Forget about solar panels, electric cars and carbon offsets. For one Stanford University professor, saving the planet will come one vegan burger at a time.
It started during Stanford Biochemistry Professor Pat Brown's year-long sabbatical.
“I was trying to think of what the most useful thing I could do with the best possible impact on the global environment, particularly climate change,” Brown said. “By far the most destructive industry is animal farming. I decided on a project to come up with alternatives for meat and dairy products.”
According to a United Nations report, the meat industry is a key contributor to the most serious environmental problems faced today. Brown hopes to create a vegan burger with cheese to replace products sold in major fast-food franchises like McDonald's, thereby significantly decreasing the global impact of animal farming.
“Thirty percent of the entire land surface is devoted to animal farming," Brown said. "A question I would ask is, do we want to use 30 percent of land for something that is not essential?”
But can a vegan burger ever replace McDonald’s finest? From a nutritional standpoint, vegan burgers are comparable and cost much less to produce. “If you only determine nutritional value by protein and calories … you can provide the nutritional equivalent using plant products at one-30th of the cost,” Brown said.
McDonalds frequenter Kevin Yang is skeptical about whether customers would give up their traditional burgers. “If they [vegan burgers] taste good and are comparable in nutrition [to meat burgers], they might be a viable alternative but couldn’t replace beef,” he said.
Whole Foods shopper Richy Gurese also noted the challenge of overcoming the public’s love affair with beef. “Vegan burgers are cheaper price-wise, but beef burgers still sell better," he said. "This is probably because of flavor. And people like meat.”
But Brown is optimistic he can come up with a competitive alternative. He has worked on the project seriously for about 18 months, which is when he began experimenting with products in his kitchen.
Although he has not yet perfected the vegan burger, he has made significant progress in creating two types of vegan cheeses, with the assistance of two chef collaborators.
The cheese costs $6 per pound to make, while most bulk cheeses sell at around $2-$2.50 per pound. Brown is not happy with the current pricing of his cheeses, saying, "We want to produce it at a scale that is competitive—to make a product that McDonald's would buy.”
Brown is unsure of the exact release date for his vegan line of products. “We’re definitely going to be producing [cheese products] for our friends and collaborators to be trying very soon,” he said. “When we’re going to start producing it commercially is unclear, probably within a year. The meat project will take at least a year.”
For Brown, saving the environment is just a tasty vegan burger away. “In a sense, aside from the fact that people prefer the taste [of meat], there is no reason to continue animal farming. In principle, it’s easy.”