Bruce Friedrich: Creating a New Agricultural Revolution
Demand for meat is projected to double by 2050. Bruce Friedrich, Executive Director of the Good Food Institute, believes we can meet that demand without massively scaling conventional animal agriculture (and the many adverse impacts of that industry). In this talk, he explains how our ability to produce meat directly from plants, or from animal cells, could lead to a new agricultural revolution.
Below is a transcript of Bruce’s talk, which we have lightly edited for clarity. You can also watch it on YouTube or read it on effectivealtruism.org.
In 2019, the EAT-Lancet report came out. It was the product of 30 of the world’s top scientists. They worked for three years. They published the report in The Lancet, which is one of the most famous, established, and esteemed medical journals in the world. And what they essentially said is that everybody should be eating far less meat. One of the lead authors said that humanity now poses a threat to the stability of the planet.
This requires nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution. If you were involved in animal protection — and especially if you’re involved in meat reduction or advocating for vegetarianism — your email inbox blew up after that report, with messages from people who were ebullient over what many saw as the tipping point (i.e., The Lancet now telling people to eat less meat).
[What it reminded me of was] the comic featuring Charlie Brown and Lucy, in which Charlie Brown keeps running to kick the football and goes flying because Lucy keeps pulling the football away at the last second.
This is Oxford University stating just last year that a huge reduction in meat-eating is essential to avoid climate change.
The year before, this is BioScience Journal sounding a dire warning to humanity over the health of the planet.
In 2016, this is the National Academy of Sciences sharing the profound planetary consequences of eating less meat.
I adopted a vegan diet in 1987 after I read a book that was [nearly] 20 years old at that point [Frances Moore Lappe wrote it in 1971].
It is called Diet for a Small Planet. It’s swiftly approaching its 50th year. I started working at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1996. At that time within PETA, we were declaring that the world was going to be vegan in 20 years. We thought that if each of us convinced five people to become vegans in the next year, and then all of those folks convinced five people a year later, and then those people convinced five people — boom, you’d have global veganism in a few decades. We believed that to be true in 1996.
Since then, we’ve spent year after year of educating people about the dire instability of raising crops and feeding them to animals so that we can eat animals, and all of the adverse environmental consequences of that.
At the Good Food Institute we’ve started to talk about another issue that could be equally dire: antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
Just two years ago, the U.K. government released a report stating that the threat to the human race from antibiotic-resistant superbugs is greater than the threat to the human race from climate change. Basically, what’s happening is pharmaceutical companies are producing massive amounts of antibiotics. More than 70% of them are fed to farm animals in order to allow the animals to live through such disgusting conditions that they would otherwise die. Then the bacteria mutate and become superbugs [capable of overwhelming] the bacteria in the farm animals. Then someone skins a knee, it gets infected, and the antibiotics that are supposed to treat the infection don’t work.
Margaret Chan, the former director general of the World Health Organization has said that a post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could kill.
If you want [to give yourself] a really big scare, tack the word “China” onto the end of a Google search for “working antibiotics.” You would think this would freak people out, and that people would be willing to eat less meat or no meat as a result of this problem.
In fact, Chatham House, which is the foremost think tank in Europe, released a report three years ago about the degree to which [studying] the climate impact of meat is under-resourced.
Chatham House said that it is literally a scientific impossibility for the governments of the world to meet their climate-change obligations under the Paris Agreement (and keep temperatures from rising less than two degrees Celsius by 2050) unless meat consumption goes down. Their prescription was education. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this presentation, education has been happening [for decades], but people are not changing their diets.
A few years ago, the Chinese government decided they would try to cut their meat consumption by educating their population about the adverse climate impact of meat. They said they will cut their meat consumption in half by 2030. But what do you think has happened to per-capita meat consumption in China over the last few years? It’s skyrocketed.
This is what meat production looks like from 1961 to 2017. I think 1961 was about 10 years before Diet for a Small Planet. Since that book (according to the cover) “revolutionized” the way people eat by advocating for less meat consumption, meat production has skyrocketed. People know, and yet there’s something about our physiology or psychology [that keeps us from changing our diet]. The wealthier people get, the more meat they want to eat. According to the United Nations, we’re going to need to produce 70-100% more meat by 2050 [to keep up with demand].
What’s the solution?
At the Good Food Institute, we think we have it: Instead of growing massive amounts of crops and feeding those crops to farm animals so that we can eat farm animals, let’s grow those crops and use them to mimic meat (i.e., turn the crops directly into plant-based meat).
And to produce actual animal meat, instead of growing crops and feeding them to animals, let’s grow the cells directly, rather than growing them in live animals. Let’s create cell-based meat.
This is what cell-based meat looks like at scale. It’s your friendly neighborhood meat brewery.
