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September 23, 2020

9 min. read

A Memo from the Year 2050 

“In 2032, regular citizens looked at supermarket meat aisles and fast-food value meals as pandemic lottery tickets. Eating those foods carried a social stigma, not unlike how westerners a decade earlier had regarded bat-eating.” 

Brandon Keim, a freelance journalist writing a speculative fiction piece for Anthropocene magazine about how to prevent zoonoses, asked Farm Forward how to create a future free of pandemics and factory farms. 

The following questions he presented along with our answers are shared with Keim’s permission: 

Q1. Ending factory farming — and not merely improving biosecurity and disease surveillance and animal vaccine development etc. — is clearly essential to reducing the emergence of new diseases. What concrete steps will make this attainable, both in developed countries with high meat consumption rates and in developing countries where meat consumption rises with prosperity and factory farming is regarded as necessary to meet growing demand? How can resistance be overcome? 

A1. You could write a book to respond to this question! There are many actions that can be taken immediately to end factory farming. You’re right, effective steps in countries like the US and Europe, where factory farming is endemic, will be different from countries like India or South East Asia, where traditional forms of agriculture are still the majority and factory farming is emerging.  

In countries like the US and member countries of the European Union there will need to be major structural reform to replace factory farmed animal products with alternatives. Below are few actions that could be taken immediately that would move the US in the right direction:  

  • Redirect farm subsidies from industrial-scale animal production to alternatives. 
    • The USDA estimates that animal agriculture in the US receives $38B in subsidies per year, including indirect forms like insurance for feed crops.  
    • Redirecting those subsidies to farmers raising food products for domestic consumption—both plant-based foods that we can eat directly, and farms that raise animals in high welfare conditions—would both increase the market share and decrease the costs of alternatives to factory farmed products.  
    • Subsidies could include expanded conservation payments and financial incentives for carbon sequestration.  
  • Pass the Farm System Reform Act.  
    • Introduced by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Ro Khanna, the FSRA would place a moratorium on construction of all new “large” confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and would phase them out by 2040.  
    • Importantly, the FSRA would also reinstate Country of Origin Labeling and provide $10B in debt relief for farmers who currently raise animals in CAFOs to help them transition to alternative farming methods.  
  • Put a price on the environmental impacts of the meat industry. The US meat industry is a leading polluter of air and water but almost none of that impact is reflected in the cost of meat. Oxford University research found that if the US reduced meat consumption it could avoid greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts worth $570B.  
  • Invest in research and development for plant-based and cultivated food technology that can replace products from animals raised in CAFOs. A significant percentage of animal products are used in processed foods (e.g. baked goods, frozen foods, etc.) where animal products aren’t essential or a centerpiece of the food item. Replacing animal products in those settings with plant-based or cultivated products will reduce the overall demand for products from CAFOs.  

In countries of Southeast Asia like India where factory farming is still emerging, but does not yet dominate agriculture, the strategies to end factory farming should be different. In these countries, strategies guided by local partners might focus on both a) legislation restricting the expansion of factory farming and b) investing in and supporting traditional forms of animal agriculture. Supporting traditional agriculture doesn’t mean that agriculture can’t scale to meet the needs of urbanizing populations—the question is, what does that growth look like? In India, large scale producer-owned cooperatives aggregate supply from small farmers and provide processing and delivery infrastructure to connect with larger urban markets. Governments can support these models and avoid the industrialization of animal farming.  

Overcoming meat companies’ resistance to reforming factory farming takes political will, which is growing.  When asked, overwhelming numbers of consumers think farmed animals should be treated humanely. Many farmers and farming communities, the very people who are usually most impacted by factory farms, also support reform. At the same time there is a clear shift in the attitudes and dietary choices of younger Americans. Young people are choosing to eat more plant-based meals and are choosing to eat fewer animal products, both for their health and to reduce their environmental footprint. These trends speak to the possibility of a broad coalition that supports reforms to US agricultural policy.  

 Q2. If people do cease factory farming animals, I worry that there will be a huge surge in demand for wild-caught animals, both terrestrial and aquatic (and if only factories for species posing a high zoonotic risk, particularly pigs and poultry, are eliminated, I worry about a surge in demand for cows.) Can you speak to that? 

