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Recode Decode at TED: Good Food Institute founder Bruce Friedrich explains why finding alternatives to meat is so important

And the big meat companies are on board: “They wanna produce protein, and if they can do it more efficiently and make more money doing it, they’re happy to go in that direction.”

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Good Food Institute founder and executive director Bruce Friedrich.
Good Food Institute founder and executive director Bruce Friedrich.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

On the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, Kara passed the mic to her executive producer Erica Anderson, who recently attended the 2019 TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada. On the new podcast, you’ll hear four interviews with TED Fellows, up-and-coming innovators in science and technology who give talks about their work on the conference’s first day.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of the final of those four interviews: In it, Erica talks to the founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, Bruce Friedrich. The nonprofit he leads promotes alternatives to meat, including lab-grown meat, dairy, and eggs made from plants. He said getting to a place where we can “bio-mimic” meat that tastes good could have multiple positive effects on the environment and the health of humanity.

“It will require probably 99 percent less land, cause 95 percent less climate change, won’t cause a rainforest to be chopped down, won’t require any antibiotics,” Friedrich said. “If you want a scare, Google ‘the end of working antibiotics.’ Medical authorities are literally telling us that we are just about there, and a big part of that is all of the antibiotics that we’re feeding to farm animals.”

You can hear all four interviews right now on Recode Decode, which you’ll find on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts. Or, just listen using the embedded audio player below.


Erica Anderson: Bruce, welcome to Recode Decode!

Bruce Friedrich: It’s great to be here, thanks Erica.

So I have a full disclosure, I had a burger last night. From beef.

Well, you could have had a burger from plants.

I’m open to learning about this. So, you are a TED fellow this year, and you gave a talk about the future of agriculture. Tell me first, what’s the big idea you’re talking about this week?

The big idea is that we’re going to need to produce 70-100 percent more meat by 2050 and attempting to educate or shame the public out of consuming meat — reference, your burger from last night — isn’t working that well.

I do wanna say I’m a fan of activism, I think activism is great, but if we actually want to turn back the tide on meat consumption, we need to be thinking about the problem in a different way. And what we’ve learned is we can bio-mimic meat with plants. Everything in meat exists in plants, so we can make plant-based meat, which is not ... I think you called it mock meat or synthetic meat or something. It’s plant-based meat, it’s still meat, it’s just made from plants instead of from animals.

And then we can also grow meat directly from cells. Both of these methods of making meat cause much less climate change, require no antibiotics, they’re just much better for global health, much better for the individuals consuming them, and much better for our environment.

Quick non-important question, but I guess it is important, does it taste good?

Well, that’s kind of the point, yeah. I mean, it doesn’t work if it doesn’t taste the same or better.

Got it.

And cost the same or less. And yes, everything in meat, meat is made up of lipids and aminos and minerals and water, that all exists in plants. What we have found is if we apply the right amount of effort and the right amount of science, you can actually construct meat from plants. Then growing meat directly from cells, there are now dozens of companies, the first one, Memphis Meats, was founded in 2016, and now there are more than 25 of them. They are all right now growing meat directly from cells.

As the process scales up, because it is so much more efficient, it will cost less. It will require probably 99 percent less land, cause 95 percent less climate change, won’t cause a rainforest to be chopped down, won’t require any antibiotics.

If you want a scare, Google “the end of working antibiotics.” Medical authorities are literally telling us that we are just about there, and a big part of that is all of the antibiotics that we’re feeding to farm animals.

So tell me, let’s talk a bit more about the problem just so that people who maybe aren’t that familiar with, I guess the term would be “industrial farming.” What is the problem with industrial farming? I grew up in Indiana, as I mentioned to you before. My grandfather, great-grandparents, had dairy farms, I grew up in a place with lots of little farms. That’s no longer the way food is produced. What is the problem with the current state of agriculture today, in your opinion?

At its most basic, it takes nine calories fed to a chicken to get one calorie back out. The chicken is the most efficient animal. So that’s nine times as much land, nine times as much water, nine times as many pesticides and herbicides. But it’s not just that, you then have to grow all of those crops, you ship them to the feed mill, you operate the feed mill. You ship the feed to the farm, you operate the farm. You ship the animals to the slaughterhouse, you operate the slaughterhouse.

