It’s not really a hard connect the dots to say consumption needs to go Down or climate goals are out of reach, and alternative proteins is the one thing that seems likely to work. So then our pitch to governments: as you are funding renewable energy, the sorts of things that in the United States were in the big climate bill that we passed last year, we need those sorts of incentives for alternative proteins as well.
THE HUB STAFF: This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Bruce Friedrich, founder and president of the Good Food Institute, about the economic, environmental, and moral case for cell- and plant-based alternatives to traditional meat…
SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with how you came to these issues. You adopted a vegan diet in the late 1980s after reading a book called The Diet for a Small Planet. What in the book inspired you, and how did you think about your early mission as an activist, including as a PETA employee, to get people to stop killing, eating, and wearing animals?
BRUCE FRIEDRICH: That is a super big question. I’ll start with The Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Basically, the book makes the point that other animals have to eat. So if we want to eat a chicken, according to the World Resources Institute, we need to feed that chicken nine calories of soy or wheat or corn, or whatever goes into the chicken feed. For cattle, it’s 40 calories in to get one calorie back out. So at that point, I was running an organization on my campus called Poverty Action Now. We were organizing a fast to raise money for Oxfam International. We were volunteering in the local soup kitchen. And just the idea that something required eight times, nine times the calories of something else—and the point that Frances Moore Lappé makes in Diet for a Small Planet is that in a global marketplace, there is a direct relationship between things like feeding and crops to animals so that we can eat animals and global starvation.
More recent numbers have really, I think, put this into stark relief: a little over a decade ago, globally, we were feeding about 750 million metric tons of corn and wheat to chickens and pigs and other farm animals. 10 years later, it was north of a billion metric tons.
The war in Ukraine has displaced 50 million metric tons of wheat and famine is on the front pages of newspapers around the world. In the meantime, globally, we are feeding 20 times that amount of cereals to farm animals, as well as another 270 million metric tons of soy. This just underlines what an incredibly inefficient way this is of making meat. So I started The Good Food Institute about seven years ago, and the focus was essentially: “How do we feed north of 10 billion people by 2050 without burning the planet to a crisis?” Because the climate impact with all that inefficiency is also really quite significant…
SEAN SPEER: That’s certainly a compelling vision. If I can slip in one follow-up question, how has [your Catholic faith] influenced the way you think about our society’s treatment of animals? There’s a pretty compelling line of thinking in Christian social thought that there’s something incompatible with the way our society treats animals and the story of Genesis, for instance. Is that something that resonates with you and the work that you are doing?
BRUCE FRIEDRICH: Yeah, I mean, I worked full-time in animal protection for, gosh, well north of a decade. And the reason for that is I read a book called Christianity and the Rights of Animals by an Anglican theologian, also an Anglican priest, a guy named Andrew Linzey, who teaches religion at Oxford. And his argument was basically that other animals are made of flesh and blood and bone, just like human beings are. They share with us the exact same five physiological senses. And that what happens to them on especially industrial animal farms is really—God designs them to lead their lives, and they’re denied all those things. God designed them with a capacity to feel pain, and the level of pain that’s inflicted on them is really quite extreme.
So, especially for people who are concerned about animal protection right now, it’s tens of billions of animals in industrial farms. By 2050, it’s going to be double that number of individuals, all of whom are beloved by God. And alternative proteins in the same way that it can slash external costs, drug use, and everything else, it also just removes animals from industrialized systems. And it also frees up resources such that folks who are treating animals well don’t have the land pressures and the economic pressures to confine animals and cages for their entire lives or treat them as inanimate units in the economy. Folks who are taking seriously environmental sustainability, regenerative ranchers who generally are also taking animal welfare into account, those folks end up with less pressure toward lowest common denominators. So it ends up being really win-win all around…
SEAN SPEER: Can we talk a bit about the most promising sources of plant and cell-based alternatives? What are some of their benefits for individuals and a society as a whole?
BRUCE FRIEDRICH: Yeah, I mean, the economic benefit, especially for a country like Canada, I think is critically important. So jobs in the heartland, jobs in the prairies—there’s an outfit called Protein Industries Canada that has gotten, I think, north of $350 million in government funding. And the idea is that Canada recognizes that things like chickpeas and yellow peas, and canola, these can be a significant input for farmers. A lot of revenue there. And then also building factories—a lot of manufacturing capacity, especially in the prairies but also across Canada. Similarly, Canada has world-class universities that can be doing science in this space. So my organization, the Good Food Institute, has funded research at the University of Toronto, the University of Manitoba, at Guelph, and world-class scientific institutions.
So those are some of the advantages. And then there are also really huge global health advantages. Alternative proteins don’t require antibiotics. Right now, more than 70 percent of antibiotics that are produced by the pharmaceutical industry are fed to farm animals. It’s creating antibiotic resistance. The U.K. government has said this is a more certain risk to humanity than climate change. Killing about 1.3 million people a year right now, expected to be killing north of 10 million people per year by 2050. And a big contributor to antibiotic resistance is the fact that all of these medically relevant antibiotics are being fed to chickens and pigs, and cattle not because the animals are sick but to cause them to grow more quickly or keep them alive in conditions that are pretty squalid.
