Hi Reddit, 

I’m Karthik, former bioengineering and quantitative/systems biology researcher turned data scientist. I’ve written a non-fiction science/technology book After Meat. In contrast to the ethical or environmental arguments, the book focuses on the technological reasons for why we’ll shift away from animal products. A cow, when seen as a bioreactor to produce meat, clothing, and biologics, is utterly pathetic: She grows slowly, wastes 90% of what she’s fed, and can't be improved much further. 

This book review and post distill the key ideas well. The terribleness of animal technology means that, in the long run, plant- and fermentation-based alternatives will be better in every way: taste, cost, and nutrition on top of the ethical and environmental benefits. It’ll be a win-win.

The arguments in After Meat are likely fresh, even for the many here steeped in the alternative food space. I'm not holding my breath for in vitro meat technology, i.e. growing meat from animal stem cells. Instead, I conclude that the transition will occur due to a drowning out effect: non-animal foods will be better than anything we could do via an animal. Eventually, any consumer would be irrational to choose conventional animal-based products because better alternatives exist. 

In Part 1, I discuss technological progress and the best model for it. In Part 2, I explain the biology and physics behind animal technology, and why it's irredeemable and overdue for replacement. Parts 3 and 4 cover adjacent topics: nutrition, pleasure, economics, morality, and the role of government and citizens to speed up the transition. If you’re interested in the key arguments but don’t have the time, then I recommend just reading the summaries and Introduction, Chapters 3, 4, and 8. 

100% of the book’s profits are being donated to the following charities for accelerating the transition away from animal products: 

  • Good Food Institute
  • Animal Charity Evaluators’ Recommend Charity Fund
  • Effective Altruism’s Animal Welfare Fund
  • Faunalytics

Digital and audiobook versions are pay-what-you-want on Smashwords and Payhip respectively. If there’s even a slight impediment or hesitation to pay, don’t pay anything. I am primarily seeking engagement with the ideas and arguments; revenue is secondary. 

Physical copies are available at most online retailers. The audiobook will make its way to more retailers in the coming weeks but is available now on the Payhip link above. 

I hope you get excited about the amazing future that awaits us post animal products and that you’ll want to get there sooner too. Let's finally replace the donkey cart.


Proof: https://imgur.com/a/CJMgTS3


8pm PST, 12/19/21 -- Thanks for the great questions and discussions, Reddit! I'm calling it a night. Feel free to continue posting questions, and I'll answer what I can in the coming days.

Comments: 280 • Responses: 33  • Date: 

TheLittlestTiefling63 karma

Hi there, food service pro in higher education here! Thanks for doing this ama. As someone in the industry I have been trying to introduce meatless eating to the dining hall, with limited results. The main issue is that most people (especially in the rural areas near me) consider meat a requirement at almost every meal, and have a distrust for vegan alternatives like the beyond burger or even tofu. In particular there is a huge culture of masculinity surrounding meat eating. My question to you: What would you recommend to people in the culinary world/ food service industry do to help introduce meatless options for consumers without pushing away people who would otherwise eschew going vegan/ vegetarian (due to it being seen as "hippy", "weak"or "leftist")? Is there a way to approach the idea of cutting back or eliminating meat without making it seem like an "agenda"? Thanks in advance for your answers, will definitely be checking out your book!

ZombieElephant34 karma

Hey there! Thanks for your question. I will admit that this is somewhat outside my wheelhouse.

The good news is that institutions are one of the most effective means for this transition. I recommend Jacy Reese Anthis' book The End of Animal Farming for more on this point. Jacy talks a lot about how institutions are more receptive to catering to a minority group, i.e. vegans/vegetarians/reductarians. So getting your dining hall on board can be much easier if you have vegetarian/vegan/flexitarian customers who request it explicitly.

Otherwise, it might be worth reaching out to PETA or another organization who successfully lobbies universities for more veggie options.

Finally, yes, the culture of masculinity around meat is problematic. Glad documentaries such as The Game Changers are trying to reinvent that notion.

