VIDEO: The Week in Sustainability – September 5–9, 2022

September 8, 2022
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All about the benefits of plant-based meat.

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Each week, Sustain.Life’s sustainability team offers commentary about the week’s most pressing issues and stories in sustainability and ESG. Watch every episode here.

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Transcript of this week’s episode of The Week in Sustainability

Annalee Bloomfield
Hi, I'm Annalee Bloomfield, CEO at Sustain.Life. I'm filling in for our chief sustainability officer, Alyssa Rade while she is taking some much-deserved vacation out in the woods. This is The Week in Sustainability, where our team of practitioners and experts get together to talk about some of the most important issues and stories and sustainability. This week I'm joined today by fellow colleagues at Sustain.Life, Constanze and Nick. 

Constanze Duke
Hi everyone. I'm Constance Duke. I am the director of sustainability at Sustain.Life and I lead our technical practice.

Nick Liu-Sontag
And I'm Nick Liu-Sontag. I'm a senior manager on our sustainability team, and I work with Constanze to help build our platform.

Annalee Bloomfield
Thanks guys. And so today, we're going to be talking about food. There's been some great articles in the press this week. We're thinking about fake meat, cellular ag, upcycled food—what it means thinking about sustainability and who it's for. So I'll let you guys take it away.

Nick Liu-Sontag
Sure, I can start. So there was a recent article that was published in a sustainable food journal, a peer-reviewed journal that did a review of plant-based meats and cellular-based meats and their environmental impacts.

And basically, this is new data that we haven't really had before. And so we have a better understanding now of some of these meat alternatives and how they compare to meet itself. And I think some of the most starking numbers came out obviously from a carbon perspective, but also from a land use and water use perspective. So from a carbon perspective, let's just talk about plant-based meats right now, which are things like Impossible beef and Beyond burger, those types of things that are made from plant products. They're they're coming out with a carbon footprint that's about 99% less than beef. That's not that surprising. It's about half or a third for products like poultry and pork.

And then looking at it from a land use perspective, also significantly less land use for developing plant-based meats makes a lot of sense cause you don't need as much land for grazing animals. You just need the land for growing whatever are the plant inputs to your product are. So some really fascinating numbers that I pulled together. So first of all, almost half, 40% of the lower 48 states, almost half of that land goes towards grazing pasture and livestock feed. So basically 40% of our land in the U.S. is for growing animals, and let's say we shift 20% of meat consumption to plant-based alternatives. We would gain back—this is back of the envelope—but 150 million acres of land which is about the area of Montana and Idaho combined. And that's only 20%. So I think that's a that's like a realistic, achievable target. And when you think about how much land you think about all the opportunities for additional recreation and rewilding and then also carbon sequestration as if that land grows back into forest, then those trees are sucking up a lot of carbon. 

And so it's the kind of thing where it kind of has cascading effects.

These types of transitions can also have holistic benefits. It's not just about climate, it's about outdoor space and wild areas for people to enjoy.

So pretty interesting stuff. And then you know, on the carbon front, again if 20% of beef consumption was switched to plant-based proteins, we'd reduce North American CO2 by about 75 million metric tons of carbon a year. That's about the carbon footprint of the entire country of Chile. So again, huge opportunities and this is a growing market, but it's really exciting to see some of these new numbers come into the four.

Annalee Bloomfield
Remind us, Nick, where it is North America or maybe the U.S. specifically, where do we fall in terms of meat consumption?

Nick Liu-Sontag
I think it's something around 12% of the global meet demand is in North America or the U.S.

Constanze Duke
Yeah, I think I've seen something a little higher, maybe around 22%. So yeah, it's kind of difficult to find statistics around that. But we do know that per capita, North America leads all other regions in terms of meat consumption.

Annalee Bloomfield
That's why we think about sort of the global impact of meat consumption. Obviously, the U.S. isn't the whole story, but we're, you know, eating meat at an incredible rate.

