The Future of Meat (Ep. 367)

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Meat production has become more efficient. But turning animals into food still requires an enormous amount of resources. Can scientists build a better burger from scratch? (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty)

Global demand for beef, chicken, and pork continues to rise. So do concerns about environmental and other costs. Will reconciling these two forces be possible — or, even better, Impossible™?

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple PodcastsStitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Let’s begin with a few basic facts. Fact No. 1: a lot of people, all over the world, really like to eat meat — especially beef, pork, and chicken.

Jayson LUSK: If you add them all together, we’re actually higher than we’ve been in recent history.

That’s Jayson Lusk.

LUSK: I’m a professor and head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University. I study what we eat and why we eat it.

DUBNER: In terms of overall meat consumption per capita in the U.S., how do we rank worldwide?

LUSK: We’re the king of meat eaters. So, compared to almost any other country in the world, we eat more meat per capita.

DUBNER: Even Brazil, Argentina, yes?

LUSK: Yes, and part of that difference is income-based. So, if you took Argentina, Brazil, and adjusted for income, they would probably be consuming more than us, but we happen to be richer, so we eat a little more.

The average American consumes roughly 200 pounds of meat a year. That’s an average. So, let’s say you’re a meat eater and someone in your family is vegetarian: you might be putting away 400 pounds a year. But, in America at least, there aren’t that many vegetarians.

LUSK: I probably have the largest data set of vegetarians of any other researcher that I know.

DUBNER: Really? Why?

LUSK: I’ve been doing a survey of U.S. food consumers every month for about five years, and one of the questions I ask is, “Are you a vegan or a vegetarian?” So, over five years’ time and about 1,000 people a month, I’ve got about 60,000 observations.

DUBNER: Wow. And is this a nationwide data survey?

LUSK: It is. Representative in terms of age and income and education. I’d say on average, you’re looking at about three to five percent of people say “yes” to that question. I’d say there’s a very slight uptick over the last five years.

So, again, a lot of meat-eating in America. What are some other countries that consume a lot of meat? Australia and New Zealand, Israel, Canada, Russia, most European countries. And, increasingly, China.

LUSK: One of the things we know is that when consumers get a little more income in their pocket, one of the first things they do is want to add high-value proteins to their diets.

DUBNER: What is the relationship generally between G.D.P. and meat consumption?

LUSK: Positive, although sort of diminishing returns, so as you get to really high income levels, it might even tail off a little bit. But certainly at the lower end of that spectrum, as a country grows and adds more G.D.P., you start to see some pretty rapid increases in meat consumption.

Meat consumption is of course driven by social and religious factors as well; by health concerns, and animal welfare: not everyone agrees that humans should be eating animals at all. That said, we should probably assume that the demand for meat will continue to rise as more of the world keeps getting richer. How’s the supply side doing with this increased demand? Quite well. The meat industry is massive and complicated — and often heavily subsidized. But, long story short, if you go by the availability of meat and especially what consumers pay, this is an economic success story.

LUSK: So prices of almost all of our meat products have declined pretty considerably over the last 60 to 100 years. And the reason is that we have become so much more productive at producing meat. If you look at most of the statistics, like the amount of pork produced per sow. And we’ve taken out a lot of the seasonal variation that we used to see, as these animals have been brought indoors. And you look at poultry production, broiler production: the amount of meat that’s produced per broiler has risen dramatically — almost doubled, say — over the last 50 to 100 years, while also consuming slightly less feed.

That’s due largely to selective breeding and other technologies. The same goes for beef production.

LUSK: We get a lot more meat per animal, for example, on a smaller amount of land.

As you can imagine, people concerned with animal welfare may not celebrate these efficiency improvements. And then there’s the argument that, despite these efficiency improvements, turning animals into food is wildly inefficient.

Pat BROWN: Because the cow didn’t evolve to be meat. That’s the thing.

Pat Brown is a long-time Stanford biomedical researcher who’s done groundbreaking work in genetics.

BROWN: The cow evolved to be a cow and make more cows and not to be eaten by humans. And it’s not very good at making meat.

Meaning: it takes an enormous amount of food and water and other resources to turn a cow or a pig into dinner — much more than plant-based foods. And as Pat Brown sees it, that is not even the worst of it.

BROWN: The most environmentally destructive technology on earth: using animals in food production. Nothing else even comes close.

Not everyone agrees that meat production is the environment’s biggest enemy. What’s not in dispute is that global demand for meat is high and rising. And that the production of meat is resource-intensive and, at the very least, an environmental challenge, with implications for climate change. Pat Brown thinks he has a solution to these problems. He’s started a company—

BROWN: —a company whose mission is to completely replace animals as a food production technology by 2035.

