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Innovation Earth: Will Real Meat Become Obsolete?

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Beyond Meat
Beyond Meat

Beef. It's collectively what's for dinner. And with chicken and pork and every other kind of meat, it's increasingly what's for breakfast and lunch. Worldwide meat consumption has doubled over the past 20 years, and is expected to double again by 2050.

There will likely be 9 billion of us on the planet by then. By those calculations, we'll be raising and slaughtering 112 billion livestock animals every year for food.

That could push us to the brink, considering that animal agriculture already eats up more than a third of the world's crop calories and takes up 30 percent of all land habitat on earth, often at the expense of carbon-sinking old-growth forest that is cut down for grazing.

All told, the meat industry accounts for 18 to 51 percent of global warming emissions worldwide, depending on whose figures you believe. That's a big discrepancy, but you don't need to be a statistician to see that even the low-end calculation poses a grave threat at the rate we're adding meat-eating mouths to the planet.

No wonder that finding a sustainable substitute for meat seems to be the holy grail of innovation right now. There's been much talk about bugs, albeit in more palatable protein bar form. An egg-replacing startup received $23 million in funding earlier this year. Test-tube meat is fast becoming a reality, though 80 percent of Americans say they wouldn't eat it.

I like innovation. I even like small amounts of meat, Bittman-style. But, I'll say it: I am not a fan of meat substitutes. I see the urgency in reducing global meat consumption, but can't we do it without all the processing and -- gulp -- genetic tinkering? Throughout most of human history, meat was scarce and cultures created delicious food nevertheless. Give me a bowl of beans and rice over a bioengineered burger any day.

So when the startup Beyond Meat approached me about trying their plant-based "meat" that replicates the structure of animal protein via a patented process (no genetic engineering involved), I initially balked, though many have said it tastes uncannily close to the real thing. Bill Gates and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone have signed on as investors. Even beloved Food Network fixture Alton Brown has enthused about the possibilities.

But then, I saw the statistics. Producing one pound of feedlot beef requires over 31 pounds of grain, versus around 2 pounds of grain for Beyond Meat. Beef production also generates 13 times the carbon emissions of plant-based protein. I decided to set aside my slow food snobbery and talk to Beyond Meat's founder Ethan (not to be confused with Alton) Brown.

Brown is a fascinating fellow (his current calling is the summation of a childhood spent on his family's dairy farm plus vegetarianism plus 10 years in the tech industry developing fuel cells), but most compelling is his complete rethinking of the plants-versus-animals argument. Unlike many of his vegetarian brethren, Brown doesn't downplay the importance of meat. In fact, he doesn't think the majority of people can be satisfied if you remove meat from their diets.

Meat, he says, played too essential a role in our evolutionary history. "Even things like our ability to throw a baseball can be traced back to meat consumption," Brown says. "[Scientists] believe that occurred literally from throwing stones and spears. For people that say, 'Oh, we should just eat kale and quinoa,' I think they're overlooking about 2 million years of a serious romance with meat."

But in the future, Brown believes meat may become a matter of mere semantics. He posits that if science can be utilized to architect meat using more sustainable plant sources like peas and GMO-free soy, then why should it come from a cow, especially if that cow may be a significant contributor to climate change? (Peas and soy are the two crops Beyond Meat currently utilizes, but Brown says those could become any readily available plants, such as mustard seed or camelina or even a fungi like yeast.)

By redefining meat as merely the sum of its parts, whether from plants or animals, Brown seems poised to take his offering where no meat substitute has gone before: Right to the stomachs of red-blooded Americans (and increasingly, meat-eating Earthlings). Brown doesn't want Beyond Meat to be a vegetarian alternative offered alongside McDonald's McNuggets. He wants Beyond Meat to be the McNuggets.

It's a bold vision, though for now, it may seem too sci-fi for some. I even feel a twinge of sadness envisioning a world where we're so disconnected from the source of our food that we readily accept factory-extruded mustard-seed meat as the real thing. But then, reality-check: A factory-farmed broiler chicken crammed into a windowless shed and pumped full of feed and antibiotics isn't the "real thing," either. Most of us have no meaningful connection to the animals we eat, beyond the moment we pick up that neatly sanitized package wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store.

In the end, though, Beyond Meat's success may hinge on a more measurable determinant: taste. When I sample spring rolls made with Chicken-Free Strips that Brown is kind enough to send along, I don't taste much chicken flavor, but the texture is close. In the context of peppery microgreens and crunchy veggies, I have to admit the overall effect is pretty delicious. My husband tries a burrito made with the company's Beef-Free Crumbles and proclaims it "kind of beefy." He adds, "I would definitely eat that."

My attempt to stir-fry up some Chicken-Free Strips with veggies for the kids doesn't go over as well (with pasture-raised chicken, the dish is usually a family favorite), but Brown divulges that the major research effort underway at the company this year is to nudge his product even closer to the true taste of meat, an effort he dubs "chicken and meat 2.0."

I have no doubt the science will one day be capable of moving us beyond meat -- if not this year, than someday soon. Given the urgency of the meat consumption/climate change problem, will we be ready to follow?

Got a great idea for my next Innovation Earth column? Send tips, thoughts and suggestions to jennifer@jennifergrayson.com.

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