Why do we think these solutions will work? Meat production is an extraordinarily inefficient process. You grow massive amounts of crops. You feed them to farm animals, and then the animal cells in the farm animals multiply and grow. To get one calorie of meat in the form of chicken, you must feed that chicken nine calories in the form of crops — and chicken is the most efficient meat.
But turning crops into meat isn’t the only inefficiency. Consider what it takes to ship the crops you grow to a feed mill, operate that mill, ship the feed from the mill to a factory farm, operate that farm, ship the animals to a slaughterhouse, and operate that slaughterhouse. There are multiple stages of gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing vehicles involved. There are multiple extra factories involved.
Growing the crops directly and bio-mimicking meat with the crops, or growing the cells directly and feeding the cells instead of feeding farm animals are far more efficient ways to proceed. In 2017, the Sentience Project released a report in which they found that more than 45% of Americans want to ban slaughterhouses, although 95-98% of Americans eat meat.
The meat industry cried foul and said that absolutely cannot be true. And so the industry handpicked a researcher at Oklahoma State University. He ran the poll again and found that 47% of Americans want to ban slaughterhouses.
This is obviously a massive cognitive dissonance. It tells us that people eat meat despite how it’s produced, not because of how it’s produced. So if we can create the same taste, texture, and everything else that people like about meat — but do it at a lower cost — we can absolutely eliminate animal agriculture.
This is what plant-based meat looks like. This is the Beyond Burger. For people familiar who have seen Lewis Bollard’s talk, you know that [creating plant-based meat] has been vastly under-resourced. In all of human history, research on plant-based meat has probably received less than $150 million in resources, and all of that has gone into private-sector research. Up until Beyond Meat was founded in 2009, producing plant-based meat essentially entailed taking the waste product of the soy oil industry (the protein that was the byproduct of soy oil) or the waste product of carbohydrates for bread and noodles, squishing those ingredients together, and forcing vegetarians to eat it. That was how plant-based nuggets and plant-based burgers were created. And you can probably create a $1-4 billion industry if you proceed in that way.
What you can’t do is compete with the entire meat industry.
So in 2009, Ethan Brown [the founder of Beyond Meat] said, “Wait a minute. Our goal is not to be a $1-billion industry. Our goal is not to compete for the consumer dollars of vegetarians, vegans, and flexitarians. Our goal is to bio-mimic meat with plants and disrupt the entire meat industry.” That was a brand new way of thinking about this issue.
Consider the fact that it takes roughly $1 billion to bring a drug to market. And then consider how many resources have gone into creating plant-based meat. Impossible Foods has said they’ve spent almost $100 million on research and development (R&D). Beyond Meat has probably spent less than $50 million on R&D. And as far as we know, those are the two companies focused on the idea of bio-mimicking meat with plants. It is a drop in the proverbial bucket. And they are both in the private sector; [their research] is protected by intellectual property law. They are probably doing many of the same things [in terms of their research]. Impossible Foods uses soy [as their main ingredient] and Beyond Meat uses pea. There is a long list of crops that might work very well for plant-based meat R&D.
What about cell-based meat (growing meat directly from cells)? In all of human history, less than $75 million has gone into figuring out how to grow meat directly from cells. And all but about $2 million of it has been directed to the private sector. So it’s all protected by intellectual property. The company that has raised the most money is Memphis Meats. They’ve raised $21 million. And obviously only a fraction of that will have gone into R&D.
So, the Good Food Institute created a grant program. We gave away $1 million earlier this year for open-source cell-based meat research. That doubled the amount of [funding that this area of research has received] in the last 20 years. It’s a nascent field.
At GFI, we have three programmatic departments that are focused on figuring out how we can jump-start plant-based meat and cell-based meat as an alternative to industrial animal meat.
Before GFI came along, nobody had bothered to step back and say, “What do we know? What don’t we know — and where should we focus in order to identify what we don’t know?” The first thing our science and technology department did was create a roadmap for figuring out the things that we need to figure out.
We’re doing that in both the private and public sectors. We have helped startups become successful. We have educated venture capitalists about investing in this space. And we’ve also been doing a lot of work on the public-sector side. We also just hired a few “university inspiration specialists.” We’ve identified what we consider to be the top dozen schools in the U.S. and the top ten [in other countries] for [researching] plant-based meat, and the top dozen in the U.S. and the top ten [in other countries] for [researching] cell-based meat. Our university inspiration specialists will work on these campuses to organize events. And if they find a cell biologist who was looking to go into therapeutics, or a plant biologist looking to go into drought resistance, we want to educate those people about the ability to use their talents for plant-based and cell-based meat R&D.
Our corporate engagement department has been a lot more successful than we would’ve expected at engaging the big meat and big food industries, as well as therapeutics companies using cell tissue. Many companies are excited about plant-based meat and the idea of cell-based meat as the future of meat. We actually have very good relationships with JBS Foods, which is the largest meat company in the world, and with Tyson Foods, which is the number-two meat company in the world. [We also have good relationships with] Perdue Farms, ADM [Archer Daniels Midland], and Cargill.