NotTRYINGtobeLame4 karma

If not-meat tasted remotely as good as is-meat, you'd have less trouble.

ZombieElephant37 karma

Impossible and Beyond are already pretty solid. And in the long run, alternatives will be even better

Transplanted_Cactus58 karma

What meat alternatives for getting complete proteins do you see for individuals like myself who are intolerant to plant based proteins such as soy, and most nuts, beans and legumes?

ZombieElephant29 karma

One of the most exciting parts about this future is that we can have personalized food/meals catered to each person's physiology. It could be a 3D food printer that makes a steak for you without any offending allergens. Or it could be drones flying in meals from local bioreactors.

Daegoba5 karma

Speaking of printed meat; have you looked into MeaTech 3D? They’re an Israeli company that is at the front of this technology. I’m curious as to which companies will actually rise to the challenge of this transition, and would love to hear your opinion on them or any others you may know about.

ZombieElephant6 karma

Hey, yes, I know of MeaTech 3D. Unfortunately, I don't know anything more than what's already public. But yes, I'm so excited by 3D printing food tech!

tymmnm11 karma

Why will we move on? Will there be animal over population?

ZombieElephant24 karma

Why will we move on?

For the technological reasons. Animals are inefficient machines, ripe for disruption. I argue in After Meat that we'll be able to do much better with alternatives in every way that we care about (nutrition, cost, and taste namely).

Will there be animal over population?

I doubt any more than now. Currently, most farmed animals are created separate from wild life. https://mercyforanimals.org/blog/study-60-percent-of-all-mammals-are-farmed/

After the transition, we'll slow down the creation of new animals for agriculture--this is a good thing. Of course, we'll also probably stop consuming animals generally, but in order for overpopulation to occur, we'd have to create more than we consume.

Norb1811 karma

I'm really excited to check out your book. I've attended a lecture on the future of lab grown meat as an environmental solution, but I didn't know about this technology until coming across your AMA.

What's your diet like? Would you consider yourself omnivore? Or vegetarian or vegan? And what are your reasons for this choice?

ZombieElephant43 karma

Thank you!

I've been vegan for around 4 years, and before that, I was vegetarian for about 10 years. I switched to veganism for ethical reasons. I don't like the idea of an animal being harmed for something I can do without. Even though I focus on the technology angle, the concern about animal suffering motivated this project and my career.

hereistoyou-50 karma

Every single rabbit, worm, bird, lizard, snake, gopher, butterfly, etc dies to make that vegan food for you when monocropping. One cow feeds one human for one year. All life includes death and vice versa. https://www.instagram.com/p/CU5kcg3rSvN/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

ZombieElephant35 karma

Okay sure. What system leads to more animal suffering/death? What do animals in animal agriculture eat? Mostly monoculture crops, right?

hereistoyou-46 karma

You are making my point, right?

ZombieElephant40 karma

Not really sure what the point is. One cow per human for one year is honestly pretty terrible and speaks to the inefficiency I've lamented. A cow-sized bioreactor could feed ~10000 times more people in the same time span. Chapter 4 of After Meat explains this more.

MajorDonkey9 karma

Hello Karthik,

Thank you for taking the time to answer the questions of the masses. I find ourselves uniquely positioned in time to invest in companies that will be the Coca-Cola of meat. Something far more essential to people than fizzy drinks.

What are some lab-grown startup companies you know of that are making not only the necessary scientific advancement of lab grown meat, but also on the marketing side? I understand if you are unable to list any specifically but any information to push my wallet in the right direction would be appreciated.

Thanks again!

ZombieElephant19 karma

Hey Major, unfortunately, I can't make any specific recommendations or comment on companies publicly. I work for an alt food company myself, so any declared specifics would put me in hot water.

Instead I can say that I'm excited by certain technologies and approaches. I'm particularly high on single-cell protein technology.

I also should add that alt food companies are very tight lipped about their actual scientific progress. It's really hard to observe how a company is doing from the outside.

