Plant-based, fermented, and cultivated protein technologies hold the potential to shift our food supply away from its dependence on conventional animal agriculture and its effects on climate change, global food insecurity, public health, and animal welfare. But transforming the food system is a vast, multidisciplinary effort that requires expertise in disciplines ranging from synthetic biology and chemical engineering to economics and data science. Zak Weston makes the case for rethinking meat, eggs, and dairy, discusses the levers we can pull to ensure the success of the alternative protein field, and explains how you can make a positive impact.
Zak works at the Good Food Institute (GFI), an international nonprofit focused on creating a healthy, just, and sustainable food system through plant-based protein innovation, fermentation-derived proteins, and cellular agriculture. He consults with leading food service operators, food manufacturers, and alternative protein supply chain companies to help increase the quality and quantity of their plant-based meat, egg, and dairy offerings and meet the growing consumer demand for alternative protein foods. An active member of the effective altruism community, Zak holds a B.A. in business management from Cedarville University, and joined GFI after several years of experience in sales and working with startups.
Below is a transcript of Zak’s talk, which we’ve lightly edited for clarity. You can also watch it on YouTube and discuss it on the EA Forum.
Hi. I'm Zak Weston with the Good Food Institute. Today, we'll be talking about growing meat as a market-based approach to building an ethical food system.
We’ll discuss the case for rethinking meat and why we believe it's critically important to produce the same meat that consumers love, just in a better way. I'll give an overview of the most promising alternative protein technology areas, and then we'll dive into the unresolved questions and white-space opportunities that researchers, students, and entrepreneurs can enter to move us toward a more ethical food system.
Meat has been a staple of the human diet as far back as our species can remember.
It is at the center of many of our cultural cuisine traditions. It helps us bond socially, and it's often used and consumed as a signal of wealth. But as many of us have come to recognize, our current approach to producing meat carries enormous social, ethical, and public health costs. It's also unsustainable. We simply do not have the planetary resources necessary to continue producing meat the way we currently do.
The reason for that is very simple. Animals are fundamentally inefficient at processing plant matter into animal meat products. Chicken is a very good example. It takes nine calories in the form of feed crops like soy or corn to get one calorie in the form of meat, and that's after decades of breeding and optimizing chickens to be as efficient as possible. That represents about 800% food waste before reaching any form of further processing or getting anywhere close to the consumer. And because of that inherent inefficiency, we need to use up to nine times as much land, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer, and water while jacking up greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of the process.
The numbers for chicken pale in comparison to other types of meat, such as beef. Animals just were not fundamentally evolved to be meat or animal product-producing systems, and as such, they create massive negative environmental externalities.
Animal agriculture also has a lot of negative implications for animal welfare and health. Chicken, again, is a good example.
In order to ensure that chickens reach slaughter weight quickly, the industrial animal agriculture industry has bred chickens to feel constant hunger, to never stop eating, and to grow unnaturally fast. Breeds that used to take six months to reach full size now regularly attain that same weight in one month. To put that kind of crazy growth in perspective, it would be as if a human baby reached full physical maturity at the age of three, instead of 18.
One of the consequences of this rapid growth is that many chickens have an insufficient skeletal structure and are frequently crippled by bones that break under the stress of their unnaturally large weight. When you combine this with overcrowded conditions, constant heightened levels of stress, and poor sanitation, it creates a horrible life for farmed animals.
Finally, animal agriculture is a massive contributor to global public health issues. The first and most egregious of these is antibiotic resistance. In the United States, for example, about 80% of all antibiotics are given to farmed animals instead of to humans. This widespread use of antibiotics is a major contributor to the development and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. In a world where antibiotics stop working, we would essentially turn the clock back 100 years, [to a time] when things like a simple cut or routine surgery became life-threatening due to the high risk of infection.
Animal agriculture also contributes to the rise of zoonotic or animal-to-human diseases. Both farmed and caged wild animals are the perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases. You have high population densities, prolonged heightened stress levels, poor sanitation, and an unnatural diet — and that creates an opportunity for viruses to regularly come into contact with weakened animal hosts and jump over the species barrier. This is something that happens now as a matter of course; we’ve seen it with avian flu, swine flu, the Nipah virus, and most recently, of course, the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Even when these viruses circulate only within their animal hosts, their impact on food security can be enormous. The current African swine fever outbreak in 2019 has been responsible for an almost 50% drop in pork production in China, which is the world's largest pork-producing country. This has led to a dramatic rise in overall food prices, putting a real pinch on some of the most vulnerable citizens.
