In the vegan community, we have a goal to alleviate the suffering and exploitation of billions of animals worldwide. For a lot of us that means creating plant-based products that consumers can easily use to substitute for their usual, animal-based foods. And whilst that's our ideal, what if there was a way we could pick up the momentum by encouraging meat producers now, to use less meat? Enter Paul Shapiro, best-selling author of 'Clean Meat' and CEO of vegan-run company Better Meat Co. Doing something different, the startup focusses on creating plant proteins, that through blending, provide a hybridised alternative of both meat and plant, reducing the number of animals used by the industry. We got the chance to delve deeper and learn more about the story behind the business, as well as discussed some of the controversies around the idea. We also spoke about Paul's background in the nonprofit space, clean meat, and the reasons why it's a revolutionary technology that's here to stay.
From nonprofit founder, to best-selling author and now CEO, Paul Shapiro seems to be doing it all. But the road to getting where he is wasn't smooth-sailing, with the journey starting from a question he asked himself during his early work.
Paul: 'Had I been devoting my life to something good but not optimal? It's not to knock animal advocacy by any means, but it is to say "Is there something that might do even more good for animals, than just trying to get people to care about animals"?'
So why did he take an interest in 'clean meat'?
Paul: 'I had been enthusiastic about cultured meat for a long time, but I always viewed it as something that was futuristic. Something that would be really cool, but was more science fiction rather than science fact.'
It wasn't until the end of 2015 when Memphis Meats, a for profit company seeking to produce and commercialise cultured meat, that Paul realised the idea was here.
Paul: 'That is when I thought somebody needs to write this story.'
However, even once you have an idea, it takes a lot of work to tell it right, not to mention in the case of writing a book, getting a publisher on board.
Paul: 'It was rejection after rejection. I mean the number of publishers that rejected the book proposal was enormous.'
Paul: 'I just got very fortunate. I told a story that people were very interested in learning about, because it's so cool. The idea that you can produce real animal meat, without having to raise and slaughter animals. It's unbelievable almost!'
Despite the amazing things it could mean for the reduction of factory farming, clean meat hasn't received the best reception, even within the community. For some, including myself, I thought why not put more energy into making plant-based proteins more mainstream?
Paul: 'You want lots of alternatives to fossil fuels. In the same way you want loads of alternatives to factory farms.'
Paul: 'The problem is so severe. You don't know which one alternative is going to become the best, and maybe it's not one at all.'
And it's a valid point I think we need to consider. Clean meat isn't targeted towards the vegan consumer, but rather acts as a direct replacement for those who still refuse to give up animal-products.
Paul: 'Meat consumption has only gone up. It's gone up in China, it's gone up in India and Mexico and Brazil and the US. Despite more people than ever knowing how abused animals are, meat consumption on a per capita basis, has continued to increase.'
Providing them with meat, that's grown in a lab, with no animals harmed, would mean there's no longer any excuse not to make the ethical, more environmentally-friendly choice.
Paul: 'I think we have to recognise that not everybody is motivated for the same reasons we are, and facts alone rarely change people's behaviour.'
The next decision Paul made was to venture into the entrepreneurial space, founding the Better Meat Co.
Paul: 'I was faced with a decision. Did I want to continue writing about the people I thought may end up saving the world? Or, did I want to become one of them myself?'
He had the thought that we needed to do more to collaborate with the meat industry, to encourage a reduction in animal products, but after trying to persuade people to do it, things just weren't happening.
His solution? To blend.
A rather controversial topic, Paul makes his case for the bold idea behind his decision.
Paul: 'Plant-based meat is still far less than 1% of the total meat market. Imagine a situation where there's a corporate cafeteria, and they start serving a vegan sausage. The number of people who make that switch, even if it's priced competitively is extremely small. Whereas, in addition to offering the vegan option, you could also make the conventional sausage be 50% plant-based. All of a sudden you've reduced meat consumption by 50% without trying to persuade anyone to switch to any product whatsoever.'
I'll be the first to admit it. When I heard the idea, I felt discomfort. As an ethical vegan, working with the meat industry on such an intimate level hadn't been a solution that had crossed my mind before. As our conversation progressed however, I started to see that while it was confronting, and certainly not mainstream, there was a reason behind the blending.
Paul: 'I think the key is to help meat companies recognise that they don't have to be meat companies, they can be protein companies. And for them to realise they don't have to make all of their money by slaughtering animals, but rather there's money to be made in using more plants.'
And when I asked Paul if he had any advice, for those of us who may be afraid or nervous to partner with the 'enemy'?
Paul: 'Is my goal my own comfort? Or is my goal to help as many animals as I can?'
That's the question.
In the meantime, don't forget to #biteforwhatsright!