Chewing Over the Meat Industry’s Future

From grass-fed beef to cellular agriculture, experts rethink the role of animals in the food supply

Beef: It’s what’s for dinner. The National Livestock and Meat Board created that catchy slogan in 1992, during an era when protein was the star attraction at most meals. Now, 30 years later, the future of beef, and meat in general, hangs in the balance as industry leaders debate the effect of traditional cattle-farming on the environment. According to a February 2022 study on agriculture and global warming in PLOS One, rapid global phaseout of animal agriculture could stabilize greenhouse gas levels for 30 years and offset 68 percent of carbon dioxide emissions this century.

Meanwhile, cellular agriculture—the process by which animal products can be grown in a lab— is on the upswing: In 2021, Tufts received a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop this alternative food source, led by David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor of Engineering.

So it’s fitting that on April 8, the Environmental Studies program organized the 4th annual  Tufts Food Systems Symposium around the topic of Unpacking Meat: Values, Cultures, and Futures. The event brought together leaders in academia, workers’ rights, and food production. It was moderated by Danielle Nierenberg, N01, founder of Food Tank, which creates eco-sustainable solutions for issues such as hunger and poverty.

Reflecting the many ways that questions around meat impact society, this year’s symposium drew on university-wide input. It was produced with funding from the Hoch Cunningham Environmental Lecture Series and was co-sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciencesthe Friedman School of Nutrition Science and PolicyCummings School of Veterinary MedicineSMFA at Tufts; and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

Here are six key issues to watch for as the high-stakes meat conversation intensifies.

The Possibilities of Grass-Fed Beef

“We can save the planet if everybody would eat more grass-fed beef,” said Ridge Shinn, co-founder and CEO of Big Picture Beef in Hardwick, Massachusetts, which distributes products throughout the Northeast. Shinn promotes regenerative grazing, a conservation approach where cattle rotate paddocks, allowing manure to be evenly distributed instead of accumulating and emitting methane.

Shinn said that 97 million acres of U.S. grassland are currently plowed to plant corn and soy, killing the biology of the soil. Plowing exposes soil to air, causing it to oxidize so that it becomes carbon dioxide.

“Healthy soil makes healthy grass, which makes healthy meat.… You are what your food ate,” he said.

The Reframing of Animal-as-Worker

Gabriel N. Rosenberg, a Duke University associate professor who studies the modern food system, gender, race, and sexuality, urged a rethinking of human dietary consumption and its role in capitalism. He discussed the objectification of animals and the need to honor them as workers who provide an essential service.

“Meat has become more central to the diet in the U.S. and Europe, and it’s made the food system in a fundamental way less efficient.… Animals are overworked; we’re using their metabolic labor to run corn and grain and grass through them to create meat, which is an inefficient way to gather calories from the broader system of energy transfer,” he said. Less overall meat consumption could disrupt this cycle.

The Media’s Role in Narrowing the Discussion

Food writer Alicia Kennedy noted the current media buzz around alternative meats ironically keeps protein at the center of the plate. “To me they represent a continuation of meat as symbol and a center of diets that I find troubling because I personally want to see a radical reimaging of how we eat, how we use land, how we think about our food,” she said. She asked what kind of media stories would have more of an effect. 

"How do we adjust the narrative on what food is worth eating, essentially, taking into consideration ecology, labor, and welfare?” she asked. "The focus on beef specifically and protein broadly hasn't led to good or real changes in how our food system globally functions."

The Potential of Cellular Agriculture

Lab-grown meat could offset the burden on farmed lands, said Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit research institute that funds open, public research on cultured meat.   

“We already dedicate one-third of our planet to farming animals for food. If we could alleviate some of that land, then other means of feeding the world become a lot more possible and a lot more feasible,” she said.

Realistically, the amount of effort needed to bring such products to shelves, and then to sway skeptical customers, is enormous. Cellular agriculture is “complex,” Datar said, and not the only answer. However, it has momentum through venture capital funding.

The Importance of Workers’ Rights Movements

Many poultry plants process up to 145 chickens per minute, said Magaly Licolli, executive director and co-founder of Venceremos in Springdale, Arkansas, a workers’ rights organization for poultry handlers.

On the production line, “Workers are forced to use diapers because they’re not granted enough bathroom breaks. Workers are getting injured. Without any resources for attorneys who take workers' comp cases, there is no way to hold companies accountable,” she said.

One solution is the burgeoning worker-driven social responsibility paradigm, which focuses on protecting human rights, especially among workers who are excluded from unions. 

“We saw very clearly during the pandemic that we cannot count on the government to assure that these workers have dignity in their jobs. The USDA is pretty much on the side of the corporations,” she warned.

Indigenous Lessons in Farming

Dawn Sherman, CEO of Native American Natural Foods, discussed indigenous projects that attempt a return to a very different relationship between humans and animals eaten for meat. Her products, made in South Dakota under the Tanka brand, are buffalo-based and linked with tribal economic and community development.

She praised the Indian Buffalo Management Act, which would create a permanent buffalo program through the U.S. Department of the Interior and help promote and develop tribal capacity to manage buffalo. Buffalo are native to North America and traditionally grazed on grass.

“When we were colonized, the buffalo was gone, and cattle [were brought in],” she said. “When you look at indigenous culture, you don’t take more than what you need. You give back. You take care of the land.”

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