Is it possible to disrupt a cow?

Technology can displace the cow and save the climate. But we will need to think beyond the bun.

The first, most critical fact to recognize about our food system is that it’s solar powered.

Take a drive along US-85 in Wyoming, or US-26 through Nebraska, or US-18 through South Dakota and it is impossible to miss dozens of clusters of cows standing by the roadside, slowly, contemplatively chewing. That’s what cows do all day, every day — they eat grass. They use that plant energy to locate more grass, and eat that too. A cow’s ceaseless job is to convert the planet’s most fibrous, lowest quality feed into milk and meat. A cow is an engine that turns sunlight to dollars.

It is also an engine that pollutes: Cows alone contribute almost as much to climate change as all of the cars in the world — over 10% of all human-produced greenhouse gases. Their nearly indigestible diet nourishes a microbial community which respires methane into belches and nitrous oxide into manure. Tropical rainforest, and all the carbon it keeps, is leveled to create pasture. Gasoline is burned to keep the butchered meat cold and fresh. Every pound of steak we produce adds almost thirty pounds of carbon to the atmosphere. Every pound of steak protein requires 25 pounds of vegetable protein to grow.

It used to be that the only folks to complain about the global environmental impact of livestock were the sort of people who would uncomfortably lock gazes as they explained the healing power of crystals. But the rise of solar energy has taught Silicon Valley that one person’s fringe is another’s early adopter, and venture capitalists are lining up against the rancher, betting that modern technology can outcompete the world’s livestock. Just, a vegan mayonnaise company, has raised $220 million from private investors and is looking to raise $200 million more. Impossible Foods, a veggie burger company, raised nearly $700 million. Beyond Meats went public in May at a valuation of over $1 billion and is, at the time of this writing, worth over $9 billion.

All of this is intended to position Silicon Valley in advance of an unavoidable trend: For the climate to sustain, global dairy and meat consumption must be cut in half from today’s levels. In developed nations like the US, beef consumption must drop 80% or more by 2050 to make room for consumption by billions of increasingly well-off, meat-hungry Asians and Africans in the coming decades.

So this is what disruption looks like: Four out of every five of those cows on the side of the road must vanish for the planet to survive.

But the cow is a new sort of target for Silicon Valley. A cow is not a hunk of capital like an internal combustion engine or a coal-fired boiler. A cow will not join your social network or be called by an API. A cow is an animal which has been naturally selected, over millions of years, to turn feed into protein as efficiently as nature allows, lest it be out-competed by another, more efficient creature. A cow, thick with meat and fat, is dinner that humans have evolved to love.

Silicon Valley has convened to disrupt a thing that is solar powered, fully autonomous, and has — to borrow one of the Valley’s favorite terms — perfect product-market fit.

Is Silicon Valley insane?

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