A thank you to Kris Chari and Pranay Mittal for reading an earlier draft.
AI alignment seems far more pressing than factory farming, but I think I could have more impact in the latter. This belief seems suspect, given the overwhelming movement of EAs into longtermist roles, so I’d like to test it out. Below is my current case for working in farmed animal welfare (FAW). Please critique.
If this post goes well (meaning it isn’t ripped to shreds), then I’ll write up a comparison piece on longtermist community building. (EDIT: I'm sticking with tofu for now)
Besides offering career advice, I hope you can learn a bit about the incredible world of rare Chinese tofus, which over the last three years has given my life so much joy!
The Case for Growing the United States Tofu Market
I think the U.S. tofu market could grow several times over, eventually averting 10s to 100s of millions of factory farmed lives each year.
To a large degree, American omnivores object to vegan food because it’s reductionary, focused on subtraction (i.e. chicken-less chicken salads) and substitution (i.e. inferior alt proteins). For most consumers, these foods taste chronically worse than the originals. It’s unclear how long it will be till we have high fidelity substitutes across a range of options, but the timeline isn’t years—it’s decades.
Public aversion is exacerbated by chefs. Because they see plant-based ingredients (especially proteins) as less versatile than meat, they promote meat-dominated menus, reinforcing the belief that vegan food is inherently worse.
This is in spite of the fact that chefs, like the general public, care about climate change and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare, and want to cook more plants.
To go mainstream, vegan cuisine should explore moving beyond reduction–basing itself off meat–towards creation–leveraging culinary strengths of plant-based ingredients to build all new foods.
In 2021, a team of chefs and I researched how to create new foods and found a simple yet effective formula: cross rare Chinese tofus with traditional, western cooking methods.
In the west, tofu is often seen as an ingredient, but it's actually a category of ingredients, like chicken. In China, the birthplace and mecca of tofu, there are over 25 distinct types, which are as dissimilar as chicken feet from chicken breast. The most common types of tofu in the States–firm, soft, and silken–are like chicken feet; while popular in Asia, they are poor fits for western cooking methods and taste preferences. In contrast, there are other varieties that while rare in Asia are great fits–like chicken breast.
If our goal is to create new foods, the best people to do so are restaurant chefs. Fortunately, they have many motivations to help. Chefs love using sexy new ingredients. Many care about sustainability, or at least being perceived as sustainable. They desire positive press, which can be achieved by trying new, bold things. Restaurant goers desire more plant-based options, which at most U.S. restaurants are woefully lacking. The point is that there are many incentives which align with cuisine expansion, and which we can support.
It seems that for many ingredients, uses follow a heavy-tailed distribution. (How often do you see saffron outside of paella? Or peanut butter without bread?) The discovery of scalable use cases will mean the success or failure of tofu growth. If chefs unlock the “acai bowl” or “avocado toast” of rare Chinese tofus, then the market will grow. If we can motivate a decentralized community of chefs to independently create new foods, I'm confident that these use cases will emerge.
- Build consumer hype around rare tofus (chefs seek out sexy ingredients): partner with a chef and Tik Tok marketer to build viral social media campaigns around innovative tofu preparations; build relationships with food world influencers and help them create rare tofu-based content.
- Partner with a few restaurants, educate them on how to use rare Chinese tofus, learn about their challenges/needs/motivations/goals when using these ingredients, then create scalable resources to onboard and educate others.
- Connect ingredient purveyors with distributors.
- Build high-leverage partnerships with foodservice provider
Impact = (Growth in tofu market) x (tofu:meat substitution rate) x (animal killed per meat meal) x (years of suffering per animal)
The average Californian eats tofu 2 times per month. From a first principles perspective, given rates of flexitarianism and the fact that tofu is by far the most culinarily-versatile of global plant-based proteins, consumption could easily be 4-10x higher.
But assume, conservatively, that the market grows by just 1x. Assuming a 50% tofu/meat substitution rate and .1 animals eaten per meat meal, this would mean 5,400,000 years of animal suffering saved per year in California alone. Note that this number represents horrible lives averted, not just a measurable but minor improvement to farmed animal welfare. (Again, this is assuming 1x market growth, which seems conservative.) There’s little reason why success in California couldn’t be replicated across the States or elsewhere.
No one is currently working on this issue, and very few people are knowledgeable about rare Chinese tofus, so I think we could accelerate market growth by several years.
I envision two very significant knock-on effects.
- By expanding plant-based cuisine, rather than just plant-based products, we can broaden the appeal of plant-based eating to a new segment of consumers—foodies and chefs—who are chronically underserved by alt proteins. This could widen the coalition of veg allies, both accelerating change and making that change more robust. A wider coalition also seems like a necessary precursor to societal moral circle expansion.
- In China, tofu is a symbol of poverty—a relic from when ordinary people couldn’t afford meat. As such, ordering tofu for guests is often seen as cheap and disrespectful. This “shame” drags heavily on tofu consumption and elevates the status of meat. If tofu became prized in the west, however, I think these perceptions would change. Imagine if rare Chinese tofus could become western chefs’ culinary weapon against climate change, a solar panel for the palette if you will, upon which we could build truly delicious western veg cuisine! How epic would that be!! After living in China for several years and studying the Chinese FAW space throughout 2020, I have become very, very, very pessimistic about near-term prospects for change. Promoting tofu in the west, to raise its status in China, could, however, be a straightforward and significant way to contribute.
Animal Charity Evaluators in 2017 estimated The Humane League’s work to spare roughly 4 years of animal suffering per dollar spent. A similar price tag for doubling California’s tofu market would be $1.35M. This seems reasonable. Salaries for a built-out team—a full-time chef, social media expert, videographer, head of partnerships, and me—could cost under $300K/year. Other costs—kitchen space, ingredients—could be covered by tofu partners. I don’t think it would take four years to find traction. I also don’t think we would need that large a team to get things going.
My expectation is that success in California could be scaled throughout the U.S. or elsewhere, meaning that we could absorb more funds.
