The climate conference is serving up meat from the lab — and a fight over food


SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – The meat at the center of a meticulously prepared meal recently served here at the Four Seasons Resort is currently unavailable outside of Singapore. But the company that operates it promises it will soon help save the planet.

It wasn’t bred on a farm, it was bred in a lab. It tastes just like chicken, but no chicken has ever been killed to be served as crispy skin, spicy skewers, and a grilled, boneless thigh—just a chicken cell raised for food in a very expensive, very sterile factory. Soon there will also be beef, pork and fish to mass-produce edible meat without cruelty or climate chaos.

“If we’re really going to stop climate change, we have to stop animal husbandry,” said Josh Tetrick, dinner host and CEO of Bay Area “slaughter-free” meat company Good Meat. Of the lab-grown meat, he said, “It allows us to enjoy real meat without any problems.”

It was just a solution to reducing the food industry’s immense carbon footprint that was being touted this week at the UN climate conference here, known as COP27. Also unveiled at the summit was a push for new types of sustainable, plant-based meat and developments in a major gene bank with a focus on climate-resilient seeds.

The innovators, venture capitalists, and politicians who promise climate salvation in the form of technology face the despair of poorer, rural countries already ravaged by global warming. Nations have demanded more focus on repairing farmland damaged by wealthy fossil-fuel dependent nations and less on investments like methane-capturing milk digesters and carbon trading schemes.

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But any serious discussion of food systems is remarkable at an annual summit that has long neglected the outsized role they play in driving climate change and the extent to which warming is increasingly threatening the world’s ability to feed itself .

“No one is more vulnerable to climate change than the world’s farmers, and I truly believe that no one can do more about it in less time than the world’s farmers,” said Theo de Jager, a macadamia nut farmer in South Africa and the former head of the World Farmers’ Organization. “How could anyone ever think of not talking about it?”

This is the 12th time that de Jager is attending a UN climate summit. Just this year, organizers put food and agriculture big on the agenda and dedicated a full day to it, with businesses and governments allocating more funding to help farmers and others in the food supply chain become more resilient to climate change.

Progress is still slow. Diplomats struggle to find solutions that can be deployed fairly and quickly in one of the most complicated and opaque sectors of the world economy. De Jager has low expectations for groundbreaking breakthroughs at the negotiating table, where diplomats are hampered by the size of the problem.

Even the relatively meager $100 billion a year that wealthy nations have previously pledged to developing countries to help recover from extreme weather events has yet to be met delivered while drought and floods devastate crops.

“The choice is between adaptation or starvation,” said Dina Saleh, regional director of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, at a news conference urging wealthy nations to fulfill their $100 billion pledge.

The United States and other wealthy nations instead focused their nutritional efforts on a joint push with the private sector that they insist on incentivising greener agriculture and helping the world’s 600 million small farmers adapt and thrive. There are a number of non-profit organizations, but the character of industrial agriculture is unmistakable. Program partners include ADM, Land O’Lakes and McDonald’s.

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These business collaborations are not well received in the farming community. Smallholder advocacy group A Growing Culture echoes a number of international advocacy groups when they charge that such collaborations aim to “empower the biggest polluters to position themselves as climate saviors, while promoting a newer version of harmful practices and from them technologies will benefit along the way.”

But the coalition behind the push promises that if the technologies trickle down, they could be transformative for even the smallest farms in the poorest places.

“The pace must be accelerated because we are running out of time to reduce global warming,” said US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The peasants’ struggles seemed little connected to the scene at the Sharm el-Sheikh Four Seasons, where a clarinetist gave a private concert inspired by the sounds of sea creatures, while a small group of journalists, entrepreneurs and foundation officials attended three elegant Poolside courses dined on synthetic chicken.

Tetrick argued that everything was connected. His argument: If synthetic meat can be made affordable and in large quantities, the impact on feeding the world and mitigating climate change will be significant. Raising and feeding livestock consumes two-thirds of the world’s agricultural land and causes 15 percent of global greenhouse gases.

Converting this land to a more sustainable use is impossible as meat consumption soars. Tetrick, a vegan, said he wouldn’t mind if the world eliminated meat from their diets. But he doesn’t see that.

“People are pretty imperfect,” he said. “You have to pick them up where they are.”

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