Hey EA community,
 

My name is Karthik Sekar. I am a data scientist in the alternative food space who had a research career in bioengineering and systems biology. I recently authored a book After Meat that I think would appeal to the community. In contrast to the ethical and environmental arguments, I explain the terrible technological limits of animals: A cow takes at least nine months to grow fully, will waste more than 90 percent of what she’s fed, and cannot be innovated that much further. I explain the physics and biology of why animals are so crummy for production and unable to be redeemed. For technological reasons alone, I conclude that fermentation- and plant-based replacements will be better in every way: taste, cost, nutrition on top of the ethical and environmental benefits. It's going to be a win-win, and that's explained by the technological features.

There are some other noteworthy distinguishing characteristics of After Meat:

  1. I’m not terribly optimistic about in vitro meat, i.e. growing meat from animal stem cells. I think it’s akin to going back to the 19th century and trying to replace the horse with an animatronic one. In my view, the transition will occur by drowning out animal products with amazing, novel creations that just weren’t possible before, not by replacing conventional products 1 to 1. And we can do this exceedingly well with microbial fermentation and plant-based foods for technological reasons. I argue the compulsion for molecular exactness slows down the transition, and in the long run, it just won’t matter because we won't care and will have better options.
  2. I espouse the value of genetic modification in the transition. While I don't think this is necessary for complete transition, I emphasize that GMOs will help us get there faster. I also explain the limits of genetic engineering. These limits favor microbes versus animals for food production. 

    I do discuss pandemics some, and I disagree with Toby Ord’s risk assessment for engineered pandemics in The Precipice. The Precipice does not account for these limits of biology nor the limits of prediction in biology. I argue that biology will never reach the abstraction and modularity of electrical engineering. Furthermore, biology runs on chemical diffusion rather than the flow of electrons. So we can’t just crank the power to skirt limits in biology. Anyway, I discuss more in Chapter 5 and the Appendix of After Meat. If that’s a topic that you’re interested in, you’ll notice that the arguments are in general disagreement with the writing of public figures (Toby, Rob Reid) who have pegged the existential risk of engineered pandemics to appreciable percentages.
  3. I argue that the transition is inevitable because the technological reasons are so pronounced and compelling, even more so than the environmental and ethical reasons. But humanity can (and should) do things to accelerate the transition such as tamping down on farming subsidies.
  4. There are many adjacent topics that all connect, e.g. epistemology, morality, hedonism, policy, and futurology. Most readers have enjoyed these, but a few wanted to hit the animals-are-a-terrible-technology points faster. If that’s the case, feel free to proceed as follows: Introduction, Chapter 3, 4, 5 and finally 8.

This project is designed to convince and excite humanity about moving away from animal products. To further that end, 100% of the profits are being donated to the following charities:

  • The Good Food Institute
  • Animal Charity Evaluator’s Recommended Charity Fund
  • Effective Altruism’s Animal Welfare Fund
  • Faunalytics

Furthermore, digital versions are pay-what-you-want. If buying After Meat makes it harder to keep your giving pledge, then no worries and don’t pay anything :)

Links to obtain After Meat:

An audiobook version is 99.9% complete, and I expect will be released officially in the coming week. Send me a message if you want early access.

I hope that you enjoy After Meat, and I’m delighted to discuss any topics or arguments. AMA!



 

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Consider a brilliant 22 year-old Harvard new grad, who is sophisticated, risk taking, and entrepreneurial. 

She has a choice to make:

She can now choose to start a farm animal welfare non-profit or an alternative protein startup.

 

Why she would choose an alternative protein startup:

  • The alternative protein startup might have compensation and tail value equal to tech startups.
  • Also, the business world gives talented entrepreneurs and leadership like her "access to conventional business norms that seem common in the startup scene" (as problematic as this is). While literally the same norms as everyone else in business, this provides "safety" from epiphenomenal activism in certain non-profit sectors, where such behavior—or maybe even assertions or sentiment—could eject a founder after years of work.

Why she would choose a farm animal welfare non-profit:

  • In alternative protein, talent may be extremely crowded, so our Harvard's grad counterfactual impact there might be the same as working for Goldman Sachs.
  • In contrast, her leadership in farm animal welfare would be precious and astronomically impactful and she can inspire countless others.

 

If we care about impact, what can be done for her?

The details will  matter as far as what will have the most impact.

