By following his ethical principles and paying attention to what worked, Bruce Friedrich went from volunteering at a soup kitchen to being the Executive Director of the Good Food Institute. In this talk from Effective Altruism Global 2018: San Francisco, Bruce describes his own personal and professional journey, explains why he’s optimistic about plant-based meat and “clean meat” and offers advice for people hoping to embark on careers in his field.
Why factory farming?
So, I love meat. I grew up in Oklahoma and among my friends in high school, McDonald’s Big Macs and Dairy Queen Blizzards were pretty much a religion. If the faith had a holy trinity, the Big Macs and Blizzards would be joined by pretty much bacon-anything. Then in 1987, I met this guy who blew my mind. He told me he didn’t eat meat. Didn’t eat meat? I thought maybe he had a disease. The idea of voluntarily not eating meat absolutely did not register, and quite honestly it seemed more than a little freakish. Flash forward 30 years, and I now run an organization that ACE has said is one of the top three charities for basically helping animals, by moving people away from eating the products of industrial animal agriculture.
I was asked to share my story as a case study in trying to do the most good. I’ll explain how I came to work on ending factory farming, a few of the mistakes that I made along the way and why I think food technology is one of the most effective ways of removing animals from the equation and thereby helping animals not to suffer.
Let’s start with how I decided to make it my mission to end factory farming. The year is 1987. I’ve just arrived in college and I have nothing but time for the really big questions in life. So Socrates’ adage, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, spoke to me. It’s a powerful concept and really most philosophy of the last 2,500 years has basically been a variation on that theme. What does it look like to lead an examined life? So I arrive at campus at Cornell College in Iowa, and I join an organization called Poverty Action Now. At Poverty Action Now, we organize fasts to raise money for Oxfam International and we volunteer our weekends at a soup kitchen in the big city: Des Moines.
The main organizer of the soup kitchen trips gave me a book called Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. The book clocks in at about 500 pages, but the cliff notes version is: Farm animals have to eat, and they are extraordinarily inefficient at turning the crops that we feed to them into meat. And this just makes intuitive sense. I weigh about 185 pounds. If I do nothing but lie in bed watching reruns of the Jerry Springer show, I’m going to burn like 2,400 calories a day. Except when something awesome is happening on screen, I’m like “Jerry! Jerry!”, you know? Then my caloric intake ticks up just a little bit. And that same sort of relationship is true for farm animals. Not that they had to have the bad taste or the good, good taste to watch Jerry Springer, but that the vast majority of what you feed to a chicken or a pig or a cow or a farmed fish, they expend simply existing.
So Gandhi said probably 20 of the most powerful things that were ever said. One of the things that Gandhi said that had a really powerful impact on me was this: “Think of the face of the poorest person you have ever seen, and ask yourself if the action you contemplate will be of use to that person.” For me, the idea of cycling massive amounts of crops through animals… well, at that point there were 40 million people dying every single year from starvation related causes. There were hundreds of millions of people living in nutritional deficit. It just absolutely did not register, and I went vegan immediately after reading that book. When I got out of college, I was so taken with the soup kitchen work that I moved to Washington DC and I joined a Catholic worker soup kitchen, the largest homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Washington DC. So basically Matthew 25, I was feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, like Jesus told us to. It was also decided I wanted to look like Jesus.
Handsome devil. At the homeless shelter, one of the other people in the shelter gave me a book called Christianity and the Rights of Animals by an Anglican Priest and professor of theology at Oxford University. And the book puts its arguments into a faith context, but it’s really just about the nature of the human relationship with other animals, this sort of eternal concept that is applicable to people of every religion or no religion or whatever. And the information that Linzey covered about factory farming just totally blew me away. I literally couldn’t believe what was happening on modern farms and what was happening in modern slaughterhouses. And after a couple years of conversations with people and prayer and discussion with my spiritual adviser, in 1996, I decided to shift my vocation from running a homeless shelter and running a soup kitchen, and I went to work full time on behalf of animals, at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
You know, people in EA, we get a fair amount of crap for putting philanthropy up to the tender mercies of cost/benefit analysis. But even as a caricature, I think that’s not particularly fair. I think a lot of people follow paths that were similar to mine, where there isn’t actually that much difference between following our heads and following our hearts. I found the arguments against factory farming compelling: the harm to the environment, the harm to the global poor, the harm to animals, but I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved if the arguments were not also compelling to me on an emotional level and a spiritual level. So you could either say that I was maximizing the expected utility of my marginal efforts relative to the counterfactual, or you could say I was honoring my duty as a Catholic to care for the least of these that Jesus talks about in Matthew 25. Either way, you’d be right.