We don’t want to disrupt the meat industry. We want to transform the meat industry. It will be really useful if we can [tap into] their global supply chains and economies of scale. They are the people who understand meat and food. The goal is to work with these companies.
Also, we are doing a lot to educate chain restaurants and large grocery chains. We’re helping them figure out which products are best [for them] and how to market them.
Finally there is our policy department, whose number-one goal is to free up resources for plant-based meat and cell-based meat R&D. As I mentioned, this is vastly under-resourced in both the private and public sectors. Most governments want to meet their obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement, and most care about food safety and security — an array of issues where plant-based meat and cell-based meat are going to be part of the solution to the problems that they recognize they have.
For example, the U.S. government spends more than $2 billion per year on agricultural research. We would like to see some of that money go into open-source R&D on plant-based meat and cell-based meat. We succeeded in directing $250,000 toward crop characterization research at Washington State University. And we convinced the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to put plant-based meat and cell-based meat research into their call for the project proposals that they are open to funding.
Our policy department has also been playing defense quite a lot recently. There have been a variety of attacks on plant-based meat and cell-based meat. The attacks have mostly been on the nomenclature. We’ve been fighting those battles state by state. One of the things we’re particularly excited about is doing lobbying within different states — for example, asking Massachusetts to create a cell-based meat research center at Harvard Medical School or MIT, or California to create a plant-based meat research center at the University of California, Davis.
We’re going similar things globally. We have representatives in Brazil, India, Israel, Asia-Pacific, and Europe. Our 2018 annual report is on our website, where you can also sign up to receive monthly reports. We send out five to six pages every month covering what everybody has been doing in our programmatic departments.
The last thing I want to say is this area of research is not only vastly under-resourced [in terms of funding], but also [talent]. It needs a lot more scientists. GFI is hiring. If you’re thinking about what your next career move will be, I would be delighted to chat with you. You really [could have the opportunity to contribute to] the future of food.
[It’s true that] we don’t know for sure that [plant-based and cell-based meat] will work out. The products have to taste the same or better [than farmed animal meat], and we’re not there yet. The products have to cost the same or less to eliminate industrial animal agriculture. And the science should work out, but we don’t absolutely know that it will.
But if we are able, for example, to convince the United States government to put hundreds of millions of dollars into this area — or Singapore or China, or a billionaire who decides to make it their pet cause — change could happen pretty quickly. And there’s at least one billionaire who’s [interested]. Bill Gates tried Beyond Meats’ plant-based chicken and said, “What I [just tasted] was more than a clever meat substitute. It was a taste of the future of food.”
I’d like to remind people of how quickly change can happen.
If we had been having this conversation 20 years ago and most of us planned to take photos, we would buy one of those cheap little disposable cameras. Some people probably don’t even know those existed. But 20 years ago they were super common. Most pictures were taken with analog film. Now, 99.9% of photos are taken on iPhones or other pocket computers.
Phone calls are similar. Some people may have parents who have landlines, but 99.9% of communication is happening either via text message or via cell phone. Twenty years ago that was absolutely not true.
Flashing back further: In 1898, the world’s first urban planning conference happened. There were 175,000 horses on the streets of New York City. They were producing 50,000 tons of manure every single month. This was happening all over the world. The streets were filled with horse manure, flies, and horse carcasses. And so in 1898, at the world’s first urban planning conference in New York City, there was only one item on the agenda: What do we do about all of the horse shit? The conference was supposed to last two weeks. Within two days they decided they didn’t have a solution and everybody just went home.
Ten years later, Henry Ford introduces the Model T. And within five years after that, there were more cars than horses on the streets of New York City.
For 50 years we’ve been educating people about the harms of industrial animal agriculture. And that is important. I’m here because of that education. Most people in animal rights and vegetarian advocacy, as well as Pat Brown and Ethan Brown — the founders of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, respectively — were influenced by that educational advocacy. But it’s very clear that we’re not going to eliminate animal agriculture unless we can give consumers something they like that tastes the same or better, and that costs the same or less. If we do that, we can relegate animal agriculture to the dustbin of history. We can create meat from plants, grow it directly from cells, and eliminate farmed animal agriculture.
[Perhaps in the not-too-distant future] it will seem just as insane for someone to go out and eat a burger or chicken nuggets as it would to hop in a horse and buggy.
Moderator: One audience member has this question: What you think the role of corporate campaigns and ballot initiatives are in the plant-based food revolution?
Bruce: Corporate engagement is critically important. I am now a friend of Tyson Foods, which is sort of fascinating. Tyson is on board with [using] alternative proteins, which is very exciting. Of their venture capital fund’s first four investments, one was a plant-based meat company and two were cell-based meat companies. They have a massive consumer base. They understand meat and marketing. If we can have them on our side rather than against us, that will allow us to accelerate change a lot more quickly.
