The Future of Protein: An Interview with Dr. Sparsha Saha

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Dr. Sparsha Saha is a Lecturer at the Department of Government. She is the only (empirical) political scientist who studies meat politics, and her research is broadly situated in the field of political behavior. Saha teaches “GOV 1318: The Great Food Transformation,” which examines the interconnectedness of animal agriculture, food accessibility, and climate change. Her work has been featured in Political Behavior, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, and Frontiers in Nutrition. She was honored as Harvard’s South Asian Woman of the Year in 2022. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Harvard Political Review: A lot of your work has been centered around exposing the negative effects of animal agriculture and the benefits of a plant based diet. To someone who’s unfamiliar with the concept, how would you explain the interconnectedness between our personal diets and the effects we see with climate change?

Dr. Sparsha Saha: I think one of the best ways that I have found that explains this impact is to think about food as an opportunity to combat climate change because it buys us time. There’s a connection between animal based foods being particularly costly for water use, for land use, and for soil. These are things that we have to think about because our population is growing in the future, so we need to be thoughtful about how we’re using water because our use is higher than the renewal rate. Irrigated water is our most precious water, and we’re using it quicker than it’s replenishing. How can we be as efficient as possible with how we’re using water? If we’re using it to grow food to feed the middleman that we’re eating, we end up losing a lot of the efficiency, converting that energy from food to food for humans, and also the use of water. 

It also impacts biodiversity loss. Animal agriculture is about 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Animal based foods are so land intensive, so when we are burning and slashing our way through wildlands, we release all that carbon back into the air. Those greenhouse gasses are our most important levers right now to buy us time. For methane it has 20 times more warming potential in the short term than carbon does. According to the UNDP, we should really be focusing on methane right now because if we reduce it, it may actually have a cooling effect in the short term for us and buy us some time. The number one source of methane emissions on the planet is animal agriculture. 

Nitrous oxide is another one. This comes from fertilizer that we’re spraying to grow food that we feed to livestock and it comes from manure as well. Nitrous oxide is even more potent than methane, and the number one emitter is also animal agriculture. 

We see there’s an opportunity to buy us more time, especially when a lot of people are overconsuming animal based foods. There is an opportunity to shift. It’s very possible to do this in a way that shifts diets a little slowly toward more plants. That also makes us healthier. It reduces the risk of death from noncommunicable diseases that are preventable. 

The other part of that has to do with the land use. Returning land back to nature is our most powerful way of sequestering carbon. Animal agriculture, if we bring it down, gives us the opportunity to return that land back to nature. We’re using a lot of farmland for animal agriculture globally, 83% of farmland on the entire planet is used for animal agriculture, and that produces just 18% of the calories and 37% of the protein. It’s very inefficient. 

We could say this is a hypothetical. If we shifted to a diet that was plant based, we could return land the size of the continent of Africa back to nature. This buys us time as well. A 70% reduction of animal-based foods would lead to us gaining back 99% of our carbon budget consistent with a 66% of keeping warming below 1.5 by 2050. 

When I look at food, all I see are solutions. I see solutions, but we have to do this in a way that is inclusive. A way that recognizes people’s cultural values because food is culture, food is so important to so many groups of people around the world. 

The impact of food on climate change is significant, but it also presents us with an opportunity. So for me, I truly think the food system, as an input and as an output, should be one of the major focal points in our conversation on climate change.

HPR: For people who are thinking more about transitioning to a plant-based diet, some people are unaware about the main types of plant-based alternative meat proteins. Which alternative proteins do you believe have the greatest potential to produce environmental benefits at a large scale?

SS: I’m very excited by fermented alternative proteins. This is a company like Meati. Fermentation for Meati, which is making whole cuts of steak and chicken, works with fungi. They are one of the most efficient converters of energy that we have. They grow really quickly because they can convert energy very quickly. So when we take that and we tie it together with fermentation, which is taking microbes where we kind of train them to secrete protein. This process is scalable. Meati, I believe, has the first large scale production facility that they just built. I think it’s going to rival the larger rancher operations because it will produce as much alternative protein really cheaply and really quickly. 

The other part of it that I like is that it doesn’t require a lot of processing. So for people who are concerned about alternative proteins because it can be more processed, Meati is just mushroom root and some salt. They have a process where once the mycelium grows in their reactors, they stretch it out and it turns it into this whole cut of steak or whole cut of chicken that is healthy. That’s very sustainable because it’s such an efficient energy conversion. 

