Karthik Sekar

I'm Karthik, a scientist by training in biochemical engineering and systems/quantitative biology. I've been keen on the Effective Altruism movement since first hearing about it on Sam Harris' podcast in 2016. I'm particularly motivated by the problem of farmed animal agriculture, and have steered my life and pursuits accordingly. I currently work as a Data Scientist at Climax Foods to develop next-generation vegan food products. And I've also authored a book about the impending end of animal agriculture--focusing on how poor and inefficient animals are as a production system (the "technological" argument against animal ag). Book is titled After Meat, and more info is here: https://aftermeatbook.com/

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AMA: I've authored a new book (After Meat) about the technological limits of animals for production and why we'll do better

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.
AMA: I've authored a new book (After Meat) about the technological limits of animals for production and why we'll do better

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.

AMA: I've authored a new book (After Meat) about the technological limits of animals for production and why we'll do better

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.