The meat industry, as you can imagine, has other ideas:

Kelly FOGARTY: We want to keep the term “meat” to what is traditionally harvested and raised in the traditional manner.

Today on Freakonomics Radio: everything you always wanted to know about meat, about meatless meat, and where meat meets the future.

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What determines which food you put in your mouth every day? There are plainly a lot of factors: personal preference, tradition, geography, on and on.

LUSK: So, take something like horse consumption. It’s almost unheard of to even think about consuming a horse in the United States.

Jayson Lusk again, the agricultural economist.

LUSK: Whereas, you go to Belgium or France, it would be a commonly consumed dish.

But there’s another big factor that determines who eats what: technology. Technology related to how food is grown, preserved, transported. But also: technology that isn’t even related to the food itself. Consider the case of mutton. Mutton is the meat of an adult sheep. The meat of a young sheep is called lamb. I am willing to bet that you have not eaten mutton in the last six months, probably the last six years. Maybe never. But if we were talking 100 years ago? Different story.

LUSK: It’s certainly the case that back in the 1920’s and 30’s that mutton was a much more commonly consumed product.

Mutton was a staple of the American diet; one of the standard items shipped to soldiers during World War II was canned mutton. But shortly after the war, mutton started to disappear. What happened?

LUSK: A sheep is not just meat. These are multi-product species and they’re valuable not just for their meat but for their wool.

Oh yeah, wool. And unlike leather, which can be harvested only once from an animal, you can shear wool from one sheep many times, over many years.

LUSK: So anything that affects the demand for wool is also going to affect the underlying market for the rest of the underlying animal.

And what might affect the demand for wool? How about synthetic substitutes? Nylon, for instance, was created by DuPont in 1935, and became available to the public in 1940. A year later, polyester was invented.

LUSK: So, you know, any time you had new clothing technologies come along, that’s going to affect the underlying demand for sheep and make them less valuable than they would have been otherwise.

So an increase in synthetic fabrics led to a shrinking demand for wool — which meant that all those sheep that had been kept around for shearing no longer needed to be kept around. Also, wool subsidies were repealed. And America’s sheep flock drastically shrank: from a high of 56 million in 1942 to barely 5 million today.

LUSK: It is amazing. I’ve worked at several agricultural universities across the U.S. now, and often the largest sheep herds in those states are at the university research farms.

And fewer sheep meant less mutton for dinner. Is it possible Americans would have stopped eating mutton without the rise of synthetic fabrics? Absolutely: if you ask a room full of meat-eaters to name their favorite meat, I doubt one of them will say “mutton.” Still, this is just one example of how technology can have a big effect on the meat we eat. And if you talk to certain people, it’s easy to believe that we’re on the verge of a similar but much larger technological shift.

BROWN: My name is Pat Brown. I’m currently the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods, whose mission is to completely replace animals as a food production technology.

Brown grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., as well as Paris and Taipei — his father worked for the C.I.A. He studied to be a pediatrician and in fact completed his medical residency, but he switched to biochemistry research.

BROWN: I had the best job in the world at Stanford. My job was basically to discover and invent things and follow my curiosity.

Brown did this for many years and was considered a world-class researcher. One of his breakthroughs was a new tool for genetic mapping; it’s called the D.N.A. microarray—

BROWN: —that lets you read all the words that the cell is using and effectively kind of start to learn the vocabulary, learn how the genome writes the life story of a cell, or something like that. It also has practical applications, because — what it’s doing, in a sort of a deterministic way, specifies the potential of that cell, or if it’s a cancer cell.

Some people think the DNA microarray will win Pat Brown a Nobel Prize. When I bring this up, he just shakes his head and smiles. It’s clear that his research was a deep passion.

BROWN: For me, this was the dream job, it was like in the Renaissance, having the Medicis as patrons or something like that.

But after many years, Brown wanted a change. He was in his mid-50’s; he took a sabbatical to figure out his next move.

BROWN: It started out with stepping back from the work I was doing and asking myself, “What’s the most important thing I could do? What could I do that would have the biggest positive impact on the world?” And looking at what are the biggest unsolved problems in the world? I came relatively quickly to the conclusion that the use of animals as a food-production technology, is by far. And I could give you endless reasons why that’s true, but it is absolutely true. By far the most environmentally destructive thing that humans do.

