TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves
It begins with every bite
Matthew Prescott is the author of Food Is the Solution: What to Eat to Save the World. He’s Senior Director of Food Policy for The Humane Society of the United States, an advisor to the Good Food Institute, and a leading figure in the global movement to reform how we farm and eat. A sought-after speaker and thought leader, Prescott has spent over a decade and a half sharing his ideas with Ivy League universities, Fortune 500 companies, consumers, and more. His work has helped lead to sweeping changes in the supply chains of hundreds of major food companies, impacted countless individuals’ diets, and has been covered extensively by the media: his work has been featured by CNN, in the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Boston Globe, and countless more; he’s been published in FORTUNE, the Washington Post, Barron’s and others; his photographs have appeared in Rolling Stone and Food & Wine; and he was even once a guest on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.
All right, who’s still hungry in here? Oh, a lot of hungry people.
All right, well fortunately I’ve got with me a breakfast sandwich here. Pretty simple breakfast sandwich. I know, it looks good doesn’t it? Cheese, sausage, and eggs. Anybody want to eat this, any takers? All right. Well you, sir, are gonna be the lucky recipient of this breakfast sandwich. I’ll get it to you after, I’ve just gotta do one thing first so bear with me, okay?
All right, now you’re probably asking yourself why the heck I just dumped an entire gallon of water into a trash can. Why would I go and waste all that water? Well to produce just this single egg in our breakfast sandwich here, I’d have not, to not dump out just that one gallon of water, but all 53 of these gallons of water. That’s how much water it takes to produce just one single egg. Sausage? That’s another 500 gallons of water. And cheese? That’s another 50 gallons of water. That’s what it takes to produce protein from animals.
So in the 15 years that I’ve been researching food systems and advocating for a better one, I’ve come to realize that the number one most wasteful aspect of our food supply today comes from the fact that we just use animals as a total middleman.
Now here’s what I mean: first we grow crops, but we don’t feed those crops to humans. We feed them first to animals, to fatten them up. We raise the animals, we transport them to slaughter, and the rest is history. So yeah, animals are just a middleman between the crops we grow to feed them and the protein they produce to feed us.
The problem is it’s super inefficient. Even in the best-case scenario, a farm animal only converts like 11 percent of what’s called “feed energy” into human food. That means that, calorically speaking, 89 percent of what we feed an animal, we don’t get out as food.
Nearly all these animals in our food supply chain today? They’re chickens. We’re so knee-deep in chickens today that 130,000 of these animals are slaughtered every single minute. Imagine that: 130,000 animals every 60 seconds, 24/7, 365.
And because it’s so inefficient to funnel crops through animals to get the protein, we lose loads of resources in the process, like all that water. All told, the meat, dairy, and egg industries are so wasteful, they’re so inefficient, that they now cause more greenhouse gas emissions than every car, truck, plane, ship, and train in the world combined.
But the problems aren’t just global. They’re local, too. I met a woman named Lisa recently who lives on the eastern shore of Maryland on land that’s been part of her family for like four generations. Totally normal neighborhood in most ways, you know, toys in the front yard, basketball hoops in the driveway, split-level homes. But Lisa and her husband Joe, they’re being pushed off their land. They’re probably gonna have to sell their house soon. They’re not being pushed off by crime or drugs or high-rise condos, but by chickens.
See I visited them last year and I was really moved to see how just kind of peppered throughout this normal suburban neighborhood now are these giant chicken warehouses. I’m talking 10,000 birds per house, 20,000 birds. You know I saw the hoards of flies, I smelled the stench in the air, I saw the buzzards flying overhead ready to pick off all the dead chickens littering the side of their road throughout their neighborhood. You know I had to see all that, but Lisa and Joe and their neighbors and countless people all across the country dealing with this, they have to live with it day after day, every day, right in their backyard.
So we have to ask ourselves, “Does this still make sense?” Sure, to get meat, to get protein, to get breakfast sandwiches, we’ve had to use animals as a middleman for thousands of years. But do we still have to?
Y’know if breakfast sandwiches didn’t exist in 2018 and we wanted to engineer one from the ground up, we would not look toward chickens for the eggs. We wouldn’t look toward pigs for the sausage.
In the same way that if, say, the idea of watching movies at home to us was somehow brand new to us in 2018, you know we wouldn’t do? We wouldn’t go out and build physical video rental stores that we have to get up and drive to on a Friday night.
