Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+ Join today!.
It started out like a normal playdate. Sophia Retchin, then in fifth grade, was roaming the property at a friend’s home near Wilmington, North Carolina. The eastern part of North Carolina is home to one of the highest concentrations of hog farms in the country, including one commercial operation tucked away near the back of Retchin’s playmate’s family stead. When she stumbled upon the factory farm, Retchin was startled and horrified.
“I saw dead baby pigs hanging out of a dumpster and went inside of the facility they keep pigs in,” Retchin recalls. “I was talking to my mom about it the other day and she remembers me being really freaked out about it and how the pigs were cramped really close together.”
A few years later she came across farm animal cruelty videos taken surreptitiously at factory farms, and the clips resonated with her. Retchin learned about how hog farming chokes the Cape Fear River with waste as it snakes through hog country and empties into the Atlantic. She went vegetarian and then vegan in high school, and soon became involved in animal rights activism. She joined Anonymous for the Voiceless and held up screens displaying videos like the ones that moved her on street corners in central Wilmington.
When she arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill, she became the campus PETA representative her first year of college. She hoped to inspire her classmates to give up eating meat, but often felt ignored by her peers.
“I’m really passionate about animal welfare, but I was feeling somewhat unmotivated by the typical approaches of the vegan movement,” Retchin says. “A lot of vegan activism is fear-driven tactics, somewhat, and I don’t think that those are effective.”
At the beginning of her sophomore year, she tried a different approach — convince campus dining services to begin serving Beyond Burgers. By setting up a taste-testing trial and galvanizing student interest, Retchin was able to demonstrate demand.
“It was pretty quick,” she says. “Management saw the demand and started sourcing Beyond Burgers.”
But her win didn’t feel like enough. “Ultimately we’re not going to change the food system on a global scale until we have the taste and mouthfeel at the same price and accessibility,” Retchin says. And that’s when she discovered the Good Food Institute’s Alt Protein Project.
Described by the nonprofit as “a global student movement dedicated to turning universities into engines for alternative protein education, research, and innovation,” the project is exactly the kind of solution Retchin had been searching for. Rather than convincing people to stop eating meat, she saw it as an opportunity to transform animal agriculture by growing meat from animal cells in a lab, “eliminating the need for animal slaughter.”
“Once I found out about this new field, I realized it’s very important for students to be learning about this in more formal settings,” she says. “Ultimately we want to build a talent pipeline for this field and for students to even know this field exists.”
Still a sophomore, Retchin co-founded the Chapel Hill Alt Protein Project during the spring semester of 2020 — the same year the Good Food Institute launched the project. UNC-Chapel Hill is now home to one of the 10 chapters located at college campuses across the U.S. and Retchin is one of five student leaders highlighted on the Good Food Institute’s page for the project.
“The Alt Protein Project provides us with the guidance and framework necessary to spark conversations with students and faculty,” Ph.D. candidate Varsha Rao of the Boulder Alt Protein Project says on the nonprofit’s website.
Retchin agreed. Along with other members of the Chapel Hill Alt Protein Project, she used resources from the institute to pitch more than 500 professors at UNC on the idea of incorporating alternative protein into their courses. A few, including Douglas Phanstiel, raised their hands.
Phanstiel, an assistant professor of cell biology and physiology, usually teaches graduate students. He made an exception for The Cellular Agriculture Revolution, a Spring 2022 special topics course open to all undergraduates and developed in part by the Chapel Hill Alt Protein Project and the Good Food Institute.
“I think a really cool aspect of the class is it was initiated by students, and they were looking for professors to teach it,” he says. “It was exciting to teach something that was brought forward by students. I didn’t even know it was feasible. Sophia especially — but really the whole project — put in a ton of work. I think they deserve a lot of credit for doing so.”
The course, one of just a few of its kind globally, taught students about the basics of cultivated meat and relied on a range of guest speakers, including several representing private sector startups. Initially open to 35 students, the class filled up on the first day, Phanstiel said, and then instantly filled up again when they expanded it to 50.
“There was definitely interest from across different majors,” he says. “A lot of the class was very interested from an environmental standpoint. I think a lot of them hadn’t heard that much about cultivated meat in the past, but they were intrigued by the potential.”
Phanstiel embraced the course too, seeing it as a way to introduce students to cultivated meat and potentially inspire them to go into the industry.
“I’m vegan and a big proponent of anything we can do to replace animal agriculture in general,” he says. I think there’s massive potential impact for animals, for human health, and for the environment, all of which I think are tightly intertwined. It’s one of the bigger things we can do to move away from animal agriculture. The more I researched it, the more I realized this has one of the best potentials to impact animal agriculture, because people like meat.”
Preparing today’s university students to be tomorrow’s innovators in the alternative protein industry is one of the Alt Protein Project’s primary goals. In addition to orchestrating the class, participants organized six panels on the subject as part of the UNC Clean Tech Summit, Retchin said. They want to convince more professors to weave the subject into their curriculum, especially in STEM classes, and they hope to make The Cellular Agriculture Revolution course a permanent fixture on UNC’s spring calendar.
The just-graduated Retchin is planning to launch her own alternative protein startup based in the neighboring North Carolina community of Durham. Her peers, including Chapel Hill Alt Protein Project co-president Karina Vasudeva, will carry the initiative forward. With help from professors like Phanstiel, they could inspire countless students at UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue the alternative protein industry. And when they do, Retchin may be able to hire them.
“We need more brilliant minds,” she says. “Each person has 80,000 hours in their career. That’s a lot of potential innovation.”