There is indeed a great deal of evidence for this argument across the entire environmental spectrum. The agricultural historian James McWilliams, in a book called Just Food, argues that “every environmental problem related to contemporary agriculture … ends up having its deepest roots in meat production: monocropping, excessive applications of nitrogen fertilizer, addiction to insecticides, rain-forest depletion, land degradation, topsoil runoff, declining water supplies, even global warming — all these problems would be considerably less severe” if people ate meat “rarely, if ever.”

LUSK: You know, there’s no doubt that meat production has environmental consequences. To suggest that it’s the most damaging environmental thing we do is, I think, a pretty extreme overstatement.

But what about the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with raising meat — especially in the U.S., which is the world’s largest beef producer?

LUSK: Our own E.P.A. — Environmental Protection Agency — suggests that all of livestock contributes about 3 percent of our total greenhouse-gas emissions. So, I mean, 3 percent is not nothing, but it’s not the major contributor that we see. That number, I should say, is much higher in many other parts of the world. So the carbon impacts per pound produced are so much smaller here than a lot of the world that when you tell people, “the way to reduce carbon emissions is to intensify animal production,” that’s not a story a lot of people like to hear.

DUBNER: Because why not, it sounds like it’s against animal welfare?

LUSK: Well, two reasons: Exactly, one is there are concerns about animal welfare, particularly when you’re talking about broiler chickens, or hogs — less so about cattle — and the other one is, there are concerns about when you concentrate a lot of animals in one place you can get all this waste in a location, that you have to think about creative ways to deal with that don’t have some significant environmental problems.

DUBNER: So, the E.P.A. number, livestock contributing three percent, does that include the entire production chain, though? Because, some of the numbers that I see from environmental activists is much, much higher than that.

LUSK: The U.N. estimate that you often hear from — originally was created in this report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” is something around 19 percent. But that 19 percent, roughly, number, is a global number. Actually, there was a study that came out pointing out some flaws in that, so they reduced it somewhat.

In any case, there is a growing concern in many quarters over the externalities of meat production.

LUSK: Over the last 5–10 years, there’s been a lot of negative publicity — stories about environmental impacts, about carbon emissions, about animal welfare. And if you just look at the news stories, you would think, “Boy, people must be really cutting back, given the sort of frightful stories that you see on the front pages of the newspapers.” But if you look at the data itself, demand looks fairly stable. And that suggests to me it’s hard to change people’s preference on this.

There’s something about meat consumption. Some people would argue that we’re evolved to like meat, that it’s a protein-, vitamin-packed, tasty punch that we’ve grown to enjoy as a species. There are some people that even argue that it’s one of the reasons we became as smart as we did, the vitamins and nutrients that were in that meat allowed our brains to develop in certain ways that it might have not otherwise.

Pat Brown saw that same strong preference for meat when he decided that the number-one scientific problem to solve was replacing animals as food.

BROWN: And it’s a problem that nobody was working on in any serious way. Because everybody recognized that most people in the world, including most environmental scientists and people who care about this stuff, love the foods we get from animals so much that they can’t imagine giving those up.

Brown himself was a longtime vegan.

BROWN: I haven’t eaten meat for decades, and that’s just a personal choice that I made long before I realized the destructive impact of that industry. That was a choice I made for other reasons. And it wasn’t something that I felt like I was in a position to tell other people to do. And I still don’t feel like there’s any value in doing that.

Brown makes an interesting point here. Many of us, when we feel strongly about something — an environmental issue or a social or economic issue — we’re inclined to put forth a moral argument. A moral argument would appear to be persuasive evidence of the highest order: you should do this thing because it’s the right thing to do. But there’s a ton of research showing that moral arguments are generally ineffective; people may smile at you, and nod; but they won’t change their behavior. That’s what Brown realized about meat.

BROWN: The basic problem is that people are not going to stop wanting these foods. And the only way we’re going to solve it is not by asking them to meet you halfway and give them a substandard product that doesn’t deliver what they know they want from meat or fish or anything like that. The only way to do it is, you have to say, “We’re going to do the much harder thing,” which is we’re going to figure out how to make meat that’s not just as delicious as the meat we get from animals, it’s more delicious and better nutritionally and more affordable and so forth.

In other words: a marginal improvement on the standard veggie burger would not do.

BROWN: It’s been tried. It just doesn’t work. It’s a waste of effort.

So Brown start fooling around in his lab.

BROWN: Doing some kind of micro experiments just to convince myself in a way that this was doable.

Those early experiments were fairly encouraging.

BROWN: I felt like, okay, there’s a bunch of things I thought could be useful, and then I felt like I could just go in with a little bit more confidence to talk to the investors.

“The investors” meaning venture capitalists. Remember, Brown’s at Stanford, which is next door to the biggest pile of venture capital in the history of the world.

