The Future of Meat Edition

On food, climate, and investing

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Eurof Uppington (EU) used to run hedge fund money until he came to his senses. Now he worries about how we eat, and sells olive oil from family farmers in Greece to restaurants in Switzerland and France. He has a startup, Amfora Sarl, based in Geneva (www.amforahome.ch).

Eurof here. These are heady times for plant-based meat entrepreneurs. Last month Leonardo di Caprio announced he owned bits of two cell-based meat producers, Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms. Woody Harrelson, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Lewis Hamilton, and Roger Federer have also all invested in the sector. Impossible Meat is worth $7 billion with Beyond Meat trailing just a billion behind. As I write, Daring Foods (with Drake and Naomi Osaka onboard) announced a Series C of $65 million to sell their plant-based chicken into Walmart. It’s the biggest trend in food—the intersection of money, climate awareness, veganism, and celebrity cool.

Why is this interesting? 

Future generations will likely look back on factory farming as one of humanity’s greatest crimes. The science is clear: humans must eat less meat. Climate impact is the urgent task of all of us, and each cattle feedlot and industrial piggery is an environmental disaster. In the cruelty-free plant-based world, morality and climate conscience are the great motivators. 

Alt-meat isn’t new, a fact often forgotten. Long before Drake, the first celebrity backer of alt-meat was Linda Mccartney. The idea is one of her great legacies, and she should get more credit from the industry. Her eponymous brand, made from extruded soy, along with the mycoprotein fungus-based Quorn, was a staple of TV ads in the UK in the 1990s. The vegetarian and vegan movements she helped inspire are enthusiastic forces behind the rise of alt-meat. 

There is evidence, however, that the wave is cresting. The financial performance of Beyond Meat, the first public company in the space, has been disappointing, and signs are mounting of a sector-wide slowdown. Alt-meat is an increasingly competitive space—for a while now Big Food incumbents with copycat products and huge marketing budgets have been taking market share. There may not be enough consumer appetite to justify the amount of money being plowed into the sector, or the sheer number of well-funded competitors. A hard winter may be coming.

The sad fact is that alt-meat has intrinsic problems. Larissa Zimberoff’s excellent book, Technically Food, dives into the nitty-gritty of how many alt-meats are made. Some of it makes uneasy reading for the climate aware. Pea-based protein isolate, a common ingredient, often comes from US-grown peas. But given a lack of local processing facilities, the peas can be exported 1000s of miles to be processed in China, after which the isolate is re-imported to the US to be processed into patties. Not very green. Soy and corn are other key ingredients, heavily subsidized and grown using intensively, doused in soil-killing, carbon-emitting fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. We know that ultra-processed food is bad for us. Yes, real meat “is made of chemicals” too, as alt-meat proponents point out. But unlike some alt-meat ingredients, it isn’t bleached, 3D printed, extruded, or precipitated in hexane. 

Alternatives to alt meat exist which are less problematic. The first is, duh, eating less meat—more beans, fruits, leaves, perhaps in tomato sauce with, hopefully, a lot of olive oil. Many vegans, while lauding the potential of alt-meat to convert carnivores to cruelty-free food, don’t touch alt-meat, because. . . they don’t like meat. Why buy something that tries its best to mimic something you swore off long ago? If alt-meat is just the on-ramp to veganism, the extensive market investors are plugging in their models may be too optimistic.

Kinder, climate-friendly, but more expensive meat is the other alternative. Farmers are striking back. Regenerative agriculture proponents say (with some evidence) that grass-fed meat can net sequester carbon. Polyface Farm in Virginia, run by the controversial Joel Salatin, has long been held up as a paragon of sustainable agriculture. The very beautiful Pastoral Song by James Rebanks describes how traditional farming values, lost in the 1980s and 1990s, can be rediscovered to create animal husbandry more in tune with the natural world—something alt-meat definitely is not. Happy cows eating grass is a more seductive image than the misery of the feedlot. And given the current consensus that meat hurts the climate, the thought I might be saving the planet by eating a hamburger is comforting.

A third alternative is as yet unproven. Cell-based meat has also seen huge waves of investment. There are impediments to overcome—the most reliable broth to grow cells in is derived from aborted calves. Tiny viral or bacterial infections can kill whole batches, and production at scale hasn’t yet been achieved. Many commentators say cell-based will never work. They may be right, but improbable feats of science have been achieved by other industries, notably semiconductors. Whatever the outcome, though, this is still far away.

Should we give up on the dreams of alt-meat? No. Our cruel industrial farming system must die. We have to fix the climate and eat less meat. But the consensus that alt-meat is the solution for our ills is likely coming to an end. Other ideas are coming over the horizon. In particular, the promise of regenerative agriculture for climate and a better food system is huge, and largely unexploited by climate and food investors. (EU)

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The future of climate tech. One crucial component in facing the climate crisis? New technologies, such as better batteries for electric vehicles, meat alternatives, or improved energy storage. While significant progress still needs to be made, the drive to develop and scale climate tech is accelerating. A new article lays out five themes that could attract $2 trillion of annual investment by 2025. 

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Eurof (EU) 

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