The S-Curve of Innovation & the End of Animal Agriculture

Have you ever noticed that new ideas and technologies sound completely crazy…until suddenly they’re not? Thanks to the s-curve, new ideas and technologies (like meat without animals) sound totally implausible…until they are the norm.

In the 1960s, pocket sized computers were so unimaginable that even the computers on the Starship Enterprise were the size of washing machines. Just 50 years later, we carry computing power in our pockets that eclipsed the world’s super computers just decades before. This phenomenon was first seriously examined by Everett Rogers in  his book “The Diffusion of Innovations”, back in the 1960s. Rogers theorized that there were three phases in innovation (broadly speaking): a flat, early phase, a high slope characterized by rapid adoption, and another flat phase at the end, as technology matures. Taken together, these phases of adoption form a sigmoid, or S-curve.

s-curve innovation modern veganism

S-curves (seen here in yellow) have captured the public imagination: not just in terms of technology based on semiconductor circuits (which double in computing power 2 years or so, thanks to Moore’s law), but also in terms of ideas and technologies where supply, demand and profit (reward) meet in order to drive change. I would like to propose that we will witness a similar explosion in innovation in terms of technology for producing plant-based foods without animals.

The S-Curve at Work
innovation adoption curve


Last week, I spoke about the innovation adoption curve. The adoption curve starts small (with innovators and early adopters) and grows over time as the early and late majorities hop on for the ride, forming a classic s-curve. We see this occur frequently throughout history, even with simple technologies like wheels, stirrups, ploughs, and tractors. It also happens with more  ideas, like democracy. In the ancient world, Greece was the sole democracy. They were the prototypical innovators, in this example! Throughout history, more and more countries decided they liked the idea, and there was an explosion of this particular ideology in the 19th and 2oth centuries. Eventually, the law of diminishing returns tends to set in, and political ideas – just like technologies – tend to stagnate, and new things come along.

What Do S-Curves Have to Do with Ending Animal Agriculture?

The growth of veganism as an ideology and ethical system of belief has proved limited. People naturally gravitate towards traditional cultural practices, and it generally requires a “push” (technological, economic, or social – or all three) in order to convince people that they ought to change. As an ideology, veganism has had trouble taking off in an s-curve. Donald Watson established the Vegan Society in 1944, and yet the world’s vegan population still hovers around 2%, and the growth of the movement has been hampered by issues with retention.

I actually don’t think that ethical arguments for veganism will be the reason the world goes vegan. As I’ve said before, I think economic incentives have a far stronger power over people. Many of our most closely held beliefs are post-hoc justifications for our economic realities. If eating meat becomes untenable (too costly, too dangerous to the health of the planet), we will likely find ways to reconcile our beliefs with the reality of our situation. It’s only when supply, demand and profit (which we can think of more broadly as “reward”) converge that the s-curve can begin to take shape.

The Role of Innovation in Spurring Change

For many years, there has been little innovation in terms of alternatives to animal food. And the vast majority of human beings have consumed animals and their byproducts since time immemorial. Aside from moral conviction, there has been little incentive for most humans to adopt a vegan diet. And we haven’t experienced any real necessity to do so, either. Thus, we’ve been stuck in the flat end of the adoption curve, without much chance for exponential growth.

But things are changing, and fast. And this innovation is spurring change in a big way. Alternatives to animal products are becoming better all the time. Products like Field Roast sausages, Silk soy milk and Chao cheese are orders of magnitude better than what was available just a few years ago. Just Mayo is not only better tasting than traditional mayo, it’s also the same price, and cholesterol free. And these things are making it a lot easier to adopt a vegan diet. It’s hard to argue that the exponential growth of veganism in Great Britain and the United States hasn’t been helped by the improved availability of delicious plant based foods.

Veganism’s “Killer App”

Of course, the “killer app” for veganism is better tasting meat and milk that does not come from animals. Thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, plant food – broadly speaking – should always be less costly than animal foods. Animal foods are high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and are often vectors for deadly diseases, like mad cow. With biotechnology, we can create animal-free alternatives that save human and animal lives, and preserve our planet for future generations.

And yes, I realize it sounds a little crazy to talk about these things in 2017. But that’s the way this always goes. The idea that viable alternatives to animal products will bring an end of animal agriculture sounds far-fetched, but it’s not – it’s the future. And it’s a future I want to be part of.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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