Feeding 2050’s Ten Billion People

Doing so while protecting the planet’s health will take massive changes in food production and consumption

By Ivan Amato

Makers of plant-based meat products, like these burgers produced and marketed by Impossible Foods, are making a bid to displace meat products produced by the animal agriculture industry. (Image courtesy of Impossible Foods)

THE FOOD-FOR-ALL MOONSHOT By 2050, the global population is likely to approach 10 billion people, about a third more than today’s population. Expanding current agricultural practices to feed everyone will wreak more environmental damage than the planet can sustain. Dramatically reducing animal agriculture and replacing it with healthy, sustainable alternatives, including plant-based proteins that are all but indistinguishable from meat, may be the most powerful lever for bringing about the global-scale shifts in food production and consumption that the world will need.

THE PHILANTHROPY OPPORTUNITY The plant-based meat industry has been growing and had a banner year, but it still commands under 1% of the overall trillion-dollar market associated with industrial animal agriculture. Cell-based meat grown from animal cells with biotechnology processes has yet to make a commercial debut. Large-scale displacement of animal agriculture by plant-based, cell-based, and other alternative protein sources will require more investment in research (including investigation into potential plants for protein production), process and product development, and programs to retool and retrain livestock workers for jobs in what would become a shrinking animal agriculture industry.

When I met Patrick Brown this past January in the Silicon Valley headquarters of his high-tech food company, Impossible Foods, he was wearing a T-shirt with one of those circular verboten symbols on it, this one with a cow inside the non grata circle. About a decade earlier, when he was still a biochemistry professor at Stanford University, Brown had an epiphany that steered him into a vanguard of food technology and, as he sees it, planet saving. It had to do with cows, mostly.

The beef industry, and animal agriculture more generally, had evolved into a major contributor to many of humanity’s most pressing problems, Brown realized. Climate change. Land- and water-use issues. The ascent of antibiotic-resistant microbes. Fertilizer runoff and oceanic dead zones. Obesity. Heart disease. For all of these global-scale challenges, Brown became convinced that animal agriculture is a significant part of the problem. Intensifying his alarm has been the projection that the global population would reach some 10 billion by 2050, an increase of nearly one-third of today’s human collective of 7.7 billion. Raising the alarm to jet-engine loudness is agriculture’s leading role in the decimation of animal populations and biodiversity, a relationship that made headlines around the world in May with the release of an alarming report by the International Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). To Brown, this meant that continuing along the status quo in agriculture is untenable and he made it his mission in life to develop sustainable alternatives to animal agriculture. That’s what Impossible Foods, one of the world’s premier plant-based meat companies, is all about.

Brown is not alone in his alarm. The combo of a growing population and the ruinous planetary stress of animal agriculture has spurred a driven and growing community aiming to transform the culture and practice of food production and consumption on a global scale. Undergirding this community’s sense of urgency has been the growing volume of evidence- and data-rich research, analyses, reports, and books by government agencies, non-government agencies, international organizations, journalists, and agricultural, economic, nutritional, public health, and environmental investigators.

This discussion has long roots. In 1971, for one, Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet called for wholesale shunning of meat — which the author argued would lead to competition between the world’s more affluent meat-eaters and the poor — and a worldwide embrace of vegetarian food culture. In 2006, 35 years after that pioneering wake-up call, a still-influential 390-page tome published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Livestock’s Long Shadow, stated that “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Massive land degradation, deforestation, and biodiversity loss (due to 30% of the planet’s non-frozen land surface becoming dedicated to feed crops and grazing) are among these environmental concerns, according to the report. The livestock sector “is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, ‘dead zones’ in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others,” the report states. The recently released IPBES report ups the agriculture’s land-use figure to 33% and notes that this crucial sector commands 75% of the planet’s freshwater resources and is responsible for some 25% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Among the latest book-length manifestos by alternative (read: nonmeat) protein advocates are Paul Shapiro’s Clean Meat and Jacy Reese’s The End of Animal Agriculture, both published in 2018.

