Plant-Based Meat Has Roots in the 1970s

“We all know that Americans love the hamburger. But now, scientists are trying to cancel beef.” “The Impossible Whopper —” Alternative meat is a hot commodity. “That patty is 100 percent plant-based protein.” “No way.” “No way.” But there’s more to it than just its beefy taste. “Meat takes an enormous toll on natural resources and the environment.” “Under the current system, it’s not sustainable. It has to change.” While the new plant-based meats may be high-tech, the ideas behind them have been around for decades. “Choosing a plant diet, you can both help yourself and change the world all at the same time.” “So much of what we do was in that book. You know, it was written there. But it takes that long for it to get into mainstream dialogue.” “Hello.” “What’s happening?” Ethan Brown started his alternative meat company, Beyond Meat, in 2009, with a radical idea: You don’t need an animal to make meat. “So this is the 2.0 burger, which hasn’t been released yet, right? If we can make it so it tastes and delights just like animal protein, very few consumers are going to say, ‘Nah, I just don’t want to do that.’” Brown wants Beyond to play a role in the fight against climate change. “That’s excellent. Very good. “You know, for a long time, I worked in the energy sector. Spending all of my career in this area, but not really focusing on that main problem. And that main problem is really livestock.” Cattle, especially in feedlots, emit dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases, like methane and nitrous oxide. “Our farming methods,, agriculture land use, deforestation, are contributing substantially to the climate crisis.” Because cows consume large amounts of grain, rising global meat consumption means increased exploitation of land and water. According to the United Nations, nearly 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used to graze or grow food for livestock. “We’ve known about the resource-intense nature of agriculture. We’ve known about its implications in climate. We’ve known about the health implications of consumption of high levels of animal protein. And we’ve, of course, known about the, you know, conditions that animals are raised in, in industrial agriculture. And every day we work away at solving for those problems by focusing on one thing: transitioning the protein at the center of the plate from an animal-based protein to a plant-based protein. That’s it.” At Beyond Meat’s lab, they study every detail, hoping to replicate the taste, texture, aroma and even the sizzle of meat. “The product we’re best-known for is the Beyond Burger. And we’ve spent years actually working toward getting it to the point where a mainstream consumer would say, ‘Yeah, that’s a really meat-like experience for me. It’s delivering the protein I need. It’s satiating, et cetera.’” Companies like Beyond want consumers to consider the social and environmental impact of the food they eat. But while their products are new, this idea — that an individual’s choice to eat less meat can benefit the world — is not. It was first introduced by a young author, Frances Moore Lappé, nearly 50 years ago. “Frances Moore Lappé, author of the popular bestseller, ‘Diet for a Small Planet.’” In 1971, when she published “Diet For a Small Planet” … “A new hard look at the problem of hunger in America.” … the world was facing a hunger crisis. “Even though we are growing more grain on this planet, there are many more mouths to feed.” “The world was obsessed with feeding people. And I thought, ah, if I could just understand why people are hungry.” Conventional wisdom said we were reaching the Earth’s capacity to produce food. But Moore Lappé, who was only 27 years old, buried herself in data about global production. “It is the original manuscript for ‘Diet for a Small Planet,’ dated Jan. 6, 1971. I just said, O.K., I’m going to figure out, are we really at the Earth’s limits? Is that really the cause of hunger? These are all the calculations that I did with little line rulers. And so, I got my dad’s slide rule, and I just, I just sat there, hour after hour, literally putting two and two together.” What she discovered astounded her. If all of the world’s grain was fed to people, there would be plenty to eat. “There’s more than enough for us all. If you take, as I did, very simply, you take the world food supply and you divide it by the number of people on the planet, more, more than enough.” But we were feeding much of what we grew to cattle, which were remarkably inefficient at making meat. In one chart, Moore Lappé illustrated how 21 pounds of protein fed to a cow made just one pound of protein for people. “What I wanted to get across is that our current food system is inefficient, unjust, illogical and destructive, you know? That it’s just, not — we can do a lot better, and we need not have hunger.” Her solution, a meat-free diet, was, in the beef-loving 1970s … “They’re the beef people.” … so alien, the publisher asked her to include recipes showing options for meat-free meals. “I wanted to encourage people that, hey, we can be part of the solution, because I think we want to have meaning in our lives. And it feels good if we can align our daily choices with something larger.” “Has it helped people change their diets? Are people changing their diets?” “Oh, definitely. I think it has been a jumping off point for many people.” Despite little media attention, “Diet for a Small Planet” became a counterculture best seller, inspiring readers with the message that everyday choices and individual actions could make a difference. One of them was a young environmentalist, Seth Tibbott. “I read that book, and I became a vegetarian.” In 1980, he started a business in Forest Grove, Ore., the Turtle Island Soy Dairy, which made some of the first alternative meats from a soy protein called tempeh. “This was the first ad that I created for Turtle Island Tempeh, and you see I have the soy tempeh — good old soy — and five-grain tempeh, which was right out of the pages of ‘Diet for a Small Planet,’ and then the soy tempeh with herbs was my tempehroni.” Even though he was barely breaking even, in 1995, Tibbott introduced a new product for Thanksgiving. It was called Tofurky. “Nobody thought it was a good idea. They said, ‘That’s a stupid name, that’s silly.’” “Do you have any Tofurky?” “Tofurky?” “Yeah, tofu turkey.” “Tofurky, anyone?” “Is this Tofurky?” “Tofurky. To-bagel with cream to-cheese.” “Tofurky.” “We had no ad budget. But what we did have going for us was this quirky product with this quirky name. And we started finding that the media just couldn’t get enough of it.” He made other products, too, like tofu sausages and deli slices. After decades of slow but steady growth, about two years ago, demand for Tofurky’s products suddenly exploded. “The conversation for us changed from, where in the world are we going to sell all this product that we are set up to make, to how in the world are we going to make enough to meet the demand of this new industry?” While the shift seems quick, it’s also something animal rights activists have been working toward for decades. “I read ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ in 1987 and it blew my mind.” Like Seth Tibbott, Bruce Friedrich stopped eating meat after reading “Diet for a Small Planet.” But he eventually grew to believe it was unethical to eat animals at all. He became an animal rights advocate, and tried everything — from throwing fake blood on fur coats to farm animal rescue — to get people to stop eating meat. “I spent a whole bunch of time focused on individual dietary change. So, educating people about who farm animals are. And yet, year after year after year since then, per capita meat consumption has gone up.” So he switched — from activism to capitalism — and started a trade group that finds investors for alternative meat. To build market share, he says it’s essential to be mainstream, working with venture capitalists, fast food restaurants and even meat companies. “The market sector is everybody who eats. So, the market opportunity for investors, regardless of whether they care about the ethics, it’s hard to imagine anything more colossal. If all we do is continue to do the same sort of farm activism that we’ve been doing for decades, we’re not going to make progress.” That approach, shared by both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, seems to be working. In May of 2019, Beyond Meat had one of the best-performing public offerings by a major U.S. company in the past two decades. “We’re growing like crazy, the opportunities keep coming to us, and step by step, you’re sort of wearing down the barriers to this idea that existed even just 10 years ago.” “I think we have absolutely benefited from all the marketing efforts of our peer companies, which is great. I mean, they’re, they’re rising the tide.” Seth Tibbott’s stepson, Jaime Athos, who is now Tofurky’s C.E.O., says plant-based eating has made the shift from counterculture to mainstream. He points to sales trends from the past two years. “If you look at real animal meat sales, they’re like, more or less flat. If you look at meat-alternative sales, they grew by about 37 or 38 percent. So, that’s how a revolution happens. That kind of growth rate.” He also credits savvy marketing, and a new generation of consumers, influenced by social media and awareness of climate change and animal welfare. “Many think it’s cool to be a plant-based eater. It’s kind of on-trend right now. I think I’m pretty optimistic about people in general, but it’s nice to be surprised in that direction, that society could shift so quickly.” Frances Moore Lappé’s daughter, Anna Lappé, agrees. She’s a food writer and environmental activist who, a decade ago, wrote a book exploring food’s impact on climate. “I was at a food tech conference in San Francisco a few months back, and it was so amazing to me how almost every single pitch began with what sounded like the beginning of a Frances Moore Lappé speech about the environment and sustainability.” But, she believes her mother has always wanted more than for people to just give up meat. “She was never that simplistic. It’s really not having a conversation about what we want our plate to look like. It’s more, what do want our world to look like?” “To me, that ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ message is ultimately this message about democracy. Who is making that choice that we should take this vast amount of land that could be feeding people directly, and turn it over to be growing feed for livestock in a way that’s ultimately so inefficient?” Both Anna and her mother have concerns about the new meat alternatives. They worry that even if they do lead to less grain consumption, or are more humane for animals, many are heavily processed. They would also like to know more about how the plants that go into them are grown. “Any message that reinforces the idea that somehow you have to buy a packaged product in order to eat in the plant world is, is not helpful.” “One of the core principles of eating a climate-friendly diet, is eating as much real food as possible, so not processed food. I think the question should be not just is something meat, or is it not or is it not meat, but were pesticides used, toxic pesticides? Were synthetic fertilizers that are incredibly energy intensive to produce? All of these questions go into essentially understanding what is the impact of the food we’re eating.” “There’s Angie.” As for Frances Moore Lappé, herself, she is having a renaissance. She’s in demand as a speaker, and along with Anna, is preparing a 50th anniversary edition of “Diet for a Small Planet.” “Hi.” “There’s been enormous change in our culture around food since I wrote my book — just enormous change.” “Thank you so much.” “People often ask me, ‘Wasn’t it hard to give up meat?’ And I say, ‘No, it was so exciting.’ This was about foundational change. And a system that was really destructive and not serving us. It was very much about finding our voice and having power. And to make, in some small way, some difference in the world.”