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Fake Meat, Real Profits

Alt-meat speculators want to save the world—or get rich trying

You’ll be hearing more this year about an ongoing revolution: meat imitations, whether from “cells” or “plants,” are replacing cows like the car replaced the horse and buggy. But it’s even better than that: “The solution to both of the big problems in food technology—how we’re going to feed a burgeoning population and what we’re going to do about climate change—is actually pretty simple,” writes Bruce Friedrich, the voice of the insurgency. “Plant-based protein.”

In December, Eat Just, the volatile startup formerly known as Hampton Creek famous for its eggless mayo, received a  historic green light to sell lab-grown chicken in Singapore, a first for a secretive industry hampered by regulatory hurdles. Many environmental and animal rights enthusiasts are celebrating the progress, by a logic that at first blush makes plenty of sense: a full counter of meat-like grocery products that appeal to carnivores will mitigate harm to the environment and the animals involved. But there’s a giant, undiscussed, confounding party at the table: the world’s richest investors, and the delicious returns they expect for saving the world.

Consider Friedrich himself, a cofounder and executive director of the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit making the case to donors and governments around the world to prioritize alternative meats, arguing they will redress “Environmental Degradation,” “Global Poverty,” “Animal Welfare,” and “Human Health.” Also—that is to say, simultaneously, seemingly without any perceived conflict or friction—he’s a cofounder[*] of two venture capital firms that have collectively raised over $35 million to inject into alt-meat companies, making over thirty such investments so far in projects that span the entire new sector, from Beyond Meat to cell cultivation to plant-based seafood.

These circumstances deserve our meditation. I’m not suggesting that Friedrich and his counterparts are grifters, but I will assert that we give them our trust all too willingly. Meat imitation technologies can deliver staggering profits and act as a lever to transition from a destructive animal diet—but we must recognize that those two potentialities are necessarily in conflict.

There’s a giant, undiscussed, confounding party at the table: the world’s richest investors, and the delicious returns they expect for saving the world.

Learn more about Friedrich’s past and you’ll bristle even further at the idea that he’s somehow incapable of doing great things and getting stinking rich at the same time. Friedrich’s commitment to living a moral life, animated by Catholic devotion, is evident in the first half of his biography, during which he pursued noble goals by ascetic if haphazard means. He spent nearly two years in prison for raiding a military exercise with three fellow Catholic leftists and taking a hammer to a government aircraft. He ran a soup kitchen in D.C. before working for PETA, where he rose in the ranks over the course of thirteen years, co-authoring The Animal Activist’s Handbook. Until middle age, his life was defined by direct action. The rest will be defined by investments.

It’s safe to say we don’t quite know what to do about someone like Friedrich. Ezra Klein interviewed him twice on his podcast, first in 2016 and then in early 2019. Klein’s admiration for Friedrich’s character is apparent—“you’re, like, a terrible person who doesn’t care about others,” he says with playful sarcasm early in their first conversation—and this perception warps the interview, as Klein tries to understand how his guest can work with such profit-focused partners when Friedrich himself, obviously, cares nothing for money. “Is this really a moneymaking enterprise?” Klein asks. “Or is this a way of doing philanthropy in maybe a different or more innovative direction?” Friedrich, to his credit, does not blink. “It is a huge moneymaking enterprise,” he says, sounding bewildered by Klein’s naïveté. “So you’re super-rich now?” Klein jokes. Friedrich refers to himself as “mission-driven,” but the fiduciary conflict between philanthropy and venture capital is brushed aside. Several years later, when Klein hosts Friedrich on the show again, after Friedrich’s nonprofit and venture capital firms have expanded manifold, the topic doesn’t even come up. In a 2019 profile that detailed Friedrich’s lifetime of self-sacrifice, the New York Times referred to his venture firms as one example of “using every tool at his disposal” to coax society from meat-eating.

The archetypal alt-meat hero is a white man with a graduate degree who played college football. When his journey begins, he’s bored in a cushy corporate post, secure in everything except his ego. All the good that he hoped to do—Eat Just cofounder Josh Tetrick joined humanitarian projects in sub-Saharan Africa, Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown worked in renewable energy—it’s not happening fast enough. Our hero has an incredible idea, calls a friend about it, that friend calls a venture capitalist, and soon, the man presides over a glitzy headquarters, surrounded by scuttling scientists and Michelin star chefs, serving reporters and investors with small-plate samples, spinning yarns and making bold predictions.

“Two years ago, at the age of 55, Jeremy Coller had something of a midlife crisis,” reads the trade rag Institutional Investor, referring to the star British private equity baron who manages $17 billion in assets. “Yet despite his professional achievements, Coller felt that his biography was a snooze.” Right on cue, he had an animal rights awakening that inspired him to take up an investor crusade against fast food giants, browbeating them to transition from industrial agriculture. Because there’s no solving a problem without a venture capital firm, he made one for the sole purpose of keeping Beyond Meat and companies like it afloat through the middle stages of their life cycles. Whether or not this “activism” provides Coller the fulfillment his billions could not, the activity has done its part to carve out a moral path to market for products that are profitable for Beyond Meat, Burger King, Tyson, and his asset management firm all at once.