Nick Liu-Sontag
Yeah. And I think another part of the story is the expectation that developing parts of the world will start to consume a lot more meat as well. And so if that starts to happen, demand will balloon. And so then there is a really an even bigger opportunity for these types of plant-based products.

Constanze Duke
This reminds me, doou guys remember, maybe back in 2018 that map that Bloomberg put out about land use in the U.S.? They basically sectioned everything off into the different land uses like, housing, timberland, and grazing. Grazing literally just took up the entire center section of the U.S. map. It was such an interesting illustration to kind of put everything into perspective.

Nick Liu-Sontag
Yeah. Something we don't really think about, especially if you live in an urban area because you don't really see, but out West it's the majority of the land out there. And this is for land use in general, something we think a little bit less about when we're making choices in the grocery store.

But it's one thing that comes up with grass-fed beef, because grass-fed beef is often marketed as a really great product. Maybe some people say it's healthier for you. I'm not really sure. I don't eat beef. But grass-fed beef is not really a viable alternative, environmentally speaking because, if you're still eating meat, which is still an inefficient way to get your protein, but more importantly, grass-fed beef just takes up a lot of space, takes up a lot of land, and if we converted all beef consumption to grass-fed beef, we wouldn't have land for anything else.

Annalee Bloomfield
That's really interesting. The article mentioned that grass-fed beef just takes a lot longer to grow. And so if you think about like the sort of like cow burps as like a big sort of part of the carbon footprint and the cows being alive longer to grow longer, eating grass sort of meaningfully adds to their footprint, which was I just had never thought about that dynamic before.

Constanze Duke
Yeah, I think that's a really good point. And methane production is actually something that this new technology called cellular agriculture or cultivated meat can also address. And I was really excited this week because I saw an article about the Israeli startup called Mermaid. They're working on cultivated scallops, which I think is pretty exciting. So there was an article in TechCrunch. And it's not quite growing meat in a lab, which is really difficult—trying to replicate the texture and all that. So the really exciting thing about cultivated seafood is that it's easier to replicate the texture. And Mermaid came up with a technology to use essentially upcycled components of algae or microalgae as a growth medium. And just going back a step, I don't know if you know, if everyone remembers, but it was almost 10 years ago that the first cultivated burger was served at a London press conference and with all the research and everything that went into it, it came out to this whopping price tag of $330,000. And so now, 10 years later, they're more than 70 companies who are working on cultured meat and that same burger would come in at under $10 today.

And part of why it's so expensive to grow cultured meat is because it's difficult and expensive to come up with growth media for it. They typically consume 55% to 90% of the budget. But Mermaid is using microalgae that's fed with biowaste, so it's almost a circular process and it's very cheap. And so they're anticipating that once their product hits the market, it's going to be even less expensive than current meat alternatives. So it's similar to aquaponics or hydroponics, but cell-based growth and there's also a lot of investor interest in this we've seen. So we had 15 startups in 2021 who raised $175 million, which was double from what they were able to raise in 2020. And there was one company called Future Meat that raised over €300 million in December of last year, so a lot of interest there. Similar to plant-based meats as Nick mentioned, cellular agriculture also reduces water and land use by as much as 95% compared to animal farming. We've already talked about the methane reduction. There's also the potential for reducing antibiotics and growth hormones and all these things that are related to public health and superbugs and antibiotic resistance.

And then depending on how the infrastructure is built for cell ag, if they guide it in cities, for instance, you can also help reduce food transportation, although I do feel I should emphasize here because we always say this, that the transport of food is much less impactful from an emissions perspective than the food production itself. So what you eat is much more important for the climate than where your food comes from.

Nick Liu-Sontag
Yeah, but if you're saying we should grow fresh scallops in New York Harbor, I mean, who can resist?

Constanze Duke
And yes, you could do that. Not in the harbor, but in a lab.

Nick Liu-Sontag
Fair enough. Yeah, in the harbor.

Nick Liu-Sontag
We talk about circularity a lot, but a lot of times circularity in practice involves many different parties—sort of materials moving through many different organizations or businesses. But this is kind of a beautiful thing because it's circularity within their own process that kind of feeds itself.