Why tofu market growth could fail
- If this idea (promoting rare Chinese tofus in the west) is so promising, why has it not been tried before?
Hardly anyone knows about these ingredients, and the few people who do don’t have incentives to share them. Because tofu is seen as a cultural relic of poverty, there is no central authority that surveys and promotes them. Rare tofus are spread out across China, most often in remote inland villages, making surveying even harder. Local producers have very low social status, so aren’t taken seriously. Practicing Han Buddhists, China’s largest block of vegetarians, are generally no more knowledgeable: a) they live clustered around China’s southeast, a region with very few rare tofus; b) in addition to not eating meat, Chinese Buddhists avoid alliums (garlic, onions, chives, etc.), which is present in >90% of Chinese foods; this means that even when Buddhists visit inland areas, they can't eat the local plant-based foods, so have little knowledge of the proteins. Historically, western Chinese immigrant communities have come from Guangdong (Cantonese) and Fujian (Fujianese) communities, which again use very few rare tofus. U.S. tofu producers aren’t from in-land China, don’t understand those rare tofus, and don’t know how to market them to western chefs. Because of the above reasons, western vegans also have little knowledge of vegan Chinese food and rare Chinese tofus.
- Are there historical precedents for new foods or ingredients taking off or becoming culturally relevant?
History is rife with examples and for a simple reason—all traditional dishes were once created, and most fairly recently. Eggs and bacon for breakfast? Before a creative marketing campaign in the 1920’s, Americans hardly ate them. Italian pizza? It wasn’t invented till New World tomatoes arrived in Naples and paired with flatbreads. French food? Marie-Antoine Careme began a culinary revolution in the 1800s that pioneered grande cuisine, systematized the French mother sauces, and inspired a new generation of chefs. We would hardly recognize the food that came before.
China is renowned for some of the greatest culinary diversity on the planet, and I’d argue that its four largest subcuisines—Shandong, Sichuan, Suzhou, Canton—are as vast as most major world cuisines. And yet, they were only formalized in the post-Mao era.
Why so much change? The world culinary scene is getting richer and more globalized, allowing it to afford greater experimentation with more diverse ingredients. In turn, it has become vastly more delicious than our ancestors could have imagined.
There are reasons why these precedents may not apply to rare Chinese tofus. The food space is more crowded than ever before. Some aspects of American culture seem to be changing quickly, but others seem more set. Anticipating a new culture war, factions of the Republican Party have strengthened their commitment to preserving animal agriculture.
Yet, there are tailwinds. Climate change will get progressively worse for the foreseeable future, increasing our need for low-carbon protein options. Rates of flexitarianism seem to be growing, albeit maybe not rates of veganism or vegetarianism. Some of the United States' top restaurants, like Michelin 3 Star Eleven Madison Park, have gone fully plant-based.
It seems like there are historical analogs for new ingredients, and tofu seems like the natural next step.
- Isn’t soy unhealthy?
Actually, it isn’t. Harvard Nutrition Source puts it this way: Results of recent population studies suggest that soy has either a beneficial or neutral effect on various health conditions. Soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein that can safely be consumed several times a week, and probably more often, and is likely to provide health benefits—especially when eaten as an alternative to red and processed meat.”
Some folks worry about soy allergies, but these are incredibly rare. The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases estimates that just .6% of Americans are allergic, and these allergies are largely minor. (For reference, 2-4% are allergic to dairy.) While soy intolerance may be more prevalent than a full-fledged allergy, there is no evidence that this is widespread. In fact, there is strong evidence to the contrary. We tend to overestimate our intolerances by mistakenly associating food with non-dietary issues.
But doesn’t soy contain estrogen?
No! Soy contains phytoestrogens, a class of weak plant hormones. Study after study has looked at soy intake on diverse hormonal indicators (testosterone, fertility, etc.) and found that consuming 60-240 milligrams of isoflavones per day has zero downsides. For reference, 240 milligrams of isoflavones is roughly two 14 ounce blocks of firm tofu. That’s over 60 grams of soy protein – in one day! Good luck.
- Aren’t westerners wary of soy?
In our small-scale survey, this was very uncommon. That said, the survey methodology wasn't rigorous and looked at attitudes not behavior.
Some public-facing groups, especially of the "all-natural," "California organica" persuasion, seem wary about soy. While vegan food brands often rely on these consumers as early adopters, and thus explicitly eschew soy, I'm not sure how relevant this group is to tofu. These people are not the target market.
Even if Americans don't initially object to soy, it's possible that groups later wage anti-soy warfare. This seems possible, but it doesn't seem like reason not to pursue tofu market growth.
- If traditional plant-based protein sales undercut the alt protein market, it could slow their growth and prolong factory farming.
My intuition is that rare Chinese tofus would appeal to a slightly different market than alt proteins: foodies and chefs rather than convenience eaters. That said, the markets would certainly overlap, especially down the road if tofu found mainstream use cases (i.e. a non-burger fast food option).
At that point, so long as tofu marketing doesn't vilify plant-based and cultivated meat, and that it attempts to solve different market needs, I think giving consumers more options is ultimately worth it. After all, plant-based and cultivated meat don't seem like a full solution to factory farming, especially in the next couple decades, and it would help to diversify our movement's efforts.
- I don't have the skills to execute on this project; even if tofu market growth is possible, it wouldn't come from me.
This is one of my biggest concerns. I have a mixed track record running projects and am generally inexperienced. More in the “About Me” section.
That said, no one else is promoting rare Chinese tofus in this way. I doubt others are better equipped, at least in the next couple years.
My name’s George Stiffman. Between high school and college, I spent about two years living across China, with stints cooking in Buddhist restaurant kitchens, studying at Chinese university, homestaying with local families, apprenticing in an ancient tofu factory, and eating my way across 20+ cities, towns, and villages. These experiences taught me a few things:
- There is no cuisine as vast as Chinese food, and none with as many vegan foods.