There’s a company called Every, whose founder is actually Harvard alum Arturo Elizondo. The company is working on producing real egg protein, but removing the chicken. The chicken has a cost. So if we can remove that and produce real egg protein, that is a brilliant win for sustainability, for financial costs of companies, for ethics.

I have become more hopeful that cultivated meat will achieve scalability as well. One of the major scientific breakthroughs happened just a few months ago, where scientists were able to massively reduce the growth costs, which is what the cells sort of proliferate in and also massively increase cell density. It gave me a lot of hope about the ability of cultivated meat to achieve scale, and then once it does, we’ve removed the middle animal from this equation. 

Therefore, we don’t have to feed the animal, which involves such a big use of resources. As I always say, animals are alive. They breathe, they move, they’re compost. So, they’re wasting all that energy. Plant-based alternatives allow us to take animals out of the process, and we win when we do that.

HPR: Some people still have large caveats about alternative plant-based proteins. The main ones are price competitiveness and the safety of cultivated products. What are your responses to these large caveats and how do you see the plant based industry kind of addressing these concerns in the future?

SS: Price is such an important one. How can we expect people to do something that is impossible for them, right? So many people around the world are looking at their wallets and thinking about what they can afford for food in a given week. We have to make sure that we’re thinking about the most vulnerable humans, so the price is number one in terms of making sure that people can afford these products. 

For safety, it’s been disconcerting to me how the reporting on this has spread information that, I think, is irresponsible at this stage. The scientific breakthrough, where they were able to increase the cell densities and reduce the media growth costs, relied on a process where the cells were immortalized. Cancer cells are also immortalized, and so the reporting very quickly started to do a lot of fear mongering like if you eat it, you could get cancer. 

I think it’s good to report it, but report it accurately. This was tested, and there was no evidence that eating it would lead to cancer. Should that be replicated? Do we need to make sure that holds 100%? Absolutely, but some of the reporting I saw was saying you could get cancer because there’s no evidence you won’t. If there’s no evidence, don’t lead with that. Food is not technology, so people already have a lot of concerns. So then if you give them this piece and you don’t put it in context and you don’t explain it correctly, that’s very irresponsible given the facts that we have. 

Now for processed meats and red meats, what we do know is that they cause cancer. They’re classified as carcinogens — processed meats are known carcinogens and red meats are “class two carcinogens” — so probable carcinogens according to the WHO. So we know those cause cancer, and for cultivated meat, there’s no evidence that it causes cancer. To me that narrative should be a bit more flipped. The coverage should be: We know this does give us cancer, so let’s worry about this one.

HPR: Anthropocentrism is something that you mentioned in your work and a concept that’s prevalent in the study of animal agriculture, but the term is rarely mentioned outside of that realm. Could you define anthropocentrism and discuss how you think alternative proteins could serve as a gateway towards addressing the issue, and do you think the U.S. is even ready to make that step?

SS: That’s the question I think about all the time. I define anthropocentrism as an arbitrary intergroup hierarchy imposed by the most powerful species through cruel, systematic, extensive and violent domination. 

In this conversation, on our environmental crisis, so much of the root cause is our species not considering the value of ecosystems, of nonhumans around us or outside in those ecosystems. And so, I would encourage paying more attention to the voices of people who are in indigenous tribes, who are thinking about ancestral food pathways, who are thinking about what the past can tell us. Wisdom that comes from humans who have been working in harmony with nature for so long, is all that we really need right now. Their belief system was not anthropocentric. 

So for me a key part of this is dismantling anthropocentrism. I view that as a root cause of humans learning how to live with limits because we have to learn how to do that on this planet. We are living in an unlimited way right now, and that just is not possible. So is it possible in the U.S. to start doing this? I think dismantling anthropocentrism is something that comes hand in hand with dismantling sexism, dismantling racism. Are we ready for leaders to emerge who are brave enough to challenge us all, to expand our moral concern?

Also understand that when we expand our moral concern, it does not compete with the interests of other human groups. It aligns with all of our interests. Those who are going to pay the costs of climate change, of animal agriculture, are the poorest people in the world. I think so much of the way we think about this right now, there’s a competition of interests. Well, these things are connected. I think we need to convince people to understand that our fates are all tied.

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