Meat with Approval

Meat with Approval
Meat with Approval
By Sacha Zimmerman

When Ethan Brown ’89 founded Beyond Meat in 2009, it was the culmination of years of questions that started when Brown was a student at Sidwell Friends School. Why do some animals become pets and others food? Why do people treat nonhuman mammals so differently from themselves? How can I add value to the world through my career? His answers added up to a Los Angeles–based company that makes meat products exclusively from plants. In the process, Beyond Meat is creating a healthier population, a cleaner planet, and a happier cow, chicken, pig…

SIDWELL FRIENDS: Tell me about your experience at Sidwell Friends School.

ribbon cutting

ETHAN BROWN: I just can’t say enough about Sidwell. When I think of family, I definitely include Sidwell Friends because of the relationships and experiences I have from there. I have a group of people I grew up with who I’m still very close to. DC is a big city, but there is a small-town feeling to Sidwell, because you stay so close to the people and so involved in their lives.

I’m a Quaker. Currently, I go to Santa Monica Friends Meeting out here in California. The theme of this feature, “Lives That Speak,” is really something that’s important to me. I’m 100 percent sure that Sidwell Friends had a big role in what I’m doing today—in terms of just helping me understand that education and material progress can be used to solve global issues and create social good. That’s a very clear message you get at Sidwell and throughout the Quaker church. That’s something that has always resonated with me.

A Quaker education prepares you and gives you a perspective on the world that is really important. It is about using your gifts: What are you accomplishing with the education you’ve been given? That was forefront for me coming out of Sidwell Friends. There was always a practical perspective to whatever I was pursuing, including in my professional career. The idea that you could use technology to solve large global problems began to fascinate me. I first applied that thinking in the energy sector. I worked for nearly a decade for Ballard Power Systems, a leading developer of proton-exchange fuel cells. It was terrific, and I was motivated by the greenhouse implications of using hydrogen as an energy carrier. But it dawned on me that a lot of people in my generation were entering the alternative- energy space and using technology to solve for climate. But food was an area that was very much underdeveloped in terms of the application of technology. Specifically, it seemed fixed—immovable—that meat had to come from animals. 

SF: Have you always been interested in vegetarianism? Did you read Diet for a Small Planet at a young age? 

EB: It’s funny you mention Diet for a Small Planet. That book has banged around my house for decades—as a child and now as an adult. So much of what we are talking about today was captured so well in that book, and it was written in 1971. The general observation there is that you can take much more protein directly from the field versus going through an animal. And that is what my business does. It’s interesting to me that this general premise—that running plants through an animal for protein is less efficient than getting protein directly from plants—is seen by the public as new, when it’s an old and established idea that has patiently waited on the fringe. Today, as with most disruptive trends, the fringe idea takes hold and progress occurs. 

I was not always vegetarian. Though I grew up going to Sidwell, we had a farm in western Maryland. It was a regular occurrence to pack up our car and drive out there. We spent many weekends there and longer periods during the summer as I grew up. My dad, a professor who himself has an entrepreneurial streak, also stood up a dairy farm of 100 Holstein cows there. As early as I can remember, I loved animals. My favorite books as a young child were written by James Harriett, the English veterinarian. I wanted to be a vet for a long time, and I would bring as many wild creatures into the house as I could get my hands on—something now I regret because I understand the terror they must have felt. But it was this experience—one foot in the city, one out—that I think shaped a lot of my thinking. You know in Charlotte’s Web where the father says to the daughter: Hey, this is the way the world is—Wilbur’s going to get slaughtered? I was around animals and agriculture, but nobody ever to said that to me. My dad, whose field is philosophy, refused to recite dogma. In the West, and others parts of the world, it is our practice to treat particular species, like a dog or cat, so nicely that they can sleep in our bed at night. But we treat others, say a pig, so poorly that they are confined their entire lives and then slaughtered. Yet the differences boil down to hoof versus paw, pigment, maybe level of interest in humans, and other features that aren’t relevant to moral standing. I didn’t understand why these differences among species mattered. Plus, I went to Sidwell, where you are told that superficial differences shouldn’t influence how we apply our moral structure. At Sidwell, the context was around racial justice. I just broadened that thinking across species.

“At Sidwell, the context was around racial justice. I just broadened that thinking across species.”

SF: At what point did that become enough of a passion to start a business?

EB: I wish I could say it was right away. I really admire the people who come out of school and just follow their hearts. I did not have the courage to do that. It was just something I thought about a lot in my 20s, and I didn’t really know how to do it. At one point, I called up the Morningstar Farms, which made early plant-based products. I had invested in them but was engaged in clean energy as a career. I said something to effect of: “I just want to help. This is a good thing for the world, what can I do?” And the woman on the phone was appropriately puzzled—I think she asked if I was seeking employment (I wasn’t), and the conversation ended fairly quickly. 

But I had that passion, knowing that this was something that could make an impact on the world. The challenge was that a lot of the products were not good; they didn’t start with the idea that you could truly construct meat from plants. So, knowing something about technology, and a bit about science, I started to ask questions and learn. The animal is simply a conversion mechanism, right? What they are doing is taking large amounts of plants, consuming them, drinking a lot of water, and then using their digestive tracts. They are using their skeletal-muscular system to organize those ingredients into muscle.

There’s a lot in that muscle that humans don’t necessarily even need or want in terms of meat. There are things like heme iron and a lot of cholesterol. There are other agents in animal muscle that are deleterious to human bodies. But because we evolved consuming meat, we were conditioned to think that killing an animal is the only way to produce a piece of meat. But if you actually look at what meat is, it is really these five things: amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins, and water. The ability to harvest those ingredients directly from plants and then use technology to organize them in the structure of meat was something that endlessly fascinated me. It was a thought that started to knock quietly, then every year it got a little louder, and it finally became so loud, I couldn’t afford not to listen. I got to that very late stage where I just had to do it. 

