Washington Insider-- Thursday

A New Meat Substitute

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

EPA is Moving Forward with WOTUS Rule Rewrite

Rewrite of the rule clarifying the geographic scope of the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule is occurring at a "fast pace," the top water official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said March 21.

"We will be on a fast pace to get something done," Benita Best-Wong, EPA acting deputy assistant administrator for water, told participants at the two-day National Water Policy Fly-In in Washington. Best-Wong stopped short of providing a timeline.

The WOTUS rule took effect in late August, but was in effect for barely a month before it was stayed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that began reviewing the legality of the rule. The Trump administration is wants to withdraw from all judicial challenges to WOTUS. This includes the pending petition before the U.S. Supreme Court over the question of which court is best suited to hear challenges to the water rule.

Regarding the rule's rewrite, Best-Wong said the agencies — the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — are carefully following the direction they received in the executive order to consider the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's plurality opinion. In the 4--4--1 decision delivered in Rapanos, Scalia sought to establish that jurisdiction over wetlands and streams should depend on the presence of waters that continuously flow to relatively permanent bodies of water "as opposed to ordinarily dry channels through which water occasionally or intermittently flows."

That means streams that are dry part of the time or flow only occasionally, including dry arroyos found in the Southwest, are out. Also out are wetlands that have no visible continuous surface flow to navigable waters, such as prairie potholes, playa lakes and vernal pools.

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White House Working to Ease Agriculture Concerns about Trade Policy

The Trump administration is working to allay the concerns of some in the agriculture industry that new trade deals negotiated by the White House could leave U.S. agriculture exports behind.

Ray Starling, special assistant to the president on agriculture, agricultural trade and food assistance, said the White House has been meeting with representatives of the industry over the past two weeks to discuss concerns over the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and the proposed renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). "I think a lot of people on the ag front feel like what we got out of our NAFTA was generally good and that we certainly don't want to regress on any of the gains that we made there for ag," Starling said after a "National Ag Day" event organized by the Agriculture Council of America.

Agricultural trade is one of the bright spots in U.S. exports and has largely benefited from the reduced trade barriers created by NAFTA. The U.S. exported about $38.6 billion in agricultural goods to Canada and Mexico in 2015, according to USDA. More than 25 percent of all U.S. agricultural goods are shipped overseas. The U.S. exported about $38.6 billion in agricultural goods to Canada and Mexico in 2015, according to USDA. More than 25% of all U.S. agricultural goods are shipped overseas.

Starling said the White House was aware of concerns by some in the agriculture industry that new trade policies on major agriculture trading partners like Mexico and China could hurt U.S. crop exports. "We understand the angst in the ag community based on some of the things they may have read or seen related to trade," Starling said. "So the last couple of weeks we've been cycling ag groups in and out of the White House to sort of make their case and talk about what their number-one priorities are."

Starling said some of the provisions in TPP that benefited agriculture could resurface in future trade deals. The proposed deal would have reduced tariffs and promoted U.S. access to some foreign markets. "I hope we don't retreat from any of that and I don't get the sense that we will, that many of the things we worked on in TPP and many of the things that we got will now hopefully become a bit of a floor as opposed to a ceiling," he said.


Washington Insider: A New Meat Substitute

There have been meat substitutes, good and bad, around almost forever, but few have succeeded in leading consumers very far from the real thing. Now, however, there is a new "Impossible Burger" made largely from potato and wheat proteins that may change the perceptions to a major extent, the Washington Post reported this week.

The Post story focused on Patrick Brown who wants his "Impossible Foods" to supplant U.S. meat consumption. He claims that America's 230 million omnivores can be made to trade their hamburgers and steaks for a plant-based "equivalent."

That vision may yet be a long way off, the Post says, and even Brown admits as much. Next week the concept will get an important early test as Impossible Foods opens its first large-scale production facility in Oakland, Calif. The Post thinks the test has implications for the emerging "clean-meat" industry, of which Impossible Foods is an early player.

Unlike Boca or Morningstar before it, which sought to corner the vegetarian market, this company says it aims to appeal to hardcore meat-eaters by creating a meaty plant-based product. So far, plant-based and "clean meat" companies are attracting big investments but have had trouble commercializing their products, the Post says.

With this new facility, a spokesperson for Impossible Foods said, the company's production capacity will increase 250-fold allowing it to supply 1,000 restaurants by the end of this year. Beyond that, "The mission of the company is making the existing method for producing meat obsolete," Brown told the Post before the factory's ribbon-cutting. "That means we need to be competitive everywhere. And soon we will be."

Proclamations like this one have earned Brown and his six-year-old company media attention almost since its founding. A former biochemistry professor at Stanford, Brown became interested in industrial meat production after learning that it is a major contributor to climate change. Livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gasses, according to the UN.

Brown became convinced that, given enough time and resources, science could essentially solve that problem by engineering plant-based "meats" that look and taste like the original product. Since 2011, he has received more than $180 million in investments from the likes of Bill Gates and Google Ventures to pursue the project.

His first offering was the Impossible Burger: a patty composed largely of wheat and potato proteins that uses an iron-containing molecule called heme and looks, handles and (reportedly!) tastes quite a lot like ground beef. The burger has caught the eye of several high-end chefs, including New York's David Chang and San Francisco's Traci Des Jardins, who have put it on their respective menus for roughly $15 apiece, and attracted significant media attention in the process.

Now, Brown still must show that he can churn out burgers en masse -- and that red-blooded meat-eaters will buy them. That could prove difficult in two respects, say analysts and advocates. First, Brown and his team will need to refine their supply chain and manufacturing process to bring the price of the Impossible Burger closer to that of conventional beef.

Some of that will happen naturally, said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute. But sourcing still faces problems, including the iron-containing molecule that makes the Impossible Burger taste like meat. Brown initially extracted it from the root nodules of soybeans, but that process, even at scale, is very costly and releases a lot of greenhouse gasses. Impossible Foods eventually hopes to skirt the issue by producing it from yeast instead of soybeans.

And, production efficiency may not be the greatest uncertainty, which is selling it to average and middle-income Americans. Brown is adamant that his product is not designed to appeal to vegetarians, but that he is after the old-school meat-eater who is motivated largely by price, taste and convenience.

John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State and the president of the Institute of Food Technologists, thinks this type of consumer might prove difficult to attract, as some focus groups have suggested. "So much is going to play out in psychology, more even than in chemistry," Coupland said. How competitive the product may turn out to be likely will be tested soon as the new facilities ramp up from earlier production levels.

By the end of the year, Brown expects the burger will be in many more restaurants, including some chains like Bareburger, which debuted the Impossible Burger at its flagship location in February.

Those restaurants won't all be coastal hotspots, Brown added -- they're pursuing deals in the heartland, as well. Brown has also reportedly been in talks with McDonald's, though the company doesn't have that capacity yet.

Such a coup could move the whole industry much closer to dinner tables across America. And other plant-based and clean meat companies are watching the experiences of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat closely, experts say. Their success or failure could significantly affect the whole market.

So, we will see. Certainly, social themes have proven to be important marketing tools for many foods recently. However, the enormous market Brown intends to crack is deep seated and may be more resistant than he thinks. His fight for approval and market share is one producers should watch closely as it unfolds, Washington Insider believes.


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