BROWN: And basically my pitch them was very naive from a fundraising standpoint, in the sense that basically I mostly just told them about how there’s this absolutely critical environmental disaster that needs to be solved and—

DUBNER: And they’re probably expecting to hear something now about carbon capture, or—

BROWN: Yeah, that’s the thing. And most people still are. So I just told these guys, “Look, this is an environmental disaster. No one’s doing anything about it. I’m going to solve it for you.”

So how does the almost-pediatrician-who-became-a-freewheeling-biochemist build a better meat from the ground up? That amazing story after the break:

BROWN: Okay, bingo, this is how we’re going to do it.

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It’s estimated that more than half of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with all animal agriculture comes from cows.

LUSK: And that is due to the fact that beef are ruminant animals.

The Purdue economist Jayson Lusk again.

LUSK: Their stomachs produce methane. It comes out the front end, not the back, as a lot of people think. And as a consequence — we look at carbon consequences — it’s mainly beef that people focus on, not pork or chicken, because they don’t have the same kind of digestive systems.

There has been progress in this area. For instance, it turns out that adding seaweed to cattle feed drastically reduces their methane output. But the scientist Pat Brown is looking for a much bigger change to the animal-agriculture industry.

BROWN: If I could snap my fingers and make that industry disappear right now — which I would do, if I could, and it would be a great thing for the world.

It is very unlikely to disappear any time soon; it is a trillion-dollar global industry, supported in many places by government subsidies, selling a product that billions of people consume once, twice, even three times a day. Pat Brown’s desire would seem to be an impossible one; the company he founded is called Impossible Foods. It’s essentially a tech startup, and it’s raised nearly $400 million to date in venture capital.

BROWN: So, we’ve only been in existence for about seven years and we have about 300 people. We started by basically building a team of some of the best scientists in the world to study how meat works, basically. And by that, I mean to really understand at a basic level the way, in my previous life, when I was a biomedical scientist, we might be studying how, you know, a normal cell of this particular kind becomes a cancer cell, understanding the basic biochemical mechanisms.

In this case, what we wanted to understand was: what are the basic biochemical mechanisms that account for the unique flavor chemistry and the flavor behavior and aromas and textures and juiciness and all those qualities that consumers value in meat? And we spent about 2.5 years just doing basic research, trying to answer that question, before we really started working on a product. And then decided for strategic reasons that our first product would be raw ground beef made entirely from plants.

DUBNER: Because burger is what people want?

BROWN: Well, there’s a lot of reasons why I think it was a good strategic choice: the largest single category of meat in the U.S., it’s probably the most iconic kind of meat in the U.S., it seemed like the ideal vehicle for communicating to consumers that delicious meat doesn’t have to come from animals, because it’s sort of the uber-meat for a lot of people.

DUBNER: Uber, lower-case “u.”

BROWN: With a lower-case, yes.

DUBNER: People are not hailing burgers, riding them around?

BROWN: No, thank God. And beef production is the most environmentally destructive segment of the animal agriculture industry. So, from an impact standpoint, it made sense as a choice.

So Pat Brown set about repurposing the scientific wisdom he’d accrued over a long, fruitful career in biomedicine. A career that may improve the health and well-being of countless millions. And now he got to work on a truly earth-shaking project: building a better burger. A burger that doesn’t come from a cow. An Impossible burger. So how did that work? What ingredients do you put in an Impossible burger?

BROWN: That’s an interesting aspect about the science, which is that we didn’t look for, “What are the precisely specific choices of ingredients that would work?” We studied, “What are the biochemical properties we need from the set of ingredients?” And then we did a survey of things available from the plant world that matched those biophysical properties of which there were choices.

So what are the main components of this burger?

BROWN: I can tell you what it’s made of right now. What it’s made of right now is different from how it was made two years ago, and that was different from how it was made two and half years ago and the next version we’re going to launch is a quite different set of ingredients.

We first interviewed Brown several months ago. The main ingredients at the time included:

BROWN: A protein from wheat; a protein from potatoes — not a starch from potatoes, but a protein from potatoes, it’s a byproduct of starch production. Coconut oil is the major fat source. And then we have a bunch of other small molecules, but they’re all familiar things: amino acids, vitamins, sugars. Nutrients.

But all these ingredients did not make Pat Brown’s plant-based hamburger meat taste or act or look like hamburger meat. It was still missing a critical component. A component called heme.

BROWN: Heme is found in essentially every living thing and heme in plants and human animals is the exact same molecule, okay? It’s just one of the most ubiquitous and fundamental molecules in life on Earth, period. The system that burns calories to produce energy uses heme as an essential component, and it’s what carries oxygen in your blood. And it’s what makes your blood red.