Zoetje_Zuurtje8 karma

If you had to choose one, what do you think would be the biggest advantage we gain by transitioning away from meat?

ZombieElephant58 karma

The most underappreciated advantage is environmental, but not in the way most people think. Because animals are so inefficient, animal agriculture requires a ton of land (estimated more than 25% of all ice free land on Earth). This extensive land usage means that animal agriculture incurs a huge opportunity cost when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions. That is, we're hurting our ability to capture and sequester CO2 by sticking with animal agriculture.

This recent Kurzgesagt video explains this issue well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1Hq8eVOMHs

This paper calculates the expected gains if we ween ourselves off animal products: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-020-00603-4

It's dramatic. Freeing up the land from animal agriculture and revitalizing forests is one of the most tractable ways we have toward achieving the 1.5 C heating limit. We don't need breakthroughs in renewable energy or transportation; we can just use trees if we make space for them.

All that said, I'd still argue the biggest advantage is ethics though!

Zoetje_Zuurtje5 karma

Thanks for the quick and detailed response! Can I ask you something tomorrow, or will the AMA have ended by then?

ZombieElephant11 karma

You can ask me anything anytime :)

Feel free to DM me or reach out on my website if the AMA is done. http://aftermeatbook.com/contact

turquoise_square5 karma

Wow, very cool! How close would you say society is to making this a reality? Are we moving towards it already, or would there need to be a huge change in public opinion, expansion of the industry, new infrastructure, etc. before shifting to a mostly plant-based diet is possible? What are the biggest obstacles?

On another note: I’m currently in college studying computer science (and biology). It would be really cool to pursue a career in the alternative foods industry, or something similar related to biology/helping the environment. What are companies currently working on? How would someone like me get started? Any advice on this appreciated :)

Thanks for doing this, I’ll make sure to check out your book!

ZombieElephant15 karma

Wow, very cool! How close would you say society is to making this a reality? Are we moving towards it already, or would there need to be a huge change in public opinion, expansion of the industry, new infrastructure, etc. before shifting to a mostly plant-based diet is possible? What are the biggest obstacles?

I hesitate to make an exact pronouncement on a date. The good news is that the transition will occur for technological reasons alone. Animal technology is just woefully outdated and outmoded, really just begging for replacement.

I note a few things that can help us achieve the transition faster:

  • Reducing and eliminating the farm subsidies that benefit animal agriculture. Right now, animal products generally cost 25-30% less in the United States than they would in a fair market. These subsidies prevent new entrants from outcompeting animal products.
  • More academic funding on this problem. In another comment, I argued that diminishing animal agriculture is one of the most positive interventions for environmental outcomes. Humanity invests into renewable energy for often environmental reasons. There's a parallel here; I think we should be investing the same or more for clean food compared to clean energy. We need the United States, EU, China, and others to be investing billions to spur the transition.
  • Openness to new food and genetic modification. I argue that the alternative food industry spends too much time, money, and energy on reproducing animal products. This is not how technological transitions occur. Replacers are often different to the antecedent technology. Horses to cars. Oxen to tractors. I conclude a similar phenomenon to occur here. Alternative food companies need to just make stuff that's awesome, and consumers should showcase a willingness to try them!

On another note: I’m currently in college studying computer science (and biology). It would be really cool to pursue a career in the alternative foods industry, or something similar related to biology/helping the environment. What are companies currently working on? How would someone like me get started? Any advice on this appreciated :)

Good Food Institute is probably your best resource! They have a database of companies in this space (https://gfi.org/resource/alternative-protein-company-database/), and they have a community with frequent job posts (https://gfi.org/community/). With a CS background, I don't think you should have any problem finding something!

RunawayPace5 karma

Hey Karthik! I see you everywhere! I've been reading you book since it came out, and feel like I've known you for years as a result. I'm an impending graduate in this field, interested in bio engineering, food science, and material science, but don't quite know where my career will take me after my bachelor's. Do you have any advice for young professionals like myself looking to make their name in the alt foodtech world?

