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How I Underestimated Plant-Based Meat

I spent the last year of my life trying to move society away from the cruel and archaic system of factory farming by starting a cell-based meat company. I was originally attracted to cell-based meat because of the high potential upside. If it succeeded, cell-based meat could be 100% of the market and completely replace factory farming. I knew that the massive engineering, regulatory, and marketing challenges gave it a high risk of failure, but in expected value terms it still looked good. Working in the space was high-risk, high-potential-upside.

On the other hand, I saw plant-based meat as lower-risk, lower-potential-upside. While 10% market penetration seemed plausible, I couldn’t see it being 100% of the market, despite what entrepreneurs like Pat Brown said. The problem in my mind was that cell-based meat could be meat, while plant-based meat would always merely imitate meat.

I therefore focused on cell-based meat. I didn’t mind taking on risk, and I wanted to chase the highest possible upside.

I now believe that my thinking was off. The narrative of the high-risk high-potential-upside option vs. the low-risk low-potential-upside option was too simplistic. I now think plant-based meat is similar to cell-based meat in that it has an unlikely but nonzero chance of being 100% of the market.

My goal isn’t to overhype plant-based meat. In fact, I don’t think it’s likely that either plant-based meat or cell-based meat becomes 100% of the market. However, I think they both have a shot, which makes them both extremely important to work on. The most likely outcome for cell-based meat is that one of the major challenges proves to be insurmountable, and it largely fails. The most likely outcome for plant-based meat is that it continues to grow until it reaches a much larger, but still minority share of the market (e.g. 1–10%). I still think that clean meat is slightly more likely than plant-based meat to reach 100% of the market, but not by much.

If you knew the future, you’d be a billionaire

Tech often changes society in surprising ways. For example, Uber is having massive impacts in the transportation sector with a relatively simple ride-sharing platform. Imagine being pitched the idea of Uber ten years ago. The notion that ride-sharing could completely change how people get around would have seemed absurd. You might have thought “there are just people who would never get into a stranger’s car.” Clearly, this would have underestimated Uber’s potential. We should be open to similar surprises for plant-based meat.

Old plant-based brands like Morningstar and Boca Burger were meant to fulfill the function of meat for vegetarians. They did not closely mimic the taste and texture of animal meat. Since they were thought of as worse meat for vegetarians, they were mostly ridiculed by broader society.

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The new breed of plant-based brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are different. They closely emulate the taste and texture of animal meat and primarily try to appeal to meat eaters. They don’t yet stand up in blind taste tests, but they do much better than previous products. As a result, they are taken more seriously. In the coming years, we will see these trends continue–products will get more realistic, cheaper and more widely available.

The main argument that I hear against plant-based meat is “there are just people who would never eat plant-based meat over real meat.” However, I think this argument views plant-based meat under the old paradigm: if someone thinks plant-based meat is just worse meat for vegetarians, then it’s clear why they would think it could never have mass appeal.

However, people won’t always think about plant-based meat in this way. What will happen once plant-based meat is cheaper and stands up to animal meats in blind taste tests? What about if plant-based meats can offer something completely new that can’t be matched with animals? How will people react if more and more of their non-vegetarian friends are regularly eating plant-based meat? Or if plant-based meat is viewed as respectable, socially conscious, and high status? There is a chance that even the staunchest meat eaters would enjoy plant-based meat once they stop seeing it as worse meat for vegetarians.

How plant-based meat could win

How could plant-based meat actually become 100% of the market? There are roughly two ways I can see it playing out. In one scenario, plant-based meat succeeds on its own merits. In such a scenario, there would be high quality plant-based meats in enough product categories to fundamentally change the economic viability of animal farming. This would require massive product innovation, decrease in costs, and increased openness from consumers.

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A second, more likely, scenario is that improvements in plant-based meat work synergistically with anti-factory-farming advocacy. Animal welfare and environmental protection groups are already working to eliminate factory farms. They face an uphill battle because many consumers and institutions feel that animal meat is irreplaceable. Truly convincing plant-based meats could lessen this resistance, making the advocacy groups more effective.

The second scenario is the ideal outcome since it is more future-proof. If we succeed in eliminating factory farms, but don’t change the societal values that made the creation of such a system possible, we risk regressing in the future. Technological innovation in animal farming could cause it to make a resurgence [1], or society’s continued growth could lead to some new atrocity against animals. Alternatively, if we make society’s values more animal-friendly, these scenarios are less likely.

Success outcomes are independent

The scenarios in which plant-based meat becomes 100% of the market are independent from the ones in which cell-based meat becomes 100% of the market.

Plant-based meat has two primary challenges. The first is using new technology to create amazing products. The second is showing consumers that the products aren’t merely worse versions of meat for vegetarians.

On the other hand, the primary challenge for cell-based meat is technical. Companies still need to show that it’s possible to produce cell-based meat cheaply at scale. The other major challenges are ensuring a favorable regulatory environment, and increasing consumer acceptance of cell-culture-based food.

Any of these challenges could block full market penetration for their respective technologies. However, it’s possible for plant-based meat to overcome its challenges while cell-based meat fails, and vice versa. Therefore, as a community we should pursue both plant-based and cell-based meat to maximize our chances of completely replacing factory farms.

Consider working on plant-based meat

The cell-based meat industry is currently extremely small, with less than $100M in funding globally. Most companies in the space can only afford to hire scientists, since their primary activity is R&D. This situation could change over the next couple of years, but in the meantime it can be difficult to contribute as a non-scientist. Despite this, there are many ambitious mission-driven non-scientists who want to work on cell-based meat. Their interest and potential labor represents a major resource that the cell-based meat industry can’t currently utilize.

Some of these people might think, like I did, that plant-based meat is the low-risk low-potential upside companion to cell-based meat. I have argued here against this notion.

Unlike in cell-based meat, there’s lots of important non-science work in plant-based meat that can be done right away. Entrepreneurs can start new companies in relatively neglected areas like seafood, foodservice, and kids markets. Business people can continue to strategize about how to increase the reach of plant-based meats, then put these strategies into action. Food scientists can continue to create innovative and delicious products.


Thanks to Alene Anello, Charles He, and Caleb Ontiveros for feedback on drafts of this post.

Footnotes

[1] For example, technologies like this cow feed could drastically lower the environmental impact of beef production. All else equal, this is good for the world. However, factory farms are bad for many other reasons, and advances like this could make advocacy more difficult.

Robert Yaman2 Comments