- The most distinct vegan Chinese foods come from culturally and economically isolated regions—almost no one knows they exist.
- If we had just a fraction of these foods in the west, it would redefine what it means to not eat meat.
I graduated college right before the pandemic and have since been pursuing a variety of rare tofu projects. For most of 2020, I worked on two startup ventures. The first attempted to design a “meltable” tofu, loosely based on a variety from Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. The second tried to market frozen ready meals from rare Shanghai tofu. For many reasons, both ventures fell through.
In 2021, I pivoted away from starting a company to grow the tofu ecosystem. For my first project in that area, I partnered with two Los Angeles-based chefs, hired a photographer, designer, and editor, and began researching how to use rare Chinese tofus to create all new “western” foods. Our forthcoming book, Broken Cuisine: Chinese tofu, western cooking, and a hope to save our planet, is the first western book describing rare Chinese tofus, as well as the first (that we’re aware of) to explicitly champion cuisine expansion.
After being blown away by the culinary possibilities of rare Chinese tofus, I’ve become more and more excited about scaling culinary creation—hence, this post.
A few asks of the audience
- Did I leave out any important objections?
- What do you think are my weakest explanations?
- How might I go about testing these assumptions?
- Do you know of potentially allies I should reach out to? I would really appreciate any warm intros.
- If you love tofu, I'd love to talk! Shoot me a dm :) Thanks for reading!
From personal conversations with chefs, almost all prefer ordinary ground beef to Impossible and Beyond products, the highest fidelity products currently available today. It's unlikely that we'll have whole cuts anywhere near as realistic as those in the next few years. Also: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/4uYebcr5G2jqxuXG3/when-can-i-eat-meat-again
For a more detailed discussion of why, reach out and I'll send advanced clips from our forthcoming book: Broken Cuisine: Chinese tofu, western cooking, and a hope to save our planet.
This number comes from an internal survey taken in 2020 via Prolific of 100 California consumers. It wasn't a foolproof survey, but I would be surprised if the rough numbers didn't hold up. Unfortunately, I can't find the original results, so the figures are from memory.
Since I lost access to the survey, I don't have the exact numbers. But I'm 90% confident self-reported soy aversion was between 5-15%.
To summarize, rare Chinese tofus vary along several dimensions. Some are fermented and taste as potent and diverse as aged cheeses. Others are treated with alkali and melt when heated (these are especially interesting). Some are pressed into thin sheets, resulting in a different texture and flavor. Others are made from soy protein and have a springy, elastic structure. Some are dried, which in addition to giving them a long shelf life provides novel textures.
If you'd like more information, message me, and I'll send you an advance explanation from our forthcoming book: Broken Cuisine: Chinese tofu, western cooking, and a hope to save our planet.
I'm not sure the best reference class for tofu, but it seems that Americans eat A LOT of certain foods, and rare tofus happen to have similar or greater benefits.
Beans might be one comparison: Americans eat roughly 7 lbs of beans a year, which comes out to around 84 servings, or 7 servings a month. I'd assume a lot of this isn't vegan eating (i.e. beans in chicken tacos), and beans have cultural support in various cuisine, so this consumption isn't strictly because Americans choose to eat a lot of beans. That said, it provides a rough sense of how often even seemingly trivial foods can be eaten.
Popular stand-alone proteins are eaten in much greater quantities. (~100 lbs chicken and ~110 lbs red meat/per person year.)
Meaning that tofu replaced 50% of the meat in any given dish.
2020 US per capita meat consumption=115 lbs chicken
/52 weeks /21meals*week=.1 chickens/meal
Dividing by 21 meals*week is conservative since tofu would likely substitute for lunch or dinner meals, in which meat consumption is higher. Beef and pork aren't considered because they come from larger animals, meaning their impact is swamped by chicken. Chicken substitution may itself be dwarfed by fish substitutions, so .1 animal/meal is very likely to be an underestimate.
California 2021 population: 39,237,836 (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/CA/PST045221)
Growth in tofu market: 2 meals/month=24 meals/year
Factory farmed chickens live ~42 days, or .115 years. https://reducing-suffering.org/how-much-direct-suffering-is-caused-by-various-animal-foods/
Population*(meals/person*year)*(animals/meal)*(years of suffering/animal)*(tofu:meat substitution rate)*(tofu market growth)=5,400,000 years of chicken suffering/year
See section on "PREVALENCE DATA": https://journals.lww.com/nutritiontodayonline/Fulltext/2020/01000/Recent_Surveys_on_Food_Allergy_Prevalence.6.aspx
https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400525/Data/isoflav/Isoflav_R2-1.pdf - 100g of Azumaya Firm Tofu has 31 mg of isoflavones (which is high compared to other comparable tofus). Thus, one 14 oz block would have roughly 123 mg isoflavones.
You share many examples of foods becoming popular in a relatively short time. But for every case where this happened, I assume there are many, many cases where it didn't. How many people tried to create a market for a new food (as did happen for bacon or Grape Nuts) but failed?
I suspect that the most common reason entrepreneurial projects fail isn't any of the things you mentioned — but is instead "this just never caught on/went viral/found a big audience". (Though "weak execution" could also be the reason, as you mentioned.) This doesn't help you plan your strategy, but I think it should factor into your cost-effectiveness calculations (adding a constant for "chance this simply doesn't take off" or something).
I also wonder about the assumption that growing the tofu market in other states will look much like growing it in California. Have you checked whether the consumption of other "trendy" foods (quinoa? Kale?) grew at similar rates in California and elsewhere?
On a separate note, it seems like you're really well-positioned to try this project and quite invested in it already, given your past businesses and upcoming book. It's great that you're considering work in other areas, too, but I think there's also real value in people trying projects in areas where they are specialists/experts, even if those projects don't have the best cost-effectiveness numbers in the abstract — there's something about "doing a thing at a high level" that seems to generate useful lessons, experience, and connections, almost regardless of what the thing is.