An often-cited analysis by researchers at Yale University and Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, which was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that beef production requires 28, 11, 5, and 6 times more land, irrigation water, greenhouse gases, and fertilizer, respectively, than the average requirements of four other livestock categories in the analysis — poultry, pork, dairy, and eggs. The World Resources Institute (WRI) publishes numerous reports on what it will take to sustainably feed 10 billion people in 2050. Out of its data-rich investigations and analyses, drastic reduction in meat production and consumption emerged as a top priority among more than 20 must-do actions detailed in a 2018 report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future, produced in partnership with the World Bank, United Nations Environment and Development Programmes, and the French agronomic research agencies CIRAD and INRA. Early in 2019, The Lancet, a premier medical journal, released a 47-page report, Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, in which 37 authors from 16 countries collectively call for an “unprecedented global collaboration and commitment: nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.” Reducing meat consumption, particularly beef, is a centerpiece of their guidance to the world.

Factory feedlot operation in the United States. (Image courtesy of Farm Sanctuary)

At about the same time, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published Alternative Proteins, a white paper on the future of food prepared for WEF by researchers at Oxford University. It adds to the growing chorus about the imminent need to recast humanity’s relationship to its protein sources. “The evidence is clear: Our food system needs to be transformed for the sake of our planet and the future of humankind,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of World Wildlife Fund International, in a statement accompanying the release of the WEF report in early 2019. Highlighting its urgency Lambertini added, “We are the last generation that can do something about this before the system collapses.”

The Alt-Protein Landscape

All of this helps explain why the alternative protein tribe is laser-focused on drastically diminishing animal agriculture as a source of protein as soon as possible. Many of this community gathered in San Francisco, California, in early 2019 for the Alternative Protein Show, run by the International Alliance for Alternative Protein. A busy, logo-loaded graphic depicting “The New Protein Landscape” prepared for the show lists almost 300 startup and established food and manufacturing companies; nonprofits, incubators, and universities that are furthering R&D and manufacturing; and funders including venture capital firms, traditional food companies, and government agencies.

The climate change piece is one of the biggest motivators for this group. As do other analyses, the 2018 WRI report, for one, pegs upwards of 25% of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions on agriculture’s use of fertilizers and changes of land use associated with it. Agriculture is second only to the energy sector when it comes to emitting greenhouse gases. Animal agriculture in particular releases more greenhouse gas than “all of transportation, all of the planes, all of the trains, all of the cars, all of the 18-wheelers,” Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the 3-year-old Good Food Institute (GFI), said to several hundred participants at the Alternative Protein Show.

“It takes 10 calories at a minimum to produce one calorie of animal-based meat,” Jacy Reese, author of The End of Animal Farming, said at the same meeting, driving home the inherent input/output inefficiencies of first processing vast amounts of feed-crop calories through animals to produce meat for human consumption. The calorie-in/calorie-out ratio is much worse in the case of raising beef, more like 25 to 1. In his book and on the stoop, Reese is up front about his own moral imperative to end animal agriculture. He sees it as the way to reduce the suffering of upwards of 90 billion farm animals living and dying in industrial-scale factory farms. But like Brown and Friedrich, Reese also is banking on a business case for alternative protein to get the job done on a global scale.

“It is not just about the fact that you need eight times as much land, and eight times as much water, and eight times as much pesticide and herbicides, and eight times as much fossil fuels to power combines and everything else” to turn plant crops into meat, Friedrich said at the Alt-Protein Show. Adding to the inefficiency insult, he said, is the need to ship these crops to feed mills, and then the feed to factory farms, and then the animals to slaughterhouses, all of which are energy-consuming, pollution-producing industrial operations. “Environmentally speaking, it is just cataclysmic,” Friedrich said.

“The evidence is clear: Our food system needs to be transformed for the sake of our planet and the future of humankind.” — Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International

Then there’s the antibiotic problem, a top-tier public health threat associated with animal agriculture. Some 70% of antibiotics produced in the United States are fed to farm animals, not to treat acute illness but to prevent the animals from getting sick in the stressful conditions in which they are raised and to promote rapid weight gain. Many in the public health community blame this agricultural practice for accelerating the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in people and hastening what they say could become a “post-antibiotic era,” in which many life-saving surgeries will no longer be possible and minor scratches and injuries could become lethal. A related health concern is the role animal agriculture plays in the emergence of pathogens, such as the avian virus H7N9. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has rated this strain of animal-carried influenza A viruses as posing the highest risk of sparking pandemic disease should the virus make the leap from its animal hosts to people.

