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Industrial animal agriculture sits at the intersection of many of the most pressing challenges facing human and non-human animal kind. To alleviate these pressures in the wake of rising global meat demand, we must accelerate the development of alternative proteins that compete with their conventional animal counterparts on the basis of taste, price, and convenience. Students are uniquely positioned to drive this food system transformation by influencing some of the most powerful institutions in our economy—colleges and universities. 

In this EA Student Summit 2020 talk, The Good Food Institute's Amy Huang explains how you can turn your university into a powerhouse for alternative protein education, research, and innovation.

Transcript: How students will lead the alternative protein revolution


Hi everyone. My name is Amy Huang, and I am so delighted to be here with you today. We're going to talk about the pivotal role that students play in ensuring the success of alternative proteins. But before we do that, let's talk briefly about why it's so essential that we rethink our meat production processes in the first place. So this is meat and intuitively meat is very simple to us. It's something we know and understand. It's been a staple of the human diet since as far back as our species can remember. And it's kind of at the center of a lot of our cultural traditions, at the center of social bonding. It is something we use to signal our wealth and our machissimo. And yet meat is exceptionally complicated. And we're going to explore some of the reasons why it's exceptionally complicated in this next slide.

Something we talk about a lot in the EA community is the unfathomable, just incomprehensible amounts of animal suffering that are caused by industrial animal agriculture. Something that you think animals are moral patients that are worthy of our compassion and our consideration, then this alone warrants a good food revolution. However, what is talked about a little bit less frequently in the EA community is that industrial animal agriculture sits at the intersection of some of the most pressing issues we face today. One of these issues is climate change and environmental devastation. The United Nations has reliably reported that industrial animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. And depending on which report you read from which independent agency of the United Nations, it's estimated that industrial animal agriculture accounts for between 14 and 51% of global greenhouse emissions; in reality, it's probably somewhere in between. Beyond that, it's also leading cause of biodiversity loss across the world. It is primarily responsible for the natural resource scarcity that we're experiencing in terms of land and fresh water and nutrient runoff. So that's kind of the first bucket of intersecting cause areas that pose existential risks to our species. The second is the relationship that industrial animal agriculture is almost guaranteeing the next global pandemic. In recent years, 75% of novel human pathogens are zoonotic in nature. That means it stems from animals. Furthermore, the relationship that we have with the natural world and with animal kind is largely to blame for that. We also know that industrial animal agriculture is one of the reasons there's a growing threat of antimicrobial resistance in our world today. That's because animals consume twice as many medically important antibiotics as humans do, which is contributing to a skyrocketing threat of antimicrobial resistance. It's projected that we might start experiencing 10 million deaths annually from AMR-related causes in 2050. So, the fourth cause area is that of global food insecurity as it relates to extreme global poverty. In conclusion, at the center of this intersecting cause area is the tremendous inefficiency of industrial animal agriculture as a vehicle for producing food and that this inefficiency is being exhibited in the face of extreme resource scarcity.

So, we'll explore this idea a little bit more deeply now. What do I mean by tremendous inefficiency in the face of resource scarcity? Well, let's start with the resource part of this equation. On Earth's surface, or 29% of Earth's surface is comprised of land. And of that 29%, 71% of it is habitable land. Of that habitable land, 50% of that is already used for agriculture. The remaining 50% is comprised of our dwindling forests and shrub land. And of that 50% that's already used for agriculture, 77% of it is used in livestock production. That 77% is only used to produce 33% of our protein supply in the form of meat and dairy. So, you're probably asking, like I asked, why does this dichotomy exist? Why is it that we have most of our agricultural land being used to produce the relative minority of our protein supply? Well, the answer to that question really comes down to the animal at the center of our meat production systems. Take the chicken, for example. The chicken is one of the most efficient processors of food. It has been relentlessly optimized for efficiency and yet, in the case of the chicken, it still takes nine energy calories in the form of soy, beans, legumes, wheat in order to turn out a single calorie for human consumption. So, this chicken, no matter how much it's been optimized, we're still met with a fundamental thermodynamic inefficiency because chickens need to take those calories in and do chicken things like, think maybe chicken thoughts, and peck, and eat, and digest. As a result, this means that every time we're entering the transaction of eating a chicken, we're causing 800% food waste in the process. The soy, wheat, legumes that could otherwise be used to feed a growing number of hungry people around the world. So that's what I mean by inefficiency. All these things that we've talked about, the environmental devastation, the growing threat of climate change, the mounting threat of global pandemics and antimicrobial resistance, and the kind of moral pressures of animal suffering are exacerbated by the fact that our global population is only skyrocketing.

