Can plant-based and lab-grown meat change the world?
At the Good Food Institute Conference, a panel of experts said they not only can, but for the good of the planet, they must.
BERKELEY, Calif. — Wearing a white T-shirt with the bold message "CHOOSE EARTH," Impossible Foods co-founder and CEO Pat Brown told the packed auditorium at the final session of the Good Food Institute Conference how his company plans to "save the world."
"It sounds like hyperbole, but the reason I founded this company was to save the world from what was, right now, the biggest environmental catastrophe that has ever happened, which is the insanely destructive use of animals in food technology," he said at the University of California, Berkeley Friday evening.
A powerful message of both impending doom and optimism finished off the conference, which brought together hundreds of industry leaders, scientists, students, funders, entrepreneurs and dietitians to talk about how to steer the world toward a more sustainable, protein-based food system.
If things don't change soon, Earth will be in trouble, scientists said at the final session. According to statistics presented by Isaac Emery, senior environmental scientist at the Good Food Institute, about a fifth of the emissions that contribute to climate change are from animal agriculture.
Brown said the total biomass of cows currently produced for food are more than 10 times heavier than every other land vertebrate put together. But it isn't just cows — pigs also outweigh everything by a factor of two.
"Effectively, right now, we’ve taken the entire surface of earth and replaced the biodiversity with either animals that are raised for food and the crops we are feeding [them]," Brown said.
Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, advanced the dire news. If everyone in the world suddenly starts doing right in terms of resource consumption, but continues to raise meat and dairy animals in the same way — and demand spikes 60% to 70% with population growth and more people wanting those products — then the world is headed for a climate catastrophe, he said.
One of Impossible Foods' core tenets is solving this seemingly impossible problem. Brown said his goal is to eliminate the current system of raising animals for food by 2035. Other panelists discussed the upcoming farm bill and its provisions for pollution standards — but Brown called these a "red herring." He said any change in pollution standards for animal production is missing the point. After all, animals would still be used to produce food.
What the food industry needs to do, Brown said, is produce what consumers want in a more sustainable way because consumer behavior is unlikely to change.
"Give them meat, give them milk, give them fish," he said. "Just make it directly from plants and they can think whatever the hell they want."
Brown said that science can be used to provide the taste and experience consumers expect from meat in other sources. Impossible Foods has been a leader in that vein, developing a plant-based version of heme protein to make its Impossible Burger taste more like actual meat. But the moment a company produces a substandard product and tells the consumer to forgive the poor taste because it's for the planet is the moment the company fails to connect with people, Brown said.
Besides, consumers find value in the taste and nutritional content of meat, he added. They don't get excited by the fact that it came from the carcass of a dead animal.
However, Brown said lab-grown meat also has the opportunity to displace the conventionally farmed meat market. Just because it's new and different now doesn't mean that it can't eventually replace the way meat is raised.
"If you ask someone from 200 years ago, and tell them, 'Here’s a cart that doesn’t have a horse associated with it,' people would say, 'What the hell? That doesn’t make any sense at all.' Until they actually see that it does a better job of what they want than what they had been using. It's a no-brainer," he said.
When developing lab-grown meat, scientists, regulators and companies need to work closely together and be transparent with consumers, Faber said. Otherwise, they may make the same mistakes that came when GMO ingredients started to be developed. Additionally, Emery added, everyday consumers will need to be convinced lab-grown food is safe to eat.
"There's a lot we can do to convince people like me five years ago, who want to save the planet, but don't necessarily understand where the biggest actors and solutions are," Emery said.
He said this could be achieved by working with policy and environmental organizations that keep the public informed, engaged and aware of the potential and safety of these products as they get closer to market.
Faber reiterated the importance of the work of many at the conference.
"In the long run, we've got to change the way that we produce meat if we want to have clean air, stable climate, clean water in addition to getting more sustainable performance out of traditional food production," he said.
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