Trying to grow the tofu market will teach you a lot about food marketing, social media, and many other things, while helping you build connections you might not build if you end up working on something outside your realm of expertise/something many other people could do just as well. Be sure to consider the value of those benefits as you think about your options!
As an example from my own life, I spent a lot of time trying to become a middling programmer because that seemed much more generically useful than being even a good writer — which distracted me from realizing how specifically useful I could be as a writer focused on growing the EA community, and how unusual my combination of writing and other skills was. The raw value I generate is probably lower than that of, say, a top biosecurity researcher, but it's almost certainly more than I could have generated as a programmer.
(Maybe the brief version of this is "don't just compare tofu marketing to longtermist community building — compare "the work/career capital of George the tofu marketer" to "the work/career capital of George the community builder".)
I have nothing of substance to add, but I'm excited for people to attack the problem of replacing meat from a bunch of angles. I also very much agree with Aaron: if you are excited to work on meat-replacements, even if this exact idea doesn't hit, the skills/connections/experience that you'll acquire will be extremely valuable.
These are both very good points!
Great post! As a tofu enthusiast myself this is pretty exciting on a personal level. That being said, you did ask for concerns/criticism, so:
I'm not sure that this is true. Americans are well-known for eating out often, but what's the actual frequency? I wasn't able to find a reliable survey with some cursory googling, but from personal experience and what I did see (for instance, this) it seems like getting a majority of meals from eating out is rare. In this case, perhaps it would make more sense to focus on working with amateur cooks to produce recipe blogs and cookbooks? There are a lot more amateur cooks than restaurant chefs out there, and many are quite interested in experimenting with new ingredients/creating new recipes.
The types of food usually produced in a restaurant setting are also pretty different from the ones people would want to cook for themselves; for instance, in the latter case, simplicity/ease of cooking and low cooking times are far more important. So it's not necessarily true that restaurant chefs developing new dishes would easily translate to a greater variety of dishes people would be able to cook in their own kitchens. If people prepare most meals at home, it seems like it might be more impactful to focus efforts in that area.
You justify this by saying that there are some foods Americans eat quite often, but all of those foods are ones easily prepared in meals at home. It seems reasonable to presume that the invention of new and tasty tofu dishes will incentivize people to eat them when they eat out, but it's pretty doubtful that the frequency with which people eat out will significantly increase.
I am part of a vegan/vegetarian club at my university, and we keep in touch with various local plant-based food businesses; many of them have track records of creating innovative new dishes, and would likely be happy to experiment with rare tofus. These are generally small-scale operations, so I'm not sure if that's what you're looking for, but if you're interested in collaborating with them I can reach out. My club would also likely be willing to promote the project on social media (and, more generally, perhaps recruiting student groups with an interest in plant-based foods could be valuable to your social media campaign).
Thanks for all your pointers!
You're definitely right here. Food expenditures at and away from home are pretty split, but given that the cost of eating out is higher, people eat more meals at home. The reason I think it might make sense to focus first on food service is less about end strategy and more about the sequence. Since chefs can better control UX, restaurantgoers are more likely to be impressed by rare tofus than folks cooking it for themselves. First impressions seem really important here. Besides taste, it's also easier to get products into food service distribution channels than retail. That said, once we have better home cook-friendly use cases for these ingredients, and sufficient consumer demand, growth would come from retail.
My intuition is that this would translate - if a few chefs could make rare tofus "sexy", then that would have ripple effects, leading other chefs and food bloggers to also experiment. It seems harder to make ingredients sexy from the blogger side, without the ingredient devolving into a fad. I could be wrong, though.
Thank you for offering! I'd love to connect. I'll shoot you a Forum message :)
From a personal perspective I love the idea, but I'm not sure how unbiased I can be, given how much I'd like to try them.
I would say that 1x market growth doesn't seem very conservative to me - closer to a best case scenario. Dramatically increasing the market share of tofu would be great, it doesn't seem like the most likely outcome. It might help you to do expected impact calculations for more modest successes as well - EG a successful niche product sold mainly in gourmet grocery stores, a more widely available alternative type of tofu, etc. and put some probabilities on each (as well as on total failure).
A prediction market on those would be great too, but it seems like a hard thing to judge if one can't go out and sample the thing.
I guess that brings up the question, (and you mention working with chefs and writing the book, so I'm not sure to what degree you've already done this), but how possible/practical would it be to get some of these tofus in front of people who could help you assess their likelihood of success? Spending some up front time getting "outside view" assessments could be help you decide whether to move forward.
That's a great point about modeling concrete scenarios (like types/numbers of distribution points), rather than just assuming some percentage of market growth. I'll try fleshing that out a bit. The reason I'm bullish on potential market size is that most common tofus have abysmal product-market fit outside the Asian American community, whereas rare tofus (at least in our research) seem to fare much better. If that pattern holds, and we can find high leverage marketing methods, it would seem strange if rare tofus don't eventually eclipse the former. Like you said, though, this hypothesis needs more validation.
Also would be great to build a better "outside view." Hopefully we'll get a better sense in the coming months as we look into restaurant partnerships :)
If you or anyone else is interested in trying some rare Chinese tofus and are in London, I can take you on a tour.
The best tofu tours are by George, of course, but in his absence I try to get the same rare tofus and provide some (small) fraction of the context he does when he leads tofu tours.
