An important milestone went largely unnoticed at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow this fall. President Isaac Herzog of Israel became the world’s first head of state to try “cultivated meat”—made from actual chicken cells, but without slaughtering animals. After sampling it, Herzog declared it to be delicious and said the technology was critical not just to Israel’s security, but to the entire world.
I had heard that message before. As a deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Obama administration, I met with a head of state from a country in the Middle East for highly classified war planning. It was 2013, when the Iran nuclear deal was in the works. He surprised me by saying that his worst fears were not about an Iranian nuclear weapon. Instead, he said, they were about how his country would feed itself if it runs out of water and land to grow food as temperatures rise. That was his real nightmare.
It was mine, too. During my time at the Pentagon and National Security Council, we not only prepared for war but also searched for opportunities to address global risks without conflict and used technology to address long-term security risks.
One of the most immediate, politically feasible, and high-impact ways to do this is for the U.S. government to invest in and accelerate alternative ways to produce meat.
Full disclosure: I work with companies that are developing such technologies. But I do so precisely because I so deeply believe in their mission and am so concerned about what happens if we don’t pursue this work. Alternative proteins are a new way to produce meat, either directly from plants or by cultivating it from animal cells. Singapore is already selling meat made from actual animal cells; if produced at large scale using renewable energy, this could produce meat at a fraction of the climate emissions from killing chickens. In the U.S., both the USDA and FDA have announced that current regulations are sufficient to ensure the food safety and regulatory approval of this new innovative way of meat production, and several companies are awaiting approval. There’s lots of reason to think that consumers will be open buying it. Already in the U.S., almost 40 percent of households drink plant-based milk, and nearly 20 percent of households eat plant-based meat, according to a study commissioned by the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for alternative proteins.
Industrialized agriculture is a greater contributor to methane emissions than any other source. Meat is the top contributor to deforestation. According to one study, chicken, pork, and beef production all use 20 times more land than plant-based meat. Per pound, conventional meat production produces more than 10 times as much air pollution and more than six times as much toxic chemicals as plant-based meat. A 2018 study suggests that replacing a chicken patty with a plant-based alternative could reduce emissions by two-thirds.
The evidence clearly shows that eating less industrially farmed meat will be good for the planet. But it’s also good for our national security.
To be clear, food security is national security. Today approximately 2 billion people live on a meat-based diet, while 4 billion people primarily consume only plants. As incomes rise—particularly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—people want to eat more meat for the density of nutrition and attainable luxury that it represents. Those demands increase pressure on scarce arable land and water resources as meat is highly inefficient to produce. For example, chicken is the most efficient animal at turning crops into meat. Yet it requires 9 calories of feed to produce one calorie of chicken meat for human consumption. That is like preparing nine plates of food and throwing eight of them away. For beef, it is like preparing 40 hamburgers only to throw away 39. Alternative proteins are a far more resource-efficient way to fuel our rising global demand for meat.
Global warming only exacerbates the problem, with global crop yields expected to fall by 3 to 6 percent each decade. Where these dynamics lead and converge, war and conflict follow. Already, countries are facing the first famines caused by climate change. While heading up Middle East policy at the Pentagon, I saw how ISIS leveraged drought and crop failures to win the support of vulnerable populations and expand its reach. Meat that is produced with less water and land is a more efficient way to address consumer taste without straining resources.
This solution also has more support from established industries than other climate mitigation solutions. Shifting to more efficient alternative proteins has the potential of electric vehicles to reduce emissions, but without the political opposition now. It is difficult to imagine the world’s largest gas and energy investing in moving customers away from fossil fuels a generation ago. But that is what is happening in food now. Global powerhouses like Nestle, Tyson Foods, JBS, Archer Daniels Midlands, and Danone, have invested millions of dollars in alternative protein startups.
Additionally, alternative proteins are a critical, but unrecognized, element of America’s relationship with China. China is already investing to lead in 5G networks, semiconductors, rare earths, and quantum computing. It’s also the largest market for battery-electric vehicles and is investing in fuel cell production to win the “battery arms race.” And this year China announced it would place a greater emphasis on food security. The world leader in food technology has yet to be determined, so we must act now. Securing our ability to feed our population is at the heart of national security.
And on the other side, food technology also offers a rare new area for cooperation with China. Earlier this month, I participated in a U.S.-China Digital Economy working group with senior former government officials. Technology was once potentially low hanging fruit for cooperation across the Pacific. But conflict over semiconductors, market access, and “dual use” defense and civilian technology has made technology another rift. Food security, like climate change and infectious diseases, affect the U.S. and China, and scientific and technical cooperation can leverage resources to address these challenges more effectively.
Every time I flew to the Middle East as a senior defense official, leaders talked to me more about the technology of tomorrow than the bombs and missiles of today. Accelerating the development of alternative protein is a politically feasible and technologically possible major step to advance our national security.
“Security is like oxygen,” was the refrain. But the same can be said for farmable land and clean drinking water. “You only know you need it when it is gone.”
Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s and do not reflect those of his employer.