A more relevant Q for your A: How did you become a data scientist? Your background is in biomedical and bioengineering yet you're a data scientist. Did you self teach the coding/analysis alongside or after your bioengineering? Furthermore: what exactly IS a data scientist?

ZombieElephant12 karma

Hey Karthik! I see you everywhere! I've been reading you book since it came out, and feel like I've known you for years as a result. I'm an impending graduate in this field, interested in bio engineering, food science, and material science, but don't quite know where my career will take me after my bachelor's. Do you have any advice for young professionals like myself looking to make their name in the alt foodtech world?

Thanks for reading :) And hooray for being everywhere. Apparently the rule of the thumb is that a book or project has to appear seven times before a consumer considers it.

The best way to make a name in a new world is connections. If you have a project that you could get involved--perhaps a local//university alt food group?--then I think that's a straightforward way. GFI has a community Slack. It may be worth joining and probing for opportunities. https://gfi.org/community

A more relevant Q for your A: How did you become a data scientist? Your background is in biomedical and bioengineering yet you're a data scientist. Did you self teach the coding/analysis alongside or after your bioengineering? Furthermore: what exactly IS a data scientist?

Yes, I'm self-taught. It found me, and I detail in another answer: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/rjx0rp/comment/hp7vscc/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

Haha, I see data science as making sense from data whether it's using classical stats or more modern deep learning techniques.

unrealcyberfly4 karma

I am having a hard time imagining a vegan kitchen. So many dishes have some kind of animal based ingredient, shrimp paste (trassi) is used in many Asian dishes for example. Are plant based replacements being developed for ingredients like that?

ZombieElephant2 karma

Hey, it continues to get easier and easier. I agree with the other comment that googling can yield many veganized versions.

HippasusOfMetapontum3 karma

"...I'd still argue the biggest advantage is ethics though!"

Specifically what do you see as the ethics advantage of transitioning away from animal products?

ZombieElephant20 karma

Mitigating the colossal amount of suffering.

debauch3ry2 karma

Why can’t cattle be killed humanly? A bolt to the brain is pretty quick.

ZombieElephant3 karma

It's not the killing only. It's everything before that too.

Cows might be treated better, but chickens are absolutely brutalized

debauch3ry1 karma

Sounds more like a regulation problem than an outright ethical impossibility.

ZombieElephant3 karma

The ethical calamity follows from the inefficiency of animal technology. Chickens take a long time to grow. Producers figured out that stuffing them into a cage and force feeding them makes them grow faster. Playing around with the lights and tricking the diurnal cycle of the hens causes them to lay more eggs.

I argue that the producers are not inherently sadistic. They're doing whatever they can to maximize their irretrievably inefficient process.

We can sidestep all of this with better, non-animal technology.

HippasusOfMetapontum-9 karma

If one were to doubt that a transition away from animal products would mitigate the colossal amount of suffering, what reasoning would you sketch out that it does?

ZombieElephant5 karma

Hey, I recommend the morality chapter in After Meat -- it explains this all exhaustively. I walk through the suffering argument and respond to what I anticipate as rejoinders.

3omar_b3 karma

What’s your take on the lab-grown meat ?

ZombieElephant15 karma

Depends on the lab-grown meat!

I'm bearish on in vitro meat, i.e. growing meat from animal stem cells. There's all sorts of challenges with this (minimizing expensive growth factors, designing bioreactors to get enough cell density without pulverizing the cells). It's going to take a lot of R&D toward getting it even somewhat market competitive. I also don't think it's necessary for the transition because we'll likely move onto something better, even if we manage to solve in vitro meat.

I'm bullish on microbial fermentation, specifically single-cell protein technology (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single-cell_protein), where a bulk of the microbial biomass is consumed. The metrics are just so impressive and pronounced, and I spend much of Chapter 3 and 4 explaining why. To give you perspective, a single yeast can double itself to the mass of the Earth in just eight days (if we had a bioreactor big enough). In my view, microbial fermentation is the game changer to cultivate (pun intended).