Global meat demand is expected to grow right alongside the number of people on our planet. You can see here that by 2050, the world's population is anticipated to increase by 30%, but demand for poultry alone will increase by 120%. So, all those things we talked about are really only mounting in their urgency. And that is why we're posed with this question of how we will feed 10 billion people by 2050; and even more importantly, how will we feed these people ethically, sustainably, securely, and in a way that's resilient, that adds to the resilience of our species. The Good Food Institute thinks we have some pretty good answers for you. The answer is by producing the same meat people love, but with plants and fungi, animal cells, and microbes. What I'm talking about is alternative proteins. I'm not talking about tofu or tempeh or the sad, lonely, black bean burger that sits on the menu that nobody really loves. The sensory experience of conventional animal products that are grown directly from animal cells, plants, and microbes instead of evolving the raising and slaughtering of a whole live animal.

How GFI works to advance alternative proteins is threefold. We push on three different levers of the change making process in order to accelerate the path to alternative proteins reliably feeding a growing global population. The first of these levers is the science and technology team. The second is corporate engagement. The third is policy; across our three teams and levers, we engage with scientists and engineers and students and companies and entrepreneurs and policymakers to ensure that we are really creating a massive ecosystem and clearing a regulatory pathway and ensuring sufficient technological maturity for alternative proteins to thrive. I sit here on the science and technology team and what our team does is we focus on analyzing where we are today and where we need to be 10, 20, 30 years down the road in order to sustainably feed the world with these novel food technologies. We also analyze the many hundreds of white space opportunities in between. So, what are the research projects that need to be done? What are the companies that need starting? What are the ecosystem level interventions that we need to undertake in order to be successful in this quest to dismantle industrial animal agriculture? What we find is that there are really opportunities along the entire value chain. To learn more about these specific opportunities, you can join me at a workshop happening tomorrow where I dive into each of these white spaces in more detail.

But there are two critical missing puzzle pieces that in talking to experts in the alternative protein field, we've identified that I want to focus on today. The first is the lack of science and engineering talent. That means that we see a lot of companies kind of vying for talent in this space because there isn't really a pipeline to train scientists and engineers in alternative protein science. The second is the dearth of publicly available research. What we see a lot of is companies that are kind of doing all their research at the proprietary level. They're really working on the same exact questions and to end what are the right crops for us to use to make the best plant-based meat? What are the best ways for us to engineer growth factors in order to feed animal cells? So that leads me to the institutions that are built around turning out highly skilled talent, a highly skilled workforce, and a lot of publicly available research - and that is universities. Universities are really at the center of turning out talent and research for any mature field out there in the world. I mean, you can take the big tech industry, for example. You'd be hard-pressed to find a university that doesn't offer a computer science course or major in order to train students to become talented software engineers in the big tech industry.

Universities really can become engines for alternative protein innovation if we mobilize them effectively. On this slide, you can see some of the ingredients that we need for universities to be powerhouses for alternative protein innovation, to power a talent pipeline for the alternative protein field, and to turn out publicly available research that can kind of advance the whole of human knowledge and bring us closer to a sustainable, healthy, and just food supply. The first of these ingredients is education, right? We really need more alternative protein classes and majors to train future scientists and engineers with the skills that they need to thrive in the industry. The second ingredient is research, investigating critical foundational questions, many of which right now are pre-competitive in nature. So, investigating these foundational questions so that we could advance the state of alternative protein science. Then we need to take those research findings and commercialize those technologies so that in the form of companies, these research findings can make real world impact that result in products on our tables. Lastly, there's a great need for an interdisciplinary community on campus, where we break down the silos that exist within academia and bring a bunch of students and faculty from across the university together. Then these kinds of communities really act as force multipliers for the field. In addition to benefiting from the ecosystems that exist at universities, students really do play a pivotal role in building the alternative protein field. And they do so because they're uniquely positioned. They play kind of a singularly important role in laying the foundation for this kind of ecosystem to exist. Knowing this fact is at the center of my work with the Good Food Institute and of the rest of the talk that I'm going to give you today. So, because students play such a pivotal role in laying the foundation for that ecosystem in generating more courses and research and innovation in the form of companies and building communities, the Good Food Institute, my colleague Annie Osborne and I, recently started the Alt Protein Project, which is a growing global community of student groups that are focused on building ecosystems at universities.

The Alt Protein Project, like I mentioned, is comprised of these student groups. What these student groups are doing is 10x the progress they're making in the alternative protein field. The Chapel Hill Alt Protein Project has decided that it wants to be the converging force of alternative proteins in the entire state of North Carolina. Therefore, they recently held their first ecosystem meetup to stimulate innovation, rallying accelerators, investors, companies, and scientists in the state of North Carolina around this call to action. Our Tel Aviv Alt Protein Project has done a remarkable job of mobilizing more scientists around research opportunities in alternative proteins. The Tel Aviv Alt Protein Project was able to get four labs to submit research proposals and lay the foundations for research consortium that spans the Mediterranean and includes key collaborators like Dr. Mark Post in only three months. We see the Boulder Alt Protein Project and the Davis Alt Protein Project playing a key role in community building for the space holding journal clubs so that students across the university, whether undergraduate or graduate level, can find others that share their interests and overcome the key technological bottlenecks together. We also have the Berkeley Alt Protein Project that has really been doing some incredibly exciting work at starting courses in the alternative protein space. They have a course focus on the future of food that will be launching soon at UC Berkeley. So, you can see how they're helping build out this education pipeline.