So that's that's really amazing.

Constanze Duke
Yeah, and the algae upcycling is something I just thought was really cool. Speaking of upcycling, we saw some things in the news about that too. So maybe let's touch on that as well.

Nick Liu-Sontag
Yeah, upcycling food waste or food byproducts, agricultural byproducts. This is something that already happens for some products—upcycling wheat millings and taking those products and actually fortifying cereal with it or taking the sort of solid squish remains of fruits after they've been juiced and putting that into snack foods.

I think it's about 1/3 of food production globally is lost between the farm and the consumers' trash bin. And a lot of that—this consumer food waste or pre-consumer food waste, like the carrot tops and stuff like that. But a lot of that is also these byproducts that, a lot of time, don't go to use and just get tossed out or maybe composted at best, but if we can turn them into another product, then we can save a lot of that food.

Constanze Duke
Yeah, that's always really shocking. And I'll just quickly plug a documentary here. It's a little bit older. It came out in 2014, but it's called, Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story and it's an award-winning documentary. It was such a joy to watch. And it's basically a couple that figures out how much of a problem food waste is. And so they decide for six months to live only on primarily foods that would otherwise have gone to waste. And it's really interesting how it turns out. I don't want to give away too much, but it's worth a watch.

Nick Liu-Sontag
This kind of sparked our thinking for other upcycling other business ideas where that are coming out of the market and and some of the things that I wrote down were there's a company called Ecovative Design, which specializes in using fungal mycelium, which are basically the roots of fungi to create products. And so right now, their main product is like a Styrofoam replacement for product packaging snd it looks just like a cardboard material, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. The fungi is dead, but the beautiful part about their process is they use agricultural waste products and so they can obtain those products very cheaply, because those are things that would normally not be used or be worth anything. So it allows them to bring down costs and it's kind of a beautiful thing. They are also working on a building insulation product—that was a while ago. I haven't seen anything about that, but in college, I actually did a little research project growing fungi for them. And that was pretty fun. So shout out to Ecovative.

And then another idea, very different, is when we're cooling a space, we have all this excess heat, which normally just gets ejected to the air outside. But thinking about buildings, how we can repurpose that heat for other uses and so something that I've evaluated in the past and was nearly incorporated into the design for a building was actually pulling the heat from the server closets because servers need a lot of cooling and putting that into domestic hot water for the building itself. So it would heat the hot water for the showers. So kind of a circularity within a building in terms of energy flows, which is pretty cool.

Annalee Bloomfield
We just put in a heat pump hot water heater at my house and our basement is now really, really cold because the heat pump is sort of, you know, using the ambient heat to heat the water and into our basement is really cold. But the rest of the house is so hot because it's the summer. And so we've been sort of thinking to ourselves and saying like, oh, can we put ducts somewhere in our house to get this cold air from our basement into the rest of the house? So it's probably a project for another day. But I love being able to use things like that internally. It's so cool.

Nick Liu-Sontag
Yeah, absolutely. Just use the basement as a fridge.

Annalee Bloomfield
Yeah, yeah. Or we could start sleeping down there.

Constanze Duke
There you go. We also have a company up here in Oregon. It's called Looptworks. They make upcycled apparel and accessories, and they're essentially relying on all the waste that comes out of the fashion industry. And I think they also did a collaboration with Delta Airlines to use their discarded uniforms to make into new apparel and backpacks and things like that. So I think that's pretty cool. I think we have to give a shout out to one of the OG upcyclers, which is TerraCycle that's been around for over 20 years, and I remember how fascinating this was in the early 2000s. They would collect snack wrappers that were not recyclable anywhere and basically made them into these colorful purses and wallets and things like that.

Annalee Bloomfield
I love these companies who kind of set a goal for people around how you could actually use waste. I also loved the purses when they first came out with them, I still do. But you know, I'm sure not all of our snack wrappers will fit into purses one day, but it's just so aspirational to see and to think like how you can really turn all of this waste into something really cool and useful and give it another life. I just love that so much and I think, like your documentary, Just Eat It, I feel like I see my fridge as like a personal challenge. How can we use absolutely everything in here? And I think my husband isn't always as excited as I am about that challenge, but that I think having these companies and documentaries out there, they really inspire us to do more in our own lives and not just inspire us, but give us sort of tactical ideas about how to do that, which is so helpful.