My main worry is that efforts to popularize traditional Asian food will backfire, due to the use of fish sauce in many recipes, Peruvian anchovetas are the most heavily exploited vertebrate, and due to the high number of deaths needed per unit of food compared to other animals, a slight increase in anchovy consumption could easily outweigh any gains in cattle/pig/chicken etc. welfare. (though use of fishmeal as animal feed for chickens/pigs complicates this)
https://www.reddit.com/r/vegan/comments/n9tsnx/soybeans_are_grown_for_their_oil_we_only_feed_it/ any thing that increases soybean meal consumption (over other plant based foods) may be better then other foods because they would slightly raise the price of soybean meal for livestock owners (though this may just lead to the same number of animals being fed worse nutrition?) , conversely soybean oil, a byproduct of soybean meal, would ideally be avoided to avoid subsidizing animal feed
https://arstechnica.com/science/2013/05/when-it-comes-to-the-environment-conservatives-dont-like-conserving/ We know that American moderates and Conservatives are actively turned away by eco-conscious messaging, and will pay more for less environmentally friendly methods. Combine this with strange ideas of less resource demanding lifestyles as dictatorial conspiracies for control by a liberal elite in some sci-fi dystopia " I will not live in a pod/ I will not eat the bugs/ soylent green is people " , anti-PRC sentiment, Ideas about east-Asians people being more feminine/collectivist/passive then white-Americans, The estrogen myth, and the Idea that caring about others (and therefore eating plants) is unmasculine, any Organized effort to get Americans to eat more tofu will have to be done very carefully to avoid massive backfire.
How many anchovies are killed per 15ml of fish sauce? Does the suffering total end up worse than chicken per gram if you weight by neurons and assume that anchovy lives are, say, half as bad as chickens'?
https://iamafoodblog.com/fish-sauce/ this website says 3 parts fish to 1 part salt for a simple fish sauce.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dressed_weight for chickens 75% of the live weight is edible
, and Cornish-crosses are generally 1.5 kg when slaughtered https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broiler
http://fishcount.org.uk/studydatascreens/numbers-of-fish-caught-A0.php?sort2/full a Peruvian anchoveta weights between 10-29 grams
one slaughtered Cornish-cross produces 1,125 g of chicken flesh
one Peruvian anchoveta produces 13-39 grams of fish sauce
a gram of fish-sauce requires 29-87 times as many directly slaughtered animals as a gram of chicken (assuming we are ignoring animal feed, and the possibility they are using larger fish species)
I'm not finding any data on the number of neurons in anchovies/sardine/herring but If I did I still think neuron/body-weight is a better proxy for suffering capacity, considering the role of more neurons in managing a larger body.
I don't think ignoring animal feed makes sense here, I can't find the source at the moment but the vast majority of Peruvian anchoveta is reduced to fish meal and exported to countries like China to serve as feed for land animals and even species of larger fish, the incentive structure is such that factories that are supposed to produce anchoveta derivatives for direct human consumption illegally produce fish meal.
I think increased consumption of fish sauce over other animals would be moving down the food chain and result in a net decrease in animal suffering, not to mention advantageous for fishing-reliant economies there.
I was initially going to try to take into account animal feed, using the Faunalytics data on animals killed per food product, but If I understood the methodology right It looks like they divided the total number of fish killed for feed by the total number of farmed predators (farmed fish +pigs + chickens), so considering I was looking specifically at chickens, I figured It would be better to just mention that rather than try to incorporate it based on flimsy data, If you could point me to good data on standard diets of farmed predators ( Including common but unconventional carnivores like crocodilians , minks, foxes, edible frogs etc) , or estimates of how many animals they are eating, that would be interesting
Interesting points on soybean meal vs soybean oil consumption.
I'm less concerned about the fish sauce question since we'd be promoting rare tofus within western cooking. (And most of Asia, especially the regions that use a lot of fish sauce, don't use these specific tofu varieties.)
Thanks for the pointers!
Curious if you have any updates to share about this project :)
I have nothing to contribute but thanks for your thought & writing, it seems simple and well thought-out and potentially revolutionary. But if you're bringing together a team, I love social media (esp tiktok), am increasingly vegetarian, and spent 8 years in greater China.
Thanks Joel. And absolutely, I'd love to chat and hear your China story!
I'd be interested to hear more about the tofus you have in mind.
I've often thought that the smoked chewy tofus (tofu gan) make a great meat substitute that hardly anyone knows about.
PS I guess you might have come across this, but the world's top restaurant has been popularising tempeh.
There are quite a few "great fit" varieties. The ones that seem easiest to import and have the clearest uses cases are probably:
I also love tofu gan (pressed tofu 豆腐干)! We've found it tastes surprisingly great thin sliced and added to grilled cheese, or also cooked with apple/sugar/cinnamon spices.
There are a number of rarer tofus that I hope can one day be commercialized in the west, but that are already hard to find in China:
This is too cool! I might have to add a rest stop post EAG...
This might sound silly but I guess naming can matter a lot, but is there a name other than "tofu" that these "rare Chinese tofus" can be called that wouldn't just be made up? If they are indeed as different then it might be worth marketing them with a different name to distinguish them strongly from what Westerners currently think of as tofu. I am a Westerner and long time vegan, but throughout the article whenever I read the word "tofu" the image of only culinary blandness crosses my mind because that is the only reference point I have. This image association I introspectovely notice I cannot seem to break despite being very excited now to try these rare Chinese Tofus before I die.
On that note, I'd like to voice support for the sentiment that Chinese vegan cuisine is shockingly diverse. I travelled to Hunan pre-covid and thought I would have cheat and eat meat from time to time thinking veganism just doesn't exist there. I was incredibly wrong.
It felt easier to find cheap incredibly tasty full vegan meals there even though I didn't know the area than it is in my very vegan-friendly West Coast city despite living here for over a decade. Almost certainly my memories are being clouded by positive association due to being on vacation, but still a data point. Make of it what you will.
Strong upvote because I think this should be at the top of the conversation and this is what I came here to say.
Tofu has strong negative associations for many Americans; if you want to sell something which does not taste like American tofu and doesn't have the texture of American tofu I would advise you in the strongest possible language to call it anything but tofu.
This is a good point - branding is so key. Creating contrast between normal and rare tofus could turn out to be a really powerful marketing tool, or make us sad and un-credible.
Very cool that you've spent time in Hunan. I'd love to visit someday. And absolutely, it blows my mind how people talk about western veganish cities - it's a thousand times easier in China
I think Cornelius and Lumpyproletariat make good points, but as evelynciara points out in another comment, it's also important to make sure you don't do anything that's seen as cultural appropriation-y. There's one world where marketing rare Chinese tofu as something other than tofu could lead to accusations of white-washing and bad PR overall*. That being said, I could imagine that branding it with some other names used for the specific tofus in China could work, since it wouldn't be white-washing (I think?) and it wouldn't carry the negative connotation of tofu.
