On an ordinary spring morning in Columbia, Missouri, Ethan Brown stands in the middle of an ordinary kitchen tearing apart a chicken fajita strip. “Look at this,” he says. “It’s amazing!” Around him, a handful of stout Midwestern food-factory workers lean in and nod approvingly. “I’m just so proud of it.”
The meat Brown is pulling apart looks normal enough: beige flesh that separates into long strands. It would not be out of place in a chicken salad or Caesar wrap. Bob Prusha, a colleague of Brown’s, stands over a stove sautéing a batch for us to eat. But the meat Brown is fiddling with and Prusha is frying is far from ordinary. It’s actually not meat at all.
Brown is the CEO of Beyond Meat, a four-year-old company that manufactures a meat substitute made mainly from soy and pea proteins and amaranth. Mock meat is not a new idea. Grocery stores are full of plant-based substitutes—the Boca and Gardenburgers of the world, not to mention Asian staples like tofu and seitan. What sets Beyond Meat apart is how startlingly meat-like its product is. The “chicken” strips have the distinct fibrous structure of poultry, and they deliver a similar nutritional profile. Each serving has about the same amount of protein as an equivalent portion of chicken, but with zero cholesterol or saturated and trans fats.
To Brown, there is little difference between his product and the real thing. Factory-farmed chickens aren’t really treated as animals, he says; they’re machines that transform vegetable inputs into chicken breasts. Beyond Meat simply uses a more efficient production system. Where one pound of cooked boneless chicken requires 7.5 pounds of dry feed and 30 liters of water, the same amount of Beyond Meat requires only 1.1 pound of ingredients and two liters of water.
The ability to efficiently create meat, or something sufficiently meat-like, will become progressively more important in coming years because humanity may be reaching a point when there’s not enough animal protein to go around. The United Nations expects the global population to grow from the current 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050. Also, as countries such as China and India continue to develop, their populations are adopting more Western diets. Worldwide the amount of meat eaten per person nearly doubled from 1961 to 2007, and the UN projects it will double again by 2050.
In other words, the planet needs to rethink how it gets its meat. Brown is addressing the issue by supplying a near-perfect meat analogue, but he is not alone in reinventing animal products. Just across town, Modern Meadow uses 3-D printers and tissue engineering to grow meat in a lab. The company already has a refrigerator full of lab-grown beef and pork; in fact, the company’s co-founder, Gabor Forgacs, fried and ate a piece of engineered pork onstage at a 2011 TED talk. Another scientist, Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is also using tissue engineering to produce meat in a lab. In August, he served an entire lab-grown burger to two diners on a London stage as a curious but skeptical crowd looked on.
Staring at the bucketful of precooked strips, it’s hard to imagine a future in which meat is, by necessity, not meat. Or in which meat is grown in a manufacturing facility instead of a field or feedlot. But that future is fast approaching, and here in the heart of Big Ag country, both Beyond Meat and Modern Meadow are confronting it head on.
Each year, Americans eat more than 200 pounds of meat per person, and mid-Missouri is as good a place as any to see what it takes to satisfy that appetite. Columbia sits dead center in the state, so approaching on I-70 from either direction means driving about two hours past huge tracts of farmland—soy, corn, and wheat fields and herds of grazing cattle. Giant truck stops glow on the horizon, and mile-long trains tug boxcars loaded with grain to places as far away as Mexico and California.
It’s rich country that for nearly 150 years has fed the nation and the world. Yet most of the crops grown around Columbia will never land on dining-room tables but rather in giant feedlot troughs. That’s not unusual. About 80 percent of the world’s farmland is used to support the meat and poultry industries, and much of that goes to growing animal feed. An efficient use of resources this is not. For example, a single pound of cooked beef, a family meal’s worth of hamburgers, requires 298 square feet of land, 27 pounds of feed, and 211 gallons of water.
Supplying meat not only devours resources but also creates waste. That same pound of hamburger requires more than 4,000 Btus of fossil-fuel energy to get to the dinner table; something has to power the tractors, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and trucks. That process, along with the methane the cows belch throughout their lives, contributes as much as 51 percent of all greenhouse gas produced in the world.