The people in the meat industry want to supply high-quality protein to people at reasonable prices. And if they can make even more money without the headaches of farm animals and slaughterhouses, they’re going to do that.
I don’t know about ballot initiatives. They are probably not necessary. I’m super excited about what Scott Weathers [a senior policy analyst at GFI] is doing, which is to convince states that care about climate change that [plant-based and cell-based meats are] part of the solution — and that they should fund plant-based and cell-based meat research centers at universities in their states.
Moderator: What do you say to people who believe the antibiotic resistance issue will be solved by U.S. government efforts to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics in farms?
Bruce: If you look at history, I think [U.S. politician] Louise Slaughter first introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which was supposed to ban the use of dual-use antibiotics (those that are useful in both human medicine and used in factory farming). She introduced that bill something like 20 years ago, and she continued to introduce it every two years. And the people who handicap these things every two years said there was less than a 1% chance of the bill passing. The bill never passed.
If you Google “Pig Zero,” you’ll get an article from that was on the front page of the New York Times about this issue. The U.S. government is not going to fix it. It’s very, very clear. The pharmaceutical industry and the animal agriculture industry have been trying to convince us for 20 years that the government has it under control, but it’s getting worse, not better.
Moderator: You say you’re now introduced as a friend of Tyson. Someone in the audience wonders if by working with existing meat producers you worry about propping up an existing system and making it more difficult for new companies to disrupt them.
Bruce: I wish that were a worry. It really does go back to the fact that we have been doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. And I do want to [be clear]: I’m in favor of changing the zeitgeist. I’m in favor of educating people about these issues. Some people will devote their entire lives to it in ways that are meaningful and helpful.
But the meat industry is colossal. The meat industry has not taken much of a hit from animal advocacy. So the ideal scenario, it seems to me, is that startups get going through investments from the meat industry. For example, Cargill and Tyson have invested in plant-based and cell-based meat companies. And then maybe the startups get taken over and the economies of scale kick in. That seems like a pretty great scenario to me.
Moderator: Why do you think these companies haven’t invested in alternative meats until so recently?
Bruce: It’s worth remembering the trajectory [of alternative meats]. Ethan Brown starts Beyond Meat in 2009 and they don’t have a national product until 2013. They launched regionally in Whole Foods in 2012. It was three years before they had their version of chicken nuggets, which they now have pulled from the market because they don’t think they’re good enough. Their burger didn’t exist until 2016.
Pat Brown founded Impossible Foods in 2011. It took him five years to have a product. So, looking at plant-based meat as an alternative for everybody — and not something for vegetarians and flexitarians — is very new.
The very first cell-based meat company was Memphis Meats. They incorporated [in 2015]. Now there are 30 of these companies. But the industry is brand new.
And I will just underline again that the success of plant-based meat and cell-based meat is still very much uncertain. It qualifies as a big, bold bet. Ethan Brown has said he thinks it’s going to be five years before their burger is cost-competitive with industrial animal burgers. And we need to do that not just for burgers but also for chicken. There’s a backstory to that: They can’t scale up quickly enough to meet the demand. But it’s still the case that there is an overwhelming amount of work to be done both in the private and public sectors.
Moderator: The stories that you told of technologies vastly changing the [status quo] in the past two decades is very inspiring. And someone in the audience asks: Can you give an estimate for the cost reduction in meat alternatives? Do you think it’ll follow a similar sort of timeline, or might it have the more stuttering adoption that we’ve seen in, say, the renewable energy sector?
Bruce: It’s really tough to know. I believe that China has so many issues to think about around food safety, food security, and water quality and quantity. They should be putting billions of dollars into this technology. And if they transform the way that meat is made, they would also have colossal bragging rights for the rest of time. That same argument could apply to the U.S., Singapore, or Israel. This issue requires, at the very least, hundreds of millions of dollars. It requires public-sector investment, not just private-sector investment. So it could take a really long time on our current trajectory. Or, if we reach the right people and are successful, it could happen a lot more quickly.
Moderator: What if every person in this room started working on the technology? What, what might that do to the timeline for development?
Bruce: We need to work on lobbying to get resources for the technology. GFI is starting a (501)(c)(4) organization and we’ll be lobbying internationally. Our key focus is to convince governments that they should be putting hundreds of millions of dollars into these technologies. Again, that’s really hard to make happen. But it should happen. And if we’re able to make it happen, the transformation will come a lot more quickly.
On our current trajectory, if we are able to keep up roughly 20-25% growth against industrial animal meat on a yearly basis, that would get us there by 2050. But it will take some big changes in the short term.
Moderator: Right. Well, I hope all of us can be part of that change. And thank you so much for your talk.