The Brawny Beef combination was my childhood favorite at Bob’s Big Boy on Santa Monica Boulevard. The juicy, fatty mouthfeel of the burger was consistently delicious every Friday night and I happily washed it down with a rootbeer float. When I ate my first vegetarian burger, the Interplanetary Burger, upon becoming a vegetarian while in college, I was hopeful that some aspect of that mass of azuki and kidney beans, sprouts and other binding substances would conjure up the delight and satisfaction of those Friday nights. But this bean burger, which fell apart with my first bite, could not come close to Bob’s Big Boy burger and I was resigned to explore and enjoy other aspects of vegetarian cuisine.
Meatless burgers and meatless meat have evolved tremendously in thirty years and recent efforts may yield a burger that meat eaters and meat lovers might regularly choose to satisfy their craving while also reducing the impact on diminishing resources and a changing environment. The field of cellular agriculture has garnered the attention and the capital to continue the evolution of the seemingly elusive imitation burger.
Since its inception in 2011, Impossible Foods has raised 275 million dollars in venture capital to manufacture plant based meat and dairy products without the use of animals. Beyond Meat has experienced similar rounds of venture investment and after a year of selling its product in grocery stores, boosted by consumer demand, found placement in over 19,000 stores. Mosameat, Memphis Meats and Finless Foods, to name an additional few in this fast expanding field, are startups also working within cellular agriculture to produce proteins without animals and inspiring investors to help bring about this effort.
What appears to be foundational in this technology driven field is two-fold; high-tech innovation can effect change in ways not previously explored, and the innovators are responding to the reality that factory farms are not sustainable as they expand to meet global consumption needs. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), three-quarters of the world’s poultry supply, half of the pork and two-thirds of the eggs come from industrial meat factories. Cassandra Brooks states in her piece, Meat’s Environmental Impact, that “more than two-thirds of all agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for livestock, while only 8 percent is used to grow food for direct human consumption.”
At the current rate of expansion, the global livestock industry will continue to deplete limited resources while discharging pollutants that degrade the land and the air. This is not news. But with meat consumption seen as a sign of economic success, we are not easily moving towards a vegetarian or vegan mindset. People may be eating cleaner, reducing the amount of meat they eat or moving from a vegetarian diet to a vegan diet, but the percentage of people eliminating meat from their diet has not substantively grown and in fact may be decreasing in some instances.
Will bioengineered meats be the solution to a global livestock monolith? While Pat Brown, the founder of Impossible Foods is vegan and a number of individuals investing in the field, like Memphis Meats investors Tracy and Kyle Vogt, are vegan, startup founders and investors believe that the audience for their meatless proteins is the meat eater. Clarion calls against factory farming, its cruelty to animals and its deleterious effect on the environment have not cajoled greater numbers of people into shunning meat consumption. The more plausible approach may be to convince meat eaters to make regular substitutions of meatless products for animal proteins. Thus the need for a burger engineered at the cellular level.
The focus of the technology has been to deconstruct the animal protein before putting it back together to achieve a product that tastes like, smells like and cooks like its animal counterpart. For Pat Brown of Impossible Foods, the component unique to the hamburger, uncovered through this molecular deconstruction, is the iron containing molecule, heme. This breakthrough, however, has not generated an easy assent up the vegan food chain.
The FDA has yet to stamp its approval on the Impossible Burger because the science is so new and the connection between red meat and cancer has yet to rule in or out heme found in the protein hemoglobin. While the FDA inspires the consumer go ahead on a new product, the bigger issue for these startups is scaling the product so that it can inhabit a larger share of the market and generate a profit.
The Impossible Burger for example, relies on heme extracted from soybeans, but to secure enough of the component would require a scale of soybean fields that would not be unlike those needed to feed livestock. Brown’s science uses yeast to grow the huge quantities needed and this engineering of heme makes it a genetically modified organism, though similar to the manner in which insulin is produced to counter diabetes.
Along with this hurdle is the bottom line for this business model. Currently, grass fed organic or not, a pound of ground beef retails at about eight dollars. As Beth Kowitt states in her Fortune article, the first “cultured” burger made in 2013 cost $300,000 a pound. Last year it was down to $18,000 a pound and more recently, Memphis Meats achieved a meatball for $2,400 a pound. Finding one pound packages of cultured ground burger in the meat cold case may not be in the immediate future. But the likes of conglomerates Tyson and Cargill are also part of this capital investment with stakes in Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats respectively and that relationship has the potential to accelerate production.
Shelving any skepticism of Big Foods’ stake in meatless companies, the potential growth and scale of this market could prove fundamental in countering the impact of the global desire for animal proteins, a desire that grows as the population does. And cultured food could manifest a future that sees feeding a world for global human health intimately linked to promoting planetary health. It’s not obvious that engineering the perfect meatless burger will bring about such change, but it may be an important moment in that direction.