Whether you're a strict vegetarian or a contented carnivore, meat poses a vexing efficiency problem. Crowded into feedlots, the modern cow burns through an estimated 25 pounds of corn and soybeans for every pound of edible meat it generates. Pork, chicken and egg production require an average of five pounds of feed per pound of product yielded, which is somewhat more efficient, but they, too, raise a provocative question: Why not just eat the protein-rich grain and beans that go into all that feed rather than running them through the body of an animal first?
When author Frances Moore Lappé first asked this question in 1971's game-changing manifesto, Diet for a Small Planet, global meat production stood at about 121 million tons annually. Today that output exceeds 300 million tons per year—and it's projected to exceed 500 million tons by 2050 as economies modernize and demand for meat increases in developing countries like China.
If this ever comes to pass, the planet simply won't be able to handle the additional strain on its already stressed resources. As ecologist Vaclav Smil says, global meat production is one of humanity's "most environmentally burdensome activities," fouling groundwater, spewing greenhouse gases and eroding soil at untenable rates. By his estimate, the earth is capable of supporting no more than 220 million tons of annual meat production—meaning we've already entered unsustainable territory.
If Smil and the many others who share his view are correct, then clearly the problem is serious. And fixing it will mean marshaling the most innovative thinking to change the way the world consumes and produces protein. Unsurprisingly, several titans of Silicon Valley—where perpetual invention and love of problem-solving meet the profit motive—have been investing heavily in start-ups that aim to do this very thing. They're all betting big on a food industry sector that saw its sales rise 8 percent between 2010 and 2012, the same year that the U.S. market for fake meat crossed the half-billion-dollar mark.
Surprisingly, the chief driver for consumers doesn't appear to be a dietary shift toward vegetarianism; according to a 2013 report by the market research firm Mintel, about one-third of the people who buy meat alternatives identify as carnivores who are simply trying to eat less meat.
Several of the new businesses are developing ways to alter the form and taste of beans and grains so that they're virtually indistinguishable from real meat—right down to the fibrous texture of muscle and even the subtle tang of blood. Others are dedicated to synthesizing actual flesh from living animal cells without killing any animals.
But some experts, Smil included, doubt that "mock meat" will ever be "anything but a marginal choice" for most consumers. With each new iteration, however, the new protein gets closer and closer to looking, cooking and tasting like the real thing. At some point, it will get there. Whether people will actually make the switch, en masse, remains to be seen.
HAMPTON CREEK FOODS
What It Makes Gunning for a piece of the $213.7-billion-a-year chicken-egg market, this San Francisco–based company is focusing on knocking off egg-based edibles such as mayonnaise and cookie dough. Its two-year-old Just Mayo, made from canola oil and pea protein, received enough media hoopla to make conventional mayo producers nervous. Unilever, which owns the Hellmann's brand, felt compelled to file a widely mocked lawsuit asserting that any product being marketed as mayonnaise must contain eggs. (The suit was eventually dropped.)
Who's Behind It Hampton Creek has raised more than $100 million from a loose affiliation of angel investors including Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla, twin brothers Ali and Hadi Partovi (who have a knack for picking winners, including Facebook, Zappos and Dropbox) and the Hong Kong–based venture capitalist Li Ka-shing, whose firm, Horizons Ventures, also owns sizable stakes in Facebook and Spotify.
Tasting Notes When Wired reporter Kyle VanHemert sampled an omelet made from the company's scrambled-egg substitute in 2013, he wrote that it was "a little chewy, definitely, and oddly tasteless. If it was served to me at a restaurant, I'd send it back; if I encountered it while hungover, I'd probably inhale it without thinking twice." He raved, however, about Just Mayo: "[It] doesn't just taste normal. It tastes good."
Where It Stands Just Mayo can now be found in grocery stores nationwide, from high-end markets like Whole Foods to discount chains like Dollar Tree. Another product, Just Cookie Dough, rolled out last fall and is currently available in select Whole Foods. The brand's scrambled-egg replacement, Just Scramble, is slated to debut later this year.
What It Makes "Meat is actually just the combination of amino acids, fats, water, carbohydrates and trace minerals," CEO Ethan Brown says. "These things are available in the plant kingdom." Fittingly, his products are plant-based substitutes for chicken and beef made primarily from pea protein and soy.
Who's Behind It Early investors included Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and Twitter cofounders Biz Stone and Evan Williams.
Tasting Notes Two years ago, using patented technology licensed from University of Missouri researchers, Beyond Meat rolled out a product that mimicked the stringy texture of cooked chicken. The New York Times' Mark Bittman observed that it "doesn't taste much like chicken" on its own, but when it's wrapped in a tortilla filled with burrito fixings, "you won't know the difference." The just-launched Beast Burger, which is said to offer "more protein and iron than beef and more omegas than salmon," reminded veteran food writer Rowan Jacobsen of "the Salisbury steak of my youth—not exactly something to celebrate, but not terrible, either." (Touché, Marcel Proust!)
Where It Stands The company, which was named one of 2014's most innovative businesses by Fast Company magazine, had rolled out its fake-chicken strips to all Whole Foods stores by 2013, retailing at about $5.50 for a 12-ounce, four-serving package. The Beast Burger became available in Whole Foods this past February.