I know these are all conflicting comments, so my advice is just to be thoughtful about the various considerations before committing to a name :).
*Particularly since veganism is sadly (anecdotally) perceived as being super white, even though that's not true in America at least (BBC).
This thought crossed my mind as well. On the flip side, there is also already a market for tofu, supermarkets know where to put it and consumers know what it is. Though some hate it, some also like it and might be more easily enticed to try a new kind of it, than something completely unfamiliar. On the other hand, if most of the benefit is in replacing meat, it certainly seems like appearing to people who don’t like current forms of tofu would be valuable. Maybe there is some way to do both?
Great post, George. I enjoyed reading it and the accompanying Medium post. Your knowledge and passion are really exciting!
I’ve noticed that while many another areas of EA have embraced a hits based approach to accomplishing goals, farmed animal welfare seems more conservative. We may be overly focused on the trinity of welfare, moral suasion and plant-based/cultivated meats, and not willing enough to take risks. I suspect your proposal is a high-risk, medium-reward project, but as you point out, even a medium-reward intervention for farmed animals could result in some incredible numbers of animals saved. It seems obvious to me that this is a worthy area to explore, even if there are risks of failure.
You seem to be focusing on whether or not current omnivores would try these tofus and therefore replace a current meat-inclusive meal with tofu. Have you considered that by increasing the variety, availability and tastiness of tofus, you could be extending the amount of time a current vegetarian/vegan remains committed? I think that as a movement we tend to focus on new converts, and neglect maintaining those who currently avoid animal products, especially in light of evidence that many vegetarian/vegans eventually revert to eating meat. I suspect that people who already eat tofu would be the initial base for the new-to-the-West tofus.
This is a great point, Bryan! I wonder how a "support vegetarians" angle would compare to a "help meat eaters reduce" branding. More broadly, it seems like it might hinge on how helpful it is (to the long or short-term success of the movement) to grow the # of vegetarians vs flexitarian allies. I'd expect those goals to have more overlap than difference, but it seems worthwhile to at least think about.
My hunch would be to focus first on high-end flexitarian chefs, to establish that the ingredients aren't "just for vegans," then try to expand within the veg community. But I could be wrong.
I'm actually not so sure about this. From a flavor perspective, rare tofus taste pretty different from one another and have different use cases, so liking one type wouldn't necessarily be strongly correlated with liking another. That said, there might be greater willingness to try?
As scholars in training, I think it's important to heed attention to certain aspects of ethnocentrism when assigning food solutions outside of Western cultural contexts. Tofu was rationed sparingly to Chinese families during The Cultural Revolution and The Great Famine. There's a generation in China with a collective memory of feminine that's associated with tofu. There are also linguistics connotations to consider when marketing. "吃豆腐" or "eating tofu" in conversation means to take advantage of another person or having been taken advantage of. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Chinese_Famine
These are interesting ideas generated from your first-hand experience.
Have you already tried contacting The Good Food Institute (https://gfi.org/contact/)? They have a lot of resources and advice to offer entrepreneurs in the alternative protein space.
Thanks for the rec - I've chatted with a few folks from GFI. We'll try to engage with them more as we move forward.
Nice idea! As an alt protein investor, I have been waiting for more exciting tofu companies to emerge in the west. I do like your argument why we should be promoting tofu right now due to its versatility and uniqueness. That said, I'd push back on the suggested intervention of promoting rare chinese tofus. There are not existing supply chains or known westernized recipes for them, like there are for simple tofus. Perhaps a better use of resources would be promoting ways of utilizing tofus that people can already readily buy, or even promotion of the true health benefits of soy.
Thanks for your pointers, Nate! I'm also curious - what sorts of tofus have you tried?
I'm with you on the challenge of building a new market from the ground up. That said, on the supply side, I'd expect importing palettes of rare tofus would be a lot easier than, say, building a production site or finding suitable co-packers for a new plant-based meat company. Especially since a lot of these tofus are already imported, just on a small scale, but from producers that have a lot of capacity. (It also helps that they can all be frozen, unlike simple tofus.)
That's all assuming there's demand - which like you said is tough without existing use cases. My current take, and I could be wrong, is that simple tofus just don't have great product-market fit within western cuisines, and that this is unlikely to change in the short term. This is because of taste, textural, and cooking requirement issues that seem fundamental to firm/soft/silken tofu. (Silken tofu may be a slight exception - it seems to do well blended into baked goods and sauces, but I don't think this will substitute for much animal product consumption.)
Rare tofus, while currently unused in western cooking, have a lot of seemingly better-fit use cases, which we've been looking into for our book. (From crazy yuba/tofu skin pastries, to delicious stand-alone protein mains, to natural dumplings, ... ) My bullishness is more of a long-term bet, that rare tofus will eventually fare better than ordinary ones, since the culinary signs seem to point that they could. If these novel culinary uses could get chefs excited, which is something other alt proteins have had trouble with, I think that would have big trickle down effects on demand.
This is a great concept! Traditional meat substitutes like tofu are generally healthier than their highly processed counterparts like Beyond Meat (can't find a source for this atm), and I like your approach of popularizing existing meat substitutes rather than trying to invent new ones - I think we need both. I second @jasonk's suggestion to get in touch with GFI.
I'm part Taiwanese, and I've actually had some of the tofus you mention in your Medium post - I could never bring myself to try the stinky one, but I love pressed tofu (I didn't know that's what it was called).