And none of this we discovered — this has been known for a long time and — so animals have a lot more heme than plants. And it’s that very high concentration of heme that accounts for the unique flavors of meat that you would recognize something as meat. It’s the overwhelmingly dominant factor in making the unique taste of meat and fish.

DUBNER: Is it involved in texture and mouthfeel and all that as well, or just taste?

BROWN: Just taste. Texture and mouthfeel are really important and there’s a whole other set of research around that. Super important — it kind of gets short shrift, because people think of the flavor as sort of the most dramatic thing about meat. But you have to get that other stuff right, too.

Brown and his team of scientists, after a couple years of research and experimentation, were getting a lot of that stuff right. But without heme — a lot of heme — their meatless meat would never resemble meat.

BROWN: So there is one component of a certain kind of plant that has a high concentration of heme, and that is in plants that fix nitrogen, that take nitrogen from the air and turn it into fertilizer. They have a structure called the root nodule, where the nitrogen fixation takes place and for reasons that are too complicated to explain right now they, that has a high concentration of heme and I just happened to know this from way back.

And if you slice open the root nodules of one of these plants:

BROWN: They have such a high concentration of heme that they look like a freshly cut steak, okay? And I did a calculation about the concentration of that stuff — soy leghemoglobin is the protein, which is virtually identical to the heme protein in muscle tissue, which is called myoglobin — that there was enough leghemoglobin in the root nodules of the U.S. soybean crop to replace all the heme in all the meat consumed in the U.S. Okay? So, I thought, “Genius, okay. We’ll just go out and harvest all these root nodules from the U.S. soybean crop and we’ll get this stuff practically for free.” Well, so I raised money for the company and we spent half the money trying to figure out how to harvest these root nodules from soybean plants, only basically to finally convince ourselves it was a terrible idea.

But if you’re a veteran scientist like Brown, a little failure is not so off-putting.

BROWN: You know you’re going to be doing things that are pushing the limits and trying entirely new things and a lot of them are going to fail. And if you don’t have a high tolerance for that and realize that basically, the way you do really really important, cool stuff is by trying a lot of things and not punishing yourself for the failures, but just celebrating the successes, you know, you’re not going to accomplish as much.

And the idea of buying up all the root nodules of the U.S. soybean crop wasn’t a complete failure.

BROWN: I mean, we got enough that we could do experiments to prove that it really was a magic ingredient for flavor. But then we had to start all over, and then what we did was: we said, ”Okay, we’re going to have to engineer a microorganism to produce gobs of this heme protein. Okay”? And since now we weren’t bound by any natural source, we looked at three dozen different heme proteins, everything from, you know, paramecium to barley to Hell’s Gate bacteria, which is like this —

DUBNER: That’s a plant? Hell’s Gate?

BROWN: It’s a bacteria that lives in deep sea vents near New Zealand that survive with temperatures above the boiling point of water that we mostly just looked at for fun, but funny thing about that, the reason we rejected it is that it’s so heat-stable that you can cook a burger to cooking temperature and it still stays bright red, because it doesn’t unfold. But anyway — and then we pick the best one, which turned out to be, just coincidentally, soy leghemoglobin, which is the one we were going after—

DUBNER: So your terrible idea was actually pretty good.

BROWN: It wasn’t really a brilliant idea, it accidentally turned out to be the right choice.

Through the magic of modern plant engineering, Pat Brown’s team began creating massive stocks of heme. And that heme would help catapult the Impossible burger well beyond the realm of the standard veggie burger — the mostly unloved veggie burger, we should say. The Impossible Burger looks like hamburger meat — when it’s raw and when it’s cooked. It behaves like hamburger meat. Most important, it tastes like hamburger meat.

Alison CRAIGLOW: I would like the American with an Impossible Burger.

WAITER: And how would you like that cooked?

CRAIGLOW: Oh, I didn’t realize — I’ll have it medium … medium. Is it pink in the middle when it’s … it is?

The Freakonomics Radio team recently ate some Impossible burgers in a restaurant near Times Square.

Zack LAPINSKI: I mean, I actually can’t taste the diff —

CRAIGLOW: It tastes like a burger.

Ryan KELLY: Good day for the Impossible Burger.

Greg RIPPIN: Yeah, approved by Freakonomics.

Their meal happened to coincide with the release of Impossible Burger 2.0 — an updated recipe that uses a soy protein instead of a wheat protein and has a few more tweaks: less salt, sunflower oil to cut the coconut oil, and no more xanthan gum and konjac gum. In my own tasting experience: Impossible Burger 1.0 was really good but a little slushy; 2.0 was burger-tastic.