What can you do to get involved? Knowing that we strongly believe that as a student, the most impactful thing you can do in your time at the university is to leverage your unique position as a student to build the infrastructure needed for alternative proteins to succeed. Something that is kind of little known about the alternative protein space is the fact that many of the scientists, many of the academics and faculty members who are presently driving forward research advancements in the space, have started their research because one of their students approached them and said “Hey, this is a field that I'm incredibly passionate about. This is a research application that I want to explore.” Those small seed planting endeavors resulted in a lot of the labs that are active in alternative protein science today, expanding their research to include these novel food applications. So never underestimate the influence that students have on shaping the course of entire industries. One of the key things you can do in order to get involved, is to join one of our student groups. We have six active student groups today because we're just starting this program and growing quickly. You see Davis, you see Berkeley, the University of Colorado Boulder, UNC Chapel Hill, Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Tel Aviv University in Israel. In addition to joining one of these student groups, if you happen to be based at those universities, you can start a new student group of your own. We've created a student group guide that has all the resources, tips and tricks that you'll need to know how to start and run a student group.

In addition to the student group guide, we have monthly student leader calls that span our global community for us to kind of share tactics and overcome shared challenges. We have a community Slack where we celebrate our successes. We are growing this program strategically in key regions at key universities that we think are well positioned to lead the charge. So, we're growing the program slowly. But if you were excited about potentially starting a student group, I highly recommend that you read our student group guide and learn a little bit more about what is entailed in kicking off the alternative protein revolution at your university. Now, I say this was full acknowledgement that not everyone is excited about movement building, not everyone has the time that is necessary to get a student group running. In consequence, there are several calls to actions for those of you who are really excited about careers and alternative proteins and don't quite know where to start.

The first of these is our student resource guide, which is really a one stop shop for navigating our various tools and databases and resources like our collaborative research directory, which is a way to figure out which labs interested in alternative proteins or actively driving forward research advancements are hiring for students like you and willing to mentor students like you. We have things like our good food startup manual for those of you with an entrepreneurial spirit who want to learn everything that's involved in getting a good food business up and running. We have funding opportunities through our research grants program, funding projects up to $250,000, and we have an online course. These are just barely scraping the surface of the resources that we've built to help enable students like you to find your path through the alternative protein space. Therefore, I highly recommend you check out gfi.org slash student guide.

The second call to action is to join our community of 2,000 plus scientists and entrepreneurs and students and other innovators that are really focused on helping each other succeed in this field. You can read more about that community at gfi.org/community. We have a monthly seminar series that dives into recent research advancements and alternative protein science that also focuses on highlighting additional white spaces for students like you to pursue. We have a community Slack networking events, regular workshops and discussion groups that allow you to interface with some of the leading experts in our field. If you are as excited about the potential of alternative proteins to move our society away from the harmful practices involved in industrial animal agriculture and toward modernized meat production systems in the form of plant-based meat, cultivated meat, fermentation derived, proteins, then check out gfi.org for lots of our open access tools and resources, contact me at amyh@gfi.org. Everything that we talked about today really isn't possible without students like you working furiously to do the research that needs to be done, to start the companies that need to be started and who are playing just a tremendous role in laying the foundation for alternative proteins to thrive. With all of that said, I'm super grateful for your time and attention today and I'm happy to take any questions that you might have at this point. Thank you so much again.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:47 AM

The transcript of this talk has some errors, e.g.:

  • "bleeding cause of biodiversity" (should be "leading cause of biodiversity")
  • "birth of publicly available research" (should be "dearth of publicly available research")
  • "Guzhu Institute" (should be "Good Food Institute")

Concerns with the ALT meat movement.

The issues with factory farms are certainly valid and the truth of the inhumanity present in the way meat is produced at industrial scales needs to be elevated to the public consciousness. 

  1. Technology as a solution in this space is highly concerning due to the expected resource consumption to produce meat simulating products given our current manufacturing processes. 
  2. Once the technology becomes more readily available, it will continue to concentrate economic power to the conglomerates of corporations who lack a moral center to directly address the issues of animal suffering, human suffering (workers rights and poverty wages), and global climate change.
  3. Alternative technological meat ignores the incredible and often ignored indigenous wisdom of stewarding local ecosystems to provide effective nutrient dense, protein rich food sources through intentional and sustainable methods. 

Personal disclaimers: I do eat meat and I have experimented with following a vegan lifestyle. My religious beliefs provided me the opportunity to witness and participate in an animal sacrifice and slaughter. I did not raise the animal, I was only present in its death and consumption as food. 

Please reach out if you would like to learn more about my experience. I would love to discuss my observations and reflections with other EA before creating a forum post on this sensitive subject.