We use science and technology to cut out middlemen all the time to bring better products to us, and the same is happening with food. Rather than growing all those crops and funneling them through animals and raising the animals, transporting them, slaughtering them, we could just use the protein that’s already found in plants.
And food companies are doing this. They’re making chicken without the chickens. They’re making plant-based burgers that have more protein than beef. They’re making pork without the pig and even cheese from nuts instead of cows. Now these products are way more resource-efficient to produce because they use less land and water and other inputs. They’re also better for us. They’ve got less saturated fat, less fat, zero cholesterol because cholesterol only comes from animal proteins.
But what if we want real meat? I’m not talking about meat made from plants. I’m talking about actual flesh and muscle and tissue without animals. It’s impossible, right? In 1931, Winston Churchill was asked to predict what the world would look like in a half a century, and you know what he said? He predicted that in 50 years, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing by growing those parts separately under a suitable medium. Total science fiction for Winston Churchill back in ’31, but today it’s becoming our science fact.
It’s called clean meat, and like clean energy, it’s way more resource-efficient to produce. We can now take a biopsy the size of a poppy seed from a single chicken feather, just the feather, and grow enough nuggets to feed an army or a village, all from that biopsy.
These innovations are shifting our relationship with food at the cellular level. And because what we eat is really an extension of what it is to be human, I believe that fundamentally changing our relationship with food in this way can serve to elevate our own humanity. I think it can lead to a kinder, more compassionate, more empathetic world for everybody. Here’s how.
You know we humans, we are an amazing species. We’re capable of such wonderful things. We’ve got a spark of imagination and creativity that’s unparalleled in the rest of the animal kingdom. We’re the only species on the planet that can see the stars, dream about what might be up there, and then actually go and find out.
At the same time we also share so much in common with other species. Joy, play, communication. These aren’t just middlemen. Do you know that chickens communicate with one another using complex vocalizations just like we do? You know they have different cries to alert one another when a predator is approaching by land versus by air. Fish can learn and use tools. Pigs rank higher on intelligence tests than three-year-old humans do.
And of course, we all want to avoid pain. We want to avoid suffering. We all want to avoid fear. If through our diets we can learn to focus on all the ways in which we’re so similar with other species rather than just focusing on that narrative of the other all of those ways in which we’re different, I believe it would bring tremendous value to how we treat one another.
Y’know so if fish was born with gills instead of lungs, so a chicken was born with wings instead of arms. If we can extend our circle of compassion, our circle of empathy, to those beings most unlike ourselves, how might we extend it to our fellow humans? To those born black instead of white, or gay instead of straight, to those born in another country than we are?
You know, my road to picturing this world started many years ago. When I was about 12, my sister came home from school one day a vegetarian. It was in the early ’90s if you couldn’t guess by the clothes here.
I’d never even heard the word “vegetarian,” let alone met one before. And so like any good little brother would do, I made fun of her. Imagine with that hair, I was the one making fun of her. I’d put my steak on the end of my fork and stick it in her face and make a mooing sound.
My mom, fortunately, she was much more accommodating. Y’know, if she had a pot of beef chili on the stove, she’d have a pot of bean chili next to it for my sister. If she was grilling hamburgers out there for us, she’d have a veggie burger out there as well.
I started to try some of these weird new foods, and I actually liked them. But you know, I was no vegetarian. I made a point of that. If I had a black bean burger for lunch, I’d put bacon on it. If I had a bean burrito one day, I’d made sure I had chicken the next day.
Eventually I started to try some of these weird new foods, and I actually liked them. And you know, I too moved in that direction as I learned more and more about the reasons for my sister’s new diet.
And that brings me back to our breakfast sandwich. So I’ve got to confess, if you haven’t guessed by now, though, I’m sure you all have, it isn’t made with cheese and sausage and eggs. The cheese is made from almonds, the sausage is pea protein, the eggs, that’s chickpea flour. The entire thing is made from plants, without animals, and it’s delicious.
So that world in which we’re kinder and more compassionate, we’re more, more empathetic toward one another, the world with a more stable climate where we’re healthier, that’s a better world for everybody. And I know we all have it within us to serve as ambassadors for that world. Every time we sit down to eat, serving as a good example for our friends and neighbors at school, at church, for little brothers and little sisters.
And millions of people are doing it. All across the country, we’re trying Meatless Mondays, we’re eating smaller portions of meat, we’re moving meat from the center of the plate to the side of the plate. We’re trying one or two veggie meals a day.
Saving the world can be as simple as that. It begins with every bite. Thank you.