While Coller’s goal to “end animal factory farming in the next forty years” seems lofty, the venture capital pitch doesn’t have to be nearly as ambitious to whet the appetites of the world’s wealthiest investors. The global meat industry is worth more than $2 trillion and is categorically evil. Take retail meat in the United States, weighing in by GFI’s estimates at $95 billion. Plant-based milks—almond and soy, mostly—have recently grabbed 14 percent of market share in retail milk. (Never mind that fluid milk consumption was already in decline for decades.) The chance to replicate that leap from 1 percent to 14 percent in the meat case is what GFI calls “an opportunity worth $12 billion,” a common pitch made by plant-meat boosters. Get yourself just a small slice of that pie, and you’re doing big money without the usual moral uncertainty. Everyone goes home happy, except perhaps those who want to appreciably reduce animal suffering and/or carbon emissions: this 14 percent proportion also happens to be around the amount that the OECD-FAO expects global meat production to expand by 2027. Rapacious capitalism can’t slow down other forms of rapacious capitalism.

Mimicking the meat giants, aspiring to their mammoth production and monopolistic tyranny, is to build a “new” industry in the image of the world’s ugliest business.

Plant- and cell- meat boosters are striving to “innovate” until their products compete on price. In the coming months, they will proclaim loudly that their prices are going down, approaching their animal equivalents. This strategy ignores the most significant reality of the meat market, the driving force that has contributed exponentially to the cruelty these startups oppose: in every major livestock sector (pork, chicken, and beef), four corporations process the majority of the product; including the dairy and egg markets, corporations in every sector have either paid out settlements in price-fixing litigation or are under investigation from states or the DOJ. Good luck competing on cost with executives who text each other to collude on prices and managers who place bets on which workers will get coronavirus, lording over titanic supply chains that haven’t been competitive for several decades.

But rather than waging a war of disruption on the incumbent monopolies, some alt-meat newcomers have quickly pivoted to collaboration. From the outset, many have taken investments from the conglomerates that dominate today’s meat industry, viewing them increasingly as partners in the project of reducing animal suffering. Chase Purdy reported in his 2020 book Billion Dollar Burger that Eat Just’s Josh Tetrick aspires to pivot away from venture capital, hoping instead for “executives at BJS and Cargill and Tyson to go back to their conference rooms and talk about building a thirty-thousand-square-foot facility outside Rio de Janeiro, stock it with big bioreactors, and write a check to [Eat Just], who’ll supply them with the knowledge and licensing needed to grow their own meat.” This is idiotic charity work and sensible entrepreneurship.

A common justification for pursuing these partnerships goes like this: Big Meat aren’t animal-killing companies, they’re protein companies. They’ll go where the money goes. Okay. But more importantly, they are ruthless, cruel, and criminal companies, and a reform campaign that began in the public and activist sectors but loses sight of this simple fact is doomed to perpetuate the system it claims to fight. Mimicking the meat giants, aspiring to their mammoth production and monopolistic tyranny, is to build a “new” industry in the image of the world’s ugliest business. More likely than not, in the coming years, company valuations will continue to explode. More celebrities will be made, and profits will be plentiful. But if I were a chicken, I wouldn’t be cheering.

Never construe this as a defense of the meat industry. No matter how hellish and dangerous our status quo, it does not give us reason to applaud while a new generation of egomaniacal white men make the same mistakes they’ve made for centuries ruining the world. The question at hand is why anyone on this overheating planet should be asked to trust this cadre while we take on all the risk. The asset managers, VCs, entrepreneurs, agribusinesses, and Bill Gates are all but guaranteed handsome returns.

Bruce Friedrich himself has taken to the Guardian to pooh-pooh this viewpoint, in a love letter to KFC thanking the company for taking on Beyond Meat’s fried chicken nuggets. “Profitability is a feature, not a bug. And really, it’s the most important feature. For anyone who cares about the footprint of industrial animal agriculture, we should applaud KFC’s decision,” he wrote. Hooray.

As to the composition, methods, and environmental impacts of these miraculous products, we have no choice but to take their world-saving nature as an article of faith. This is because the industry panders to open science and then actively suppresses emerging research, according to Purdy’s Billion Dollar Burger. In their pitches to donors and investors, entrepreneurs cite a favorable 2011 study of resource use in the cell-meat life cycle undertaken by a team at Oxford University headed by University of Helsinki’s Hanna Tuomisto. The paper made the assumption that companies were growing cell-meat in stews powered by cyanobacteria; given that this was a technological leap that none of the companies had yet reached, she revised her numbers in 2018.

In its present composition, the new-meat dream will let us down.

When she did, the estimated environmental impact quadrupled—but after she presented her unpublished findings at an industry conference, she was soon met with fierce resistance from startups about the public narrative it would create. Tuomisto told Purdy, “We were planning to submit the paper, but then we decided not to publish because we understood the worry.” In a book packed with cringe-worthy deference to cell-meat hero figures, Purdy offers a morsel of clarity: “The startups’ need to guard their intellectual property makes presenting totally accurate research almost impossible for academics such as Tuomisto, and for reasons beyond her control.”

They want it both ways—they want their fantasy perpetuated whether or not it has any basis, and they want to keep their trade secrets so they make their billions. What’s in it for us?

Alt-meat optimists who are excited by the science but remain ambivalent about who controls such technology misunderstand the nature of exploitation and the reasons so many animals are killed, forests cut down, and workers abused. The voracious insatiability of global capital created the industrial slaughterhouse, the confinement animal system, and the chicken breeding technology that puts farmed animals in terrible pain their entire lives. When the chips are down, fiduciary obligations will always privilege profit over the moral aspirations of these patent-clutching geniuses. In its present composition, the new-meat dream will let us down. Its affinity for and resemblance to agribusiness will ultimately prolong the hegemony of animal slaughter, not challenge it.

[*] Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Bruce Friedrich as a founding partner of two venture capital firms. He is a cofounder of New Crop Capital and Clear Current Capital.