Once you crunch the numbers, that chicken — which, again, is the most efficient meat — also the least climate-change-inducing meat, on a per-protein calorie basis causes 40 times as much climate change, 4,000 percent of the climate change of if you were to just eat the legumes directly, if you were just to eat peas or soy or whatever directly. Nine times as much energy, nine times as much land, etc. But then all of those extra stages of energy-intensive and polluting factories and gas-guzzling and polluting vehicles, you put all of that together and it’s just environmentally, it’s catastrophic. That’s just the climate change issue.

The United Nations said whatever environment issue you’re looking at from the smallest and most local to the largest and most global, industrial meat production is one of the top three causes. And then the other issue that we talk most about is antibiotic resistance. The UK government said the threat to the human race from antibiotic-resistant superbugs is greater than the threat from climate change. We’re literally talking about the end of modern medicine. In the US, 70 percent of all of the antibiotics produced by pharmaceuticals are fed to farm animals.

Right, and actually I think all that is like patent-protected, right? If you asked Tyson or Purdue for information about how many antibiotics they give to their chickens, they say they can’t disclose that, right?

Yeah, what they’re doing is legal, within the realm of that there’s not any reason they have to disclose it. I will say, one of the things we’re really excited about at The Good Food Institute is the fact that companies like Tyson and Purdue and Cargill, the big meat companies, they’re not tied to the idea that we have to be raising and slaughtering animals. They wanna produce protein, and if they can do it more efficiently and make more money doing it, they’re happy to go in that direction.

Interesting. So next question, Bruce. What’s the inspiration for this work?

Well the inspiration for me is, I have been for more than two decades advocating a shift away from industrial animal agriculture. Just watching as more and more animals are slaughtered, and we go in the opposite direction. Even in the United States, per capita meat consumption in 2018 was as high as it’s been in recorded history. Globally, it was way way up, and all of the projections indicate that we’re going to have to produce 70-100 percent more meat by 2050. The latest calculation, we’re going to have to double the amount of meat that we’re producing by 2050.

It just seems that there is something in human beings, I don’t know if it’s physiology, psychology, or emotion or what, but there’s something in human beings that causes people, as they become affluent, like it’s part of ... they decide to eat more meat. That’s true in the developing world, and it appears to be true in the developed world as well, despite our decades and decades of trying to educate people about the issue.

So this is a solution that can work. We can produce meat from plants at a lower price. Price, taste, and convenience is what dictates consumer choice for just about everybody. We can compete on the basis of price, taste, and convenience, and just remove animals from the equation altogether.

So interesting. I wish we had something to taste here right now, but that will come later. Tell me, how do you execute this at The Good Food Institute? You’ve got this idea, you’re deeply inspired, you see this macro problem kind of on the horizon globally, how do you execute it day to day?

At The Good Food Institute, people can find out about us at GFI.org. We’ve just north of 60 staff in the United States and then we have about a dozen staff across India, Israel, Brazil, Hong Kong — which is Asia Pacific — and Europe. The four programmatic areas that we focus on, one is corporate engagement, so engaging with Tyson and Cargill and ADM and kind of all of the traditional food and meat industries to help them. We don’t want this to be disruption, we want it to be transformation. We want to engage them in the shift.

Our second department is policy. Policy is focused both on the regulatory side, making sure that there’s a clear regulatory pathway forward for these products, as well as the statutory side, which is focused to a significant degree on encouraging the US government and other governments to fund R&D into these products. Global governments put tens of billions of dollars into research and development focused on environmental initiatives and global health initiatives.

These are the solution to a lot of problems that governments recognize they have. Governments that want to meet their obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement, this is a way to do it. Governments that have food security or food safety issues, this is a way to alleviate those problems. It’s a big part of what we’re doing in policy.

And then in innovation and entrepreneurship, we help startups to be successful and we’ve actually started some companies from scratch. We have a startup manual, we have a monthly call for budding entrepreneurs, we have fellowship programs at colleges and universities to encourage the next generation of leaders and scientists to use their talents in this field. We also work with venture capitalists to help them understand why this is a colossal opportunity for them to both do good and do well.

