilogram of meat 92% by 2030, even if cattle farming also achieves substantial improvements.

Those sorts of gains are essential if we hope to ease the rising dangers of climate change, because meat, dairy, and cheese production are huge contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions.

DeSantis and politicians in other states that may follow suit, including Alabama and Tennessee, are raising the specter of mandated bug-eating and global-elite string-pulling to turn cultured meat into a cultural issue, and kill the industry in its infancy. 

But, again, it’s always something. I’ve heard a host of other arguments across the political spectrum directed against various alternative protein products, which also include plant-based burgers, cheeses, and milks, or even cricket-derived powders and meal bars. Apparently these meat and dairy alternatives shouldn’t be highly processed, mass-produced, or genetically engineered, nor should they ever be as unhealthy as their animal-based counterparts. 

In effect, we are setting up tests that almost no products can pass, when really all we should ask of alternative proteins is that they be safe, taste good, and cut climate pollution.

The meat of the matter

Here’s the problem. 

Livestock production generates more than 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, making up 14.5% of the world’s overall climate emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Beef, milk, and cheese production are, by far, the biggest problems, representing some 65% of the sector’s emissions. We burn down carbon-dense forests to provide cows with lots of grazing land; then they return the favor by burping up staggering amounts of methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases. Florida’s cattle population alone, for example, could generate about 180 million pounds of methane every year, as calculated from standard per-animal emissions

In an earlier paper, the World Resources Institute noted that in the average US diet, beef contributed 3% of the calories but almost half the climate pollution from food production. (If you want to take a single action that could meaningfully ease your climate footprint, read that sentence again.)

The added challenge is that the world’s population is both growing and becoming richer, which means more people can afford more meat. 

There are ways to address some of the emissions from livestock production without cultured meat or plant-based burgers, including developing supplements that reduce methane burps and encouraging consumers to simply reduce meat consumption. Even just switching from beef to chicken can make a huge difference.

Let’s clear up one matter, though. I can’t imagine a politician in my lifetime, in the US or most of the world, proposing a ban on meat and expecting to survive the next election. So no, dear reader. No one’s coming for your rib eye. If there’s any attack on personal freedoms and economic liberty here, DeSantis is the one waging it by not allowing Floridians to choose for themselves what they want to eat.

But there is a real problem in need of solving. And the grand hope of companies like Beyond Meat, Upside Foods, Miyoko’s Creamery, and dozens of others is that we can develop meat, milk, and cheese alternatives that are akin to EVs: that is to say, products that are good enough to solve the problem without demanding any sacrifice from consumers or requiring government mandates. (Though subsidies always help.)

The good news is the world is making some real progress in developing substitutes that increasingly taste like, look like, and have (with apologies for the snooty term) the “mouthfeel” of the traditional versions, whether they’ve been developed from animal cells or plants. If they catch on and scale up, it could make a real dent in emissions—with the bonus of reducing animal suffering, environmental damage, and the spillover of animal disease into the human population.

The bad news is we can’t seem to take the wins when we get them. 

The blue cheese blues

For lunch last Friday, I swung by the Butcher’s Son Vegan Delicatessen & Bakery in Berkeley, California, and ordered a vegan Buffalo chicken sandwich with a blue cheese on the side that was developed by Climax Foods, also based in Berkeley.

Late last month, it emerged that the product had, improbably, clinched the cheese category in the blind taste tests of the prestigious Good Food awards, as the Washington Post revealed.

Let’s pause here to note that this is a stunning victory for vegan cheeses, a clear sign that we can use plants to produce top-notch artisanal products, indistinguishable even to the refined palates of expert gourmands. If a product is every bit as tasty and satisfying as the original but can be produced without milking methane-burping animals, that’s a big climate win.

But sadly, that’s not where the story ended.

JAMES TEMPLE

After word leaked out that the blue cheese was a finalist, if not the winner, the Good Food Foundation seems to have added a rule that didn’t exist when the competition began but which disqualified Climax Blue, the Post reported.

I have no special insights into what unfolded behind the scenes. But it reads at least a little as if the competition concocted an excuse to dethrone a vegan cheese that had bested its animal counterparts and left traditionalists aghast. 

That victory might have done wonders to help promote acceptance of the Climax product, if not the wider category. But now the story is the controversy. And that’s a shame. Because the cheese is actually pretty good. 

I’m no professional foodie, but I do have a lifetime of expertise born of stubbornly refusing to eat any salad dressing other than blue cheese. In my own taste test, I can report it looked and tasted like mild blue cheese, which is all it needs to do.

A beef about burgers

Banning a product or changing a cheese contest’s rules after determining the winner are both bad enough. But the reaction to alternative proteins that has left me most befuddled is the media narrative that formed around the latest generation of plant-based burgers soon after they started getting popular a few years ago. Story after story would note, in the tone of a bold truth-teller revealing something new each time: Did you know these newfangled plant-based burgers aren’t actually all that much healthier than the meat variety? 

To which I would scream at my monitor: THAT WAS NEVER THE POINT!

The world has long been perfectly capable of producing plant-based burgers that are better for you, but the problem is that they tend to taste like plants. The actual innovation with the more recent options like Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger is that they look and taste like the real thing but can be produced with a dramatically smaller climate footprint.

That’s a big enough win in itself. 

If I were a health reporter, maybe I’d focus on these issues too. And if health is your personal priority, you should shop for a different plant-based patty (or I might recommend a nice salad, preferably with blue cheese dressing).

But speaking as a climate reporter, expecting a product to ease global warming, taste like a juicy burger, and also be low in salt, fat, and calories is absurd. You may as well ask a startup to conduct sorcery.

More important, making a plant-based burger healthier for us may also come at the cost of having it taste like a burger. Which would make it that much harder to win over consumers beyond the niche of vegetarians and thus have any meaningful impact on emissions. WHICH IS THE POINT!

It’s incredibly difficult to convince consumers to switch brands and change behaviors, even for a product as basic as toothpaste or toilet paper. Food is trickier still, because it’s deeply entwined with local culture, family traditions, festivals and celebrations. Whether we find a novel food product to be yummy or yucky is subjective and highly subject to suggestion. 

And so I’m ending with a plea. Let’s grant ourselves the best shot possible at solving one of the hardest, most urgent problems before us. Treat bans and political posturing with the ridicule they deserve. Reject the argument that any single product must, or can, solve all the problems related to food, health, and the environment.

Give these alternative foods a shot, afford them room to improve, and keep an open mind. 

Though it’s cool if you don’t want to try the crickets.

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