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Nerds over cattle

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Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said plant-based food has the potential to improve humanity by a factor of tenfold or more.

He calls the tech and innovation movement leading the plant-based revolution: Nerds over Cattle. So how important is it that the nerds win? Right now food systems don’t work, over 821 million people are starving; and with the global population predicted to hit 10 billion by 2050, up from 7.8 billion today, the race is on to develop sustainable food systems.

One major obstacle in this race is industrial meat production, which continues to rise worldwide. According to a UN report, called Livestock’s Long Shadow, raising animals for food is a top three contributor to water pollution, soil desertification, loss of rainforests, loss of biodiversity and climate change. Meaning animal agriculture is more harmful to the climate than the combined impact of all transportation. European think tank, Chatham House, says unless nations slash their meat consumption, the Paris Climate Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2°C above pre-industrial levels is a pipe dream.

Speaking at an event in Melbourne last year, the internationally-renowned agricultural scientist, Dr Howard-Yana Shapiro said: “Food production is the biggest threat to our planet – 70% of the biodiversity loss, 70% of the fresh water use, 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions come directly from that. Eighty-five per cent of the marine stocks are exploited.” To reverse the trend, he says: ‘let’s breed plants that are ‘more nutritious, that are higher-yielding, that are resilient to climate change, resistant to pests and disease and water and nutrient sufficient’.

Plants are already transforming the face of the meat industry. Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Leonardo DiCaprio, are among the big name investors in plant-based and clean meat alternatives. Leonardo DiCaprio said on social media of his investment in Beyond Meat, one of the popular brands in this burgeoning market: ‘Beyond Burger uses 99% less water, 93% less land, nearly 50% less energy and generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than it takes to produce one 1/4 lb. U.S. beef burger’. Climate-friendly meat options like these are winning fans and making headlines across the world. One reason they are striking a chord with consumers is people are enjoying them as much as the real thing, something Bruce Friedrich, Executive Director of the Good Food Institute (GFI), says is vital to mainstreaming these products.

“We take inspiration from companies like Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods, companies that have come along and said: our market is not vegetarians, and we don’t care what vegetarians eat. Our market is meat eaters,” he said. “We want to help create vegetarian meat, plant-based meat that meat-eaters like every bit as much, or even more so, than the meat they are eating right now.”

Fixing broken food systems is a complex business but new meat innovations are a step in the right direction, making it one-nil to the nerds, especially when research overwhelmingly confirms the benefits of plant-based foods.

Accelerating the transition from the production of industrial animal meat to plant-based meat is GFI’s raison d’être.

“We have a science and technology department that is laying the scientific groundwork for these technologies; an innovation department that helps startups by acting as a kind of accelerator for the entire industry,” added Bruce. “As well as a corporate engagement department focused on building relationships with big meat and other food companies, we also have a policy department working on both legislative and regulatory work to ensure that plant-based meat and clean meat companies are as successful as possible.”

And eating more vegan and plant-based foods in our diet has also been labelled one of the biggest actions we can all take to minimise their impact on the planet, by researchers at Oxford University.

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Iain Robertson
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