What to do about it?
So after I decided what to work on next, I had to figure out how to achieve the change that I wanted to see. And I started by appealing to people’s moral values. I figured it should be easy to convince people to stop eating animals because most people claim to care about the environment, they claim to care about the global poor, they claim to care about animals. Ninety-five percent of people, according to Gallup, want to see animals protected from abuse. But I quickly realized that simple moral arguments might not be enough. So I started piling on the facts. The more numbers and authorities, the better. So, here are my go-to facts:
The first one is that meat is a huge contributor to climate change. So most people, when they think about climate change, they think about transportation. So the solution is either to drive less or to get a hybrid, but according to the United Nations, more climate change is attributable to animal agriculture than to all of the planes and trains and cars, and then to all forms of transportation combined.
On a per-calorie basis, the least climate change inducing meat is chicken. And yet chicken causes 40 times as much climate change on a per-protein-calorie basis when compared to legumes like soy and peas, the primary alternatives for people are shifting away from eating meat.
Fact two is the basic inefficiency. Most people in society are very concerned about food waste. They see food waste as a moral issue. So who here is concerned about food waste? Yeah, that’s true in every audience. Every time I ask that question, every hand goes up. And we should be concerned about food waste. About 40 percent of all of the food that’s produced in the West, about 40 percent of it is literally thrown away.
And yet, if you’re looking at this chart, what you’re seeing is that the basic physiology of animals, the basic inefficiency of growing crops to feed them to animals so that we can eat animals, means that you’re talking about 700 percent food waste for farmed fish. 800 percent food waste for chickens. 900 percent food waste for pigs. It takes eight calories into a farmed fish to get one calorie back out, nine calories into a chicken, ten calories into a pig to get one calorie back out. We’re not personally throwing away all of those crops, but we may as well be. That’s the relationship that we’re entering into.
Fact three: The world is threatened by the widespread use of antibiotics on these disease-ridden factory farms. According to a report from the UK government, antibiotic resistance is slated to cost to the global economy $100 trillion by 2050, and the threat to the human race from superbugs is greater than the threat from climate change.
And then finally fact four: Chickens’ upper bodies now grow at 600 percent the rate that they would naturally. Poultry researchers at the University of Arkansas said that if a human baby grew as quickly as a modern broiler chicken, she would weigh more than 600 pounds by the time she was two months old. Imagine that. 600 pounds by the time she was two months old. The animals are living in unmitigated misery, all of them for their entire lives. So those are the facts.
And shockingly, hurling facts at people didn’t convince everybody to immediately go vegan. Honestly, when I adopted a vegan diet in 1987, and I read Diet for a Small Planet, I just thought, I just need to tell everybody this and everybody is going to go vegan of course. Then I went to work at PETA in 1996 and I thought everybody loves animals. All we really have to do—we don’t have to win an argument with a meat eater—all we have to do is show people what’s happening and obviously people will want to align their values and their actions. Everybody’s going to go vegan. We just need to tell them, and again, it didn’t happen.
What I’ve come to understand is that the vast majority of people are not going to radically change their diet on the basis of really anything other than price, taste and convenience. Maybe health. There appears to be something in human nature. I don’t know if it’s emotion or physiology or biology or psychology. I don’t know what it is, but the vast majority of people just aren’t that interested in changing their diet, and they’re not interested in hearing from me about why they should change their diet. So the foremost think tank in Europe, it’s called Chatham House, and a couple of years ago, Chatham House released a report. They said the governments of the world are not going to be able to meet their obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement unless they radically decrease the amount of meat that their populations are consuming. It’s literally a scientific impossibility that we keep climate change under two degrees Celsius by 2050 unless meat consumption goes down.