One risk I see with your project is that a Westerner "discovering" (a.k.a. "Columbusing") and promoting obscure Chinese food varieties may be perceived as cultural appropriation, especially by the kinds of people you'll want to target (health- or environmentally-conscious progressives). It could also be seen as a mostly white, middle-class fad diet. This article has a lot of good examples of how vegan influencers have tried to promote plant-based foods in an inclusive way (e.g. marketing plant-based food to people of color, using their platforms to promote non-white influencers' accounts, and giving due credit to the cultures that created the foods they're promoting), and I suggest emulating these approaches in your project. I'd start by not describing obscure Chinese dishes as "rare" because it sounds weird; "obscure" is better in my opinion. I also suggest including Asian people in your project staff, but not in a tokenizing way. Finally, I strongly suggest doing careful market research as a first step to any business venture.
I think your appreciation for Chinese cuisine shines through in this post and the linked Medium post, and I encourage you to pursue this project!
One person's subjective opinion here, but I think "rare" sounds much nicer than "obscure" (and less weird!). Being offered a "rare" food makes me think "cool, special, unusual, this might be the only chance I get to eat this for years." Being offered an "obscure" food makes me think "if this is supposed to taste good, why is it so obscure?"
I agree re: "rare" v "obscure". "Obscure" to me means weird (in a negative way) in addition to uncommon. "Rare" just means uncommon. Diamonds (non-synthesized) are valued highly because they're seen as rare, for example. People don't use the word "obscure" to describe diamonds.
That said, neither word may turn out to be good to use in advertising.
I'm part Chinese and I agree that the perception of appropriation is a significant risk - "rare Chinese tofus" is off-putting enough to me that I would be hesitant to try a product marketed as such. This is despite being otherwise excited about the idea - I love tofu and am on a long campaign to find a tofu dish that my white American partner will enjoy. I think that, beyond chefs, you'll need a base of everyday consumers who help the project take off, and IMO the most likely people to form that base are younger Asian-Americans. (For instance, I think the success of BTS and Korean skincare in the US was strongly predicated on an initial Asian-American base.)
For me personally, I think it's not "rare" that bothers me, but "rare" and "Chinese" together. It reminds me of the stereotype that Chinese people are perpetual foreigners who can't relate to Americans. I've heard a general rule to avoid implicitly playing into these stereotypes is to ask yourself whether the ethnic descriptor is necessary to get the point across. In this case, I don't think it is, because tofu is already Chinese.
IMO, an easy fix here is to call each tofu by its place of origin or its Chinese name, as Pranay suggested. It'll sound foreign enough to Westerners that it retains an "exotic" appeal (like gua sha, feng shui, or kung fu), and it'll also be accurate and expressly honoring the culture of origin.
I would second having Chinese people on your staff, as well as looking into ways your project can benefit the rural villages whose people developed the tofu.
I'd also potentially suggest looking into, if you haven't already:
Thanks for sharing your concerns here and taking time to write this all out. I agree that framing these ingredients in a sensitive way is really important.
I'm definitely looking for other allies and partners!! If you know anyone, I'd love to connect :)
I'd actually disagree pretty strongly on this point - I think "Chinese" is a pretty important descriptor.
I'm less certain about the "rare" label. It seems that the word can have both positive and negative connotations, and sometimes provide important information value.
Ha, I never check my forum notifications - a belated thank you for responding and engaging with this, it's clear that you've already really thought through a lot of the potential harms folks are bringing up which is much appreciated. I definitely see the reasons why each word individually makes sense, but I do also wonder if there's a better synonym for rare.
The only thing I'd push back on is:
I think this is 100% true, and also the reason why Chinese-Americans find it off-putting. A lot of what second-gen folks like myself would call "cultural appropriation", immigrants with stronger ties to their home country would say makes them proud to see their culture represented in American [media/culture/etc].
So I suppose I should clarify that I'm speaking from the POV of Asian-Americans, who might find it more distasteful (pun intended). Whereas native Chinese people and non-Asian Americans will probably resonate w/ the framing for all the reasons you share.
No need to respond to this one month later, just wanted to ~ close the loop ~
These are good points. It's crazy how the faces of western veganism have been predominantly white, despite the fact that most veg culture originated outside of Europe. Very much with you on "celebrating" rather than "discovering," and being clear about cultural roots.
Appreciate your feedback!
I don't agree with this comment chain. Setting aside externalities to EA, we shouldn't add dependencies that restrict decisions of effective founders.
I don't find the content in the top convincing enough to pin future leaders to what I see as one perspective or worldview.
This seems especially valuable if we are supporting "hits based" projects like this one.
Imagine if somehow this got headlines like:
These might actually be brilliant ways to market this to Americans. Or maybe this might be really terrible and not the style of the leader at all.
But we should let the leader decide.
I don't know if it was clear from my original comment, but I was focusing on the perception of cultural appropriation as a risk to the reputation of the project, not cultural appropriation as an immoral act per se.
I apologize for asking such a simple question, but what is "rare tofu?" I'm aware that tofu is generally processed soy beans (and sometimes refers to a "tofu-like solid"), but what do you mean by rare tofu? Do you literally just mean types of tofu that are uncommon and hard to find?
This is a fair question! I should have added more explanation to the post.
TLDR: tofu is like chicken. Just as you would never cook chicken feet like chicken breast, so too do different tofus have vastly different uses, forms, and production methods. In particular, a few varieties that are "rare" or uncommon on China (and mostly absent elsewhere) seem particularly well suited to western cooking styles. I think of these like "chicken breasts," whereas common tofus have about as much western appeal as "chicken feet."
If you're curious, I can shoot you a more in-depth explanation from our book. Just shoot me your email.
A list of Chinese tofus (link)
What is tofu?
In its simplest form, tofu is bean curd. Think of this like soymilk cheese. Drop something sour or minerally into fresh, hot soymilk and its proteins will coagulate, or bind together, into soft, pillowy curds. These curds can be left as is – to coalesce into silken tofu – or spooned into a mold and pressed into soft tofu, firm tofu, pressed tofu, or tofu sheets. In China, firm and pressed tofu are often smoked, salted, dehydrated, or fermented – which chemically transforms them into several other distinct varieties.
