At their best, innovators improve humanity’s fortunes while expanding our horizons. The market provides significant financial rewards to those who take the risk of pushing the leading edge. Nowhere are the opportunities for innovation greater than in the good food arena.
The way we currently produce meat, eggs, and dairy is at the heart of the most pressing global issues of our time. For example, scientists at the United Nations have determined that raising animals for food is ‘one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity’. According to these experts, animal agriculture is responsible for more climate change than every plane, train, and automobile combined.
Every year, contaminated animal products sicken tens of millions of Americans, hospitalising tens of thousands, and killing more than a thousand. An even greater threat is antibiotic resistance. Again, this is driven by industrial animal agriculture, as roughly 80% of antibiotics produced in the United States are fed to farm animals. This flood of antibiotics drives the evolution of deadly superbugs.
And, of course, factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses cause thinking, feeling individuals to suffer horribly.
All of that would be nothing more than a sad commentary, though, if not for this: modern animal agriculture is shockingly inefficient. This should really grab the attention of anyone looking for a huge market ripe for transformation through innovation. The biology is simple: when we feed crops to an animal, she burns off the vast majority just staying alive. Chickens are the most efficient, and yet 900 calories of feed are required to create 100 calories of chicken meat. Other animals are even worse. In short, feeding animals is an extraordinarily inefficient way of creating meat.
So we can set aside environmental, health, and cruelty concerns and still see an overwhelmingly compelling opportunity. A potential order-of-magnitude increase in efficiency should have every innovator drooling at the prospect of undercutting and replacing the current system with one that is better across the board.
We know plant-based and clean meat (real meat grown outside an animal) can and will be vastly superior to animal-based meat in terms of environmental degradation, impact on human health, alleviating global poverty, and humane treatment of animals. Given the inherent inefficiency of using farm animals to convert crops into meat, once they are produced at scale, plant-based and clean meat will also undercut animal-based meat in cost. Once that happens, the meat industry will be utterly transformed.
The world’s most visionary innovators are already jumping on board. Bill Gates called Beyond Meat ‘the future of food’, and put his money where his mouth is. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt declared that plant-based meat will improve life for humankind at least tenfold in the near future by mitigating climate change and global hunger. Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing has invested heavily in Impossible Foods, Hampton Creek, Perfect Day, and other plant-based and clean startups. Google founder Sergey Brin funded the first clean burger. Google itself tried to buy plant-based pioneer Impossible Foods for $300 million before Impossible even had a commercial product.
Signs from Big Food have also been encouraging. In 2017 alone, there was a marked acceleration in the trend of established companies recognising the growing importance of plant-based meat.
In addition to huge investments in plant-based and clean meat startups by venture capital kingmakers like Bill and Melinda Gates, Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, and DFJ, the meat industry itself now sees the writing on the wall. Tyson, the largest meat producer in the US, has invested in Silicon Valley darling Beyond Meat, and the massive meat conglomerate Cargill has invested in clean meat pioneer Memphis Meats.
We’ve seen this dynamic pay major dividends in the past. It was Dean Food’s purchase and subsequent promotion of Silk that moved plant-based milk to the mainstream. Now, plant-based milk has almost 10% share of the market, while plant-based meat is only about a quarter of one percent.
Mark Zuckerberg grew Facebook into a global juggernaut with motto: ‘move fast and break things’. There has never been an industry more in need of being ‘broken’ and rebuilt than modern industrial animal agriculture. Its nearly unfathomable size – hundreds of billions of dollars – and gross inefficiencies make it a prime target for lucrative transformation through innovation. Are you an entrepreneur, inventor, scientist, engineer, or investor looking to hit it big while helping to save the world? Then you should get into the plant-based and clean meat fields as soon as possible.
This article was published today in our biotechnology special edition, which is being distributed at the annual conference of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre in Glasgow – and online.