Karthik Sekar, Senior Data Scientist, Climax Foods
Karthik Sekar has a doctorate in Chemical Engineering from Northwestern University and has an academic research career in biochemical engineering, metabolism, and quantitative biology. He has written a non-fiction science/technology book, After Meat, arguing that the inefficiency of animals in food production means inevitable replacement. Karthik has appeared on numerous podcasts and delivered talks at Stanford University and ETH Zurich. He currently works as a Senior Data Scientist at Climax Foods in Berkeley, California.
When we consider problems solved, replacing animal agriculture will be one of the most triumphant milestones in history. It's water desalination, dozens of vaccines, electric cars, drought-resistant crops, the elimination of widespread misery, carbon capture technology, and more rolled into one. I hope this changes how you think about the importance of the alternative food effort and the sheer good that it can do.
Animal agriculture is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, coming behind energy and transportation. But emissions are just one side of the equation; we must consider Earth's ability to capture and sequester greenhouse gas. Freeing up the excessive amount of land that animal agriculture uses right now – equivalent to all of North and South America – would enable a ton of space that can be rewilded to store carbon dioxide.
Renewable energy doesn't provide this immense secondary benefit of freed land. Some analysis even suggests that replacing animal agriculture and rewilding might be one of the most straightforward and potent efforts against climate change.
Pandemics and Biosecurity
Most pandemics are zoonotic in origin. If humans didn't eat animals, COVID-19 wouldn't have happened. Animals are physiologically similar to humans, so dangerous pathogens are likelier from animal flesh than plants or microbes.
Animal agriculture also concentrates animals and exposes them to wildlife, potentiating conditions for disease and outbreak. A post-animal agriculture world would dramatically reduce the density of animals and opportunities for a devastating pandemic. Imagine if we developed dozens of vaccines and administered them to a critical mass of people. That in effect is what we would achieve by eliminating animal agriculture.
Food and Water Security
Using animals to grow large quantities of food is egregiously inefficient. We lose 90-95% of the calories fed to animals to produce meat, dairy, and eggs.
Animals also grow slowly; in contrast, plants and microbes can grow 10 to 10,000 times faster. A bathtub-sized meat-producing microbial bioreactor system has the potential to replace a farm with 10,000 cows.
“When any technological transition occurs, the antecedent industry will diminish. Rather than avoid progress, we need better systems to handle inevitable job casualties, whether from alternative food, the internet, renewable energy, or driverless ca
Additionally, the most significant stress or of water security is agriculture, drawing 70% of freshwater globally. Animal products crowd the top of the chart of water usage. The plant and microbial-based replacement to animal products will be more efficient and have already proven better water footprints and efficiencies.
Economic Security and Poverty
Economic growth and stability occur as we solve inefficiencies and scarcities. As agricultural efficiency went up in the 19th century, we received secondary benefits of more workers being able to work on non-agriculture-related efforts.
Likewise, animal agriculture is a sizable industry but resource intensive. For all the reasons mentioned above, we'll get savings and more affordable food by giving up animal agriculture in the long run. With surplus resources and more efficient food production, it becomes easier to solve poverty and maintain economic security.
Animals can suffer. And over 70 billion land animals are slaughtered each year, most of whom endured a life of horrific conditions. If we can eliminate this practice with technological advancement and shifting food habits, then wouldn't that be a welcomed breakthrough?
Many vegan alternatives are already healthier than their conventional animal-based predecessors. Animals are difficult to breed for better nutrition. It'll be easier to have plant and microbial-based foods with less or no saturated fat, heavy metals, parasite infestations, and pink slime.
Simultaneously, the alternatives can have more fiber and vitamins while winning on taste. In brief, we have more opportunities to create more nutritious and tastier food with successors than we ever did with animal products.
The Million Dollar Question: Is This Within Reach?
At Climax Foods, in my role as a senior data scientist, that’s my mission that I work towards every day, in my role as a senior data scientist. We are focused on creating vegan alternatives using plant ingredients to emulate and exceed the flavor and nutritional profile of dairy products, such as brie, feta and blue cheeses.
What we’ve discovered so far is, It’s not only possible, it’s very attend able reasonable! Here are some of the push backs we’ve heard, though, and what I would say to each:
“We would compromise or eliminate many traditions.”
Traditions can remain, but the food served may be different. The Thanksgiving turkey, for instance, isn't some relic of hundreds of years – most Americans didn't have turkey available until after World War II! Food served at traditions is constantly evolving.
“These new foods are too foreign – how do we know whether they're safe to eat?”
Newer foods aren't foreign in terms of nutrition – they're reconfigurations of compounds we've been safely eating over many generations. And most of our foods today are "new"; for example, most of the world did not consume avocados or Brussel sprouts until the 1990s.
“A transition would endanger many farmers, agriculturists, and their livelihoods.”
When any technological transition occurs, the antecedent industry will diminish. Rather than avoid progress, we need better systems to handle inevitable job casualties, whether from alternative food, the internet, renewable energy, or driverless cars. Farming transition programs can move farmers away from animal agriculture.
To further explore this topic, consider picking up my book on this topic, After Meat.
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