To understand how humans developed such a reliance on meat, it’s useful to start at the beginning. Several million years ago, hominids had large guts and smaller brains. That began to reverse around two million years ago: Brains got bigger as guts got smaller. The primary reason for the change, according to a seminal 1995 study by evolutionary anthropologist Leslie Aiello, then of the University College London, is that our ancestors started eating meat, a compact, high-energy source of calories. With meat, hominids did not need to maintain a large, energy-intense digestive system. Instead, they could divert energy elsewhere, namely to power big energy-hungry brains. And with those brains, they changed the world.
As time progressed, meat became culturally important too. Hunting fostered cooperation; cooking and eating the kill brought communities together over shared rituals—as it still does in backyard barbecues. Neal Barnard, a nutrition author and physician at George Washington University, argues that today the cultural appeal of meat trumps any physiological benefits. “We have known for a long time that people who don’t eat meat are thinner and healthier and live longer than people who do,” he says. Nutritionally, meat is a good source of protein, iron, and vitamin B12, but Barnard says those nutrients are easily available from other sources that aren’t also heavy in saturated fats. “For the millennia of our sojourn on Earth, we have been getting more than enough protein from entirely plant-based sources. The cow gets its protein that way and simply rearranges it into muscle. People say, ‘Gee if I don’t eat muscle, where will I get protein?’ You get it from the same place the cow got it.”
To Barnard, the simple conclusion is that everyone should stick to eating plants—and he’s right that it would be a far more efficient use of all that cropland. And yet to most people, meat tastes good. Studies suggest that eating meat activates the brain’s pleasure center in much the same way chocolate does. Even many vegetarians say bacon smells great when it’s cooking. For whatever reason, most people simply love to eat meat—myself included. And that makes
re-creating it, whether from vegetables or cells in a lab, exceedingly difficult.
In the mid-1980s, a food scientist named Fu-hung Hsieh moved to Columbia, Missouri, to start a food-engineering program at the University of Missouri. Hsieh was coming to academia from a successful career in the processed-foods industry, at Quaker Oats, and he convinced the university to buy him a commercial-grade extrusion machine, nearly unheard of in an academic setting.
An extruder is one of the processed-food industry’s most important and versatile pieces of equipment, the invention responsible for Froot Loops and Cheetos and premade cookie dough. Dry and wet ingredients are poured into a hopper on one end of the machine and a rotating auger pushes them through a long barrel, where they are subjected to varying levels of heat and pressure. At the barrel’s end, the ingredients pass through a die that forms them into whatever shape and texture the machine has been programmed to produce. The mixture emerges at the far end as a continuous ribbon of food, which is sliced into the desired portions.
On one level, an extruder is a simple piece of technology—something like a giant sausage maker—but producing the desired result can be devilishly complicated. “Some people say extrusion cooking is an art form,” says Harold Huff, a meat-loving Missouri native who works with Hsieh as a senior research specialist. Around 1989, Hsieh and Huff took an interest in using the extruder to make the first realistic meat analogue. “We didn’t worry about flavor or anything else,” Hsieh tells me. “We wanted it to tear apart like chicken—it was all just about initial appearance.” They knew there wasn’t a single physical or chemical adjustment that would bring about a solution. They just had to experiment. “You have to have the right ingredients, the right temperature, the right hardware,” Huff says. “You try things, make observations, and make adjustments” for years, even decades. And so it went, until Ethan Brown came calling in 2009.
Brown, a vegan environmentalist, had been working for a fuel-cell company and had become frustrated by his colleagues’ ignorance of meat’s role in climate change. “We would go to conferences and sit there wringing our hands over all these [energy] issues, and then we’d go to dinner and people would order huge steaks,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is stupid, I want to go work on that problem.’ ” To the ridicule of old friends, who joked that he was moving to the country to start a tofu factory, he started poring over journal articles and casting around for meat analogues to market—which is how he heard about Hsieh’s work.
Brown licensed the veggie chicken and began fine-tuning it with the scientists for mass consumption. “If we used too much soy, it was too firm, and if we reduced it too much, it became soft, like tofu,” Brown remembers. “It took us two years to figure that out, and it’s still not perfect.”