This post is part of a series of 6 interviews. As EAs, we want to use our careers or donations to do the most good - but it’s difficult to work out what exactly that looks like for us. I wanted to interview effective altruists working in different fields and on different causes and ask them how they chose their cause area, and how they relate to effective altruism and doing good more generally. During the Prague Fall Season residency, I interviewed six EAs in Prague about what they are doing and why they are doing it. I’m grateful to my interviewees for giving their time, and to the organisers of PFS for supporting my visit.
Juan B. García Martínez was born in La Mancha, Spain, and studied Chemical Engineering in Madrid (BA) and the Netherlands (MA). Looking for neglected opportunities in climate change, he wrote his Bachelor’s thesis on solar silicon and his Master’s thesis on CO2 capture. During this time, he also became deeply concerned with farmed animal suffering and global catastrophic risks.
He is now Research Manager at ALLFED. In his current work, he assesses whether and how we might use various technologies to produce food that is resilient to global catastrophes, for example fermentation technology, single cell proteins from CO₂ or natural gas, sugars from plant fiber or CO₂, fats from microorganisms or hydrocarbons, microbial electrosynthesis, and non-biological synthesis of food from CO₂ or hydrocarbons. He hopes that this work will help to mitigate the effects of global catastrophic risks, but also reduce our dependence on factory farming, thus reducing animal suffering and carbon emissions.
On producing food without sunlight
Amber: What are you currently working on at ALLFED?
Juan: My research has been focused on non-agricultural, independent, industrial food production. We’re looking at how we could produce food without requiring any sunlight at all, to complement methods that use sunlight more efficiently. Specifically, I’ve been studying industrial factories, chemical processing, food production, and a lot of biotech ingredients and alternative protein stuff.
I’m also doing some more general projects, like looking into technology readiness more broadly. Which of these things are more or less ready to go than the others?
Amber: Which things are the most ready-to-go?
Juan: Obviously agriculture, that’s pretty straightforward, though crop relocation would be needed to maintain yields. For more technology-based stuff, I research methane single cell proteins, which they’re already making at the industrial scale. Also lignocellulosic sugar, which is converting trees and leaves into sugars — that’s been done before at some scale.
Amber: How long have you been working at ALLFED?
Juan: I started there as a research volunteer at the end of 2019. I really liked the type of research that they were doing: it was similar to what I’d been doing at university, with my Master’s. So I started volunteering there while I was finishing my Master's thesis on atmospheric CO2 capture, because I was getting a little tired of that.
I did that for four months. I spent a lot of time working on ALLFED projects. As soon as I presented my thesis, they hired me and I worked as a research associate for 2 years. Then they hired me as a coordinator, where I'm still doing the same research stuff, but with other responsibilities: dealing with volunteers and interns, deciding where to put them, ensuring good communication between the research team and the rest of the people or the organisation—doing a little bit of everything. Now I’m working as research manager, acting as deputy to Dr Denkenberger.
On planning his career using EA principles
Amber: Were you interested in EA before you started working at ALLFED?
Juan: Yeah. I think I became convinced around 2017. At university, I’d been reading some LessWrong and rationality stuff, on and off. Then I saw that someone had put up a sign, wanting to start a group to discuss cognitive biases. And I was like, ‘This sounds like LessWrong stuff. It looks like there are people in real life also talking about this!’ So I went to the group, and I met my good friend Jaime Sevilla, and eventually I helped him kick-start the EA Madrid group in 2018.
That led to me finding 80,000 Hours. I read the career guide over the course of a week or two, and I was immediately convinced. Since then, I’ve changed my mind a lot about what I should be doing, but the same principles have been guiding me.
Amber: When you started your Masters, did you have an intention for your career after that? What were your plans?
Juan: When I was doing my Bachelor's, I already wanted to do something useful, something good. I was very worried about climate change. As an engineer, I thought I could contribute to climate science by developing more sustainable technologies, or doing chemical processing in more sustainable ways, or doing environmental impact assessment or something like that. After reading the 80,000 Hours Career Guide, I started to look for stuff that was more on the margin, areas that were a little less crowded.
The first decision I made based on that mindset was the topic of my Bachelor's thesis. I decided to look into some obscure production technology for the cheaper production of solar silicon for solar cells, because that looked relevant for climate concerns, but it was more neglected than, for example, green chemistry, or whatever was trending at the time. It was niche but it seemed very impactful: if you could make the materials for solar cells cheaper, even by a little, that should decrease cost curves.
At that point, I was committed mentally to trying to have a more positive impact, but I still wasn't sure what to do, at all, so I decided to keep figuring things out while I continued my studies. I did a Master’s on the same topic, chemical engineering. I also decided to study abroad, to get some fresh perspectives. I went to the University of Twente, in Enschede in the Netherlands.
While I was there, I was listening to a lot of 80,000 Hours podcasts, and I got a lot of interesting ideas from that. I particularly remember one day, I was biking around town listening to a podcast where someone was talking about alternative proteins. It looked like they were producing meat substitutes using chemical process technologies that reminded me of technologies I was studying at university. This got me really hyped, because around that time, I was starting to get very concerned about animal welfare. So, I decided to look into alternative proteins.
Amber: So that was partly motivated by animal welfare concerns, and also by climate concerns?
Juan: Yeah. I saw it as a nice combination of the two things, like killing two birds with one stone, as they say. And it seemed even more impactful for climate change than some of the other stuff that I was looking into at university.
When I looked more into alternative proteins, I decided to try to get my foot in that space before I finished my Master's. So I went to one of the first ever cultured meat conventions in the world, in the Netherlands. That was an important moment: it was my first contact with people working in the alternative protein industry, and the first time I decided to go to a convention based on EA principles.
