The declining cost of renewables is one of the major successes of the last few decades. The cost of solar PV alone fell by 82 per cent between 2010 and 2019, and in many places around the world, renewables are now cheaper than energy from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) today estimates that renewables will account for 90 per cent of new power capacity globally this year and next, having surpassed forecasts. Although there is still a way to go to achieve the necessary changes in our energy system, this is another significant step in the transition.
But there’s another big emitter, which – although no less important – gets significantly less attention: our food system. What we eat and how we produce it is responsible for around a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, just as solar and EVs are transforming our energy system, technologies such as alternative proteins, gene editing and vertical farming can help us decarbonise the food system. How we scale these technologies at speed is therefore critical. But in order to realise this ambition, what lessons can we take from energy?
Progress in the energy transition has been driven by decarbonisation targets, which in turn have driven policy interventions along the energy value chain. The UK government for example, has a target to decarbonise its economy by 78 per cent by 2035 and has announced it will ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. In Norway, the country’s ambition to decarbonise by 50 per cent by 2030 has led to its 2025 target to end the sale of combustion-engine cars.
In both examples, the targets set send a clear market signal which stimulates investment in alternative technologies. In the UK, the car industry is now developing innovative electric vehicle solutions, with the government providing a £20m package to assist research and development efforts. In Norway, a 2025 target and a series of government support now means that seven in ten of its car sales are electric.
In food tech, setting targets on reducing pesticide use for example (which can harm biodiversity and human health) can signal ambition, set policy in the right direction, and stimulate innovation. This is already happening in the EU, where the Commission aims to halve pesticide use by 2030. Companies and scientists are now exploring a range of novel biological solutions for pest control, such as wasps, fungi and bacteria.
However, if a signal is necessary, its timing is also critical. Technologies must show sufficient promise at the time of target setting. Ezra Klein alluded to this in a recent piece drawing parallels between the path followed by electric cars and today’s debate around meat. As he states, California has banned combustion-engine cars starting in 2035, but if electric cars weren’t now a great technology – “a status symbol, not a culture war” – this kind of target wouldn’t be feasible.
In food tech, setting a date to phase out factory farming might not seem plausible today, but when alternative meats reach taste and price parity with conventional meat, and are therefore more accessible and attractive to consumers, it might not seem so crazy. Celebrities such as Jay-Z, Katy Perry and Serena Williams are already investors in this space, which while unlikely to persuade the masses, is perhaps an early signal of status. But how this interest diffuses through to the wider population is key.
Governments frame the case for big spending on clean energy around job creation, energy security and similar ideas which resonate politically. In Germany, for instance, where there had been a massive dependence on natural gas imports from Russia, and a strong green activism following the Fukushima disaster, investing in renewables became the politically apt choice. Adopting renewables has already created jobs and boosted local income in both developed and developing countries.
In 2019 the renewables sector provided 11.5 million jobs globally. In the US where the impact of Covid-19 has been severe, creating widespread unemployment, government is framing its clean energy interventions around job creation. Similarly, the UK’s ‘levelling up’ agenda has been framed around boosting investment in green technology to create more post-Covid-19 jobs. However, the primary ambition should be cheap and abundant energy, which in and of itself provides strong consumer benefits, let alone wider positive societal impacts.
The food tech transition also presents a major opportunity. The transition can potentially have significant positive effects on the environment, land use and human health, all of which can have knock-on impacts on society. Some jobs will be lost during the transition (and policies around reskilling will be necessary as they are for fossil fuel workers), but the transition will also create jobs of the future.
The Breakthrough Institute for example estimates that federal investment in the alternative protein industry could generate over 200,000 jobs in the long-term. Technologies like gene editing and precision farming will also reduce losses for farmers and increase profit and food security. In stark contrast, the conventional meat industry promises fewer opportunities for the future, as it already faces a similar fate to the fossil fuel industry.
To scale up food tech, supporting policies must emphasise the promise of job creation, cheaper prices, and more choice for consumers as well as a greener, safer planet to stimulate wider interest as it is in the case of the energy transition.
The energy transition has largely been driven by economics, supported by government intervention. Today, there may be an even bigger market opportunity for plant-based and lab-grown protein than was projected for electric vehicles ten years ago. But for food tech solutions like these to become attractive to consumers and more competitive than the conventional ones, governments must deploy the wide range of policy and investment levers at their disposal. Banning certain products is an option but is not the only option. As Klein also wrote: ‘Don’t ban meat, supercharge the industry making the Teslas of meat’.
To accelerate EVs, governments stimulated the market through procurement of EVs for public fleet. In food, governments could consider adopting vertically farmed produce or alternative proteins in public settings like schools. Policies to educate and inform consumers, such as product labelling for energy efficiency of home appliances, have also helped drive market forces in the energy transition. Innovation in traceability or labelling for all food types, for example involving distributed ledgers or microchips, could help consumers understand the multiple impacts of different food types and help level the playing field for novel types of food such as alternative meat.
The economics of solar makes it more competitive than coal, however the competitiveness of solar was only made possible through government subsidies and mandates. While the transition to a more sustainable food system might eventually become economically self-sustaining, governments can impact both the scale and pace of change using the right support policies. We will need a wide set of policy interventions to drive down costs and make alternative meat and other food tech solutions more attractive to adopt.
We have made significant progress in decarbonising our energy system over the past few decades; a combination of market forces, supported with mostly sensible policies means the cost of renewables has fallen dramatically. It’s now time to drive similar change in our food system.
Governments hold many levers for accelerating food technology development and deployment. Scaling these technologies up sooner rather than later means we can get to a low-carbon, low-cost future faster. It’s key to feeding the world without destroying the planet, and ultimately providing a prosperous future for all.