Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods wanted to upend the world’s $1 trillion meat industry. But plant-based meat is turning out to be a flop.
Ever since founding Beyond Meat Inc. in 2009 with the then fantastical idea of making meat without animals, Ethan Brown has been giving the equivalent of one extremely long TED Talk. In 2013 he took the stage at the Wired Business conference, explaining that the world had a very real greenhouse gas-emitting meat problem and that venture capitalists could make a bigger impact investing in fake meat than in solar energy. At Toronto’s annual Ideacity gathering three years later, he said his goal was to replicate the “blueprint of meat.” By the time he appeared at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Builders & Innovators Summit 2019, he explained that his mission demanded the urgency and scale the US mustered for World War II and that his products would simultaneously help solve heart disease, diabetes, cancer, climate change, natural resource depletion and animal welfare. Just like technology had rendered the horse-drawn carriage obsolete, he told the crowd at the New York Times’ climate conference this past fall, so, too, would his system of breaking down plants transform the protein at the center of the plate. “This,” he said, “is something that I feel is inevitable.”
Silicon Valley didn’t need much convincing that a better veggie burger could become the next world-changing disruption. Whereas the quinoa-and-bean patties of yore were for the crunchy set, Brown’s beef facsimile, concocted in a lab to look and taste like the real thing, meant the vast majority of meat eaters could give up their burgers without having to give up anything at all. Along with the venture capitalists came investors from every corner of culture—Leonardo DiCaprio, the Humane Society of the United States and former McDonald’s Corp. Chief Executive Officer Don Thompson. Even Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest maker of real meat in the US, invested and then invested again, catapulting the young El Segundo, California-based startup to a $1.3 billion valuation by 2018...