I do want to clarify that I'm less optimistic about precision fermentation for making bio-exact replicas, e.g. cheese. That's going to be a difficult, inefficient process. It's really when we use the bulk of the microbial mass that the benefits pay off. Quorn is a great example of this.

runningamuck8 karma

For microbial fermentation - can this protein source be made to taste exactly the same as meat? The main takeaway I hear from a lot of meat eaters is that they would be willing to switch once it tastes exactly the same. I'm kind of wondering if we will ever get to that point though. Especially in a way that can be mass produced at cost parity.

ZombieElephant15 karma

Why do exact taste when we can do better? :)

Meat flavor depends on a known, measurable set of compounds such as amino acids and aromatics. Impossible Foods famously adds heme to reproduce the flavor of beef burgers. None of these compounds are monopolized to animal meat--these are common biomolecules found throughout the kingdom of life.

We should absolutely be able to do the same--really better--with microbial fermentation with enough innovation.

NotTRYINGtobeLame13 karma

Ah, but better taste is so highly subjective...

ZombieElephant7 karma

Indeed! But I also argue that we can do personalized food much better in this future animal-less meat world. So that subjectivity could be solved.

mcjenzington5 karma

Whoof... man, I wish you the best but, uh... you say that with remarkable confidence for someone who, I'm going to have to assume, doesn't eat meat. It's about a hell of a lot more than just taste, for one thing. Just because you can kind of fake a burger doesn't mean you're gonna be able to fake a steak, or prosciutto, or sashimi. Based on what you've said here I'm concerned you're not taking this obstacle seriously.

I don't mean to be negative, I appreciate and support what you're doing. I'm telling you this because I hope it might ultimately help you be successful in accomplishing your goals. Do not underestimate how delicious meat is. If you go into this thinking peoples' love of meat is just a masculinity thing or whatever, you are in for a very frustrating (and probably wasteful) surprise, and that would be a shame.

ZombieElephant15 karma

Hey thanks for the dose of reality. I do actually work on flavor science at an alternative food company. It is really, really hard. I don't dispute that. It's going to take at least years. I'm not expecting an overnight revolution.

I'm invoking the best science that we have -- flavor is dependent on how compounds interact with our taste buds and nasal receptors. And we understand the flavors pretty well. Impossible got pretty close without that much resources. Imagine if governments are pouring billions into the efforts.

And yes, there is much more to meat than just masculinity. It's been entrenched in many cultures. It'll be non-trivial to make the switch. I, therefore, felt it important to really emphasize this technological angle. That's not something many have heard before. It's more optimistic and uplifting than "you should stop eating meat because of ethics and environment".

mcjenzington5 karma

Thank you for understanding, and I'm sorry if my tone was condescending. Also, no shade meant toward meat alternatives, I've enjoyed many of them and I'm impressed with how far they've come. Something about how we eat meat has to change, that is undeniable. I'm over here heckling from the peanut gallery; you're out there actually working on the problem, and I'm very grateful for that.

For what it's worth, I'm 100% with you on the technology approach. I guess I lean more toward lab grown meat in the hope that it can more closely replicate the texture and subtleties of animal meat, but that hope isn't really reinforced by knowledge of any kind on my part; I just suspect that without addressing those elements, getting most people to completely quit animal meat will be a real uphill battle. But I never thought we'd get as far as we have already with meat alternatives, so maybe it's me who's in for a surprise! I certainly hope so.

I hope my input was helpful, or at least not discouraging. Thank you for being willing to listen (even though I was being kinda salty) - that in its own right was very reassuring.

ZombieElephant7 karma

All good man! Be well

SeineAdmiralitaet3 karma

Hey, thank you for doing this AmA.

