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Tech's complicated, expensive and urgent plan to disrupt food and save the world

A conversation with Larissa Zimberoff, author of "Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat."

A pile of burgers and fries doused in ketchup on a green background

Is getting rid of these the answer?

Photo: Impossible Foods

Big Tech is coming for your kitchen. In recent years, companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Plenty have raised huge sums of money and have been attempting to find a cheaper, more efficient, more sustainable way to feed the world. Some of it involves creative new uses of plants, and some involves creating wholly new building blocks in a lab.

Larissa Zimberoff has been chronicling this space for years, most recently in her book, "Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat." She's eaten all the strange proteins, been in the labs and seen firsthand what it takes to rethink the way the world eats. Spoiler alert: It's not going to be easy.

Zimberoff joined the Source Code podcast to discuss how tech and food became intertwined in the first place, why so much of the future is actually about cows, which companies are most promising and which futuristic foods might find a way into your fridge before long.

You can listen to our full conversation on this episode of the Source Code podcast. Below are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

David Pierce: Let's go back in history a bit. How long has the quote-unquote "tech industry" been interested in food?

I've been following the sector for about six to seven years. And some of these companies — like Perfect Day, which is culturing dairy, and Clara, which is making egg proteins in the lab using fermentation — have been around for about that amount of time. And you can look at IndieBio, which is sort of the preeminent synthetic biology accelerator, that was when it was in its infancy.

And then Wall Street noticed it when Beyond Meat went [public]. Initially, Uma Valeti, who is the CEO of Upside Foods — which used to be called Memphis Meats — said people didn't want to give him money. But after Beyond Meat, people were clamoring to give him money. Now, with the climate and with the proof that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat can go into China? Now that capitalism sees it can be successful, they want in. And that's why we're seeing it skyrocket today, whereas five to seven years ago it was just bubbling.

DP: One of the things I was going to ask was: What caused this change? It seems like part of it is increased awareness of climate change, and the understanding of how the food chain contributes to it. But did Beyond and Impossible really start this whole thing?

They were the proving ground. When I interview other startups, they always want to nod to those two companies and say thanks to Impossible or thanks to Beyond for paving the way and making it something that could be possible. Getting plant-based burgers into Burger King, Carl's Jr. or McDonald's? You'd think it's impossible. And here it is. It's in White Castle. I think there's going to be a Burger King somewhere that's just going to be vegan.

DP: I feel like if you had said that to somebody 15 years ago, they would have laughed in your face, that that is a thing that could even possibly exist.

[Impossible CEO] Pat Brown will say that in 20 years, we'll be laughing that we ate meat, right? It's like cigarette smoking in offices.

And the pandemic has accelerated things. I think things will happen quicker, in some ways, with food now.

DP: Why is that?

Direct-to-consumer, right? Everyone's shopping online now. I can get all the weird plant-based foods delivered to my door now in ways that I couldn't before. And part of that is price parity. Finally, prices are coming down in plant-based, so people can afford it easier. Some of it is artificially coming down in price: Beyond Meat did summer sales last year, and two-for-ones to bring prices down so that more people would try it out.

Anna Kramer: At the end of the day, when we take cows, how much are Impossible Meat and Beyond Meat and these kinds of plant-based substitutes actually affecting the number of cows we're actually raising and killing? Because from what I understand, most of our problem when it comes to meat production with cows is really steaks, and that most of the burger meat that we use is the byproduct ground beef. And even if we reduced ground beef consumption, that probably wouldn't really reduce the number of cows that we have to grow and kill.

You kind of answered your question, right? Eighty percent of what we sell is whole-cut meat. It's steaks, it's chicken breasts, it's not ground beef. Ground beef isn't the solve to our industrial-scale agricultural problem. And there are lots of companies out there trying to do that.

I talked to a bacon maker who makes bacon from mycelium, and they consider it whole-cut protein. And they're planning to sell their material, this kind of amorphous, fluffy, squishy stuff, to CPG companies to make other products. And there's other other companies working to make chicken breasts and to make this whole-cut food, because ground beef isn't going to move the needle on production.

But I think Impossible and Beyond see it as the quickest way to our hearts. If they could have made pizza, they would have made pizza, right? So they went after burgers. It makes absolute sense as far as marketing and branding and sales: Go for the burger. The other things are harder.

AK: You described how there's an industry trying to replace another industry, but at the same time, we also have this contingent of society, often many of the same people who are in the tech space, who are arguing about eating local and organic, and how important it is to support small farms, etc. And I don't know that we talk that much about the fact that to feed the world, industrial-scale food production is extremely important. Are there people grappling with that tension? And how do we sort of take those two concepts that really seem diametrically opposed to each other?

What I'd like to see is more local-based solutions. Impossible and Beyond are like, "We're white men, and we've made our burgers and we're going to send them out into the world." But there's now a plant-based meat maker in Nigeria, making stew meat that you rehydrate, and it works for their cuisine. And so why can't there be these companies that are location-specific, that are helping those areas eat the things that they want to eat?

It doesn't all have to be industrial. Sure, there are those base ingredients that we're going to need. But if fruits and vegetables were grown locally, and if you know, these plant-based protein options were produced locally, why do these companies see it only as, "We must scale immediately, we must be cheap immediately, and we must get it out to the world ASAP"?

That's back to their mission, which is to save the climate and do less harm. Usually those are the two competing things that they have going on. But one, we make enough food for everybody and we throw a lot away. So, do better with what we've got. Do more local.

AK: So much of what we are talking about is the stuff that's produced for people who can afford it. What can be done to make any of this equitable and accessible?

I think our health problems are huge and need to be addressed. And that doesn't even take into account what they buy, that's a matter of education. So it's education, and it's the tools to know how to make food, and to buy the foods that are going to help them be healthier. You know, there's so much Type 2 diabetes in the world, and we saw in the U.S. that the pandemic really hit people with underlying conditions really hard, and that's because of our health. That's because of our American diet.

Our American diet is contingent upon industrialized foods, snack foods, ultra-processed foods. We need to stop and say, "This American diet is making the U.S. unhealthy, and everyone out of the U.S. unhealthy, because we're just shipping it out." Coca-Cola isn't focused here, they're everywhere. Nestle, Frito-Lay, Kraft, all the brands making the snack foods are global.

Impossible and Beyond have really dropped in price. So as far as affordability, they're probably already there for people to buy. But more than once a week isn't the solution. So it's helping people to understand that. I've had the time and the money to educate myself. But that's what other groups may not have, and that's part of the problem. So it's not just, you know, "Can they afford these future foods?" It's "do they understand what's making them healthy and what's making them unhealthy?" That's probably the bigger problem.

DP: Where is Big Food in all of this? It seems like these big companies, Frito-Lay and Nestle and whoever, must be at least investigating this stuff in some way. But it doesn't seem like most of the innovation in this space is coming from them.

No, the innovation is not coming from Big Food, but Big Food is buying up New Food. They're all keenly watching this category. JBS, the largest meat producer in the world, is already buying up companies that are producing plant-based burgers. Nestle bought Sweet Earth, every company is adding to their portfolio with new brands.

DP: Do you read that as a good sign or a bad sign?

One of the things I talked about in the book that I worry about is whether New Food is following in the footsteps of Big Food. So I do see that as a sign to be concerned.

I don't trust food companies, because they don't have my best interests at heart. If my health is key, they don't have metrics, they don't have targets that they have to hit. If the government came in, and maybe we had some policy decisions that pressed down on food and said, "You have to ensure a healthy public, healthy consumers," then they might make change. But until then, it's not going to happen.

DP: Obviously, we're having all of these conversations about how tech is supposed to be regulated by the government in general. And the food industry is pretty regulated — imperfectly, but at least semi-thoughtfully. Does that work for what's coming next? Can the USDA and the FDA continue to be what we need here, or is regulation going to change things?

It will be really interesting for cultured meat. Cultured meat, seafood, etc., will come under the purview of both agencies. So both the USDA and the FDA will regulate these together, which is kind of a first of its kind. That means that the FDA will regulate the science, and the how, and the USDA will regulate what comes out. So here we have two agencies that aren't used to working together, that handle different areas and handle things differently. It's the government, there must be pounds of red tape. And then there's the IP, which protects a lot of what the main technology company is creating. And that's another big thing: When there's IP with food, and they won't give you answers, that makes me wary.

