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Replacing Meat Can Avert Catastrophic Climate Change, According to Biochemist

Patrick O. Brown and Michael Fernandez
Patrick O. Brown takes part in a live Q&A with Michael Fernandez at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting. | AAAS

Science and technology can stem the tide of climate change and reverse the collapse of biodiversity by replacing the use of animals as food, according to a biochemistry professor-turned-founder of a plant-based food company.

Patrick O. Brown, professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford University and the founder and chief executive officer of Impossible Foods, elucidated “the most important scientific challenge we face” during a Feb. 11 topical lecture at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting: “to reverse the collapse of global biodiversity and avert catastrophic climate change in the small window of time we still have to do it by completely replacing the use of animals as a food production technology within the next 15 years.”

The use of animals for food is the most destructive technology in human history, Brown said. Animal farming produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases, more than “every car, bus, truck, train, ship, airplane and rocket ship emit combined.” The land use of animals for food production is an even more significant issue, he added. Animal agriculture uses more than 45 percent of the planet’s ice-free land surface, he said.

Though some have proposed hunting as a more environmentally friendly alternative to animal agriculture, Brown noted that meat consumed annually weighs more than six times as every remaining wild terrestrial vertebrate.

“If we relied on wild animals to meet current meat demand, within two months, there wouldn’t be so much as a sparrow or a hedgehog or a newt left on earth,” Brown said. After all, we are in the midst of biodiversity collapse, he added. Total populations of wild animals are just a third of what they were 50 years ago.

“This is a job for science,” said Brown. At Impossible Foods, which makes plant-based meat substitutes such as the Impossible Burger, Brown draws upon his scientific expertise to understand the sensory properties of animal products on molecular terms, then reconstruct those properties using plant tissue – a process that is “vastly simpler” than reconstructing living cells or tissues.

Brown acknowledged that the 15-year timeline of completely revamping a food production system he proposes sounds aggressive, but he compared it to the past sweeping replacements of older technology. Horses – a transportation technology that could not be improved anywhere near to the degree it was needed – was “leapfrogged” completely by a new, technology-based solution: cars.

However, building a system that eliminates the economic incentives for eating animals will require a lot of scientific expertise, Brown said, providing knowledge, problem-solving and ingenuity to rebuild agriculture supply chains, create diverse food products and work to restore land that has been degraded by animal agriculture.

He urged scientists to consider their own work – however valuable or enlightening – to evaluate how they might maximize their impact, encouraging them to consider ways to “use your talents and imagination to change this disastrous trajectory.”

Said Brown, “Join the small but growing movement of scientists and engineers who are working hard to turn back the clock on global warming and halt and reverse the global collapse of biodiversity by building a new technology platform to replace livestock.”

[Associated images: Impossible; weyo/Adobe Stock]