Ethan Brown, the 43-year-old president and CEO of Beyond Meat, grew up spending weekends and summers on his father’s dairy farm in Maryland, where he saw firsthand the inefficiencies in one of America's major delivery systems for protein: cows. “The bottleneck in protein is the animal,” Brown told me by phone from El Segundo, where his company is based. If a cow were a machine, you'd be desperate to replace it — it's energy- and resource- intensive, it creates lagoons of toxic waste, and it's sentient enough that pulling the plug is ethically questionable.
Brown, a vegan since his late 20s, has a background in renewable energy; now he's focused on making cows obsolete, by creating a sustainable, low-carbon alternative fuel for humans. He and his Beyond Meat colleagues have convened a team of scientists, nutritionists, and chefs to develop a better meat substitute than the mealy veggie burgers and plastic-y fake chicken nuggets of yore. With his tongue only slightly in his cheek, he’s calling it the Manhattan Beach Project, and he aims to produce a healthy meat replacement that is, at least on a molecular level, basically meat — or better. While he is quick to admit that he's far from his ultimate goal, his early stage attempts are already on grocery-store shelves. Released in February and available at Whole Foods, Beyond Meat’s Beast Burger does beef one better and packs even more protein than the juiciest bistro burger.
“You can think about meat in two ways,” Brown says. “Its origin, or its scientific composition: amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals, water. None are exclusive to animals. It’s all in the plant kingdom.”
It makes sense that a technologist like Brown would be drawn to this problem — that Silicon Valley's obsession with making daily life more efficient would extend to one of the most fundamental activities of all. After all, if there's a better way to get laundry done, there has to be a better way to get nutrition down the funnel. And among the companies targeting vegetarians and “meat-reducers” who want to limit their animal-protein intake, several are backed by tech investors and Silicon Valley–connected venture capital groups. Call these companies Sustenance as Software providers: There's only so much anyone can do to change the hardware of the human body, so, instead, they're going to upgrade what they can — the food that goes inside.
“My dream,” Brown says, “is to have this beef product in McDonald's within five years.”
To a certain extent, Sustenance as Software upgrades are already happening. Hampton Creek is replacing eggs with a synthetic substitute. Tomato Sushi, funded on Kickstarter, is creating fake tuna. Most notoriously, there’s Soylent, a pasty food-replacement shake that bears as much resemblance to food as chalk does to cheese. (I know this because I tried Soylent, and it tasted a lot like chalk.)
But meat is the ultimate challenge, and where some of the biggest (and richest) tech companies are putting their focus. As Bill Gates, who backs Beyond Meat, confessed on his blog, “As much as I like vegetables, I know I wouldn’t want to give up hamburgers – one of my favorite foods.” Obvious Corporation, the incubator founded by Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone, also supports Beyond Meat, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin has thrown his money behind the researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who developed a $325,000, lab-grown hamburger called Cultured Beef, made from cow cells. (The price has reportedly dropped to $27 per pound.)
Unlike computers, however, humans get some choice about what's loaded into them, and for any of these products to succeed, people have to want to eat them. And when it comes to Sustenance as Software, in some ways, I’m the ideal test subject — I mean, consumer. I’ve been a vegetarian for 27 years, and while I eat veggie burgers or soy dogs at barbecues, I do so the way former smokers chew pens: It fills a need, but always fails to satisfy. I can remember once buying a soy salami and eating half of its plastic wrapping before realizing that I needed to peel it to actually enjoy the foodstuff inside — which tasted only slightly less like plastic. After nearly three decades, I should be the first to endorse juicy, mouth-watering fake meat.
Tearing open the plastic bags and frying them up, my kitchen was filled with a smell that reminded me somewhat of meat. But something wasn't quite right — I knew it had failed to pass the sniff test when neither of my dogs came around to investigate. (One of my dogs used to get aroused — actually aroused — when my ex-girlfriend cooked bacon, but that’s another story.)
Layered with cheese, sour cream, salsa, and avocado, the tacos were tasty enough. But they didn’t remind me of the beef and chicken I still distantly remember. The nu-meat was savory, but it lacked the heft and depth I remember: that feeling of being full and kind of charged up after eating animal protein.
I ate three (okay, four) tacos, but I didn’t come away feeling as though my taste buds had been tricked or that I’d been fully satisfied. I felt a little like Charles Wallace, the brainy kid in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time who couldn’t enjoy nutritious synthetic food on the planet Camazotz because he couldn’t let his mind be convinced it was real. (I was probably reminded of that YA book only because the last time I’d eaten meat I was 11 years old.)
Companies like Beyond Meat aren't just trying to make food that tastes good, though. They're trying to make food that people are going to be able to afford as the demand and the price of meat goes up.
“What is the most efficient way to raise food to feed a world of 9 billion people by 2150?” James Corwell, the founder of Tomato Sushi, asked by phone from San Francisco. “The price of meat and fish coupled with water and gas and the price of grain is going to push a lot of people back to agrarian diets. Which consequently are far healthier.”
Corwell's company is currently at work on what he calls (using tech jargon) “the 2.0 version” of a vegan tuna alternative, with “a particular yeast extract that gives a fish odor and flavor.” He and other meat-substitute-makers are hopeful that moving from animal-based protein-delivery systems to a more plant-based one can have far-reaching impact on humanity, and not just its Whole Foods–shopping subset. “A wonderful potential future scenario is fields of protein, not fields of pasture,” Beyond Meat's Brown mused. “It’s a more efficient use of the land. You stop making the investment in the thing that’s not efficient.”
But, first, he knows he has to convince not just my crummy taste buds, but the mouths of people used to eating real meat.
“We have to make this so much better than meat,” he said. “We’re not there yet, not even close.”