Since they were first set forth in 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have been an important framework for our efforts to make the world a better place. Since I was in high school, I’ve been focused on the second goal, ending hunger and food insecurity. Few other things matter to an individual who is hungry or doesn’t know what their family’s next meal will be.
Yet many things make it difficult to ensure food security for our ever-expanding global human family.
For example, in the early 2000s, according to a World Bank report, biofuel production drove global food prices up 75 percent. The impact was so severe that U.N. Special Rapporteur on food policy Jean Ziegler called the diversion of crops to biofuels “a crime against humanity.”
How can we use food technology to address world hunger and environmental degradation?
Given the amount of hunger and poverty in the world, using crops to make biofuel – and thus depriving people of food while driving up the price of the remaining harvest – could well be considered a crime against humanity. But the extent to which we convert crops into biofuels pales in comparison to the amount of crops we feed to chickens, pigs, turkeys, and other animals.
It is natural to think that feeding global crops to animals is not a problem because we then eat the animals. But the vast majority of calories we feed to farmed animals don’t get converted into edible meat. Instead, they are used by the animal as she grows her entire body – including bones, feathers, and organs – to slaughter weight.
In fact, the World Resources Institute has found that to get one calorie of chicken meat, we have to feed a chicken nine calories of our crops. It’s as if we had nine plates of food ready to serve our growing population, but instead, we just threw eight of them away. That’s 800 percent food waste.
Just as with biofuel production, feeding crops to animals is worse than just wasteful. By not feeding these crops directly to people, we drive up the cost of the remaining crops even further, exacerbating malnutrition and starvation around the world. It was this impact on the cost of grains – and thus global malnutrition and starvation – that led U.N. Rapporteur Ziegler to call biofuels a “crime against humanity,” and it’s why we should be at least as concerned with the practice of feeding crops to animals.
This inherent inefficiency also leads us to overuse many other limited resources. If we are growing nine times more calories than we are actually consuming, we are using that much more land, water, fertilizer, and pesticides, and herbicides. We’re also using more fossil fuels to plant, harvest, and ship all these extra crops.
Given that the current system of meat production is unbelievably wasteful and destructive, why do we put up with it? Why is animal agriculture growing in almost every single country in the world?
The answer is simple: people want to eat meat. Luckily, today there are companies making meat directly from plants. Plant-based meat is vastly more efficient, avoiding the downsides of food waste and environmental degradation.
One of these companies is Beyond Meat, founded by Ethan Brown in 2009. When Ethan learned about the impact of industrial animal agriculture, he started wondering: what is meat? He realized that meat is simply a combination of lipids, amino acids, minerals, and water. Thus, an idea was born: creating environmentally-friendly plant-based meat that could satisfy the most dedicated meat eater.
Ethan found investors and hired food scientists, plant biologists, chefs, and other culinary experts. Today their Beyond Burger is sold at many restaurants and in the meat cases of many grocery stores.
When Bill Gates, who is an investor in Beyond Meat, tried Beyond’s chicken strips, he said he couldn’t tell the difference. Gates declared: “What I was experiencing was more than a clever meat substitute. It was a taste of the future of food.” Tyson Foods – the biggest meat producer in the US – was so excited that they invested twice in the company.
Another major plant-based meat company is Impossible Foods, created by former Stanford biochemistry professor Pat Brown (no relation to Ethan). Impossible is backed by the richest person in Asia, Li Ka-shing, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, Google Ventures, Bill Gates (again), and many more.
The Impossible Burger is so good that it’s first public champion was David Chang, who had previously removed all vegetarian entrées from the menus of all of his restaurants. If you can win over David Chang with plants, you can win over anyone.
But for those holdouts who insist on animal meat, other advances in food technology could save us from the many harms animal agriculture creates. The most promising of these technologies is cultivated meat.
Back in 2005, Dr. Uma Valeti, a Mayo-Clinic-trained cardiologist, was thinking about the process of reconstructing heart tissue. This led him to wonder, “Why couldn’t we do this with animal flesh and build meat using standard tissue engineering techniques?” In 2015, he launched Memphis Meats to grow meat directly from animal cells.
Their backers include Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and venture capital kingmaker DFJ. Both Tyson and major meat conglomerate Cargill, the largest private company in the United States, have invested in Memphis.
But given the many harms currently caused by industrial animal agriculture, we must not be dependent on only Silicon Valley and the private sector.
One of the world’s leading think-tanks, Chatham House, declared that governments will be unsuccessful in holding climate change to less than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 unless their populations consume less meat. Chatham House’s suggested solution is for governments to educate their populations and encourage meat reduction.
While I admire the belief that we just need more information and then we will prioritize the climate when making our food choices, I think that our friends at Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Memphis Meats have a better solution. We don’t need to change consumer behavior. We need to make products that compete with animal-based meat on the basis of the factors that dictate consumer choice: price, taste, and convenience. We need to change meat production to be better for food security, the environment, and public health.
We don’t need to replace meat. We need to reimagine meat.
Given what is at stake, governments should back the development of plant-based and cultivated meat, as these technologies are obvious solutions to huge and imperative global problems. The US government currently puts $3 billion a year into agricultural research. China invests even more. Just consider what could happen if governments used these resources to form plant-based meat and cultivated meat research centers at major universities and institutions around the world.
Yes, we face many pressing global threats today, but one powerful and simple solution is staring us right in the face: plant-based and cultivated meat. Everyone from individual scientists and investors to the world’s governments can and should be a part of reimagining meat and building a better future for us and future generations.