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As cell-based meat makes strides, meat producers push back against IPCC plant-based recommendations

2 cows look into the camera, one black and white spotted, and one white, while 2 calves are in the distance, with a sunset over mountains in the background
Image Credit: Unsplash / Stijn te Strake

Every year the meat industry beefs up its emissions, and right now, beef emissions far exceed those of any other food product, weighing in at nearly 100 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef. That’s about the equivalent of consuming 11 gallons of gas or burning over one hundred pounds of coal for just 2.20 pounds of beef or a small roast.

So it should come as no surprise that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believes sizing down our meat consumption would positively affect the planet. In fact, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the meat and dairy industry produces 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), which is more than half of the planet’s total food emissions.

As meat emissions increase, in its recent Synthesis report, the IPCC recommends solutions like more efficient livestock and water resource management and sustainable agricultural land use.

Even so, the panel’s 2022 Sixth Assessment Report, named “plant-based” and “cellular agriculture” like “cultured meat and microbial proteins” as “transformative food system mitigation options,” which alongside a slew of other measures, namely the transition away from fossil fuels, could help halve global emissions by 2030.

Both were included for their complete lack of emissions from animals and less food loss and food waste, among other benefits.

Interestingly enough, these plant-based and cultivated meat solutions were not included in the March 2023 report. As a draft leaked by the activist organization Scientist Rebellion shows, initially the panel outright recommended consuming less meat.

Nevertheless, as journalist Micheal Thomas outlined in his climate newsletter, Distilled, thanks to lobbying by Brazil and Argentina, the recommended reduction of meat-heavy diets, was omitted, along with any direct reference to going plant-based. Other emerging food techs such as cellular agriculture, insects, algae, and bivalves were all evaluated in the Sixth Assessment Report.

However, despite the fact that all had listed benefits like less GHG emissions and land sparing, none of them showed up in the Synthesis Report.

Still, right now, alternatives like these are making their way up the world’s regulatory apparatus.

The U.S. and Singapore, in particular, both have approvals for cultivated meat, or meat grown in a lab through a process called cellular agriculture.

The U.S. consumes the most red-meat and poultry in the world, coming in at 129 kilograms per capita in 2019. Singapore comes less, with just 62 kilograms of meat per capita, but almost all of that is imported, raising its emissions.

That’s why the small island country was the first in the world to approve the sale of cultivated meat in 2020, approving Eat Just’s cultivated chicken. Last year, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) granted approval to Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken, and just last week, the FDA gave clearance to Eat Just as well.

While Italy is currently moving to ban cell-based foods, other European countries including the United Kington, the Netherlands, and Spain have announced investments in the research and development of cellular agriculture.

Plus, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the European Union bloc, the UK, and Japan have established pathways to regulatory approval, which could lead to actual approval in the coming years, as these paths did for Singapore and America.

However, with all of the regulatory progress cultivated meat has made recently and the increase in knowledge on the environmental harms of the meat industry, these harms were left unmentioned in the most recent IPCC report.

In sum, the report detailed that it’s now or never for climate action, and while staying below the 1.5°C warming level is now unlikely, it outlined the time-critical steps necessary to try.

So, why did one step in particular—eating less meat—fail to show up?

Initially, the IPCC report, which was the result of years of scientific research, said that “plant-based diets can reduce GHG emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission-intensive Western diet,” according to the draft leaked Scientist Rebellion.

Therefore, the authors wrote: “A shift to diets with a higher share of plant-based protein in regions with excess consumption of calories and animal-source food can lead to substantial reductions in GHG emissions.”

However due to endless pushback by Brazil and Argentina, both of which have large and influential meat industries, this wording was changed to recommend “balanced, sustainable healthy diets acknowledging nutritional needs,” cutting slabs off any direct mention of the beef and dairy industry, what a “nutritional” diet entails, or any criticism of average diets in Western, wealthy nations.

But, why is a Western diet so bad exactly? Well, if everyone on the planet ate like the average American, which is very meat-heavy, 138% of the planet’s surface would be needed to produce the food, and the world would be fresh out of water.

As populations grow, the meat industry expands, and emerging nations develop, more and more countries are eating like America. The solution, according to the leaked IPCC report draft, is for Western countries like America to cut back on meat.

As Thomas reports, leading up to the official 2023 IPCC report, the panel released a special report on climate change and land. According to their review of scientific literature, the authors wrote that meat “was consistently identified as the single food with the greatest impact on the environment.”

Citing a 2018 study published in Science that looked at data from 38,000 farms in 119 countries, they reported that meat and dairy products are responsible for 10 to 50 times more emissions per kilogram than plant-based foods.

That’s why the IPCC wanted to recommend switching over to more plant-based meals, however, after successful lobbying by Argentian and Brazilian delegates, this science was deleted.

As documents obtained by Greenpeace’s investigative outlet, Unearthed show, in 2021, Argentina’s secretary for climate change, Rodrigo Rodriguez Tornquist, requested the paragraph on plant-based diets be removed entirely, writing that there is “no scientific basis for such affirmation on plant-based protein diets.” He also requested that all references to plant-based diets be erased.

Although both plant-based and cultivated meat failed to make it into the Synthesis Report, other omitted language reported by Scientist Rebellion gives hope for making the personal switch.

They wrote about a “slight but significant shift from high carbon beef consumption to medium carbon poultry consumption,” which may be indicative of more people choosing chicken over beef, in an effort to be climate conscious, even if the effect isn’t significant.

While the authors initially acknowledged that “individual behavioral change in isolation cannot reduce GHG emissions significantly,” they wrote:

“If 10-30% of the population were to demonstrate commitment to low-carbon technologies, behaviors and lifestyles, new social norms would be established.” They reminded us that “collective action through formal social movements and informal lifestyle movements expands the potential for climate policy and supports system change.”

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