If plant-based protein becomes the norm — and meat production becomes only a minor, not major, contributor to the world’s problems coming from carbon emissions and pollution — then much of the credit should go to Stanford University researcher Patrick Brown. The professor of biochemistry, who has spent much of his career on genetic research, has taken on a new quest: finding alternatives to animal farming. And one of his ideas is a plant-based hamburger that oozes out blood like the real thing.
His brainchild is Impossible Foods, a Redwood City, California startup that has scored $75 million in venture capital funding, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company is developing fake cheeses and meats, including his beef substitute that uses plant-based molecules to recreate a more environmentally friendly, and humane, alternative to steak and hamburger. In his quest to change how we eat, and put a dent in the global meat industry, he is focusing on the environmental argument while trying to develop a product that has the taste and texture of the real thing — eschewing the emotional and ethical arguments typical of the anti-meat crowd.
Other companies are on a similar mission, such as Beyond Meat, the Southern California-based firm that has been supplying Whole Foods and other retailers with chicken strips that taste practically — I would argue better — than the real thing. Beyond Meat uses a mixture of carrot fiber, amaranth and pea flour for a product that can be mixed with pasta or grilled like fajitas. Like Impossible Foods, these companies are on a mission to develop products that are cost-competitive, and eventually cheaper, than meat from cows or chickens. If they and other companies succeed, they can help fight the global obesity epidemic, help stall global emissions, put a salve on what many see as a cruel industry, and free up land otherwise used for pasture and other livestock farming.
And these companies have got to succeed if we are going to come close to making a dent in our addiction to meat. Let’s address a few of the social and economic realities. Many of the meat alternatives out there are of poor quality, and made from a base of gritty soy or manky fungus — not to mention that they are often hyper-processed. While diets can and will change, they do slowly — so shaming people to switch meats for seitan, lentils or mung beans will not work. Many people have grown up accustomed to the taste and texture of meat, or are developing a liking for it abroad as the global middle class expands. So we can talk until we are blue in the face (or blue like some meat in China) about animal cruelty, the fact the meat industry is a larger carbon emitter than the transport industry worldwide, that more land is used to raise food for animals than humans, and the health risks of consuming too much animal fat and protein. A good quality product, at a fair price, however, will get some attention.
It will be interesting to see if Impossible Foods can succeed. The quest to find new environmentally-friendly protein is analogous to developments in safe, renewable energy — many ideas work in the laboratory, but cannot scale. Another question is whether consumers will salivate, and not be creeped out, by a fake hamburger gooey with fake blood. But Dr. Brown and his Redwood City crew are not developing new products for vegans, but for the mass market. And if they become Facebook-IPO rich while we scale back global meat production, power to them.
Image credit: Impossible Foods