These are of course our subjective observations. Here’s some actual evidence: Impossible Burgers are already being served in roughly 5,000 locations, primarily in the U.S. but also Hong Kong and Macau. These include very high-end restaurants in New York and California as well as fast-food chains like Umami Burger and even White Castle. This year, Impossible plans to start selling its burger meat in grocery stores.

BROWN: We’ve grown in terms of our sales and revenue about 30-fold in the past year. And our goal is to completely replace animal as a food technology by 2035. That means we have to approximately double in size and impact every year for the next 18 years.

DUBNER: Are we to understand that you are taking aim at pigs and chickens and fish as well?

BROWN: Yes, of course. So when we first started out, we were working on a technology platform and sort of the know-how about how meat works in general; we were working on understanding dairy products and cheeses and stuff like that. And then we decided, okay, we have to pick one product to launch with, and then we have to, from a commercialization standpoint, just go all in on it for a while.

DUBNER: As the scientist, or as a scientist, were you reluctant to kind of narrow yourself for that commercial interest, or did you appreciate that this is the way in this world things actually happen?

BROWN: Both. I mean, let’s put it this way: I would like to be able to pursue all these things in parallel, and if I had the resources I would. But if we launched another product right now, we’d just be competing against ourselves for resources for commercialization, so just doesn’t make any sense.

We put out an episode not long ago called “Two (Totally Opposite) Ways to Save the Planet.” It featured the science journalist Charles Mann.

MANN: How are we going to deal with climate change? There have been two ways that have been suggested, overarching ways, that represent, if you like, poles on a continuum. And they’ve been fighting with each other for decades.

The two poles are represented by what Mann calls, in his latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet. The prophet sees environmental destruction as a problem best addressed by restoring nature to its natural state. The wizard, meanwhile, believes that technology can address environmental dangers. This is, of course, a typology, a shorthand; a prophet doesn’t necessarily fear technology any more than a wizard fears nature. That said: if there were ever an embodiment of the wizard-prophet hybrid, a person driven by idealism and pragmatism in equal measure, I’d say it’s Pat Brown. Which means his invention has the capacity to upset people all across the spectrum.

The consumers and activists who might cheer a meatless meat are often the same sort of people who are anti-G.M.O. — genetically modified organisms. And the Impossible Burger would not have been possible without its genetically modified heme — which, by the way, the F.D.A. recently declared safe, after challenges from environmental groups like Friends of the Earth. Another group that might object to Impossible Foods? The meat industry. You know, the ones who use actual animals to raise food.

FOGARTY: My name is Kelly Fogarty and I serve as the executive vice president for the United States Cattlemen’s Association. And I am a fifth- generation beef cattle rancher here in Oakdale, California.

DUBNER: I’m just curious, as a woman, do you find yourself ever wishing the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association would change their name or are you okay with it?

FOGARTY: You know, it’s funny you mention that. There’s always a little bit of a notion there in the back of my mind of, you know, of course being in the industry for so long. I take it as representing all of the livestock industry. But you know, definitely having a special nod to all the female ranchers out there would be nice to have as well.

DUBNER: And what is the primary difference between the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association?

FOGARTY: As the United States Cattlemen’s Association, we are made up primarily of cattle producers. So your family ranches. You know, cow-calf operations run by producers and kind of for producers is what U.S.C.A. was built on. Whereas National Cattlemen’s Beef Association does include some more of packer influences as well as you know some of the processing facilities as well.

DUBNER: Can you just talk generally for a moment: how big of a threat does the beef industry see from alternative, “meat”?

FOGARTY: So from our end you know, in looking at the “meat” — and I appreciate you using those quotes around that term — from our end, we’re not so much seeing it as a threat to our product. What we are really looking at is not a limit on consumer choice or trying to back one product out of the market. It’s really to make sure that we’re keeping the information out there accurate and that what is available to consumers and what is being shown to consumers on labels is accurate to what the product actually is.

In 2018, Fogarty’s organization filed a petition with the U.S.D.A. to prevent products from being labeled as “beef” or “meat” unless they come from a cow.

DUBNER: Does that mean that your organization thinks that consumers are confused by labeling? Is that the primary objection?

FOGARTY: So the primary objection from the United Cattlemen’s Association is that we want to keep the term “meat” to what is traditionally harvested and raised in the traditional manner. And so when we see the term “meat” being put on these products that is not derived from that definition, what our producers came to us and really wanted us to act on was what we saw happened in other industries, specifically when you look at the dairy industry and where the term “milk” has now been used.