Despite all of these harms, global meat demand shows no signs of slowing down. There are a variety of reasons for this. Meat is tasty. It's widely available. A lot of people really enjoy meat, and it's very deeply embedded in cultural traditions. In addition, we have a very fast-growing global population, and compounding that population growth is the fact that as emerging economies become more and more prosperous, one of the first things they do is retrofit their diet to include more meat. Meat consumption is seen as a status symbol. And so not only do we have more people, but each person is, on average, eating more meat.
This leads to the central question that the Good Food Institute and many other organizations are trying to answer: How will we feed 10 billion people by the year 2050? And more specifically, how will we feed those people in a sustainable, ethical, and healthy way? At the Good Food Institute, we think that alternative proteins — which use technologies and inputs from plants, cultivated meat, and fermentation to produce meat, egg, and dairy products — represent one key answer to this question.
I’ll talk through each of these technologies in turn:
Plant-based meat is made by taking plant proteins and restructuring them to replicate the taste, texture, and full sensory experience that consumers expect from meat.
The second major category of alternative protein technology is fermentation, which can take a variety of forms. The first approach is to use microorganisms as factories by hacking them to produce high-value ingredients, such as soy-like hemoglobin, or animal-derived proteins like whey or casein that can be used to produce flavor and texture. The second way in which we can use fermentation as a protein-production platform is by harvesting the microorganisms themselves, as whole cell products or as ingredients. Examples of this would include algae, fungi, and bacterial proteins. Finally, fermentation is also useful as a processing aid that can convert commodities such as raw plant crops and proteins into ingredients that are optimized for food production.
The third technology area that we see as being an essential part of an alternative protein industry is cultivated meat. Cultivated meat is real animal meat that has the same biological and chemical structure as actual meat but is grown outside of the animal.
Cultivated meat is produced by taking cell samples directly from animals, allowing those cells to proliferate in a cultivator and differentiate into various types of tissue — such as fat tissue, muscle tissue, and connective tissue — and then providing scaffolding or structuring so that those tissues can eventually be formed into the final products that we recognize as meat.
These three technologies are each promising in their own right, but they also work in complementary and symbiotic ways. Although we are just getting started in this industry, the initial results from each of these fields have been very promising.
Plant-based protein is the furthest along the commercialization pathway, and is indeed becoming much more of a mainstream trend. Over the past year, plant-based meats in particular have enjoyed widespread consumer acceptance and an enormous amount of growth. We've seen major global restaurant chains such as Burger King, McDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks all test — and in some cases, launch nationally, regionally, or internationally — plant-based meat items. In the United States, sales of plant-based meats in food service grew 37% in 2019.
Last year was also a great year for retail sales in grocery stores. Sales in the United States of plant-based meat were about 18% year over year for 2019. One other exciting development we've seen on the retail side is that the world's largest food and meat companies have begun launching their own lines of plant-based and blended plant and animal protein products — companies that are known more for their animal meat products than for anything else. These include Tyson, Perdue, Hormel, and large CPG [consumer packaged goods] companies like Nestle and Unilever, which haven't previously had animal meat businesses.
Part of the reason this is growing so quickly is that there appears to be pent-up global demand for integrating more plant protein into diets, and interest in eating plant-based meat substitutes. This is something that truly can touch every part of the world. And because of this widespread demand, at this point, what the Good Food Institute has found in our consulting and engagement with major food and agricultural companies is that every single one of those companies in the world is talking about plant-based protein. It's something that cannot be ignored. No matter where a company is in the food supply chain, they have some sort of plant-based approach and strategy, and must consider how to integrate it with their product offerings, their ingredient offerings, their menu, or onto their grocery store shelves.
If we look beyond plant-based proteins, we're also seeing growth in other sectors of the alternative protein market. Cultivated meat is a great example. While cultivated meat is not yet commercially available, we've seen a massive amount of growth in the number of companies working on this technology, and it's likely that there are more companies that we’re unaware of operating in stealth mode to commercialize this technology. We’ve also seen a lot of growth in the types of things they are doing.
On the B2B side, we're seeing a lot of cultivated meat companies invest in inputs and infrastructure required to make cultivated meat successful. They’re figuring out how to design the bioreactors and cultivators, the scaffolding that's necessary to provide texture and structure for end-meat products, the cell culture media that feeds the cells and ensures that they have the nutrients they need to grow. And then they’re finding cell lines to develop, and making sure those are useful.
On the consumer side, a lot of these startups have found different areas that they're focusing on in terms of the final products they're trying to create.
All of the market traction that we've seen — particularly on the plant-based meat side — has many market research firms thinking that this is something that could represent a significant source of global meat production and consumption over the next few decades. [On this slide] is one of many firms, A.T. Kearney, predicting a very rosy future not only for cultured meat, but also for plant-based meat — what they call “novel vegan meat replacement.”