For the alt-protein advocacy, innovation, and entrepreneurial communities, and for millions of rank-and-file vegetarians and vegans, the logic is bulletproof and the necessary action to be taken is clear. For them, greatly reducing human reliance on animal agriculture has become an imperative. To be sure, there is no single solution to the challenge of sustainably feeding a growing human population. The WRI report lists a 22-item “menu” of actions. Dramatic reduction in the demand and production of meat is just one of them. More efficient agricultural; reducing food waste; increasing productivity without clearing more land; and spurring technological innovations such as solar-based processes for making fertilizers, organic sprays that preserve fresh food for longer periods, and plant-based beef substitutes are among the report’s other “menu” times. Still, as the new-meat evangelists see it, the animal agriculture piece wields the most leverage toward the endpoint of sustainably feeding 10 billion people in 2050.

An ecosystem of innovators, entrepreneurs, communicators, advocates, researchers, companies, venture capitalists, philanthropists, and others is striving to replace animal-based protein in the global food system with protein derived primarily from plants. (Graphic produced by Olivia Fox Cabane)

“The most important scientific problem in the world right now is figuring how to make the most delicious meat in the world without using animals,” Brown told The Moonshot Project. It’s the pathway to market success and thereby, he said, to solving the food conundrum. “The solution is to compete with animal agriculture on its own terms,” is how GFI’s Friedrich makes the same point. “We need to compete on the bases of price, taste, and convenience. These are the things that people take into account.”

Bushwhacking Toward the Great Food Transformation

Impossible Foods’ Pat Brown and many other driven innovators with a common cause have been busy. There’s Ethan Brown (no relation to Pat Brown), who founded Beyond Meat in 2009; Paul Shapiro, CEO of The Better Meat Co.; and Simeon Van Der Molen, the founder of Moving Mountains whose plant-based burgers sell in more than 2000 restaurants in the United Kingdom. Both flagship products of Pat and Ethan Brown’s companies, the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, respectively, also now are available in thousands of restaurants. Earlier this year, Impossible burgers scored headline-making rollouts onto the menus of Burger King and White Castle restaurants. Beyond Meat made its own splash with its partnership with Carl’s Jr. restaurants. Beyond Meat’s burgers, which feature ingredients including pea protein and beet juice to elicit meaty experiences in eaters, also have been earning refrigerator and freezer space in increasingly more supermarkets.

Pat Brown and his team rolled out the Impossible Burger 2.0 in January at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. It’s a bottom-up, science-guided construction of plant protein concentrate (in this case, soy protein, rather than the wheat and potato protein of the original Impossible Burger), flavor and aroma ingredients, and what the company has identified as an all-important, beef-experience-eliciting heme molecule (the same class of oxygen-carrying molecules that make our own blood red) identified in soy plants and manufactured in reactors filled with yeast cells. This second-generation product takes the company’s beef-burger verisimilitude to new heights with respect to appearance, mouthfeel, grill behavior, nutrition, and taste. Brown points out that it is easy to engineer better nutrition into his products, say, by cutting down on saturated fat in the formula. On my own reporting foray to the company’s headquarters, I sampled an Impossible Burger 2.0. It was delicious to my taste buds, enough so that given a choice at a restaurant or food market, I probably would buy the plant-based meat option — a healthier choice that does not involve a slaughterhouse — over the traditional beef-based one.

One consumer down; billions to go.

Ground-meat dishes like hamburgers and turkey sausages have been the first animal-meat foods targeted for replacement with non-animal alternatives. Coming next, according to the alt-protein club, are non-animal choices for any ground or solid cut of chicken, pork, and beef, and for other animal products including eggs, milk, and cheese. A harder sell for many, but also on the alt-protein agenda, is protein derived from insects, among them crickets (already a thing) and maggots. Also coming into play here will be leading-edge technologies such as 3D printing from the world of materials science and engineering, and tissue engineering from the arena of biomedicine.

With a view that it may be hard to win over some customers reluctant to consider plant-based meat options, the alt-protein movement has also had its sights on the goal of what variously has been called lab-meat, cultured meat, clean meat, and now most often cell-based meat. “Meat without the animal” is one of this club’s slogans. Think here of sesame-seed-sized biopsies from your favorite food animal yielding muscle, fat, and connective-tissue cell (the triad of cell types that matter in meat) that would be pampered, nurtured, and grown in legions of 20,000-liter fermentation tanks and then further formed into meat products. Insiders refer to this emerging technology foundation as cellular agriculture, and it’s also opening animal-free production routes to leather-like materials and protein ingredients such as collagen for cosmetics and personal-care products.