In my native language there's a question that would perfectly fit my sentiment on this:"War der Wunsch der Vater des Gedankens?", which literally means: "Was the wish the idea's father?" In essence, I'd like to ask if your personal wishes for the future may have influenced your predictions of it. Rationally your arguments may be sound, as well as technologically foolproof. But for many people meat has an emotional component as well they would have to be convinced to scrap. How did you account for your own possible biases as well as that irrational component of the equation? Thank you!

ZombieElephant3 karma

Klar. Ich kenne ein bisschen Deutsch.

I'm sure my personal wishes and biases affected the arguments. But arguments can stand independent of my feelings. If someone refutes them, then that's knowledge generation. If they continue to stand, then that's also cool too.

It was most important to put the ideas out there for others to consume and grapple with. Most likely, some problems will be shown and the ideas will continue to be transformed by others into something more enduring.

eeo112 karma

What is your response to people with dietary restrictions that limit their ability to digest alternatives? What will they eat in the future?

Thyrial2 karma

What answer do you have for people like me who won't be happy with something that's "close enough"? You admit that you don't think the only process that actually fully reproduces meat (in vitro reproduction) is looking good any time soon and there's a LOT of people who won't accept an alternative unless it's IDENTICAL in all the "experience" factors (taste, texture, smell) and that's still not something anyone has been able to come close to.

ZombieElephant3 karma

Hey, I spent two chapters talking about pleasure, specifically for food consumption. In Chapter 7, I discuss how our pleasure is highly mutable and can change on exposure to new things.

Chapter 8, I discuss why exact replication is overrated. If we look at our recent history of gastronomy, most of our food is brand new. Tomatoes didn't enter Italian cuisine until really the 19th century. Indian food was completely revamped after Europeans started trading with them, introducing peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, okra, and more. There are striking modern examples too. Sushi, falafel, and poke weren't widely available in the United States until my mom's generation.

In my view, "close enough" is not nearly as important as "better".

jeffh42 karma

Three words: Bovine Fetal Serum.

As long as this is touted as something socially acceptable, I will stay away from all lab-generated meat products.

How can I be sure a product was not created with this nightmare fuel?

ZombieElephant3 karma

Hey, indeed, BFS is truly distressing when we think about how it's made. Thankfully, microbes don't require serum. So anything produced via microbial fermentation is de facto serum free.

For in vitro meat, companies have been striving to minimize serum as much as possible. I saw this in the news recently: https://labgrownmeat.com/future-meats-raises-347-million/ Future Meats Technologies apparently can grow their cells in serum-free media.

square_snail1 karma

Hi there! Thank you for this - fascinating answers so far.

Question: In your career, how did you end up making the transition to data science?

ZombieElephant14 karma

Hey, thanks for the kind note!

Yes, data science sort of found me. I did a doctorate in chemical engineering with the intention of becoming a professor, but during my post-doctoral research, I became disenchanted with academia. I then became fascinated with Impossible Foods and ilk who apply R&D to innovate better veggie products, and I wanted to get involved. I got connected to a US-based vegan cheese startup looking for a scientist of my background.

My scientific background was 50/50 experimental and computational, and initially, I lived in Zurich during the beginnings of the connection. So the most obvious way for me to help was with data science. I learned most of the concepts on the fly.

That start up didn't work out, but it led to the one that I'm currently at (Climax Foods). And data science was the biggest need at the point I joined. I was happy and able to fulfill!

HangTraitorhouse1 karma

Can we please take a moment to recognize how badass the name Karthik Sekar is? Top shelf my friend. Would you ever do blow with me?

ZombieElephant2 karma

LOL. I can't take any credit here. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Regarding the blow, uhhhh... no public comment.

SteveWozHappeningNow0 karma

You wrote a book to say "don't eat animals eat plants"?

Sounds compelling.

ZombieElephant5 karma

Haha, no, that book has been done before.

And if anything, I'm saying "eat microbial fermentate"

[deleted]-3 karma


ZombieElephant12 karma

It's a disheartening, numbing industry. What keeps me going is that we can do better, and I see technology as instrumental toward that end.