A2. I understand why that might worry you, but I don’t think it’s a very likely scenario. If a chance confluence of events ended factory farming in the US overnight, one short-term result might be increasing pressure on wild animals as a food source. However, it’s unlikely that factory farming will end suddenly. A more realistic scenario is something like the Farm System Reform Act, which places a moratorium on all new “large” CAFOs and phases out large CAFOs by 2040. In the meantime, the bill proposes spending billions of dollars to help farmers transition to other forms of animal and non-animal agriculture. My sense is that many farmers will transition to higher welfare pasture-based animal farming and some farmers will transition to raising plant- based foods that can be eaten directly by consumers (either traditionally or as part of plant-based food technologies). Longer-term changes to how food is produced will be accompanied by parallel changes in cultural norms that shift away from meat-heavy diets to diets where meat plays a less central role.  

 Q3. How important is federal funding of plant-based and engineered meats? As these become more sophisticated, can economic forces be trusted to make the transition — or does there need to be social engineering and social pressure, too? 

A3. Funding for plant-based and cellular foods, especially at the basic research level, would almost certainly help this industry develop faster. Fortunately, the private sector and traditional capital are prepared to invest in the development of these technologies.  

I don’t think you can separate the adoption of food technology from the work of changing social norms. The explosion in popularity of plant-based foods in the past few years was almost certainly made possible, at least in part, by a change in cultural norms catalyzed by decades of work from advocates, educators, etc. Projects that work to normalize plant-based eating, for example by making plant-based foods the default option, will play an important part in continuing and accelerating the trends now underway.  

An implied question I think you’re asking is: what role will food technology play in ending factory farming—will markets be enough or do we need to change the political economy? I think it’s clearly the latter. Food technology will play a role in helping shift the market toward less meat, but ending factory farming will require political solutions that will only be achieved by building social support and pressure.  

 Q4. I think here of the rise of automobiles in the United States being accompanied by campaigns to stigmatize pedestrians … could we imagine a future where people who eat factory-farmed meat are seen as transgressors, like westerners now view Asians who consume dogs or bats? And while factory farm workers don’t deserve to be stigmatized, should executives and investors be viewed as pariahs, on par with their counterparts in the fossil fuel or weapons industries? 

A4. Absolutely, I think we’re already starting to see that shift. A range of people, including those in the financial sector, are becoming more cognizant of the impacts and dangers of factory farming. How people view fossil fuels and cigarette companies are good examples of the way we may see industrial animal agriculture companies in the near future; it won’t be long before companies like Tyson and Cargill are seen in the same light that Phillip Morris and Exxon are seen. Like cigarettes today, we can expect much broader agreement that factory-farmed products are bad for both individual and public health. Like fossil fuels today, we can expect a growing consensus that we need to rapidly find alternatives to factory farmed meat. Both the fossil fuel and cigarette industries provide good examples for the kind of resistance we’ll likely see to fundamentally changing factory farming. The meat industry spends huge amounts of money convincing us their products are healthy, and necessary and equally huge sums of money to get the government to buy or prop up their industry when they have excess products that people don’t want to buy.  

 Q5. If factory farms vanish but people continue to eat meat sourced from small-scale, high-welfare animal producers, what is the ecological footprint likely to be? (Another way to put this is: can small-scale, high-welfare meat be produced at a scale necessary to meet human appetites without obliterating most of wild nature? If there is research on this, much obliged if you could point me at it.) 

A5. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how many animals we can raise for food and maintain high welfare and ecologically regenerative practices. Whatever the number is, it’s orders of magnitude smaller than the numbers we currently raise. Although the science is inconclusive, there are reasons to believe that ruminants (cattle and sheep) can be grazed on grasslands in systems that improve soil quality and provide other ecological benefits like water retention and wildlife habitat. However, I don’t know of any evidence that suggests that we can raise poultry or pigs anywhere near the scale we raise them today. The outcome will be that we eat much less meat per capita, returning meat consumption to something more like the occasional indulgence it was 70-80 years ago, where you might eat a few times a week and for special occasions. The World Resources Institute has put together good research and resources about the ways that global diets need to shift in order to produce enough calories for the growing populations without blowing past our climate change and greenhouse gas targets.  

 Our exchange of ideas resulted in A Memo From the Year 2050: Here’s how we avoided the worst of zoonotic diseases, published August, 2020. 

Last Updated

September 23, 2020