Not all tofu is bean curd, however. Some varieties are made from soy protein, rather than whole beans (like spongy tofu or qianyedoufu 千页豆腐). Others are harvested atop steaming soymilk, as a luxurious and creamy film (see yuba or youdoupi 油豆皮). While some Americans might scoff at calling these varieties “tofu,” they would be lonely in China. In the birthplace and mecca of tofu cooking, most everyone treats curded and non-curded soy products as one large category.
Beyond soy-based tofu, there are several non-soy varieties. These include starch-gelled tofus – made from rice, almonds, peanuts, chickpeas, oat chestnuts, hemp, and sesame – as well as a few protein gels – from eggs, pig’s blood, and milk. In terms of taste, texture, and nutrition, these ingredients differ greatly from their soy-based counterparts, but they are still referred to as “tofu.”
"A solar panel for the palette" I love it. I think this is a great idea. Creating tasty new cuisines with unique flavors would likely get more people to eat more tofu since some would now have plant based options that meet their taste preferences. I like the idea of not just trying to replace meat but trying to create something new or even surpass it. Plant based meat projects are important of course - but I think there's room for other approaches too. The most successful renewable energy technologies (solar and wind) are ones that do something different than fossil fuels instead of trying to just replicate fuel based technology. Solar and wind combined can give you energy almost anywhere and without the need for combustion. Biofuels are good, but we probably wouldn't have as many renewables if that was our only approach. I'm not aware of any evidence that solar and wind held biofuels back, so I don't think rare tofus would hold plant meats back either.
Personally, I would love to have more kinds of tofu to try. I agree with Jeremy that getting these exotic tofus in front of some food industry experts to get their feedback would probably be a good idea.
Even better if these rare tofus are healthy and can be marketed as part of a healthy lifestyle that will make you feel great and strong. I wonder if there is some lesser known American history about tofu once being popular or enjoyed by the founding fathers or something too. I think Ben Franklin tried it. Would be great marketing material for getting people to at least give it a chance.
Huh if only we had a "Samuel Adams tofu" to go with the beer! Tofu's history in the States is pretty recent, but there may be something juicy there.
Absolutely with you this!
As a vegan who lives in China now, I am grateful that there are at least 15 different types of tofu in my local grocery store. My favorite is called vegetarian chicken -- https://baike.baidu.com/item/素鸡/265385
Suji is incredible! We've been calling it "Shanghai tofu" in our book, since vegetarian chicken can sometimes be misinterpreted as a mock meat.
Funny enough, if you freeze and thaw it a couple times, the crumb becomes very bread-like. Stew it in a creamy, sweet sauce, refrigerate it overnight, and it will have an almost "tres leches cake" consistency. Such a cool ingredient!
Thanks for the tips. My mum happened to have left a bit of Suji in my freezer. I will give it a try.
Thanks for the post, it's really exciting!
One very minor point:
I agree that this is somewhat true, but stating it like this seems a bit unfair. Ordering tofu for guests seems fine to me; It only gets problematic when you order way too much of it - in the same way as ordering nothing but rice for guests is extremely disrespectful. (Conflict of Interest: I'm a tofu lover!)
Anyway, I really like your idea! Good luck :)
Fair enough! I definitely stated that point too strongly, more of a "if you just order tofu for guests, without much meat/seafood, it could come across as rude." Thanks for the pointer!
And glad to meet another tofu lover :)
Hi George, thanks so much for writing this post! This seems like a great an idea. I'll try to be unbiased, but given this is the first EA Forum I've read about cooking and food, two of my passions, I'll probably be biased.
This seems like an extremely cool opportunity for impact, although I definitely think it has a high chance of failure, but substantial impact if successful. This definitely falls into the category of very ambitious EA projects, with the small possibility of becoming a version of a self sustaining EA megaproject (aka a company).
It seems from my layman perspective that a for-profit business model is the way to go here, rather than a non-profit campaign. You discuss connecting purveyors/distributors with restaurants, but do those supply chains exist? It seems like you say that rare Chinese tofus are basically non-existent in the US, and that's my perception as well. If that's the case, then marketing and creating a campaign promoting these non-traditional tofus might be putting the cart before the horse. You can't create demand without also creating supply. Although creating a for-profit company becomes a much larger endeavor, it also creates an opportunity to grow much more rapidly and become a self-sustaining force. Additionally, many of your proposals seem like they would fit into a for-profit company as marketing.
As others have commented, I think even your conservative estimates regarding potential growth of the tofu market are wildly optimistic. Tofu is very unpopular to most Americans, so I think achieving any increase in tofu consumption among non-vegans/vegetarians is already a big ask. Nonetheless, I think increasing the quality and options of non-animal protein options is very important for making it easier to eat become vegan/vegetarian or just to eat less meat.
Finally, re this opportunity vs longtermist community building, it seems like you have exceptional personal fit for this opportunity. You clearly have intimate knowledge about the topic and a clear passion for it, so that seems like a strong point in favor of trying it. Plus you would get invaluable experience and career capital out of it.
Bit late, but this seems cool, and I like this style of public sourcing your career plan! I also think (as someone mentioned) GFI might be better placed to advise you on what to do about entering the US/Western food market.
Just curious, wondering if you're already in touch with people from the greater China / Asia effective animal advocacy movement, who might be helpful contacts, and if you'd like to be put in touch if not :) I'm not as familiar with the greater China EAA scene as I was a few years back, but I can probably at least get you started.
I think that pursuing rare tofus would itself be a good community-building project: you make rare tofus sound totally awesome and I bet you'll get lots of people really excited about them and about you. Then they'll want to check out other stuff that you're involved in, such as the EA movement, and they'll be interested to learn more about it because they already know an awesome and passionate EA (you).
Hey George, glad to hear more on this project and thought this was a great write-up.
In my opinion, this is exactly the kind of thing we need more of in the vegan food world and I'm very on board with the thesis of making a superior product and obsoleting meat as opposed to substituting.
Good luck with the venture and I will be following your progress!
Thanks Cameron, I appreciate the support!