And Chatham House’s solution was that the governments of the world should educate their populations and convince people that they should eat less meat, in order to do their part in the battle against climate change. The Chinese government pledged to do just that in 2015 or 2016; the Chinese government said we’re going to cut meat consumption in China per capita in half by 2030, as the Chinese response to climate change. And while I certainly am excited about and impressed by the optimism of Chatham House and the Chinese, I think most of us probably would have predicted what’s happened in China since China made that pledge. Meat consumption is skyrocketing. As people get wealthier, they just eat more meat. At Good Food Institute, though, we think we have found a solution.
Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream. Who here likes Ben and Jerry’s? Yeah, we’ve got unanimity for Ben and Jerry’s, and everybody in this room when I said who likes Ben and Jerry’s, you know, probably everybody just thought Ben and Jerry’s is delicious. Right? That was the main thing that you thought. If it were too expensive, if it was like, you know, $10 or $15 a pint, probably a lot of you would have hesitated before you put your hands up. You don’t want to spend that much money for ice cream. If you didn’t know where to find it, if I put some plant-based ice cream from Europe up here or something, you’d be going, I’m not really sure what that is. And that reaction really does track what consumer researchers find. They find that the three factors that dictate consumer choice for literally 100 percent of people in the developed world: it’s price, it’s taste, it’s convenience.
They also do weighting. So when they basically go for the things that are the top three for sort of everybody: price, taste and convenience are the only things that go above zero in terms of what dictates consumer choice. So some people do care about health, which is another talk all on its own, the degree to which people say they care about health and then buy unhealthy food. And I think we can see that in this room when I said, who here likes Ben and Jerry’s? Everybody put up their hand, and nobody thought that’s where they were going to get anything healthy. Nobody thought that Ben and Jerry’s was a health food. So the question is how do we apply the Ben and Jerry’s trifecta to the problem of industrial animal agriculture and the solution is we replicate meat from plants and we do clean meat, and I’m going to talk just a little bit about both those things.
This is plant-based sausage.
This is plant based chicken.
This is a plant-based burger.
This is a Beyond Burger from TGI Friday’s. Bill Gates wrote a blog about plant-based meat. He called it the future of food. So after he had this, Beyond Meat’s plant-based chicken, Bill Gates tried it and he said what I just tasted was not just a clever meat substitute, what I just tasted was the future of food and he wrote a blog post called the future of food. He said that plant-based meat was the future of food because of the capacity of plant-based meat to bio-mimic meat, but without all of the harms. So all of us, everybody who likes meat just continues to eat products that are delicious, that are convenient, that are affordable, the exact same factors that we have been using to figure out what we’re going to eat up until now—we just keep doing that. But the nature of the meat becomes better.
What Bruce is doing now
I’m convinced that changing the way that we make meat is the solution to factory farming. But to be fair, I imagine some people are thinking yeah, well you were wrong every other time. Why are you convinced now? And it’s true, I was both convinced and wrong previously as well. And the first thing is that it’s been done before. So, plant based milk: think about soy milk and almond milk. When I adopted a vegan diet in 1987, soy milk and almond milk, they were not in any grocery stores. They were not in any coffee shops. If you did track down a dusty carton of the stuff in the nether regions of the dirty health food store, the stuff generally tasted pretty bad, and it was expensive.
And now, plant based milk, a lot of people like it more, it actually costs more and yet it’s gotten up to 10 percent of the milk market. We do 10 percent with plant-based meat, that’s 10 percent less of the climate change, 10 percent less of the inefficiency. It’s more than a billion animals just in the United States who are taken out of industrial animal farming. But Bill Gates didn’t call plant-based meat the future of food because he thinks we’re going to get to 10 percent. He called it the future of food because it is so much more efficient. It will be able to taste the same and cost less, so it will be 50, 60, 70 percent. But for people who simply want to eat real meat, for people who are not going to eat plant-based meat… and I will tell you, even at someplace like Harvard Medical School, I’m talking to somebody who’s going to be working on clean meat at Harvard Medical School, and he’s like, yeah, I’m not gonna eat that. There are a surprising number of people who just want to eat real meat and for those, for the people who want to eat real meat, we have clean meat.
I hope a lot of you went to Natalie and Marie’s session about clean meat. If not, watch the video. It’s fascinating. But clean meat is basically just real meat grown directly from cells. It’s called clean meat mostly as a nod to clean energy, which is energy that’s better for the environment. Clean meat is meat that’s better for the environment. It’s also just cleaner. It doesn’t have the same bacterial contamination. It doesn’t have the heavy metals. If it’s clean meat fish, it doesn’t have the mercury, and so on.
