There’s fun food technology, like dinner and grocery delivery, and then there’s urgent food technology: the kind that can address the looming questions of how we’re going to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050, and how we’re going to do that without worsening the climate crisis.
This might sound like it would require radically more efficient crops–a new green revolution. Or maybe it will require a new type of fertilizer, a crazy advance in nanotechnology, or something involving interstellar agriculture. Paging Elon Musk!
But no, in fact the solution to both of the big problems in food technology–how we’re going to feed a burgeoning population and what we’re going to do about climate change–is actually pretty simple: plant-based protein.
At least that’s what Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt claimed at the Milken Global Summit a few months ago. He calls the concept” nerds over kine ,” and it’s the reason that the Good Food Institute, which I direct, exists: to promote plant-based and” clean meat” technologies, to solve the problems of animal agriculture and improve life on earth by an order of magnitude in the near future.
Plant-based meat is obvious: It’s meat made from plants. Clean meat is less obvious; it’s meat grown through cellular agriculture in what look like meat breweries , no animal slaughter required.
There are myriad problems of animal agriculture, but the two that most people in agricultural technology are most worried about are climate change and sustainability.
Animal agriculture is an inordinate contributor to climate change. United Nation scientists have written that animal agriculture contributes about 40 percentage more to climate change than all of the planes, trucks, vehicles, and other forms of transportation combined. Scientists from the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, writing for the Worldwatch Institute, dispute the U.N.’s findings and argue that the number is actually much higher.
Either way, eating chicken is a lot worse for the climate than eating chickpeas. Think about it this route: Of commonly consumed meat, chicken does the least harm to our climate, and yet even chicken causes 40 times more climate change per calorie of protein than the legumes that would otherwise be turned into plant-based meat.
That’s a good argument that people who care about the climate should consider changing their own diets toward more plants and fewer animals, of course. But it’s an even bigger argument that governments and foundations that care about our climate should actively support a large-scale transformation away from conventional animal agriculture and toward plant-based and clean meat alternatives.
Indeed, the most reputable thinktank in Europe, The Royal Institute of International Affairs( better known as Chatham House ), reported that it would be impossible for the governments of the world to meet their Paris Agreement obligations unless their populations consume less meat. So with the ratification of the Paris Agreement by the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world–China and the US–advancing this technology has become all the more critical.
The other reason plant-based companies are being snatched up by global food conglomerates( insure: Pinnacle Foods’s acquisition of Gardein) and plant-based start-ups have raised millions of dollars in the past few years( insure: Impossible Foods) is for their basic efficiency; they can deliver protein to the world much more efficiently. To create only one calorie of meat, it requires a minimum of nine calories of feed crops like corn and wheat, according to the World Resources Institute. Cycling crops through animals is not just vastly inefficient, it also diverts cheap, healthful food away from hungry mouths only to create a more expensive and less healthful product.
As simply one example of the health benefits of a transformation away from animals, an Oxford study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year found that a worldwide change away from animals and toward plants would decrease premature mortality globally by between 6 and 10 percentage, with most of the benefits coming in the developing world.
Of course, feeing whole plants would be even less energy intensive than processing those plants into plant-based meat, but in a world that wants to eat more and more meat, plant-based meat and clean meat are an appealing solution.
This improved future is already materializing. Over just the past five years, alternatives to animal products have earned hundreds of millions of dollars in subsistence from some of the world’s smartest and most forward-thinking investors, including Bill Gates, Marc Benioff, Sergey Brin, Twitter’s co-founders, and Li Ka-shing, one of the richest people in Asia. Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Memphis Meats are among the most successful startups working on meat alternatives. When Bill Gates tried Beyond Meat’s plant-based chicken strips, he wrote on his blog:” What I was experiencing was more than a clever meat replace. It was a taste of the future of food .”
A few years back, Google attempted to purchase Impossible Foods, a company founded by Stanford biochemist Pat Brown, who is the founder of the open-access peer-reviewed Public Library of Science( PLoS) periodicals, reportedly for close to $300 million. Brown and his team are looking at meat at a molecular level and attempting to replicate all aspects of it, utilizing innovative food technologies. Impossible Foods has developed a plant-based product that looks and tastes like ground beef. When my team and I had a private savor some months before the official launching at David Changs Momofuku, one of our scientists who is a long-time vegetarian procured it so meat-like that she couldn’t eat it.
Considering the Google offer, I have to wonder if Eric Schmidt telegraphed one of the projects being developed in the famously secretive Google-X labs. Regardless, readers needn’t wait for Google-X to get a savor of Schmidts vision. Superb plant-based meat from Gardein, Tofurky, Boca, Beyond Meat and other established companies are already available in nearly every grocery store.
Quite simply, we’re not going to feed the world, and we’re not going to avoid a climate misfortune, if we continue our global reliance on a system of food production that is so vastly inefficient and polluting. Individual change is important, but institutional change is even more important, and a change away from conventionally generated meat and toward plant-based and clean meat alternatives should be high on the orders of the day of all governments, foundations, and other entities that are concerned about these global issues.