Constanze Duke
Yeah. And it's something any company can do, you know, assess your processes and look at your activities and find materials that may have another use, whether you upcycle them or reuse them. They're there are ways to, you know, kind of reduce the amount of operational waste they produce that way.

Annalee Bloomfield
Absolutely. So I think I had just a few questions for the end. As we talk about food, going back to the fake meat story, the upcycled food products, who do we think these products are really best for? Like if we were going to give listeners some advice around how do you reduce your personal footprint and what can you do, sort of incrementally yourself, who are these products best for and maybe who are they sort of not as intended for?

Nick Liu-Sontag
I think especially the for the cell-based meats which are more, I don't know if they're indistinguishable, again, I've never had it because I don't have $300,000 for a burger. But but I think…

Constanze Duke
Yeah, it's less than $10 now, but it's new technology. So it might be hard to come by.

Nick Liu-Sontag
Yeah, but I think the idea is they're pretty indistinguishable from regular meat or much more similar. And so those definitely fit better into someone who still wants to eat some meat and wants sort of craves the flavor of it. More of the plant-based foods I think are better for cultural events—you're having a barbecue and you have vegetarians coming over or not even vegetarians, you just want to offer less meat for environmental or health reasons or something we haven't touched on. Then those are great options because they kind slot right into the existing cuisine—they can serve everybody.

Constanze Duke
Yeah, I agree with this. Meat or plant-based meats for people who are already fully plant-based are not really a staple, they're not as important. These people have already committed to eating, you know, just cooked plants without the processing. If you have someone who wants to go plant-based in a family that otherwise still eats meat, it just feels more integrated to have something on your plate that looks like everybody else's. So I think that's probably a prime market. Like Nick said, there's so much culture and tradition attached to it. So if people do go to events, it's nice to just have the alternative and not to have to look for non-meat sides. Even for those of us who eat just plants, every now and then, it's just kind of a nice to have the alternatives that are coming out now. Some of them are absolutely amazing—I can't even believe how good plant-based feta cheese is. I don't know how this happened, but it's amazing.

Annalee Bloomfield
And then upcycled foods like where do they fit into this? Is that just great for anyone to work them in where you can?

Constanze Duke
You see this with Imperfect Foods or Misfits Market or the original Ugly Produce in France. Those are really popular. It's an opportunity for people to buy more fresh food and often at a reduced cost. And that's food that otherwise would have gone to waste.

Nick Liu-Sontag
And you get so many things that you would not normally cook with, like kohlrabi, which I've never cooked with before, but that was a challenge, but it was good.

Annalee Bloomfield
I love it. We talked to one great company that works in the seafood industry and they sell their fish offcuts through Misfits Market, which is awesome. We actually had some the other day here and it was delicious. We served it over salad—I didn't care that it wasn't a gigantic filet. I felt really good that I was taking a piece of fish that might otherwise have gone to waste. It was just a really satisfying experience intellectually and physically.

Constanze Duke
Right, love it.

Annalee Bloomfield
Well, thanks for letting me crash The Week in Sustainability. It was a pleasure getting to talk with both of you about food. Do we have any last thoughts for listeners?

Nick Liu-Sontag
I think that covers it for me.

Constanze Duke
I think it's good to emphasize that there are also health benefits and animal welfare benefits and a lot of things we just don't have time to touch on. But yeah, it's worth looking into everything that goes along with eating more plants and cutting back on meat.

Annalee Bloomfield
Well, with that, I'm going to go look for some plant-based feta. Thanks guys.

More from Sustain.Life
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The takeaway

• What contributes to the lower carbon footprint of plant-based meat?
• The future of cellular agriculture
• Cultivated scallops made from algae
• Upcycled food and waste
• Who is plant-based meat best for?