The Future of Protein Dinner

Additional course content

Course #3
Today in Transition - The Year 2020

While most of us love our animal protein more than ever, we have become clear that we cannot continue to produce and consume it in the quantities we were raised to expect. The energy requirements and ecological consequences of mass production of animal protein are clearly unsustainable, especially as we look towards 10B meat-hungry humans by mid-century. Further, thanks to Michael Pollan and many others, we’ve also rediscovered the essential importance of a plant-based diet - both for optimum human health and for efficient resource use. To demonstrate relative resource efficiency, each portion in this course is the result of the same quantity of energy applied as input. 

food Culture

While most of us love our animal protein more than ever, we have also (re)discovered that pre-industrial methods of animal husbandry and agriculture produce food that tastes better, as well as supporting greater health for both ourselves and the ecosystems that we live within. So while we infuse everything with bacon, we are simultaneously pursuing new ways to create a meaty eating experience without the downsides of factory farming of animals. 

Nutrition

In recent years, the confluence of the locavore, artisan and maker movements have engendered increasing demand for meats from healthy animals that enjoy a natural, pastured life. It turns out - unsurprisingly in retrospect - that meat produced in this natural way both tastes better and is better for our health. And while pastured animals require more space, time and resources to raise - and are therefore less scalable to meet the current global trajectory of demand - these same movements are also intertwined with a growing awareness that eating less meat is desirable for a variety of reasons, making factory-scale production less likely to continue. 

In parallel, a host of startups like Impossible Foods and Modern Meadow are taking an R&D approach to creating what we desire from meat without the use of animals. Whether assembling plant-sourced ingredients in ingenious ways or engineering meat and leather via scientific wizardry, these promising efforts may well lead to a near future in which we raise substantially fewer animals for meat - solving numerous human problems while still eating deliciously. 

environment

The density and scale of factory animal farming combined with the lack of diversity of what is produced on such farms creates effects that are collectively deeply problematic. From the routine application of antibiotics to perpetually sick animals, to a volume of manure that exceeds the ability of the soil and local ecosystems to process it, to the production of vast quantities of climate-changing methane by cattle attempting to digest feed unnatural to them - these are just a few of the dangerous and unsustainable consequences of our current approach to the mass production of animal protein.

This infographic, originally published in the New York Times, equates 320 calories of beef vs. vegetables, which shows a difference of 16x more gasoline equivalent energy to produce the beef. When recalculated on an ounce-by-ounce basis, the amount of energy required to make 1oz of beef is approximately 58x more than it takes to produce 1oz of the vegetables/grains depicted above. 

This infographic, originally published in the New York Times, equates 320 calories of beef vs. vegetables, which shows a difference of 16x more gasoline equivalent energy to produce the beef. When recalculated on an ounce-by-ounce basis, the amount of energy required to make 1oz of beef is approximately 58x more than it takes to produce 1oz of the vegetables/grains depicted above. 

PROTEIN PRODUCTION

Today, a well-funded and wide range of startup companies are pursuing a variety of innovative approaches to creating the eating experience we crave without any animals as input. A key discovery driving these efforts is that the substances essential to meaty flavor and mouthfeel exist in plants as well as animals - and multiple teams of food scientists have already engineered plant-based meats that are nearly indistinguishable from traditional animal proteins.

Some of the most interesting such companies include: Impossible Foods (plant-based meats); Modern Meadow (cultured meat and leather); Muufri (cultured milk); and New Wave Foods (cultured seafood).