The world’s first hamburger made from cultured cells. (Image courtesy of Mosa Meat)

The 15-year-old nonprofit organization New Harvest has been devoting its modest resources to furthering the cause of cellular agriculture. In 2017, according to its annual report, it distributed almost $278,000 among six research projects, ranging from developing apple-, celery-, and mushroom-based scaffolding for growing cells into 3D structures to optimizing bioreactor design and operation for maximizing cell growth and production. The younger but more resource-enabled GFI also got into the grant-making game this year. With nearly $3 million from two undisclosed donors, GFI announced grants to 14 recipients, six of whom will be working on cell-based meat projects and eight of whom will work on plant-based ones.

Finless Food, Memphis Meat, and Mosa Meat are among the startup players in the cell-based meat arena. In theory, the biotechnology processes they aim to develop could be scaled up to grow and manufacture all of the meat and fish that even 10 billion people might crave in 2050. Compared to land use for beef production, “clean meat” production would be between 2000 and 4000 percent more productive, according to GFI senior scientist Liz Specht. Just like their plant-based alt-protein brethren, the make-or-break reality for these cellular agriculturists is that their cell-based products will have to win the hearts, minds, taste buds, and wallets of consumers. As yet, no cellular agriculture food products are commercially available. However, leading players including Mosa Meat and Finless Foods claim they are stepping toward a rollout within the next few years with beef, tuna, and other animal meats that these companies will have cultured and grown in the sort of bioreactors upon which the biotechnology industry has been built.

Anybody in this new-protein mission has a very long way to go. Even as the plant- and cell-based meat communities build momentum, they have hardly reached base camp with respect to the summit they aim to reach. Plant-based meat is approaching the 1% penetration mark into the overall U.S. meat market, even though pioneering products such as Boca Burgers and Tofurky have been available for decades. For now, meat produced via cellular agriculture is still at 0%.

Adding to the challenge are the trends in meat consumption in those countries that would need to take the lead in a global-scale transformation of food production and consumption. Rather than cutting down on meat consumption, both the U.S. and China have been devouring record amounts of red meat. Moreover, a 2018 Gallup Poll found that only about 5% of Americans self-identify as vegetarians, which means they do not eat meat. Three percent identify as vegans, which means they do not consume any animal products, including dairy products and eggs. These figures are about the same as they were in 2012; they have not grown along with the growing consensus that massive meat production and consumption is a global threat.

Signs of an Alt-Protein Spring

Despite all of the technological, economic, entrepreneurial, sociological, regulatory, political, and cultural obstacles the champions of a plant-based meat revolution will need to overcome, there are reasons to think their save-the-world ambitions to transform humanity’s relationship to food are more than just well-intentioned visions. For one thing, alarm bells about the vast environmental costs of current and expanding agricultural production now go off just about every day across the media landscape — in scientific journals and conferences, in government and NGO studies and reports, and in other channels of communication.

Another sign pointing to the feasibility of a massive shift toward plant-based protein is the conclusion by nutrition researchers that it indeed is possible to rely primarily on plant-based protein to deflect the world from its currently ruinous food production and consumption practices. The authors of the EAT-Lancet Commission, for one, conclude that “the food system can provide healthy diets … for an estimated 10 billion people by 2050 and remain within a safe operating space” by which the authors are referring to sustainable production of the global food supply. And in a concurring conclusion of the WRI report, the authors write, “Despite the challenges, we believe that a sustainable food future is achievable.”

Meanwhile, alt-protein innovators and entrepreneurs are getting their products into the hands and mouths of more consumers, including an increasingly broad swath of so-called “flexitarians,” who do not yet eschew meat altogether but who are looking to reduce their consumption without compromising on taste.

Paul Shapiro is catering (literally) to that crowd. He wears hats as a multimedia (books, TEDx talks, podcasting) champion and spokesperson for the alt-protein movement. He also is an in-the-trenches entrepreneur as CEO of The Better Meat Co., whose role in this innovation ecosystem is to sell plant-based protein ingredients that institutional food sellers can use as blending agents to reduce their overall reliance on animal protein. In a spunky email newsletter, Shapiro brings subscribers up to speed on each week’s advances toward a plant-protein-centric food system.