The convention made me think that alternative proteins have a lot of potential, but also a lot of challenges and problems. ‘People are hyped,’ I thought, ‘but this is very difficult’. I was very confused at that time; it’s just really hard. So many uncertainties, so many paths. I had this whole soup of ideas at the time.
I went to a couple of EAGx conferences. I remember meeting a couple of chemical engineers; it was (and still is) rare to find people with this background in EA. I was keen to gather from them what they’d learnt, what their career plans were, and what their conclusions were. One of them had also decided to get into cultured meat, which I found reassuring; we’d come to the same conclusion separately.
I went to EAG London in 2019, and met a lot of alternative proteins people there. I’d previously listened to my current boss David Denkenberger’s first 80,000 Hours podcast on feeding everyone in a nuclear winter. When I first listened to it, I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds really interesting and weird and out there, but it also sounds like a very important thing to be working on.’ But I didn't give it any more thought until I got to EAG London, and I saw some posters that ALLFED had put up. That’s when I realised, ‘These people are not only doing serious, real research; they’re also researching the stuff that I’m studying at university’. So I talked to them, became completely convinced, and decided to start volunteering with them. I started very timidly at first, I was like ‘I’m gonna do a bare minimum, 5 hours a week’. But I ended up doing a lot more than that alongside my Master’s thesis.
With ALLFED, I’m still tackling everything at once. I’m studying technologies like single cell proteins that could help with climate change, animal suffering, and also catastrophe resilience, so it's ideal for me. I was very lucky to find something like that.
On moral parliamentarianism and tackling many problems at once
Amber: You said that you appreciate your current job because your work could help with climate change, animal suffering, and catastrophe resilience. Is that because you care about all those areas, and you’re not sure how to choose between them?
Juan: Yeah, something like that. I've always been very attracted to things that address multiple problems at once. It’s a bit like the worldview diversification that Open Philanthropy does, right? With them it’s like ‘let's invest a little bit of money into a bunch of different things, to see which have the greatest impact’. For me it’s like ‘let’s work on something that addresses a lot of different things, because all of these things seem concerning, but it's hard to say to what degree, without being a global priorities researcher’.
Amber: It’s also good because it means ALLFED’s work is (hopefully) useful in worst-case scenarios but possibly in best-case scenarios too. For example, research on developing new proteins without sunlight could save lives in a nuclear winter, but it also might be useful for replacing animal protein, which could help prevent farmed animal suffering and climate change.
Juan: Yeah, exactly. I would like to believe that the research I'm doing is useful for the tail risk that we're most concerned about, but also, in a better world where those risks never happen, it’s still useful.
Amber: Are there any other projects (either in EA or outside of EA) that have this property of addressing several serious problems at once?
Juan: Maybe technologies that would both help with resilience to catastrophes but also climate change adaptation, or just a more efficient use of resources in society; infrastructure resilience in general. Carl Shulman on the 80,000 podcast was talking about how a lot of stuff that we’re doing to reduce global catastrophic risk is also useful to reduce regular risk, and just to make society safer and more resilient. Within biorisk, the research on UV light, or the nucleic acid observatory are useful overall: not only for extreme pandemics, but also for any type of epidemic.
Amber: My other question is: if ALLFED didn’t exist, what might you do instead?
Juan: I could answer the question two different ways. If ALLFED had never existed, I would probably be working for a plant-based meat company right now, or just doing cellular agriculture stuff. If ALLFED stopped existing right now, I would probably be doing research on industry, alternative proteins, energy usage, and resource usage, and how that affects global catastrophic risk, either independently or at some other institute. I’d probably spend a lot more time developing our initiative to create awareness about global catastrophic risks [GCRs] and do policy work in Spanish-speaking countries (Riesgos Catastróficos Globales). I’d probably also take a more active role in trying to work on policy for GCRs.
Amber: Does that mean you’d be inclined to prioritise GCRs? You’ve talked about how your current work addresses several problems—animal suffering, GCRs, climate change. If you had to take a job that helped with one of those problems, but wasn't very helpful for the others, do you know which you’d prioritise?
Juan: I think I would focus on GCRs—the stuff that’s related to x-risks and longtermism—because there simply seems to be less going on in that space; it's more neglected. And I seem to have a good fit for it.
Amber: So that’s based on how neglected the area is, rather than more philosophical longtermist commitments? Is it a bit of both?
Juan: To some degree, yes. I'm not as convinced by the longtermism perspective as others who are working on extreme risks. For longtermism, you don’t need to be a utilitarian to adhere to it… but it really helps. I adhere more to a moral parliamentarian view. So I do place a lot of weight on utilitarian views, but I also think it's really important to consider other moral theories, like suffering-focussed ethics; rules-based moralities, i.e. deontology; or virtue ethics. That's another reason I’m really happy with what I'm doing. It's hopefully reducing global catastrophic risk, potentially even existential risk; but at the same time, you don't have to only care about the long-term future to want to work on this, because it also could avert a lot of suffering and save a lot of lives, and some of these technologies could also be applicable outside of catastrophes. Moral parliamentarianism is about doing the things that a lot of moral theories converge on, and the work I’m doing seems to be a good description of that.
Amber: Are there any causes which you would like to see EA funding more, or any areas that are generally neglected?
Juan: I’ve recently been thinking about how to incentivize work at the science and policy interface, which overlaps a bit with improving institutional decision-making. Not that many people are working on that. It will benefit GCR policy, because there's a lot of very in-depth discussion going on in scientific circles that's just not getting to policy circles. Universities could put a lot more weight on making their research actionable, and setting up policy transfer offices or departments.
Amber: Thanks so much for talking to me, Juan.