However, it's very important to recognize that this growth is not inevitable. While we know that alternative proteins can help us feed a growing population without the harmful effects of industrialized animal agriculture, this field needs a massive amount of funding, research, and talent.
Over the past year, as we've engaged with the alternative protein industry supply chain, we've identified a few major bottlenecks that have been themes in most of our conversations. The first is that demand is far outpacing supply. Even the biggest companies in this space are facing production capacity constraints. They simply cannot produce enough of the product to keep up with consumer demand. That's not even taking into consideration the products that aren't on the market yet, and that are going to need to be produced.
The upshot of this is that we need massive investments in infrastructure. Getting enough food to feed 7 billion people every day is literally the world's biggest logistical problem. Solving it is all about scale. The food industry is a high-volume, low-margin business. Until alternative protein production can attain economies of scale similar to animal protein production, it will not be competitive, particularly on a cost basis. That's why we need a massive amount of investment in the processing technologies to create the ingredients, as well as the end-production technologies and capacity that result in the final end products.
We also need a lot more research and development (R&D) to improve these products. Every generation of these products gets better, but there's still a lot of work to be done to improve the sensory and the nutritional qualities, to make sure that these products are healthy and have the right macro- and micronutrient balances. And we need to improve the taste, texture, and smell — the things that matter to the end consumer. We also need R&D to figure out ways to reduce costs by optimizing the inputs so that they are as cheap as possible, and to scale up production.
Finally, alternative proteins often face uncertain, and sometimes hostile, policy and regulatory environments. We really need governments and people with influence in the public sphere to lobby for increased governmental research funding for this field, find ways to redirect animal agriculture subsidies, and then provide a fair labeling and production regime that's not anti-competitive for alternative protein producers.
Just to put some of these challenges in perspective, this chart compares all of the R&D money that has ever been invested into meat alternatives, about $1 billion, to just one year of global R&D investment into renewable energy. This is from 2011. And as you can see, a lot of these technologies are very promising, and it's very important that we continue to invest in clean energy. But in comparison, R&D money for meat alternatives is relatively neglected. There's an enormous amount of room for additional funding here to figure out ways to solve the challenges that this industry faces.
One of the things we do at the Good Food Institute is to really deeply understand everything that goes into the alternative protein value chain, from the crops and the raw biomass inputs, all the way through to the final product and how it’s presented to the consumer. And what we've done as part of this research is talk to companies at every stage of the process to understand the challenges and the bottlenecks they're facing to growing this industry.
Focusing first on the plant-based value chain, we see that a lot of the current challenges requiring resources and talent fall into certain categories. Finding the best source material is very critical — not only the best crops, but also other sources such as fungi, algae, and bacterial sources. Making sure that these are optimized by breeding or engineering is critical for the final end product.
We also need to find ways to functionalize, fractionate, and process the ingredients into formats that are useful for producing plant-based meat products. Finally, we really need to understand how to compose the products, and what the production process entails, as well as find technologies that are optimized specifically for this application. Whether those alternative production methods are better extrusion technologies, shear cell technology, 3D printing, or other ways of providing texture, structure, taste, et cetera, to these end products, there's an enormous amount of work that needs to go into this section of the value chain.
In the fermentation industry, the biggest challenges that we've noted in our interviews are:
On the cultivated meat side, the challenges really tend to [be concentrated in] a few specific areas. The first is in developing more cell lines.
We need cell lines that represent all of the species that we currently eat, as well as those we would like to eat. We also need cell lines that are diverse enough in how they can be proliferated to form all of the different types of materials we need to form the desired end product.
The second area that's incredibly important and needs a lot of innovation is finding ways to produce low-cost and serum-free cell media. According to a variety of analyses, cell media is probably the single greatest contributor to the product, often estimated around 80% of the marginal cost of the end product. And we see evidence that there are different ways to produce the different components of cell media, particularly growth factors, in a way that's vastly reduced from what's commercially available. But it will take a lot of work to commercialize that production process and find ways to bring it to alternative protein companies.
One of the biggest challenges — and opportunities — is that a lot of the expertise and existing products and ingredients that we're leveraging come from the pharmaceutical industry. While it has sort of done the proof-of-concept work, it does have a very different cost structure from the food industry. The pharmaceutical industry requires extraordinarily high purities and high product quality — much higher than would be necessary for food-grade production. As a consequence, the ingredients and all of the mindsets, really, of everyone who works in that industry, are very geared toward a much higher cost structure than is competitive in the food industry. That's part of the reason why we need an enormous amount of innovation.
