Can We Make a More Sustainable Burger?
Exploring the Nexus of Food and Social Impact

A new Yale initiative, Plant-based And, encourages students from across campus to explore the intersections of food, sustainability, and social impact — with an emphasis on the role of student startups.
NewProteinLandscape yale
Olivia Fox Cabane
The “new protein” industry landscape
In a few years, you might find yourself eating a burger, chicken wing, or pork dumpling that is made not of meat, but of soy protein, wheat protein, or even lab-grown molecules.
 
And it might come from a Yale-based startup.
 
A new initiative, “Plant-based And,” encourages students from across campus to explore the intersections of food, sustainability, and social impact. The initiative brings experts to campus to lead workshops on the subject, including some that focused specifically on student startups.
 
The initiative, which was launched last year in response to student interest in the potential for alternative proteins to change the food system, is supported by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment and the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking.
If we can make products that taste better, are better priced, and are more convenient, we can get people to replace animal industry-based products and make the planet a far, far better place.
— Aylon Steinhart, Good Food Institute
“Alternative proteins are alternatives to factory farming and its environmental, social, animal welfare, and worker welfare problems, as well as the growing problem of antibiotic resistance,” said Maki Tazawa ’19 M.E.M., one of the student coordinators for the initiative. “Seventy percent of all antibiotics manufactured in the U.S. go to animals, not people.”
 
Alternative proteins include recognizable plant-based foods made from legumes or mushrooms, as well as processed plant-based foods marketed as alternatives to traditional meat products, like patties, dumplings, or filets. Alternative proteins also include lab-grown meat, a new sector of development. Alternative protein companies believe that the majority of consumers of their products are not vegetarians, but “flexitarians” and omnivores, motivated by a desire to reduce their environmental footprint.
 
In October, Tazawa and Abhi Kumar ’19 M.M.S./G.B.S. taught a four-session “intensive” course designed to take curious students and aspiring student entrepreneurs deeper into this subject. Students learned about how plant-based proteins and lab-grown meat are made, learned about the business and regulatory landscape, spent time workshopping their own startup ideas, and even tried out some alternative protein foods.
 
Guest speakers and participants alike expressed a common desire to make a difference in the food system. Many alternative protein companies openly avow this motivation.
 
“People make purchasing decisions based on taste, price, and convenience. If we can make products that taste better, are better priced, and are more convenient, we can get people to replace animal industry-based products and make the planet a far, far better place,” said Aylon Steinhart, a business innovation specialist at the Good Food Institute, who spoke to the Yale group in November.
 
Steinhart’s idealism was echoed by Celeste Holz-Schietinger, director of research at Impossible Foods, a California-based company that develops plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy products.“Humans love the taste of meat,” she said. “We eat meat not because it was slaughtered from an animal, but in spite of that.”
 
Impossible Foods aims to create a plant-based burger that mimics the taste and experience of eating meat enough that it will replace conventional meat as a food choice for a significant percentage of American customers. It has been so successful that two of its food chain partners, White Castle and Umami Foods, have actually seen an increase in overall sales since offering the Impossible Burger.
 
Major investors are taking notice. Major companies from Tyson and Maple Leaf to Merck Pharmaceuticals are investing in alternative protein businesses. Earlier this year, Maple Leaf Foods Inc, Canada’s leading meat processor, repositioned itself as “protein company,” not just a meat company, believing that as consumer interest in environmental impact grows, the market will follow.
 
“In the pursuit of more protein consumption, the majority of that growth in North America will come from plant-based proteins, not animal proteins,” Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain told The Globe and Mail.
 
At Yale, students are cooking up their own alternative protein startups. The student startup ideas workshopped in the Intensive included plant-based protein powder for athletes; pet food; and dumplings. Many shared the idealism as well as the focus on taste that had been expressed by guest speakers in the Intensive.
 
Sarah Mandelbaum ’20 M.B.A. brought her own plant-based protein dumplings to the Intensive to share with classmates. “I had been thinking about alternative proteins a lot and wanted to try working with dumplings because people love dumplings,” he said. “But you really can’t even see what’s in it. It’s all about the taste.”
Allegra Lovejoy Wiprud ’20 M.E.M. is a first-year master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
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PUBLISHED: January 30, 2019
 

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