And then finally, science and technology is our fourth programmatic area. That came from a sort of realization that what happened with the plant-based meat, and clean meat — so, meat grown directly from cells, we call it “clean meat” as a nod to clean energy — what happened was people had an idea, and then they had a company. Nobody really stopped and figured out what the scientific groundwork would look like in the middle. So idea, company, with no open-source science in the middle.

The first thing we did is figure out, what are the critical technology elements for plant-based meat and for clean meat? What do we know, what do we know that we don’t know, and where are the areas where there’s just a ton of stuff that we don’t even know we don’t know? And let’s start mapping that. Let’s find scientists to help us map that, and then let’s start funding this research.

We gave away $2.8 million in December/January, and we should be giving away another $5 million at the end of this year and into the beginning of next year to scientists to help fill some of the gaps in both the plant-based meat side and the clean meat side.

Sounds like you’ve had a lot of momentum behind this idea. Tell me about the startups. You mentioned you’re giving away money. You have these weekly or monthly calls for startups. Obviously there’s some big agricultural universities in the country, what’s that like? Who are the types of entrepreneurs that wanna do this work? Is there an entrepreneur that comes to mind that’s kind of taking this on?

I should make a distinction here. So our science and technology department, that’s where we have the money for open-source research. We had two donors, one who gave us a million dollars for clean meat open-source science. And another one who gave us $2 million for open source plant-based science.

I should also take a step back and say for people that want to find out more about this, we have an annual conference. It sold out about six weeks early last year, so you might wanna go check it out now. It’s goodfoodconference.com. There will be poster presentations from all of the 14 grantees for this call for proposals. Our scientists will be there to talk with people about other research that they might wanna do in the space.

And then the entrepreneurship and innovation side of the Good Food Institute, we don’t actually do any of that funding, although there are a lot of venture capitalists that are particularly interested in this space. There are venture capital funds like New Crop Capital and Stray Dog Capital and Clear Current Capital, and some others that are specifically interested in investment opportunities that will remove animals from industrial animal agriculture. And then there are a bunch of other sort of just Sand Hill Road VCs that are just interested in the space primarily because of the profitability.

And then interestingly, the Bill Gates investment fund has just invested in kind of all of the plant-based companies, and the cell-based companies sort of once they get to Series A. Bill and Melinda Gates are very enthusiastic about this as a way to feed the world.

Fascinating. You’re definitely on to something. I think my last question for you in our final few minutes, what do you hope to accomplish? What’s your 20, 30 years from now, looking back, what have you accomplished, what’s the big moonshot here?

Well, I will say I hope it doesn’t take 20 or 30 years. People have only been working on this for a very brief period of time. The first plant-based meat that really had its vision set on the idea of we are going to compete with industrial animal meat, this is not a product for flexitarians or vegetarians, this is a product for everyone. That was the Beyond Meat nugget, which came out nationally in 2013, so just six years ago. That’s the thing that caused Bill Gates to say, “What I just tasted was not just a clever meat substitute. What I just tasted is the future of food.” So that was the first one.

And then the Impossible Burger didn’t debut until 2016. The first clean meat company, also 2016, also oftentimes referred to as cell-based meat. This is very new and it’s moving incredibly quickly. This is something that governments should be putting billions of dollars into.

I believe that China should be putting tens of billions of dollars into this. They’ve got food safety and food security issues. They’ve got water resource issues, they want to be the leader on climate change. Countries like Singapore and Israel are small and have food security issues. India cares very deeply about this, and is just working with GFI India, put more than half a million dollars into this sort of research. That’s a great start.

It should be billions of dollars into this space. The goal is that if X is plant-based meat and Y is clean meat, X + Y should equal about 99. There maybe some regenerative agriculture left, but industrial animal agriculture, the lowest common denominator stuff, the stuff people choose because it’s tasty and cheap, that should all be replaced by meat from plants and meat grown directly from cells. They’re more efficient, they solve a lot of problems. And it shouldn’t just be nonprofit organizations and venture capitalists and Tyson Foods in this. It should be governments, it should be foundations, anybody who cares about these sorts of issues.

A truly global kind of cross-functional intersectional effort to change the food industry. Bruce, it was so good to talk to you, thank you so much for coming and sharing your big idea. We will be watching and hopefully tasting the future of food in the coming months.

I’m thrilled to be here.

If not later today. Okay, thank you so much, Bruce.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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