No Dead Animals Required

Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Walter Isaacson wrote biographies on Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger.

But he also wrote a book called “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” Link

One of my favorite anecdotes from that book was about high school student Bill Gates dismissing his college application for MIT to play pinball:

In high school, Gates had formed the Lakeside Programming Group, which made money writing computer code for companies in the Pacific Northwest. As a senior, he applied only to three colleges — Harvard, Yale, and Princeton — and he took different approaches to each. “I was born to apply for college,” he said, fully aware of his ability to ace meritocratic processes. For Yale, he cast himself as an aspiring political type and emphasized the month he had spent in Washington as a congressional page. For Princeton, he focused only on his desire to be a computer engineer. And for Harvard, he said his passion was math. He had also considered MIT, but at the last moment blew off the interview to play pinball. He was accepted to all three, and chose Harvard. “There are going to be some guys at Harvard who are smarter than you,” [Microsoft co-founder Paul] Allen warned him. Gates replied, “‘No way! No way!’” Link

Last week, I subscribed to the MIT Technology Review.

I had read plenty of good articles online, that I concluded it was worth it.

This month, the publication has an interview with Gates, whose book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need” (Link) was published today:

Q: In the book you cover a broad array of hard-to-solve sectors. The one I still have the hardest time with, in terms of fully addressing it, is food. The scale is massive. We’ve barely begun. We fundamentally don’t have replacements that completely eliminate the highly potent emissions from burping livestock and fertilizer. How hopeful are you about agriculture?

A: There are [companies], including one in the [Breakthrough Energy Ventures] portfolio called Pivot Bio, that significantly reduce the amount of fertilizer you need. There are advances in seeds, including seeds that do what legumes do: that is, they’re able to [convert nitrogen in the soil into compounds that plants can use] biologically. But the ability to improve photosynthesis and to improve nitrogen fixation is one of the most underinvested things.

In terms of livestock, it’s very difficult. There are all the things where they feed them different food, like there’s this one compound that gives you a 20% reduction [in methane emissions]. But sadly, those bacteria [in their digestive system that produce methane] are a necessary part of breaking down the grass. And so I don’t know if there’ll be some natural approach there. I’m afraid the synthetic [protein alternatives like plant-based burgers] will be required for at least the beef thing.

Now the people like Memphis Meats who do it at a cellular level — I don’t know that that will ever be economical. But Impossible and Beyond have a road map, a quality road map and a cost road map, that makes them totally competitive.

As for scale today, they don’t represent 1% of the meat in the world, but they’re on their way. And Breakthrough Energy has four different investments in this space for making the ingredients very efficiently. So yeah, this is the one area where my optimism five years ago would have made this, steel, and cement the three hardest.

Now I’ve said I can actually see a path. But you’re right that saying to people, “You can’t have cows anymore” — talk about a politically unpopular approach to things. Link

I’ve never owned any shares of Beyond Meat ($BYND), but I’ve had a handful of its commercial products, and they’re edible.

But I am a fan of Impossible Foods, and I hope to acquire private shares by the end of this month:

The success of the Impossible Foods plant-based burger suggests that [Boston-based Motif FoodWorks] is on the right track by focusing on novel ingredients. Impossible, which uses genetically engineered yeast to produce a “bloody-tasting” ingredient called soy leghemoglobin, landed in Burger King in 2019 and is now available at more than 5,000 restaurants and retailers around the country, including ordinary chains like Walmart, Target, Kroger, and Safeway. Tasting panels at the New York Times, Serious Eats, and Cook’s Illustrated have all praised the result as something of a dramatic step forward from the perennially uninspiring veggie burger puck.

“If you compare the plant-based burgers on the market today, it’s hard to argue that the Impossible Burger isn’t significantly closer to a conventional burger than all the others,” David Welch, a senior adviser at the Good Food Institute, an industry nonprofit that promotes plant-based and lab-cultured alternatives to meat, said in an email. “I think Motif has the potential to make those types of ingredients available to all companies, [for] achieving the goal of taste equivalence or superiority to conventional beef and dairy products.”

Mitloehner says Impossible CEO Patrick Brown told him that plant-based foods would completely replace animal food by the year 2035. That’s a view in keeping with a white paper by the think tank RethinkX, which posits that beef and milk demand will have shrunk 70 percent by 2030, putting the majority of cattle ranchers and processors into bankruptcy. (A dairy trade group derides the white paper and its authors as living in “a vegan fantasyland.”) Alternatives to cow’s milk, which now account for 14 percent of the fluid milk market, offer a glimpse of how this dynamic might play out — including fierce legal arguments that because “almonds don’t lactate,” nut-based producers should be legally banned from using the term “milk.” But it’s clear that there is a long road ahead for plant-based beef alternatives to truly “disrupt” the incumbent.

A skeptical Mitloehner calculates that by the end of 2020, plant-based alternatives to animal protein sources made up just six-tenths of one percent of the market.

“They have something to be proud of, because 0.6 percent is still a lot,” says Mitloehner. “But it’s certainly not replacing animal agriculture as we know it. So they need to just stop that narrative. It’s laughable.” Link

As a kid, I took the Pepsi Challenge, and it solidified my allegiance to Pepsi ($PEP) over Coke ($KO).

Having said that, I rarely drink soda.

I may prefer Impossible Foods over Beyond Meat right now, but animal agriculture is a big industry to disrupt.

Maybe both companies can win.

It’s only been two years since the MIT Technology Review wrote about the lab-grown race heating up:

In 2013, the world’s first burger from a lab was cooked in butter and eaten at a glitzy press conference. The burger cost £215,000 ($330,000 at the time) to make, and despite all the media razzmatazz, the tasters were polite but not overly impressed. “Close to meat, but not that juicy,” said one food critic.

Still, that one burger, paid for by Google cofounder Sergey Brin, was the earliest use of a technique called cellular agriculture to make edible meat products from scratch — no dead animals required. Cellular agriculture, whose products are known as cultured or lab-grown meat, builds up muscle tissue from a handful of cells taken from an animal. These cells are then nurtured on a scaffold in a bioreactor and fed with a special nutrient broth.

A little over five years later, startups around the world are racing to produce lab-grown meat that tastes as good as the traditional kind and costs about as much. Link

Having said all this, I ordered Omaha Steaks online last week.

So, it seems that the real winner is my appetite for more food.

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