Ezra Klein is correct when he says the industrialized, factory farm system of producing meat is unsustainable ("We need a moonshot on meat — animal-free meat," Opinion Exchange, April 27). But he's set the course of his sustainability argument toward the wrong destination by promoting artificial meat as the planet's savior.
A big part of the alt-meat industry's marketing centers around climate change. They argue that since animal agriculture contributes to climate change, having no animal agriculture will solve our climate problems. But it's not so much the cow as the how that matters — something the industry fails to acknowledge.
They are also failing to be transparent about their own industry's carbon footprint.
Plant-based burgers and "meat" grown from animal cells are highly processed products that have to be manufactured in expensive, high-tech facilities. Although the alt-meat industry correctly points out that their gleaming laboratories would occupy a fraction of the land that millions of head of livestock do, there's more to reducing one's carbon footprint than cutting square footage.
Highly processed foods of all types have a massive carbon footprint, given the amount of energy and ingredients required.
On the face of it, alt-meat is just replacing one resource intensive process for another. But it's actually worse than that. By working to eliminate the entire livestock industry, the alt-meat industry isn't just targeting concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), it's going after the regenerative sector of the business — the growing part of agriculture that utilizes managed rotational grazing of deep-rooted grasslands and cover crops, and thus gives farmers right here in Minnesota an economic reason to grow a diversity of soil-friendly plants without a heavy reliance on antibiotics.
And when that's gone, with it will go an incredible opportunity to make agriculture a carbon sink while revitalizing rural economies.
Michigan State University research found that when cattle were raised in a managed rotational grazing system that allowed pasture grasses to develop deep roots and healthy stands of forage, the soils could sequester enough carbon to more than make up for the longer period of time the animals are putting on market weight.
An Oxford University study directly compared cultured meat production to various forms of beef farming, including pastured systems. It found that while beef production of all types produces more methane in the near term, in the long term it's the cultured meat industry that causes the most harm given its contribution to carbon dioxide emissions.
The Oxford research found that the warming effect declines and stabilizes in cattle systems, while the CO2-based warming from cultured meat accumulates, overtaking beef production in some scenarios.
A major reason grass-based livestock production can play a significant role in sequestering greenhouse gases is because of the "biogenic carbon cycle" — a relatively fast removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis in plants. Through the biogenic cycle, plants can use methane emissions to perform photosynthesis and fix the carbon back into cellulose, which cattle can then consume as part of a continuing, closed-loop cycle that is roughly a decade in length.
But when carbon is released through the burning of fossil fuels to power, for example, an alt-meat processing plant, the cycle is measured in terms of a thousand years or more.
That's why it's misleading to say, for example, that cutting a quarter-pound of beef from our collective diet each week is the equivalent of taking 10 million cars off the road. Gasoline and steel don't cycle carbon back into the soil within a decade, while grass and hoofs do.
I agree with Klein that we need a food and farm moonshot. We can start by reforming federal ag policy that promotes a carbon-leaking system of producing food.
Here in Minnesota, the Legislature is currently considering the "100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill," which proposes to have 30% of the state's farmland managed using soil-smart systems, including grass-based livestock production, by 2030.
Let's shoot for the stars with our feet firmly planted in the soil.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project Letter and the author of "Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic."