University Students on a Mission to Create Plant-Based Meat Alternatives

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Image by Dllu (Wikimedia Commons)

By Genevieve Cottraux

Veg News recently reported on a partnership at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) between the Good Food Institute and UCB’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (SCET) that challenges students to develop plant-based meat alternatives.  According to Veg News, The Good Food Institute (GFI) is a sister organization of Mercy for Animals that “provides marketing, design, legal, business, media, and other support to a select number of early-stage companies producing cultured and plant-based products.”

The semester-long course, called the Challenge Lab, is overseen by Professor of Chemical Engineering Ricardo San Martin.  The course is competition-based, a format that “encourages students to solve complex problems for real industry clients.”  Students work in teams to develop innovative plant-based meats and the winning team, chosen by a panel of experts, will receive a $5,000 prize.  As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, lecturers in the course include GFI senior scientist Christie Lagally speaking on the environmental reasons to develop plant-based meats.  Impossible Foods advisor and UCB biologist Michael Eisen is also a lecturer for the course.  Eisen states in his blog it is NOT junk, “I got involved in the company because animal farming has a massively negative effect on the planet, and because I believe we can reduce this negative impact by offering consumers products that satisfy their desire for meat, cheese and other dairy products that have less of an impact on the environment.”  The 45 students enrolled in the course come from diverse areas of interest, ranging from business to nutrition.  Ethical challenges addressed include the environment, the effects of factory farming, health and nutrition, and animal welfare.

As part of SCET’s emphasis entrepreneurship and technological innovation, the students are tasked with research into affordable plant-based alternatives.  The plant-based meat alternative industry has grown, with an expanding interest in “clean meat” (also called cultured meat), or meat grown through cell replication in a laboratory rather than obtained through animal slaughter.  The meat industry publication Global Meat News estimates that the alternative meat industry is growing by 8.4% annually, with revenues expected to reach $5.2 billion by the year 2020.  Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods has made a splash with its Impossible Burger as they work with world-class chefs at select restaurants; the limited availability of the plant-based burger has made it famous in its way, requiring forays to restaurants such as Michelin-starred Public in New York City.  According to Impossible Foods, “Producing the Impossible Burger requires a quarter of the water used to produce the same burger from a cow, 1/20th of the land and 1/8th of the greenhouse gas emissions.  In fact, switching from a conventional burger made from cows to a quarter-pound Impossible Burger saves as much water as a 10-minute shower.  It eliminates the greenhouse gases emitted by driving 18 miles in an average car.  And it liberates 75 square feet of land for wildlife.”

Latest Vegan News reported in 2015 that the Nutrition Business Journal found that 36% of Americans are “open to plant-based eating” and about the same number buy meat alternatives.  The increased interest in healthy and humane alternatives means that fewer animal are killed, 400 million being saved from slaughter in 2014.  The Humane Party’s proposed Abolition Amendment to the United States Constitution goes even further as it proposes to abolish involuntary servitude and slavery of all animals, thereby aiming for an immediate end to the meat, dairy, egg, and other exploitation- and killing-based industries.

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