The founder of Beyond Meat, the plant-based-meat company that recently went public, on a future without eating animals
How did spending time on a farm as a child shape your views about animals and meat?
I grew up in the city, in Washington, D.C., and College Park, Md. But my dad grew up in the country and bought a farm to start a weekend dairy operation with less than 100 Holstein cows. I fell in love with life outdoors and the animals that surrounded us. I began to question the difference between animals in the agricultural system and the ones we kept as pets. And as I became an adult, I understood that it was a cultural, and not biological, justification for the difference.
You began your career in renewable energy around the time of the California energy crisis in 2000. What brought you from fuel cells to meat?
For me it wasn’t wildly different to think about how we create food to fuel our body that has less impact on the earth–it was simply a question of energy use. I began to understand the role livestock plays in climate. It’s not necessarily just the car you drive or the light bulb you screw in. It’s also very much the protein you put in the center of your plate. It dawned on me that if we want to solve climate, we have to solve livestock. And we were having these discussions over steak.
Why is it so important to move away from animal meat?
It’s four major issues. There is a global problem that we can’t support the number of livestock. There are the human health issues around eating red and processed meat, which is associated with heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Then you have to look at the effect on climate, natural resources and the sheer volume of water it takes to keep livestock. Lastly, there’s animal welfare.
Your products replicate the taste and texture of meat. But eating animal meat is almost a visceral need for many people. How do you persuade them not to?
You don’t build a business telling people not to eat what they love. You build a business helping people to eat what they love, and more of it. It’s about separating meat from animals. When you think of meat in terms of its composition, it’s five things–amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins and water. None of that is exclusive to animals. Animals spend massive amounts of energy consuming plants to make protein. We start directly with the plant material [pea protein] and build from that.
How do you describe your own eating habits?
I’ve been vegan for at least 16 years. But I routinely test meat [from animals] for taste and spit it out.
There has been some backlash against claims that locally grown foods and plant-based products have a smaller environmental footprint. Do they?
We commissioned a study with the University of Michigan, and the numbers were staggering. There were 90% fewer greenhouse-gas emissions from producing one of our burgers compared with a beef burger from livestock. And one Beyond Meat burger uses 93% less land than a beef burger. I view that as something that could have a powerful impact on the world economy.
Some scientists are building synthetic versions of meat. Do you see them as competitors?
I think it’s a good thing. I didn’t get into lab-grown meat because coming from the energy field, where we were trying to cost down fuel cells and couldn’t get the economics right, I feared getting involved in another big science where we couldn’t see a commercial end.
What is your favorite way of eating plant-based meat?
I’m thrilled about our breakfast sausage. I love making Bolognese. But hands down, a great burger is my favorite.
This appears in the June 17, 2019 issue of TIME.