Business Unusual

Making climate change easier to swallow

A big part of the carbon crisis is agriculture, and a big part of that is the meat industry. Agriculture contributes 11% of the global CO2 emissions which is significant as it makes it second only to energy. But besides for the CO2 contribution about 16% of the greenhouse gases emitted by volume is methane and that comes almost exclusively from meat farming and cows in particular.

If we reduced the number of cows, we reduce both methane and CO2. We also get a lot more land and water back as much of the crops that are grown are not for human consumption but to feed to animals.

You may be surprised then that we are not doing more to reduce the number of cows and the answer is because we had little way to reduce the demand for beef. In fact, as nations become more affluent, meat consumption increases.

Solving this not only averts a climate crisis, but it can also address a major health issue as meat-based diets come with significant health issues.

Here follows the story of two men called Brown, though unrelated, and a plan to make meat without using animals.

Agriculture is second to energy as CO2 emitter. Source: Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions

Methane makes up 16% of greenhouse emissions and most comes from cattle Source: Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions

Two men named Brown helping us go green

It is a story of science, marketing and an idea whose time has come.

The first Brown is Patrick, a Stanford professor of biochemistry. He took a sabbatical in 2009 and resolved to create an alternative to meat to counter the simple unsustainability of the industry, he called it Impossible Foods. He determined that the problem with plant replacement meat is that they lacked a key flavour profile in beef: heme. More on that later.

The second Brown is Ethan. He cut his teeth in the energy sector, is an MBA with fond memories of his experiences on the farm. His issue like his namesake was that the meat production industry is unsustainable given the cost to the environment, animal welfare and human health.

He founded Beyond Meat in 2009 and set out to find a way to make a plant taste as good as meat.

In the last 10 years, working as competitors but towards the same goal they have seen the appetite for addressing the issue grow not only from those concerned about the animals or the environment but hard-nosed venture capitalists looking for the next unicorn.

When Beyond Food listed in early May 2019 it marked a new era in meat alternatives and finally allowed us to find out what unicorns are made of. The $3.8 billion IPO says it is made of soy protein, beetroot juice, coconut oil, potato protein and heme.

Heme is the stuff that makes blood work and gives the active substance in a blood cell haemoglobin its name. It is a coordination complex consisting of an iron ion coordinated to a porphyrin acting as a tetradentate ligand, and to one or two axial ligands if you must know. Besides the critical work to keep cells alive, it is also the taste we best associate with meat.

The good news is that heme occurs in plants too, just not as much. The big leap forward with both of these products is where they get the heme. It is grown in yeast, allowing for a burger according to the makers to be created using only 5% of the land while using 74% less water and an impressive 87% reduction in greenhouse gas.

So, problem solved? Not quite. They are not profitable yet. The meat industry is massive, and neither company nor their competitors can meet the demand (yes, I know what I did there). You can get them in most US supermarkets. Burger King is expanding its Impossible Whoppers across the US while McDonald's has its version available in locations across Europe. But to scale the operations costs must be managed. These alternatives are still more expensive than the meat equivalent, and while they have managed to reduce the salt content it is still higher than a regular burger.

But considering these are only 10-year-old companies, the issues with scale and cost can be managed as long as those who choose to eat it find it tastes good enough to pay for it.

Greener grass

While meat is the elephant in the room, there may be some good news relating to another plant that we are heavily dependant on - wheat. The issue is that it only lasts one season after which all the ground needs to be ploughed and planted. New plants have shallow roots and so need more water than established plants with deep roots. They also need more fertiliser even though they can capture it all. A new wheat variety is being developed that does not need to be removed each season, which means more harvests, less water and less fertiliser run-off. More drought resistance and less chance of a heavy downpour or heat wave ruining the crop.

The issue at the moment is the yield, but in time, this should be improved, and we can look forward to our daily bread becoming less labour and cost intensive.

Finally, the move to plant-based production also allows for vertical farming to thrive. Using warehouses stacked with perfectly controlled light and temperature environments, no pests and optimum water use should see production yields increase. Because they can be built in warehouses, they can be built near the markets that will consume them reducing the transport needs. And as they are effectively modified warehouses, we have robots that can do the work effectively looking after the crops from seed to finished product.

Climate change is a real and critical issue facing humanity, but we did not get to be a 7 billion plus organism without getting a few things right and hopefully thanks to two men named Brown we might just be able to fix this.

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