“Need evidence that times are changing?” he asked readers in a May 17th email update. “Imagine the following paragraph having been written five years ago:

This week beef giant Cargill joined a $12 million round of investment in Aleph Farms, an Israeli startup growing real beef without cows. At the same time, agribusiness baron ConAgra said it’ll soon release its own plant-based liquid egg, while Tyson Foods is about to commercialize its own plant-based meats. And Impossible Foods just raised an additional $300 million on top of the $400 million it’s already raked in.”

That’s just a small part of the growing wave of investment. In May, GFI released its State of the Industry Report for plant-based meat, eggs, and dairy products. An analysis of investments GFI commissioned for the report found that over the past 5 years “$17 billion has been invested in the plant-based food industry in 223 completed deals involving 220 unique investors.”

In 2016, for example, Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest meat companies, launched a $150 million venture capital initiative and since has made investments in plant-based Beyond Meat (of which it has disclosed a 5% ownership), Memphis Meat (the cell-based meat startup), and Future Meat (an Israel-based cellular agriculture company). That same year, General Mills pumped $18 million into the company Lyrical and its Kite Hill brand (founded by Pat Brown and vegan chef partner Tal Ronnen), which specializes in almond-milk-based dairy products. In 2017, Cargill, another meat industry giant, also invested in Memphis Meats, indicating in a press release that it is committed to growing its “protein portfolio.”

At the Alternative Protein Show, Friedrich characterized the food industry’s major meat producers as “reconstituting themselves as protein companies rather than meat companies. Their goal is noble — to feed the world high-quality protein in an efficient manner that allows people to feed their families. If they can do that more efficiently with plants, they are buying in.”

There have been some big-money acquisitions and investment activity in this business sector. In 2016, for example, Paris-based Danone acquired WhiteWave, maker of the Silk plant-milk product line, for $10 billion. Philippines-based Monde Nissin bought Quorn — whose animal-meat alternative product line features mycoprotein (fungal protein) — for more than $830 million. Most investments by venture capital firms, foundations, and philanthropists have been more modest but they have been adding up too. In a 2017 fundraising round by Memphis Meat, the company brought in $17 million, some of it from billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson, adding to the some $5 million it already had raised. Previously, Gates also had invested in Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which means he has opened his wallet to both the plant-based and cell-based parts of the alt-protein movement. Impossible has also attracted backing from Khosla Ventures, Temasek (a Singapore-based investment firm), and the Open Philanthropy Project within its Farm Animal Welfare focus area. The Open Philanthropy Project, whose primary funders are Dustin Moskovitz (a co-founder of Facebook and Asana) and his wife Cari Tuna, also has backed the Good Food Institute.

The market that all of these stakeholders are going after is about as big as it gets. Today, the meat, dairy, egg, and seafood sectors represent a trillion-dollar global market, according to New Crop Capital, a venture capital firm with a focus on innovators pushing for a post-animal-agriculture era. Currently, plant-based meat accounts for under 1% of U.S. meat sales and cell-based meat has yet to make its commercial debut. But the growth of the plant-based milk industry — think here of soy and almond milks — points to a promising future for these alternative-meat innovations. Plant-based milk products have captured about 13% of the total milk sales and the product category is booming. If the plant-based meat industry, in turn, were to capture 13% of the market share of the U.S. meat industry today, its annual revenue would be more than $10 billion. And the trends look promising. Between 2017 and 2018, sales in the U.S. of almost all plant-based, protein-alternative products amounted to more than $3.7 billion with growth rates in most categories — such as plant-based milk, yogurt, and meat — growing in double-digit percentages.

Even so, pulling off a transformation in the food system as drastic as advocates are calling for still will require much more research, development, innovation, and money. And although private industry has been ramping up proprietary research into plant- and cell-based meats into major R&D operations, open-access academic and government research remains scarce. Prior to a $3 million infusion of research dollars by the GFI into eight plant-based meat and six cell-based meat projects, open research into these alternative sources of protein had amounted to perhaps $100,000 per year for the last decade, mostly from New Harvest, a nonprofit organization that since 2003 has been furthering the cause of cellular agriculture. “It is pathetic that our grants amount to more money than has gone into R&D in this area for 20 years,” says Friedrich, who also is a co-founder of New Crop Capital. He notes that national governments so far have invested almost nothing in plant- and cell-based meats R&D even though it is relevant to climate change, antibiotic resistance, water pollution, and other issues that governments care about and to which they commit billions of dollars.

