In a typical chemical engineering class, undergraduates might study thermodynamics or how plastic is made. In a new course at the University of California, Berkeley, they’ll focus on something different: how to make and market plant-based “meat.”
The class is the first in the United States–and possibly the world–about the industry. Over the semester, teams of students will compete to create a business plan for a new meat substitute. The winning team will get $5,000 and support from the university’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology to take the idea further.
“The motivation for the class is essentially all of the reasons that factory farming is so disliked–and rightfully so disliked–in our industrialized food system,” says Christie Lagally, an engineer who works with a nonprofit called The Good Food Institute, which partnered with the university to design the class.
Animal agriculture, by some estimates, is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. It’s also a cause of deforestation, and species extinction. Eating meat is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
The plant-based meat industry is quickly growing–sales of meat substitutes have expanded 18% over the last four years. Impossible Foods, a startup that used biochemistry to make a plant-based burger that looks like beef and is aimed at meat-eaters, raised more than $180 million. Beyond Meat, a competitor, has received investment from meat industry giant Tyson Foods. In 2015, the meat substitute brand Quorn sold for $831 million.
But these products still represent less than a quarter of a percent of the overall meat market. “In contrast, plant-based dairy is roughly 9% of the dairy industry,” says Lagally. “That kind of difference shows us that there is an appetite for plant-based foods, and plant-based meat has yet to be as developed and widely available as plant-based dairy. So we see a real opportunity here.”
In the class, students will research the opportunity for innovative types of plant-based meat–both in terms of the type of meat it’s replacing, and the target market. “If you imagine all of the animals that we industrially farm for meat, we’ve only actually replaced or offered the public replacements for about 10 of them, maybe five at scale,” says Lagally. Chicken and beef replacements are available, but not lamb or shrimp or tilapia.
“They don’t necessarily have to come up with the next Impossible Burger,” she says. “They also have the opportunity to come up with the best way to provide a plant-based chicken so it’s low-cost enough to provide to schools.”
Because the class is a semester long, and developing new plant-based meat can take years in a lab, the students won’t be creating prototypes. Instead, they’ll research the market and develop detailed business plans that could eventually lead to the development of an actual product.
A research fellow will document the class so it can be shared with other universities that might want to offer the same thing. “This is not a topic we’re teaching in food science schools, in agricultural schools,” says Lagally. But with UC Berkeley’s leadership, perhaps it might be.