26 Sep 2018 Story Climate change

Tackling the world’s most urgent problem: meat

Beyond Meat

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are joint winners of the Champions of the Earth Award, in the Science and Innovation category.   

Since prehistoric times, humans have used animals as a rudimentary technology to transform plant biomass into highly valued, nutrient-dense foods, including meat and dairy products. These foods remain an important source of nutrition and one of the greatest sources of pleasure in the daily lives of billions of people around the world.

But our use of animals as a food-production technology has brought us to the verge of catastrophe. The destructive impact of animal agriculture on our environment far exceeds that of any other technology on Earth, according to these founders.    

The greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture rivals that that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocket ship combined, they said. There is no pathway to achieve the Paris climate objectives without a massive decrease in the scale of animal agriculture, they added.

The magnitude of the problem has prompted two entrepreneurs to take action. Ethan Brown founded Beyond Meat in 2009; Patrick O’Reilly Brown founded Impossible Foods in 2011. Both believe that plant-based meat is the future.

The global community can eliminate the need for animals in the food system by shifting the protein at the centre of the plate to plant-based meat, say the founders. For their pioneering work towards reducing our dependence on animal-based foods, Ethan Brown and O’Reilly Brown have been selected 2018 Champions of the Earth in the category of science and innovation.

Ethan Brown, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Beyond Meat

As a child, Ethan Brown became increasing interested in the question: what are the meaningful biological differences that justify which animals we eat, and which we don’t? The dilemma stuck.

It gnawed at him through University and into his work in the clean energy sector. By then, this dilemma had been joined by questions: what’s the most effective way to tackle greenhouse gas emissions – and aren’t livestock major contributors? Roughly 80 per cent of agricultural land is used to make livestock feed or for grazing– is there a better way to produce protein? Are certain amounts and types of animal protein harmful for our health?

“These four things kept coming back to me: human health, climate change, natural resource, and animal welfare implications of using animals for meat.  And what fascinated me is that you can simultaneously tackle all these concerns by simply changing the protein source for meat from animals to plants. If we shift our thinking to focus on the composition of meat versus its animal origin, we have a huge canvas to work from,” says Brown.

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Meat is just so inefficient…

Working with top scientists, their teams strip down the core components of meat and extract them from plants instead, using ingredients like peas, beetroot, coconut oil and potato starch.

“Meat is composed of amino acids, lipids, minerals and water. Animals use their digestive and muscular systems to convert vegetation and water into meat. We’re going straight to the plant, bypassing the animal, and building meat directly. We get better every year and are on a relentless march toward that perfect and indistinguishable build of meat from plants,” Brown says.  

“Corn, soy and wheat dominate agriculture in America. We can replace that. Take that same piece of land to grow protein directly from plants, and we can slash natural resources needed, using land more efficiently.”  

According to a research study conducted by the University of Michigan, a quarter-pound Beyond Burger requires 99 per cent less water, 93 per cent less land and generates 90 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, using 46 per cent less energy to produce in the U.S. than its beef equivalent.

“What’s clear is that the way we produce meat today is not sustainable.  We are pushing limits on both natural resources and atmosphere,” says Brown. “We believe that by transitioning acreage currently dedicated to animal feed into protein crops that can be used directly for human consumption in the form of meat from plants, we can bring a step-change in efficiency, much needed innovation, and sustainable economic growth to rural economies here in the US and abroad.”

Dr. Patrick O. Brown, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Impossible Foods

As Member of the National Academy of Medicine and Professor of biochemistry at Stanford University in 2009, O. Brown took a sabbatical. He wanted to assess which global problems are the most urgent and which he could help to solve.

Using animals for food makes up the vast majority of the land footprint of humanity. All the buildings, roads and paved surfaces in the world occupy less than one per cent of Earth’s land surface, while more than 45 per cent of the land surface of Earth is used as land for grazing or growing feed crops for livestock.

Unless we act quickly to reduce or eliminate the use of animals as technology in the food system, O. Brown reasoned, we are racing toward ecological disaster. Impossible Foods has an ambitious goal: to reduce humanity’s destructive impact on the global environment, replacing the use of animals as a food production technology and eliminate animals as a food-production technology by 2035.

“By far the most urgent problem to me was the use of animals as a food production technology – the most destructive technology on earth,” he says. O. Brown is no stranger to disrupting the status quo, already having transformed the scientific publishing system by founding the Public Library of Science (PLOS).

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Making Meat Better

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that big global problems are not someone else’s responsibility. This problem wasn’t going to be solved by pleading with consumers to eat beans and tofu instead of meat and fish. And it wouldn’t be enough just to find a better way to make meat; to succeed we would need to make the best meat in the world.”

The team made an important discovery: the “magic ingredient” heme - an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every cell of every animal and plant. It is responsible for the unique flavours and aromas of meat.

O. Brown and his team found that by adding a plant gene to yeast cells, they could produce heme in unlimited quantities, with a tiny fraction of the environmental impact. The Impossible Burger requires approximately 75 per cent less water and 95 per cent less land, generating about 87 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions than beef burgers.

Based on all we’ve learned, there's no question that the use of animals as a food-production technology will soon be obsolete. Making meat directly from plants is not only far less destructive to the environment, but it will enable meat to be more delicious, healthy, diverse, and affordable. Create the best meat in the world, let consumer choice drive the change and the use of animals as food technology will soon be a fading memory.”