This is a clean meat meatball.
Here is some clean meat duck.
And this is what clean meat will look like at scale.
It’s basically your friendly neighborhood meat brewery. That’s where meat is going to come from and I’ll spare you the photos of the industrial farm and the industrial slaughterhouse. But suffice it to say the clean meat brewery is a lot nicer to look at.
That brings me to my third reason for optimism and that is that big money agrees. People whose job is to figure out what the next big tech thing is going to be, they’re all in with plant-based meat and clean meat. So, it’s not going to surprise you to learn that people like Sergey Brin and Bill Gates and Richard Branson, they are investing in and singing the song of the promise of these technologies. Also Google Ventures, DFJ, Kleiner Perkins, a lot of the top venture capital funds in Silicon Valley.
What’s more surprising is the degree to which the meat industry agrees. So Tyson Foods, which is by far the largest meat producer in the United States, they launched Tyson New Ventures about two years ago, which is their venture capital fund. Three of their first four investments were related to plant-based or clean meat. Their first investment was Beyond Meat, the plant based meat that got Bill Gates so excited. Their third investment was Memphis Meats, the first of the clean meat companies. And their fourth investment was an Israeli clean meat company called Future Meat Technologies. Not just Tyson, but Cargill has invested in Memphis Meats. They’re the third largest of the meat producers in the United States. PHW Group, which is the largest chicken producer in Canada.
When Tyson invested, their CEO, he said, “Plant protein is growing faster than animal protein. For us, we want to be where the consumer is.” Pretty much all of the corporate executives who GFI talks with, all of the foundations, all of the government, policymakers and regulators, people are excited about the fact that plant based meat and clean meat are so much more efficient, which means that as they scale up, they will taste the same and they will cost less.
But folks are also really, really excited about the capacity of plant-based meat and clean meat to solve some of the really big global problems. So Eric Schmidt, who is the former CEO at Google, a couple of years ago, he was at the Milken Global Summit and he was asked to reflect on half a dozen tech innovations that he thinks will improve life for humanity by a factor of at least tenfold in the fairly near future. And this is Eric Schmidt, so he’s a tech guy. So he talked about mostly things you would expect. He talked about 3D printers for infrastructure. He talked about watches that know you’re sick before you know you’re sick.
But the first thing Eric talked about, he talked about plant-based meat. And the reason Eric is so excited about plant-based meat is that it solves two of humanity’s biggest questions. The first is how do we feed 9.7 billion people by 2050? And the second is, what do we do about climate change? He called it nerds over cattle. Richard Branson is also super excited. He predicted in 30 years all meat will be either plant-based meat or clean meat.
It shouldn’t just be the venture capitalists though. It shouldn’t just be the corporations. It shouldn’t just be the private sector. One of the things that GFI is really focused on is getting more and more government money into this space, because obviously this is something that solves problems that governments recognize that they have.
My concluding lessons, for this talk: if you want to explore a career in plant-based or clean meat, there are a lot of ways to do it that don’t involve half a dozen years of soup kitchen work. My basic advice, the three main pieces of advice are one, if you can go into science, please go into science. One of the really big obstacles at this point, is the tissue engineers and the synthetic biologists and biochemists to actually people these companies. If you’re going the business route, look for experience that will make you invaluable. Simply applying to do a job that somebody else is going to do is probably not the best use of your talents. Go into food. I was talking to somebody yesterday who majored in Chinese Studies. He’s fluent in Mandarin, and he’s thinking about going to China and actually getting a job in the food industry in China. I mean, that is a job that if he doesn’t do it, somebody with his sensibilities isn’t going to do it. Absolutely invaluable.
And if you decide to make the world a better place in some other way, four other take homes that apply just across EA:
The first one is you don’t have to choose between your head and your heart. Diving deeply into critical research is part and parcel of profoundly caring about the world and its inhabitants.
The second is, accept that we might not make the right choice the first time. If you’re doing something and it’s not working, don’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong and try something else.
The third is keep an eye out for unconventional partners. Hardcore vegan, soup kitchen running, Jesus bearded me would have never guessed that, twenty years later, I’d be friends with people from Tyson and Cargill, and working with them to make the world a better place.