DP: So then given that, what's the right balance with the tech industry's sense of "move fast and break things"? There are some real, worth-solving problems out there. Every day we don't do things about climate change, climate change gets worse. That stuff is urgent and needs to be solved. But then on the other hand, food is about as high-stakes a thing as you can deal with. It's literally life and death stuff. So what's your sense of what that balance should look like between trying stuff, and being really responsible and rigorous and scientific?

I think that, in the way that I have to sign documents to eat things when I go visit a company, I think that initially there's some levels of you know, you're signing on to say, "I'm going to eat this and I don't know—"

DP: Do they give you a piece of paper that's like, "I understand that if this kills me, it's not your fault"?

It doesn't quite say that! But it says something like, "I'm eating something that's not approved." Kill me isn't listed there. But yeah, I don't know what the happy medium is between "thoughtful launch" and "go quick so you can get this out there and try things."

I think the companies that can learn to be more transparent, the companies that can learn to inform us more clearly of what they're doing, are the companies that will lead and can lead by example. And no one's there yet. So there are some smaller companies, the fungi-based companies or the algae-based companies, that would share enough that I feel like I get it. But anything in culture is kind of opaque to me.

AK: The counterpoint I was going to bring up is that we don't even really know what's in the cheapest stuff that we can buy in the grocery store. You have no idea if the labels are 100% accurate, and you don't really know how the animal was fed, or what it was fed, and how that affects you. And there's so much pseudoscience and so much politics involved. I don't think it can be worse? Maybe that's optimistic, but it's why I think I'm less frightened of it all.

That's one of their arguments, right, which is that people don't don't care about what their animals are fed. And so why should they tell us what they're doing with the cultured stuff?

I think we're going to have adoption speed up rapidly if, as younger generations come to hold more of the wallet, as technology advances, and if something really disastrous were to happen, you'll see this quickly come to market. And also, again, I'm healthier eating whole foods, or foods close to their origin. So if we're being told to eat a plant-based diet, or a more plant-based diet, why are they making meat? If we're supposed to eat less meat, why are they making meat?

DP: That's a question I had, too! This whole new industry has decided that the best thing to do is to re-create, as close as possible, the food people already eat. Soylent has no analogue in the past, I guess, but Impossible is trying to make burgers that taste like … burgers. Is there ever going to be a time where the goal becomes to introduce wholly new things that people haven't tried before?

I think it's a great idea. Why do you have to make the bacon? Why do you have to make the egg? Those are perfect things that are hard to replicate. And so make something else, call it something else. Maybe it's just terminology, you know?

But I haven't found any company wanting to do that yet. They're like, "Let's just swap their meat for cultured meat!" It's like a shell game.

So maybe that's the first step. Then step two is going to be maybe making animals that we've never thought to eat into something we could eat.

I think with algae and fungi, there's the potential, because they haven't existed as complete and finished foods. I think there's a lot of potential for those two areas and those two ingredients to become new things. NASA has a kind of contest to feed astronauts in space. There's all these different contests that come up with innovation. And so maybe we just need some crazy investor to decide that he wants to back this idea.

DP: So you tasted all these foods in the course of writing this book, and you've been doing this a long time, so you've tasted a ton of these things before. What do you actually eat day-to-day?

I always have plant-based milk in my fridge, and I'm always trying a new one. I just had Lavva, which is made from a pili nut. I often have Eat Just scrambled eggs in my fridge. They're easy to make, they're simpler, I don't have to think about which chicken eggs to buy. I am trying to eat more plants and less animal meat. So I generally have Just in my fridge. I have Miyoko's cheese in my fridge, they've got a really nice cheddar spread.

I'm willing to try everything, but mostly things get into my fridge once and then they cycle out. I'm always trying new proteins. I've got a soy-protein isolate and vital wheat gluten chicken. That's not too bad. It's really true. But I probably won't buy it again.

I have Pumfu in my house, which is tofu made from pumpkin seeds. And it's amazing. I know it doesn't sound good, but it's amazing. The Plantable guy says he's promised me some Lemna treats to try, which I'm excited about — lemna's that Rubisco protein that's like 40% protein, this tiny little duckweed plant. They're extracting the protein, and they're going to make things out of it, which I'm very intrigued by. So I will keep on trying things.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Uma Valeti's name. This story was updated on June 9, 2021.

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