“Almond milk,” for instance. Which comes from almonds, not animals. Which led the National Milk Producers Federation to argue that it should not be sold as “almond milk.” The FDA agreed; its commissioner pointed out that “an almond doesn’t lactate.” There are important differences between so-called “milk” that doesn’t come from animals and so-called “meat” that doesn’t come from animals. Almond milk has very different nutritional content than cow’s milk; the Impossible Burger, meanwhile, has a similar nutritional profile to hamburger — including the iron content, which vegans can have trouble getting enough of. That’s another reason why Kelly Fogarty and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association might not want the Impossible Burger to be labeled “meat.”

DUBNER: I am just curious about the mental state of your industry because I was looking at your Facebook page and one post the other day led with the following: “Eat or be eaten. Be at the table or on the menu. Fight or be forgotten.” So that sounds — it would make me believe that the future of meat is one in which cattle ranchers feel a little bit like an endangered species or at least under assault.

FOGARTY: I think that speaks to a lot of misconceptions that are out there regarding the U.S. beef industry. Whether it be in terms of you know nutrition, environment, animal welfare. We’ve really been hit from a lot of different angles over the years.

DUBNER: Okay, well, according to some scientific research, meat production and/or cattle ranching are among the most environmentally damaging activities on earth, between the resource-intensiveness, land but especially water, and the externalities, the runoff of manure and chemicals into groundwater.

FOGARTY: I think one of the first points to make is that cattle are defined as what is termed as upcyclers, and cattle today, they’re turning plants that have little to no nutritional value just as-is into a high-quality and a high density protein. And so when you look at where cattle are grazing in the U.S., and then also across the world, a lot of the land that they are grazing on are land that is not suitable for crops or it would be you know kind of looking as a highly marginal type of land. And the ability of livestock to turn what is there into something that can feed the world is pretty remarkable.

Fogarty believes her industry has been unfairly maligned; that it’s come to be seen as a target for environmentalist groups and causes.

FOGARTY: I would absolutely say, the livestock industry and to that matter, the agriculture industry as a whole I think has really been at the brunt of a lot of disinformation campaigns.

Fogarty points to that U.N. report claiming that the global livestock industry’s greenhouse-gas emissions were shockingly high. A report that was found to be built on faulty calculations.

FOGARTY: So, it was really an inequitable and grossly inflated percentage that really turned a conversation.

The inflated percentage of around 18 percent was really around 14.5 percent — so, “grossly” inflated may be in the eye of the aggrieved. Fogarty says that even though the error was acknowledged, and a revised report was issued.

FOGARTY: Folks have not forgotten it as much as we wish. It’s still something that it’s hard to have folks kind of un-read or un-know something that they initially saw.

The fact is that the agricultural industry is massive and massively complex. Without question, it exacts costs on the environment; it also provides benefits that are literally the stuff of life: delicious, abundant, affordable food. As with any industry, there are tradeoffs and there is friction: activists tend to overstate their claims in order to encourage reform; industry defenders tend to paper over legitimate concerns.

But in the food industry especially, it’s clear that a revolution is underway — a revolution to have our food be not just delicious and abundant and affordable but sustainable too, with fewer negative externalities. Some startups, like Impossible Foods, focus on cleverly engineering plant matter to taste like the animal flesh so many people love. Other startups are working on what’s called lab-grown meat, using animal stem cells to grow food without animals. This is still quite young technology, but it’s very well-funded. I was curious to hear Kelly Fogarty’s view of this.

DUBNER: One of the investors in the lab “meat” company Memphis Meats is Cargill, which is a major constituent of the big meat industry. I mean, another investor, for what it’s worth, is Bill Gates. But I’m curious what’s your position on that. Because the way I think about this long-term, presumably a firm like Cargill can win the future with alternative “meat” in a way that a cattle rancher can’t. So I’m curious what the position is of ranchers on this kind of investment from a firm like Cargill or other firms that are sort of hedging their bets on the future of meat.

FOGARTY: You know it’s a really interesting point, and it’s been a bit of a tough pill for producers to swallow, the fact that some of the big three, some of these big processing plants that have been so obviously heavily focused and have been livestock-dominant are now kind of going into this alternative and sometimes the cell-cultured lab meats, alternative proteins. And it really has been a point of contention among a lot of producers who are kind of confused, unsure, feel a little bit — I don’t want to say betrayed by the industry, but a little bit so…

Others may soon feel betrayed as well. A company called Modern Meadows is using similar technology to grow leather in the lab, without the need for cattle. The Israeli company SuperMeat is focused on growing chicken. And then there’s a company called Finless Foods.