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SF: Do you have a taste philosophy? Is it important that your products taste like traditional meat products, or should people start to reform their tastes and choose new flavors?

EB: That’s an excellent question, and it’s one I get asked often: “Why are you trying so hard to have it taste just like meat? Why not just create a delicious new form of protein for the center of the plate?” My answer is: I know that people love meat and that we evolved eating meat. We have such a close relationship to meat. We would not be having this conversation as an intelligent species had we not become more carnivorous. It is ingrained in us. Also, meat plays a big role in our evolution, our history, our holidays, and our traditions. And it’s not a great idea to compete with those experiences. I’d rather celebrate them and create something through technology that allows people to continue to have those experiences in a way that’s healthy for them, better for the planet, and better for animals. That’s why I’m so focused on that perfect replication of animal protein. 

And we are chasing a static target. When I was in fuel cells, one of the early applications was industrial power. And those systems, many of them diesel, kept getting more efficient. As we hit milestones, they would make a slight adjustment and go a little bit higher in efficiency. Here, though, the animals are not getting more efficient. And we are able to invest resources into research to close the gap between our plant-based meats and the animal equivalent. We do this work at the Manhattan Beach Project—and that’s a very purposeful name. I wanted to invoke that sense of urgency in response to a global set of threats. Let’s put together the best scientists in the world, the best engineers in the world, the best managers, give them that clear mandate, and get out of their way. And that’s what we do at Beyond Meat; we combine the best of science and engineering with all-natural ingredients to build meat directly from plants. 

SF: How do you convince fast-food joints to take a shot on you? 

EB: First, you’ve got to love your customer and meet them where they are in their lives. I love the process of seeing them change their lives and feel better about themselves as they awaken to the impact of food on their bodies, the Earth, and animals. I love when you are able to do that at scale. Also, it really helps when your brand and a broader movement become intertwined. We are very fortunate that such a fusion is occurring. Among our investors, for example, we’ve had both Tyson Foods and the Humane Society. That’s in part because we insist on, develop, and deliver the very best products on the market—and do so with ingredients (non-GMO, nothing artificial) that our partners can be proud of. 

I’ve never been interested in high-end chefs and their clientele. Very wealthy people can eat really well with the model of local farms, fresh leafy greens, and the occasional organic hen. I’m not convinced this approach is scalable for the mainstream for a number of cultural and logistical reasons. And so, working with McDonald’s has always been my focus. And it’s a privilege. They can bring change. Working with KFC is the same, and the many other quick-serve restaurants that partner with us. Plus, these are the brands I experienced as a kid. Think about what’s down the street from Sidwell: a McDonald’s (back then it was a Roy Rogers). I had my first date (Hi, Elizabeth!) in 6th grade at McDonald’s at Mazza Gallerie—it was great. My kids eat more protein than most kids, because they are able to get high levels of amino acids and protein. They are able to get that with much less saturated fat, with no cholesterol, with no heme iron, and no carcinogens. Beyond Meat products enable us to have more of those fun McDonald’s experiences and feel good. If you take that attitude, if you don’t denigrate the customer, if you celebrate what they do, and if you try to improve it, those are quintessential American values. 

beyond meat burger

We’re trying to take something that’s good, which is meat, and make it better. And everybody can play a role in that. The farmers will make more money if they are growing crops that go directly into our products, rather than into the mouths of animals. If you look at feed costs on the commodities market—whether it’s corn, soy, or wheat—the farmer will make more money growing plant protein than feeding animals. 

SF: It’s like the cow is the middleman.

EB: Yes! Why spend all this time and energy growing feed for the cow, when you can actually grow much higher-quality crops directly for human consumption and make more money. We use 93 percent less land for burgers than conventional animal proteins. We use 99 percent less water. We have 90 percent fewer emissions, and we use roughly half the energy. That’s efficiency. If you take any economics course, they’ll talk about getting the middleman out, getting the bottleneck out. That’s what we’ve done.

SF: Athletes talk about reducing their meat consumption to feel more vital. Is that why Beyond Meat uses celebrity athletes to gain traction in popular culture?

EB: It’s fun to talk to you about this because so many of these ideas came to me while I was a kid growing up at Sidwell Friends. I love athletes and I love sports, and this is a debate I had countless times very early on with marketers in and around the company. Many seasoned marketers could not understand why I was using male athletes to promote our products; the conventional wisdom is that consumer goods in the grocery store should be marketed to moms. But I wanted to attack the mental model that associates animal meat with masculinity (and its associated traits of strength and vitality). I wanted to use modern-day gladiators who are thriving on our plant-based meats. If we are going to take on that entire bias, I want to show that the most vital people in the world are using Beyond Meat to flourish. That to me is the most compelling advertising possible. To that end, years ago I hired the original creator of the “Got Milk?” campaign and asked him to help me start what we now call the “Go Beyond” campaign. The directive was to build the “Got Milk?” of this generation.

SF: What is next for you and for Beyond Meat?

EB: We are constantly iterating to collapse the gaps between our plant-based meats and animal meats across three core platforms: beef, pork, and poultry. I’m focused on expanding internationally—we are active in the European Union now and are setting up production capacity there with a partner. And we are committed to doing the supply-chain and operations work necessary to underprice animal protein. If the product can be indistinguishable from animal meat, is good for you and the planet, and is cheaper, it becomes an unusual consumer who doesn’t buy in. 

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