And then finally look for win/win. If you can figure out a solution to a problem that doesn’t require a radical change in how people view the world, that’s going to help. So for me, I thought my goal was to convince everybody to see the world the way that I did. It turned out it’s a lot easier to change the world than to change people’s ideology.
So just like freezer-made ice has replaced natural ice from lakes, and cars have replaced horses and buggies as our primary means of travel, I’m convinced that plant-based and clean meat can and will replace the products of industrial animal agriculture. That’s why I went from agitator to innovator, and that’s my case study in EA career choice.
Question: You mentioned that a significant proportion of people won’t eat plant-based meat because they want real meat. What makes you think that they’d be happy with clean meat? Because it has associations with weird technology, GMOs, chemicals, that sort of thing.
Bruce: Yeah. This has been fascinating. So, especially when GFI first started and I was one of two employees—I was the only employee who was sort of the face of GFI, I went around and I spoke at Harvard and Stanford and MIT and all of these schools. I would introduce people to plant-based meat and clean meat. And at the end they were thoroughly primed, right? And I would say who here, if plant-based meat costs less than industrial animal meat and tasted exactly the same, who will switch over all of your meat eating. And they were super primed. So the numbers were pretty good. And I know that’s probably, you know, may or may not be true. But the thing that I found again and again and again was that literally 100 percent of people raised their hand for clean meat. Whereas it was usually somewhere on the order of like 50 to 70 percent for plant based meat. And this has been replicated in conversation after conversation after conversation. People right now, they eat meat despite how it’s produced. They don’t eat meat because of how it’s produced. So when you have meat produced in industrial animal agriculture, which 100 percent of people are opposed to, and they eat it anyway, or you talk about how clean meat is produced. I mean, I think everybody, everybody switches, especially when the price points reach equivalency.
Question: Someone asked what kind of potential or progress you see in the food service industry, like supplying prisons, hospitals and schools for plant-based entrepreneurs. Is it possible to provide plant-based meal services at price parity in this market?
Bruce: Not yet, for plant-based meat. Yes, beans and rice are less expensive than meat. And USDA provides, you know, beans and rice, and likely provides meat for free to prisons. So you can get to price parity. I mean, I guess one thing for all of the questions, so the Good Food Institute exists to basically help the world make this transition. Anybody who in this room who was interested in exploring going in the direction of plant-based meat and clean meat, like if you have a question like this, there are multiple people at GFI whose job it is to work with you. So reach out to us if you want to get involved. If you want to explore your career choice, if you want to brainstorm what might be the best use of your time, it is literally GFI’s role. It’s our mission to take that call and be sort of at your disposal for these sorts of conversations. So don’t look at it as an imposition. We want you to call us. We want you to email, and we will be thrilled to brainstorm what your path should be and how you can open markets into schools and prisons. We actually do have a whitepaper on the schools issue, and how plant-based entrepreneurs can get into schools. And we’re working on similar whitepapers.
Question: How might you convince other EAs to join your cause over other things they might be prioritizing?
Bruce: Yeah, I mean, I think EA does a pretty good job of sort of figuring out what the metric should be. I mean, obviously is it important, is it neglected, is tractable and I think the cause areas that Open Philanthropy and the Centre for Effective Altruism have landed on are… they resonate with me as the right cause areas. So I’m not super excited about the idea of trying to convince somebody that, you know, if they’ve picked one of those cause areas, they should pick our cause area instead. I do think we measure up nicely. It is critically important. It’s literally 9 billion land animals and even more sea animals just in the United States every single year. It has never happened that a technology was better than another technology and didn’t completely replace the technology that it was better than. So it’s like super hyper tractable, and it’s neglected. GFI, we’re literally the only organization doing the vast majority of the work that we do.
There are a couple of organizations where there is very slight overlap, but it’s really very slight overlap, like the guy who I hope will go to China and get a job in China, he’s literally the only person on the planet probably who’s going to go to China with the idea of figuring out how to bring plant-based meat and clean meat to China. And there are a lot of other opportunities like that with plant-based meat and clean meat where it’s literally the case that if you don’t it, it won’t get done. It’s tractable and it’s unusually important, and again, I’m delighted to have that conversation with really anybody here.