Big picture trends in agriculture and population tend to make people pessimistic. And with good reason. With the environmental impact of agriculture today (soil depletion, water pollution, vast CO2 emissions) and the generally poor treatment of farm animals, it’s hard to be panglossian about a world with more people in it, and more people eating meat.
And yet, some people aren’t bearish. They point to shifts to sustainable farming, and, more importantly, several alternative foods with less nasty impacts: products like Beyond Eggs (see below), Beyond Meat, and, yes, test-tube steaks. Here’s what Bill Gates told the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla last year:
The fact that innovation will give [us] equivalent [food] without those negative effects at lower prices is an amazing example of how linear projection misses what innovators using science will be able to do. It’s completely not part of the mainstream dialogue. Five years from now, as these products get out there, the whole view of what agriculture needs to do … will be a lot more positive.
In other words, don’t imagine that just because we’re in trouble today means we’ll be in double-trouble tomorrow. Science will come to the rescue—and not in the shape of yet more antibiotics, and ever more industrial food-production processes. What these innovators are talking about are completely new ways of making food, and particularly protein: growing it in a laboratory or engineering it from plants, because it’s too harmful (and expensive) to produce the "natural way."
Sound disgusting? Maybe. But perhaps you haven’t seen the insides of a battery chicken shed recently, or imagined how much more antibiotics we’ll have to use as the world nears 9 billion. "Our food system is abysmally broken," says Josh Tetrick, CEO of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek Foods, maker of the Beyond Eggs egg-substitute. "It’s not about the morality of eating animals or not. It’s about the conditions that a lot of these animals are raised in. These hens are kept inside a cage for two years, pumped full of feed and antibiotics, and it’s just cruel. We don’t all have to stop eating eggs. But we should ask if we want to participate in that."
Tetrick’s team has deconstructed the egg, analyzed its 22 special functions, and replicated it with plant-stuffs like sunflower lecithin, canola, peas, and natural gums from tree sap. By all accounts, the substitute tastes just like the real thing—even if it doesn’t look like it. It’s sold as a gray-green powder that you need to hydrate before use.
Tetrick, who eats only plant-based food himself, insists he’s not on an anti-meat crusade. He applauds that companies like Chipotle are turning to sustainable sources of meat. The main idea is to replace the eggs currently used to make things like mayonnaise, ranch dressing, and factory-made muffins or cookies (i.e. not your Sunday fry-up). That’s about a third of the 79 billion eggs laid in the U.S. every year.
At the moment, Hampton has two major Fortune 500 customers—one of which plans to market that its products are egg-free, and another that wants to keep the fact quiet for now. "We’re just removing the eggs that we have an issue with. We don’t care if they want to just save money. That’s fine," he says. Beyond Eggs is 18% cheaper than battery-produced eggs.
Tetrick sees a smaller retail business selling to vegans, and the cholesterol-conscious. Beyond Eggs will be available online in the next two weeks, and probably from major retailers after that.
Beyond that, he wants to feed people who are likely to go hungry without interventions in the protein supply system. "I think the reason people like Bill Gates are interested in this is that the world population is expanding to 9 billion, and people are going to need good cheap sources of protein. Some of the economics of meat production, particularly around feed, aren’t good."