Opportunities for researchers to make transformative discoveries are out there. One major challenge is to identify the best plant-protein sources for a 2050 food system. Consider that almost all commercially available plant-based protein ingredients today derive from a tiny subset — including soy, wheat, peanuts, and peas — of the 150 plant species underlying today’s global food supply. Researchers have yet to explore most food and feed crops for their edible protein potential, not to mention the quarter-million additional plant species that are outside of current agriculture but which might be well suited for producing plant-based protein ingredients. According to a GFI analysis, “innovation opportunities in this area include expanding and diversifying our use of plant protein sources, determining which sources are best suited to particular plant-based meat products, and ensuring that the proteins from these novel sources are optimized specifically for plant-based meat rather than plant-based foods in general.”

If it were up to Friedrich, pushing R&D in this space would become a national priority, on the scale of, say, the 13-year-long $3 billion Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003. In lieu of that, he argues that relevant R&D agencies including the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (part of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture), and the Department of Energy should commit noticeable percentages of their R&D budgets to such goals as 1) identifying and optimizing crops for protein-yielding traits, 2) reducing the energy costs for raising those crops, 3) scaling manufacturing processes up to industrial capacities, and 4) establishing research centers devoted to creating communities of scientists and engineers focused on plant-based and cell-based meat research and technology development.

Philanthropists and foundations, suggests Friedrich, also could accelerate a transition to plant protein by directly supporting R&D, supporting an advocacy campaign for federally-funded R&D, and funding programs for retooling displaced animal-agricultural workers so they can work, say, in new plant- and cell- protein industries. The same goes for programs to purchase vast amounts of acreage freed up from former animal agriculture operations and return it to the carbon-sequestering, biodiversity-nurturing land that it once was.

A Food-for-All Moonshot

“It may still be a moonshot,” Friedrich says, referring to the push for a global embrace of plant- and cell-based meats. But he and his fellow advocates are reveling in the momentum they are seeing and feeling. Innovators and entrepreneurs are advancing toward the ability to “biomimic all cuts and forms of meat with plants,” Friedrich says. And prices are coming down as economies of scale come into play.

“We are going to get rid of animals in food technology by 2035.” — Patrick Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods

Impossible Food’s Pat Brown points out that history has demonstrated that massive and rapid industrial transformations are possible. Digital photography comes to his mind as an example. Once the technology began delivering imagery comparable in quality to that of film (for the typical consumer) in the 1990s, market forces took over. In less than 2 decades, digital photography displaced film technology’s 150-year hegemony in the photography market. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012. For Brown, plant-based meat technology is where digital photography was in the 1990s.

GFI’s Specht points to animal agriculture itself as the most relevant historical example of global-scale technology transformation. In fewer than 75 years, she says, animal agriculture has shifted in the United States from a mostly small-scale and localized framework to industrialized and consolidated practices that produce almost all of the meat supply. Even with the massive capital and infrastructure investments this required, “the increased efficiency allowed intensive systems to completely topple the old animal-ag landscape within a few decades,” Specht says. “Given how much more efficient plant-based and cell-based approaches are compared to the most efficient animal-ag systems, I think there is every reason to believe a complete transformation will happen again — and potentially even faster this time around.”

Among the many indications that she might be right is the rollout in April of the Impossible Burger in 59 Burger King restaurants in the St. Louis area. Customers were so enthusiastic that the two companies are now revving up for nation-wide availability of Impossible Whoppers. On a micro scale, I purchased Beyond Burgers, which were conveniently available at a local market, for the first time this past May. It’s these sorts of big and small commercialization steps that lends credence even to some of the alternative-protein community’s most audacious claims. “We are going to get rid of animals in food technology by 2035,” Brown likes to say. It is unlikely that Brown and his alt-protein brethren will kill off animal agriculture entirely by then, but it still behooves them to be as ready as they can as soon as they can. The United Nations projects that by 2035 there will be 8.4 billion people on the planet.

Ivan Amato is a writer, editor, podcaster, and science cafe host based in Hyattsville, Maryland. He is the editor of The Moonshot Catalog.

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