Another huge global health advantage has to do with pandemic risk. So the International Livestock Research Institute and the UN Environment Programme pulled together 13 of the leading zoonotic disease specialists in the world. They released a report in July 2020 called “Preventing the Next Pandemic.” They listed the seven most likely causes of the next pandemic. The first one is going from tens of billions of animals to double that. The first one is increased meat consumption, and every single animal is a potential vector for the next COVID 2023 or COVID 2027, or whatever. And then the second one is industrial animal farming, both because we are creating genetic clone animals and then we’re putting them into those squalid conditions that are basically disease-breathing factories. So in addition to requiring far less land, in addition to causing far less direct emissions, in addition to massive economic benefits, you also, with alternative proteins, take the likelihood of meat leading to antibiotic resistance from huge to zero, and also take the likelihood of meat causing the next pandemic—I mean, you literally eliminate two of what scientists say are the top seven most likely causes, literally just go away with alternative proteins. So there are a lot of global health benefits, in addition to environmental and animal welfare benefits to shifting in this direction.
SEAN SPEER: At this stage, what are the main impediments to scalability? Is it government policy, consumer knowledge and habits, or is it a technology problem?
BRUCE FRIEDRICH: It’s definitely a technology problem. I mean, the reality is that the plant-based products largely don’t taste good enough yet. And well, they largely don’t taste good enough, and they all cost too much. And on the cultivated meat side, I mean, we’re really pre-market. You can buy cultivated meat in Singapore, but that’s the only place in the world at the moment. So it’s a little bit like, “What’s the problem with renewable energy scale?” or “What’s the problem of electric vehicles scale, maybe five or 10 years ago?” So, I mean, the hypothesis around plant-based meat is that meat is made up of lipids, aminos, minerals, and water. That’s literally 100 percent of what meat is. Plants also have lipids, aminos, minerals, and water.
So if you go from something that requires nine to 40 times the inputs of something else to something that just requires the 1X relative to the nine to 40X and scale it up, it should be able to cost less. But we do have millions of years of animals being animals, and figuring out how to replicate the precise taste, texture, everything else is hard. And then going from vanishingly little market penetration to significant market penetration, also that will allow the cost to plummet, but it’s going to take a little bit of time. So GFI is fundamentally a scientific research think tank. We have about 185 full-time staff around the world. We operate in six countries, so in the U.S. as well as India, Israel, Brazil, Asia Pacific out of Singapore, and Europe, out of both Brussels and London.
And it’s a scientific endeavour. So we’re doing lots of scientific community building to let tissue engineers and plant biologists and mechanical engineers, and biotech scientists to let folks know that this is a really great vocational pursuit that will allow them to do a ton of good in the world. And then our global battle cry, further to your government’s question, our global battle cry is that other governments should be following Canada’s lead recognizing the value to their economies of alternative proteins and funding the science, and incentivizing private sector activity. And then the third leg of our programmatic stool is corporate engagement. We work with everything with entrepreneurs who don’t even know what startup they want to start yet to help them figure that out. We have both a scientific community and an industry corporate-focused community. We work with investors, and then we also work with the really big food and meat companies.
So we work with JBS, the largest meat company in the world, Tyson, Cargill, ADM, Nestle. We see all of them as part of the solution. And so working with them both because they know what consumers want from meat, they have massive distribution chains, and their overall business thesis does not require that meat be made the way that it’s made now. They want to sell high-quality protein as profitably as possible. Our pitch to them is this will be even more profitable, and you should lean in and be a part of be a part of this shift.
SEAN SPEER: You co-authored an op-ed for the CNN site in September 2021, in which you argued that the world cannot meet its climate goals without scaling these alternatives to traditional meat. Do you want to elaborate on your argument, Bruce? What’s the link between meat alternatives and our climate goals?
BRUCE FRIEDRICH: Yeah, I mean, this is fascinating, and it’s really more an observation than an argument. There is a scientific consensus. The intergovernmental panel on climate change has repeatedly said that if we don’t decrease the amount of industrial animal meat that people are consuming, the Paris climate of goals—the ambitious one is keep climate change below 1.5 degrees relative to pre-industrial levels; the backup plan is 2.0; and the scientific consensus is that we are not going to meet that unless industrial animal product consumption goes down. Nobody has a theory for how that happens other than alternative proteins, unless we think that population-level dietary change is possible. Our hypothesis is that even in the U.S., where people are more aware of these issues than anybody else in the history of the world, the five most recent years are the five highest years, not just for overall meat consumption but even for per capita meat consumption.
So education is important, but we also need to give people what they like about meat without those external costs. So plant-based meat requires a 20th of the land, which also has sequestration benefits and also benefits for regenerative ranchers and small-holder farms, and causes 90 percent less direct emissions. Even for chicken and pork, both the land use needs and the cuts in direct emissions are significant as you shift to alternative proteins. So it’s not really a hard connect the dots to say consumption needs to go down or climate goals are out of reach, and alternative proteins is the one thing that seems likely to work. So then our pitch is to governments: as you are funding renewable energy, as you are funding a shift toward electrification of everything, including vehicles, alternative proteins, both research and development at universities, as well as private sector incentives. The sorts of things that in the United States were in the big climate bill that we passed last year, we need those sorts of incentives for alternative proteins as well. SOURCE…