Mike SELDEN: Finless Foods is taking the seafood back to basics and creating real fish meat entirely without mercury, plastic, without the need for antibiotics or growth hormones, and also without the need for fishing or the killing of animals because we grow the fish directly from stem cells.

That’s Mike Selden, the co-founder and C.E.O. of Finless. He’s 27 years old; he started out as a cancer researcher. Like Pat Brown, you could call him a wizard-prophet hybrid. He does take issue with the idea of “lab-grown” food.

SELDEN: The reality is, labs are by definition experimental and are not scalable. So this won’t be grown in a lab at all. It’s prototyped in a lab in the same way that snacks are prototyped in a lab. Doritos are prototyped in a lab by material scientists looking at different dimensions of like crunch and torsion and all these other sort of mechanical properties. So what our facility will look like when we’re actually at production scale is something really a lot closer to a brewery. Big steel tanks that are sort of allowing these cells space in order to divide and grow into large quantities of themselves, while accessing all of the nutrients that we put inside of this nutritional broth.

The fishing industry, like the meat industry, exacts its share of environmental costs. But like Pat Brown, Mike Selden does not want his company to win on goodwill points.

SELDEN: So, the goal of Finless Foods is not to create something that competes on ethics or morals or environmental goals. It’s something that will compete on taste, price, and nutrition — the things that people actually care about.

Right now, everybody really loves whales and people hate when whales are killed. What changed? Because we used to kill whales for their blubber in order to light lamps. It wasn’t an ethical movement, it wasn’t that people woke up one day and decided, “Oh, killing whales is wrong.” It was that we ended up using kerosene instead. We found another technological solution, a supply-side change that didn’t play on people’s morals in order to win. We see ourselves as something like that. You know, why work with an animal at all if you don’t need to?

Indeed: you could imagine in the not-so-distant future a scenario in which you could instantly summon any food imaginable — new foods, new combinations, but also foods that long ago fell out of favor. How much fun would that be? I asked the agricultural economist Jayson Lusk about this.

DUBNER: If we had a 3D printer, and it, let’s say, had, just, we’ll be conservative, 100 buttons of different foods that it could make me. Does anyone press the mutton button?

LUSK: Well, you know, one of the great things about our food system is that it’s a food system that, yes, makes food affordable, but also has a whole awful lot of choice for people who are willing to pay it. And I bet there’s probably at least one or two people out there that will push that will mutton button.

I also asked Lusk for his economic views on the future of meat, especially the sort of projects that inventors like Mike Selden and Pat Brown are working on.

LUSK: I have no problems with what Dr. Brown is trying to do there, and indeed I think it’s very exciting, this technology. And I think ultimately it’ll come down to whether this lab-grown meat can compete on the merits. So, there’s no free lunch here. In fact, the Impossible Burger — I’ve seen it on menus — it’s almost always higher-priced than the traditional beef burger. Now as an economist, I look at that and say, “Those prices, to me, should be signaling something about resource use.” Maybe it’s imperfect; maybe there’s some externalities. But they should reflect all the resources that were used to go in to produce that product. It’s one of the reasons that beef is more expensive than, say, chicken — it takes more time, more inputs, to produce a pound of beef than a pound of chicken.

So, why is it that the Impossible Burger is more expensive than the regular burger? Now, it could be that this is just a startup, and they’re not working at scale; and once they really scale this thing up, it’ll really bring the price down. It could be they’re also marketing to a particular higher-income consumer who is willing to pay a little more. But I think if the claims about the Impossible Burger are true over time, one would expect these products to come down significantly in price and be much less expensive than beef production. You know, this is not going to make my beef friends happy, but if they can do that, good for them; and consumers want to pay for, this product, they like the way it tastes and it saves some money, which means it’s saving some resources; I think in that sense, it’s a great technology.

Whether or not you eat meat; whether or not you’re interested in eating these alternative meats, from plant matter or animal stem cells — it’s hard not to admire the creativity that someone like Pat Brown has exercised: the deep curiosity, the ability to come back from failure, the sheer cleverness of putting together disparate ideas into a coherent scientific plan.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg Rippin, and Harry Huggins; we had help this week from Nellie Osborne. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Pat Brown, founder and c.e.o. of Impossible Foods.
  • Kelly Fogarty, executive vice president for the United States Cattlemen’s Association.
  • Jayson Lusk, economist at Purdue University.
  • Mike Selden, co-founder and c.e.o. of Finless Foods.

RESOURCES

EXTRA