The ‘Hedonistic Altruism’ of Plant-Based Meat

Ethan Brown, the founder and C.E.O. of Beyond Meat, on his moral and environmental priorities.,

Ethan BrownCredit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

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The ‘Hedonistic Altruism’ of Plant-Based Meat

Ethan Brown, the founder and C.E.O. of Beyond Meat, on his moral and environmental priorities.

Ethan BrownCredit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

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Ethan Brown contends there are several main benefits to consuming plant-based foods instead of animal meat. It leads to fewer greenhouse gas emissions, it consumes fewer natural resources and it is better for human health.

But for Mr. Brown, the founder and chief executive of Beyond Meat, there is a more personal motivator: He would rather not be responsible for the deaths of animals.

“If you say, ‘I want to inflict pain and take someone else’s body,'” Mr. Brown said, “that is not something I want to do.”

Mr. Brown is, of course, talking his own book. His company is now one of the biggest producers of plant-based meat, selling burgers, sausages and more in supermarkets, and supplying its products to fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and Panda Express.

Yet on many fronts, the data backs up Mr. Brown’s claims. Plant-based diets are indeed better for the environment and consume fewer natural resources. Eating more plants is good for human health and results in less harm to animals.

Mr. Brown, who became a vegetarian in high school, started Beyond Meat in 2009, and took the company public in 2019. In recent years, the market for plant-based meat has started booming, with other companies, such as Impossible Foods, competing for those customers. Last year, Beyond Meat sold some 73 million pounds of product.

But as the industry grows, it is coming under fire from the conventional meat industry, which is trying to raise concerns about what it calls “ultraprocessed imitations.”

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

What made you choose to be a vegan?

My dad grew up in rural parts of the country, and wanted to have that experience. But he married my mother, who was from New York City. The compromise was that we have a place in the city, but they’d have a farm. My dad would work during the week, then go up to the country. The experience of being in nature all the time and being with animals just made me fascinated by the rest of life on Earth. And as I got older, I had trouble making a distinction between my dog and a pig. The vegan thing came from that.

Humans are omnivores. We evolved to eat other animals.

You can talk for hours about why it makes sense for us to eat meat. We’ve always done it. Everyone else in the animal kingdom does it. But you have this unavoidable thing — you’re causing pain. Do you want to do that?

What’s different between an animal and a person? To me, the one difference that I can understand is that we can understand the consequences of our actions. While my dog can’t make sense of inflicting pain on another animal, I certainly can.

What led you to start the company?

I struggled a lot with taking what we just talked about into my professional life. I kept it separate, and I got into climate because I care a lot about the Earth. Coming out of college, I had a very important conversation with my dad, where I was talking about what to do in my life. He asked me, “So what’s the biggest problem in the world?” I thought about it a little bit and went to climate. So I was working for a fuel cell company, and it was great. But as I started to understand better the emissions implications of livestock, I wondered if you could do something disruptive in agriculture.

You can focus on one thing, which is to simply change the protein, and have a real impact on four global issues that fascinate me: the climate, natural resources, animal welfare and human health.

How is a Beyond Burger healthier for me than a hamburger?

A No. 1 priority for us is to make sure people understand that our products are actually better for them than animal protein.

We started working with Stanford School of Medicine, and a professor designed a study to test what happened if people consumed three servings of animal protein a day for eight weeks, and then switched for eight weeks to three servings of Beyond Meat. The results were amazing, and they were expected. We saw both statistically and clinically significant drops in LDL cholesterol, which is the bad cholesterol. The second indicator was around TMAO, which is a compound that forms in the gut that is very closely associated with heart disease. And we saw both clinically and statistically significant drops in TMAO levels. We want to do more of this. We want to generate more data, with larger populations.

We also have to educate people about the cleanliness of our process. You could come to any of our facilities at any time, knock on the door, and I’ll give you a tour. You cannot do that at a meat-processing facility. They won’t let you. That speaks volumes.

Not everyone is so convinced that plant-based burgers are healthy. I mentioned Beyond burgers the other day and someone started talking about all the chemicals.

If you were to list out the chemical composition of organic Kobe beef it would be a superlong list of really long, complicated words that most of us couldn’t pronounce. All the amino acids, all the different lactic acids, all of the components that go into having a piece of muscle stay together in an animal’s body. We don’t have the luxury of just saying “plant-based beef.” So we have to list out our ingredients. But it’s not like there’s more ingredients in ours than there is in actual muscle if you break down the chemistry.

We have a very large, incumbent industry that knows this is a big issue for us. There was a full-page ad in The New York Times that took all the products in the category and listed all the gnarliest ingredients and said, “This is what’s in plant-based meat.” So it’s being ginned up. Competitive interests are creating a lot of attention around this issue.

Is the meat industry out to get you?

No. Tyson owned part of our company for a while. It’s a $1.4 trillion-dollar industry, and I think they’re doing pretty well right now. If you look at our sales this year, they’re good, but they’re very small compared to the meat industry. So I think there are pockets that are kind of antagonistic, but not as a whole.

How is Beyond Meat different from Impossible Foods?

It gets down to ingredient choices. I believe that everything you need to build a piece of meat perfectly from plants is already in nature, and you just have to look hard enough to find it. Impossible is taking a different approach. They’re genetically modifying ingredients. And we’re just not going to do that.

How do you reconcile all your fast-food partnerships with your emphasis on health?

I love those customers, and I think it’s about making incremental gains. If it’s being fried, obviously it’s fried. But if you look at the underlying characteristics of the product — the cholesterol levels, the saturated fat levels — are you getting a gain? And you are, in many cases. It’s progress.

Is it an uncomfortable alliance for you, though?

I cherish those relationships. I think there’s a changing of guard that’s occurring at a lot of these companies, and these are people that really want to serve healthier products and want to bring the consumer along. There’s a real genuine desire there to continue to improve the health profile of their menus. I think it’s sincere.

You don’t lean into the climate-change angle in your marketing. But given the year we’re all having across the world, why not?

There’s a term that we use here called “hedonistic altruism.” I’m going to try to create products that help people feel better about themselves, but also confer benefits to the world, versus obligating someone to eat something because it’s good for the world.

President Carter’s position on energy use was to take the bus. Elon Musk comes along, and he’s like, “Make a sexy car that people want to drive.” That’s a solution people are going to get behind if they can afford it. So it’s always about how do you get people to understand that the product is going to make them feel better, look better, have a better health outcome and, hey, there’s a halo effect with climate, natural resources, animal welfare. But trying to get people to eat something based on climate is hard to understand.

Are there parts of being a public company that you’re trying to do differently, in the same way that you’re interrogating our food system?

Going public is awesome, but there’s some challenges that go along with it. You make a deal, and the deal is worth it, in my view. But the short-term pressure is real. We’re trying to build a long-term business that someday is going to rival Tyson in jobs and in global scale, and we also have to think about quarterly outcomes. That’s a really difficult tension.

Often, I’m just more focused on those long-term outcomes, and I have to put on blinders, because everyone is so interested in what’s happening in a particular quarter, and it’s really irrelevant from the perspective of long-term growth of the business. That is very real, and something that’s wrong with our system that we need to try to fix.

There were some news reports on a bunch of patent applications recently. Are we going to see Beyond eggs and milk and all the rest?

I can’t say, but I saw those articles, too. Once you start thinking about protein that doesn’t have to come from an animal, you can extend that — you can go into other categories that use animal products. And we have a broad breadth of potential categories.

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