Food Technology Is Infrastructure
COMMENTARY | The Ecomodernist
President Biden’s new infrastructure proposal makes bold investments to key sectors of the economy, while also racing the country forward toward a more sustainable and equitable future. The new package is not just about fixing roads, highways, and bridges, but also supports caregivers, invests in clean energy R&D, and expands broadband access, making an expansive case for the definition of “infrastructure.” Despite expanding the definition of infrastructure, an essential component is missing that would have a transformative impact on the economy and environment — innovative federal food and food technology procurement.
The federal government procures billions of dollars worth of food to feed school children, indigenous communities, the military, and many other groups. While a “green” procurement strategy is not new – the administration has directed $400 billion towards scaling up clean energy – bold government leadership is missing in the agriculture sector. By procuring novel foods like alternative proteins and low-emission meats, the Biden administration could unleash a wave of climate-friendly food innovation and production, leading to reduced agricultural emissions, while also scaling up new industries.
While the Biden administration has boldly called for making U.S. agriculture the first net zero emissions agricultural sector in the world, it has not taken full advantage of core government capabilities to mitigate emissions. Livestock production accounts for at least 42% of US agricultural emissions, with the majority of these gases released in the form of methane from cows. With federal procurement, there is significant untapped potential to increase demand for sustainable food production and shape consumption trends. The government spends a vast amount of money – about $2 billion dollars a year, on average – purchasing animal products for food assistance, school lunches, reservations, soup kitchens, food banks, and others, in addition to feeding the military. To put that number in perspective, McDonald’s alone spends about $1.3 billion on domestic beef purchases yearly.
Federal procurement of emerging food technologies like alternative proteins, specifically plant-based or cultivated meats, and low-carbon animal products will dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the food that the government buys and scale up these climate-mitigating industries. Replacing conventional beef with low-carbon meat, specifically plant-based and cultivated meat (whose exact carbon footprint is yet to be determined), will clearly cut emissions.
Procurement of novel meat alternatives provides strong market signals to companies and investors to scale up production and expand investment to improve these products. Federal procurement accelerates commercialization of new technologies to market and lowers their costs. Cultivated meats in particular are the perfect candidate – they are extremely new, prohibitively expensive, and future consumer demand is uncertain. This makes it difficult for companies and investors to justify building more pilot and commercial-scale plants to scale up production, which is necessary to reduce costs to appeal to consumers. Federal procurement that purchases products or guarantees future purchases when prices come down provides companies with the certainty they need to raise funds to scale up, reduce costs through economies of scale, and develop new meat alternatives for consumers to choose from.
Through procurement, the Biden administration can motivate the beef and dairy industry to embrace new technologies that cut emissions. Agricultural producers generally lack the financial incentive to adopt new methane-reducing feed additives, like seaweed or lemongrass, and new breeding methods that reduce emissions. As with cultivated meat, a key barrier is the lack of clear market demand. Federal procurement of low-carbon beef and dairy products would provide the industry with an immediate mass market – a clear incentive for adopting climate-friendly innovations and commercializing these new technologies. Consumers typically care more about the price of their beef and where it came from rather than what the carbon footprint is. We can’t rely on the invisible hand of the market to drive sustainability improvements. The conspicuous hand of government procurement, however, serves to motivate ranchers, feedlots, and meat processors to produce low-cost, low-carbon beef, further leading producers to label their products with their carbon footprint and help interested consumers make climate-smart choices.
Buying low-carbon meats or meat alternatives to stimulate their adoption may not be as far-fetched as you think. The federal government already sets criteria for the food agencies can buy to ensure quality and safety, for example. State governments, including Massachusetts, New York, and Illinois, encourage their agencies to purchase locally-grown foods. And, procurement has had a transformative impact on the market for sustainable goods in the past. A 1993 executive order aimed at federal procurement of energy-efficient computers and printers motivated manufacturers to develop these new products and led to the high market capture of these goods.
Close and early engagement with alternative protein and low-emission animal producers improves the potential for successful procurement. Startups and small- and medium-sized enterprises developing innovative products may have limited administrative or legal capacity to participate in government procurement. Engaging with these enterprises directly so they can provide industry knowledge to inform the procurement process boosts the likelihood of success.
To achieve its ambitious climate goals, the Biden administration should include procurement of innovative food technologies within their broader infrastructure strategy to reduce emissions from agriculture. With agricultural emissions representing 10% of total US emissions, adopting innovative alternatives and low-carbon animal products represent key pieces to the puzzle of curbing livestock production’s impacts. Neither on their own is a silver bullet. The federal government’s procurement of renewable energy has bolstered the growth of the industry and its competitiveness. Likewise, government procurement of climate-mitigating food technologies is an indispensable lever for transforming agricultural production. To get to a net-zero agricultural sector, the government must first lead the way.
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