Third, we really need innovation in the area of scaffolding. Scaffolding is the structure and texture that allows the cells to be guided into the desired arrangement — for example, making sure that a steak has a marbling of both fat and muscle cells in the appropriate way. These scaffolds [can be] biodegradable, or can be edible and incorporated into the final product. This is a significant area requiring a lot of exploration.
Finally, all of this needs to scale up as much as possible in order to be cost-competitive. We can grow a lot of these tissues, and we've proven this concept in the pharmaceutical industry. That's a great first step, but substantially more research is needed to understand how to scale these processes for food-grade production at the appropriate cost levels. It’s important research not only because we need large-scale bioprocesses, but because we need a series of interim steps in order to get to the point where we have large-scale bioprocesses.
In other words, we need to ensure that we can go from “benchtop scale” production in a lab to “pilot scale” production in a small facility, and then jump into full “commercial scale.” So while we do need massive factories, we also need intermediate-level facilities to help processes scale to that high level. All of this, of course, comes at enormous costs, so this is an opportunity for folks in economics, business, and financing. We need to find ways to finance these projects and build the right partnerships to allow for billions of dollars in infrastructure investment over the next few decades.
These three processes — fermentation, cultivated meat production, and plant-based production — all seem to work together extraordinarily well. In considering the whole supply chain, one of the ways we envision this industry operating in the future is for each part of the biomass input to be leveraged by a different part of the supply chain. So whether the biomass that's going into the system is a plant or crop, a fungi, an algae, or a bacterial source, we can split that up into things that have different use cases for different parts of the industry. For example, high molecular weight proteins are often very useful for production of plant-based meat, egg, and dairy products. Amino acids and small peptides are useful for cultivated meat production, and things like simple sugars and individual starch fractions have a lot of usefulness for microbial fermentation.
These are all challenges that can be solved by entrepreneurs, researchers, students, and companies in relevant fields like the life sciences — ultimately, by anyone who is looking for a career path or a work opportunity that has maximum impact.
One of the most exciting and challenging parts of this area is that the challenges we face are inherently multidisciplinary, and that means that the solutions are probably going to call for a very collaborative approach. There's opportunity here for people from all types of disciplines — science, engineering, and of course business and economics, because we need to finance all of this too.
One of the ways in which the Good Food Institute is trying to drive research and catalyze innovation in this space is through our research grant program. Today, we've already awarded a little over $4 million, and we prioritize research that will advance the plant-based meat, cultivated meat, or fermentation industries, as well as create open-access knowledge that can be used to accelerate the entire field.
Another initiative that we're extremely interested in working with people on is finding universities, academic partners, nongovernmental organizations, and private companies that can work together to form collaborative research centers. This benefits everyone involved by creating a ferment; it brings together different people from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds who can work together to overcome some of the challenges that we're facing, whether those are related to scientific R&D, scaling, manufacturing, and engineering, or other issues.
To summarize, new protein production technologies are producing meat in different and better ways that are far more sustainable, far more ethical, and have far fewer negative effects on public health. And while we're seeing substantial progress, and the market is absolutely responding really well to a lot of the products that are currently available, this industry and its growth are not inevitable. In order to break through the challenges and key constraints that we're seeing, we need insights and resources from a wide variety of disciplines. This is absolutely critical.
This has garnered a lot of traction and buy-in, whether it’s been from established food companies, companies in related industries, or from investors. But there is still substantial room for funding and innovation. We've really only just begun scratching the surface of what's possible with these technologies.
I'd like to close with one of our favorite quotes. It’s not from somebody who has traditionally been in this industry. In 2018, Tom Hayes said, “If we can grow meat without the animal, why wouldn't we?” At the time, he was the CEO of Tyson Foods, one of the largest animal meat companies in the world. Animals are literally the weakest link in the global protein supply chain, and even meat companies see that, and would welcome the opportunity, if it’s available, to move into other forms of protein production.
I'd also like to offer a set of resources that the Good Food Institute has for a variety of audiences. If you're a student interested in ways of understanding how your career path can intersect with the alternative protein space, or in actualizing some of the suggestions that I've shared today, please feel free to reach out to me directly at email@example.com or visit our website, gfi.org.
If you’re interested in different resources, we have a variety of publications that explore the science, the policy, and some of the economic implications and opportunities of this industry. You can also visit our website, gfi.org. Finding alternative production technologies for meat, eggs, and dairy — and scaling them — is one of the single most tractable ways that we can address issues like climate change, food security, animal welfare, and public health, and it's a wonderful way that we can together build an ethical food system. Thank you.