“Chicken is boring. Chefs see it as a menu item for people who don’t know what they want to eat.” -- Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
By 2050 there will be nine billion people on earth. And most of them are going to want a steak for dinner. More livestock will place an even greater burden on land, air, and water.
Rising meat consumption in China is now double that of the U.S., according to the USDA and Earth Policy Institute.
A VC acquaintance recently mentioned that having a "fake meat" company in one's VC portfolio was becoming a must-have, like having a cloud computing firm or a failed thin-film solar company.
Kleiner Perkins has invested in a firm called Beyond Meat, formerly known as Savage River Farms, which produces a plant-based chicken substitute. Other investors include Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Ev Williams.
“We have to find a way to replace animals as a source of protein,” said Kleiner Partner Amol Deshpande in an earlier interview. “I don’t think the climate can subsist … with the amount of livestock that we have.”
A company backgrounder states, "We are really passionate about moving people to plant-based diets, because it is better for human health, animal welfare and the environment."
With technology licensed from the University of Missouri based on the work of Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, Beyond Meat has a heating, cooling, and pressurizing technique that allows plant-based materials to mimic the texture and mouthfeel of meat, according to the firm.
Beyond Meat's product contains: "Water, Soy Protein Isolate, Pea Protein Isolate, Amaranth, Natural Vegan Chicken Flavor (Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Natural Flavoring), Soy Fiber, Carrot Fiber, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Dipotassium Phosphate, Titanium Dioxide, and White Vinegar." The mixture is processed and formed to approximate chicken.
The meat substitute is available in the prepared food section at Whole Foods supermarkets in Northern California -- so I ate some of the stuff, for this, our first food review at Greentech Media.
I found the Beyond Meat chicken strips absolutely as uninteresting as chicken. (Full disclosure: I'm a vegetarian, so it's my memory of chicken I'm comparing it to.) The product sort of passes for chicken but the mouthfeel and "springiness" of the stuff are just a little off and a bit "mushy." It veers into the "uncanny valley" of very close but a little weird. I ate the stuff in a faux chicken salad, in a chicken curry, and plain atop a salad. The product was best under a thick sauce where it did not immediately betray its legume lineage.
Personally I prefer my soy, peas, and amaranth in their original non-extruded soy, pea, and amaranth form. I am puzzled by the need to go through heroic measures and processing to make grains mimic a bird. But if people are willing to substitute this stuff for livestock on their plate, the world might be more efficiently fed.
The market for meat substitutes is worth $340 million, according to David Browne, an analyst at Mintel, a market-research firm that tracks these things. RTS Resource, another market analyst firm, sees "firm growth" in the meat analogue sector. Whole Foods sells a number of plant-based meat substitutes made from soy, grains, veggies, or mushrooms. I've had some of those, which often similarly fall into the Close, But No Cigar and Why Bother? categories.
Another alternative meat firm is Sand Hill Foods, rumored to be funded by Vinod Khosla and helmed by Prof. Patrick Brown of Stanford University. According to Nick Halla, the Director of Business Development's LinkedIn page, Sand Hill Foods is "combining cutting-edge science and product development to revolutionize the food production industry and make it more efficient and sustainable." The firm employs Chris Davis as "Director of Protein Development." Founder Patrick Brown mentions the goal of "Developing practical, constructive strategies for eradicating animal farming" on his LinkedIn page.
Going even further than working with beans and redesigned proteins is the work of Jason Metheny, Mark Post and others who are focusing on stem-cell grown or cultured meat grown in the lab -- a process that is still a bit further away from commercialization. A VC colleague argued, "I think the potential for consumer backlash is huge. It's one thing to develop a soybean-based meat product. It's another to develop a test-tube engineered protein." Mark Post suggests that cultured meat could be grown much more efficiently than livestock.
As KP's Deshpande said, “If you want to talk about agricultural land use, water use, [and] energy use, it really boils down to one thing: livestock. To me, if there is a place to attack the[se] problem[s], that is where I would attack it. Everything else is minor in comparison.”