If she's starting another plant-based burger or milk company, a la Beyond Meat or Oatly, then I'd say she can't add so much value because there's already a ton of activity solving that problem. But if she has novel solutions; for example, a new way to make semi-solid lipids at scale, then she can add a lot. Semi-solid lipids are a problem for nearly every alternative food effort; there two "natural" options with coconut oil and palm oil. Also, for what it's worth, many of these companies are struggling with hiring. So rather than starting her own startup, she could join and help an impactful one. That'd likely provide even more safety. 


And likewise, with the non-profit, the details matter too. I write that fighting agriculture subsidies is the biggest barrier to the alternative food revolution. At the time of writing, I couldn't find any organization addressing this problem specifically (likely because lobbying efforts are capped for non-profits). If our wunderkind is willing to tackle that, then she could have a substantial impact.

What is your opinion (or maybe better, "red team") of the recent negative reports on the feasibility of cultured meat and what should the narrative/certainty be around these reports?

Context:

In the last 12 months, credible reports came out against the feasibility of cultured meat, including a comprehensive peer reviewed  paper by David Humbird , a Rethink Priorities review and a Counter article (progressive article with credible specific anecdotes).

The authority of these studies is large compared to the literature and authority that moves beliefs in EA (and other places). So using these standards, we should update against the feasibility of cultured meat.

However, updating could be wrong:

  • All these articles rely on the truth of the Humbird article, just a single person.
  • Maybe these studies assume that spending would only be in the billions, but the technical challenges can be overcome by spending at the $100B level (which would be worth it).

 

What is the Truth? 

There should be signposting so that people and resources are informed and have the opportunity to move to the most impactful area possible.

The reports largely echo my worries about the tractability and feasibility of cultured (in vitro) meat. When I talked with my friend at GFI about it, she sent me this post that  GFI authored, in particular responding to the Counter article: https://gfi.org/cultivated/tea-statement/

The post indicates that there's more information beyond what's available publicly and that these companies and investors are well-versed with the challenges. I know the post rings of a "trust us; we know what we're doing" sentiment and asks for a lot to be taken at face value. So,  the Truth is out there, but, unfortunately, hidden under trade secrets.

As far resource allocation goes to have the most impact,  I wouldn't eliminate cultured meat funding completely, but I would reduce it compared to plant- and fermentation-based technology. It's hard to prognosticate how certain technologies will fare, and so I prefer a hedging, diversified portfolio approach. For that reason, it's good to have cultured meat R&D efforts. Cultured meat may even help in a specific way, such as supplying a few key ingredients but never forming into an entire meat replacement.

Secondly, it's clear that we just need more public disclosure in the cultured meat space. I wouldn't mind more academic efforts tackling the problems and publishing papers. 

The for profit alternative protein space seems buzzy. 

For example, after it's IPO, Beyond Meat raised an secondary round, so investors and founders could pickup prices from a valuation almost 10x more than the asking price (literally the best IPO for any large company since the 2000 dot.com). 

Does the above characterization of ample funding seem accurate for many other promising plant based food startups? 

If partially true, what are the best opportunities for EA or non-profit funding for alternative proteins today? 

Private funding for alternative food is eye-popping, to say the least. "Buzzy" is a good descriptor :)

I hesitate to make any proclamations on what's too much or too little, as it does depend on the counterfactual. I think the problems that Beyond Meat are trying to solve are worthwhile. Giving them cheaper capital helps their efforts. Glad it's going there versus, say, Palantir. 

I spent Chapter 9 discussing specific funding opportunities, but I thought of a couple of ones since the book went to the presses:

  • Fundamental characterization of casein and casein micelles. Casein micelles impart the desired properties of cheese: the meltability, stretchiness, as well as the ability to form cheese curds. Much about casein biochemistry is just unknown: how do the different casein molecules form into the casein micelles? What are the caseins and micelles doing during the stretch process? These are questions that can be answered by academic efforts with modest funding (millions).
  • How should we tackle agriculture subsidies? In Chapter 10, I write about how intricate and interconnected the subsidies are. The tangled web makes it hard to know where even to start. Do we go for something big like crop insurances? Or something more tractable such as lobbying to exclude animal agriculture from the EQIP program, which helps them save money by getting funding for environmental compliance. (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip/)
    If we could pay for a team to sit down and calculate all this, then I think that would pay dividends. It's boring and unsexy, but, man, it would be so impactful.