February 21, 2022 - 10:00am

The human population is predicted to peak somewhere between 9.7 billion and 11 billion, depending who you ask. But how to feed them all? The answer, as economic leaders like to tell us at every opportunity, is more non-meat protein: bugs, plants or things grown in vats.

Now, Wired reports that former NASA scientists in California are using bacteria to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, then fermenting it to create protein powder for processing into a ‘meat’ substitute.

The result, claims Kiverdi, is a carbon-neutral, sustainable, animal-free protein alternative that’s massively scalable: the solution to the increasingly urgent challenge of how to produce enough protein for all those billions.

The problem this company seeks to address is real. Protein is a key building-block for human health; no wonder that global meat consumption has more than quadrupled since 1961, and is growing most swiftly in low and middle-income countries. Where it’s possible for meat to go from a luxury to a staple, people want it to.

But the boom in meat production has been achieved largely by industrialising animal farming — a practice with grave environmental consequences. Unlike pastured animals, factory-farmed ones need a lot of feed, which must be grown, and this drives deforestation. Where an old-fashioned mixed farm would plough animal manure back into the soil, manure on an intensive farm is a waste product linked to a number of pollution issues. Intensive farming is also carbon-intensive, as well as being a key incubator for antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

So far, ideas for solving these side-effects of industrialisation have tended to involve even more industrialisation, and often considerable animal cruelty: see for example this 12-storey Chinese pig farm, which clamps down hard on disease and pollution — at the cost of nearly every natural porcine need or behaviour. Others argue that problems created by the industrial paradigm can’t be solved by remaining within it, and what we need is more holistic ‘regenerative agriculture’.

What, though, if the ‘regenerative’ approach doesn’t produce so much, meaning a green paradise simply doesn’t generate enough food to feed everyone? Is fake meat grown in vats the solution? Bill Gates thinks so: he argued in 2021 that rich nations should shift entirely to artificial meat.

But if the eco-utopian argument obscures some problems of scale, the Gates one obscures others of social class. For example, studies show poor people now eat more meat than rich ones, as a proportion of overall diet, a shift that perhaps explains why billionaires now view meat-eating as fair game for curbing in the name of a green future.

When the EU moved in 2021 to impose ‘green’ taxes on aviation, it was widely noticed that an exemption was made for private jets. And as we move into an era of ‘green’ meat politics, it’s noteworthy that Bill Gates is now America’s largest single owner of farmland — even as he pushes fake meat for the masses.

Reading between these lines, it’s plausible that what we face isn’t moving away from the horrors of factory farming toward either lab-meat or regenerative agriculture. Rather, what we’ll see (like the restriction of aviation to the ultra-rich) is both, depending on social status. Vat-meat for the masses; and ethically raised, environmentally sustainable steak from the Bill Gates eco-pasturelands for those that can afford it.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.