The Way We Eat Meat Needs To Change—And These Companies Are Leading The Way
Hop over to JUST's website, and you'll be greeted by a video of a happy chicken named Ian. As he roams through an idyllic field, Ian leaves a single feather behind—a white tuft that becomes a "catalyst that feeds the world." The feather is transported to a lab, where one of its cells is extracted and placed in a nutrient bath to multiply. In the end, that one feather becomes a chicken breast, and then a chicken nugget that people enjoy at a picnic—alongside none other than Ian himself!
It's a highly dramatized and simplified version of a new wave of meat production, but the idea is there: Scientists are now extracting from an animal's nearly limitless supply of cells and growing them outside of the body in order to create what's referred to as clean, cultured, cruelty-free, or cell-based meat, depending on who you're talking to.
A handful of companies, many of them in the United States and Netherlands, are in a race to bring this meat to the plates of the masses and prove that it can be a protein source for a growing planet—but it's more of a marathon than a sprint.
So what's taking so long to bring this to grocery aisles?
The first "lab-grown" meat was introduced in 2013 by a Dutch researcher named Mark Post. A hamburger that took two years and $325,000 to create, it was proof of concept that we could, theoretically, feed the nearly 10 billion people expected to live on Earth by 2050 without all the harmful emissions associated with raising animals for meat. (The United Nations estimates that around 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock industry.)
Sounds great, right? It's appealing to investors too: One cell-based meat company Meatable just raised 3.5 million to put toward their first product (either a hamburger or a sausage), while another, Memphis Meats, counts Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Kimbal Musk, and Tyson (!) as backers.
Funds like these will continue to be important, as the cell-based meat process is incredibly expensive, not to mention time-consuming, to get off the ground.
"The selection of the best cells can take a while—depending on the animal, weeks to even months. Once you have the cells you really want, the process of production can take a few weeks," says Vitor Santo, the senior scientist on JUST's cultured meat team, which has been in R&D mode for the last two years. "The cells are controlling us in a way—our schedules work around their feeding and their growth."
Extracting cells is one obstacle, and helping them grow is another. "A really big challenge remains in developing a cell culture medium that can be scaled and produced cheaply and doesn't contain any fetal bovine serum," explains Sarah Lucas, head of strategy for Mosa Meat, a Dutch food tech company led by Mark Post, the creator of that first burger. The fetal bovine serum these companies are working to avoid comes with a high ethical price tag—the growth supplement is extracted from, you guessed it, the fetus of cattle.
"The medium is about 80 percent of the cost of producing meat—right now it's about $400/ liter," Lucas says. "Unless we can bring that price down, this will never be a competitive product."
Then there's the matter of scale. "There is a lot of meat out there in the world—building that scaling capacity will take a lot of time and resources, and that's where we run up on some of the boundaries of current science," says Krijn De Nood, the CEO of Meatable. "Meat is very cheap—you're basically competing with that."
Though it might take a while, these companies are working to bring down their price points to be comparable to anything else you'd find at your local butcher.
"Eventually, we expect to be competitive with conventionally produced meat," says Maria Occarina Macedo of Memphis Meat. "We're confident we'll get there—it's a matter of 'when' not 'if.'"
Why should I try it?
Getting product to consumers is one thing; convincing them to eat it is another. To combat the initial ick factor of eating meat that comes from a lab instead of a farm, these companies point to the environmental benefits of doing so.
"The U.N. predicts that the global meat demand will go up 70 percent by 2050. We just don't have the resources to make it," says Lucas of Mosa Meat. "This has to be the future for meat or dairy, just as eating a more plant-based diet has to be the future."
And if you argue that this type of meat is unnatural, they have a response to that too: "Is conventional meat that much better? When you explain to people that it's the exact same biological process, just happening outside the body, and point out how unnatural livestock farming is, people are generally persuaded pretty easily," Lucas adds.
There's a market of people who want to make the conscious choice.
Mosa Meat, JUST, Meatable, Memphis Meat—all of these players think that terminology will play a huge role in how their products are ultimately received. They all prefer terms like "clean meat" and "cell-based meat" to "lab-grown meat," thinking that the latter only feeds into people's biases.
Not to mention, the processed foods we eat are initially formulated in a lab, too, before they make it to the factory. The same thing will happen with this meat, Lucas says, once companies figure out how to properly scale.
It remains to be seen if cell-based meat will have the same health profile as conventional meat, but given the fact that it's created in a controlled environment, it will be free of potentially harmful antibiotics. De Nood of Meatable also says that you can further customize the cell makeup of meat like this, which could benefit certain categories of eaters. "You can add extra amino acids so it's healthier; you can lower saturated fat; You can even tailor make the meat to any population that you want," he says. "The elderly will need meat with a different amino acid profile than athletes."
As mbg reported earlier this year, as the plant-based meat and dairy category continues to explode (sales have jumped 23 percent in the past year), more people are starting to warm up to this type of meat makeover too. One survey of 1,200 Americans found that 66 percent of them were willing to try cell-based meat after learning about its environmental benefits.
"If you are presented two different hamburgers and you can't see or taste the difference but one is very bad for the environment and requires a cow to be slaughtered and the other one doesn't, which one would you pick in the end?" asks De Nood of Meatable. "There's a market of people who want to make the conscious choice."
Could it hint at a new "post-animal economy"?
Our meat isn't the only thing getting a high-tech makeover. Cultured whiskey, dairy, and coffee are all in the works too, raising a question about how long we can rely on old-school food production methods. While eating food fresh from your local farm is the most environmentally responsible choice now, will there be a day when that's no longer the case?
For Memphis Meats, there's room for all types of food in the proverbial cafeteria of the future: "We operate under what we call a Big Tent philosophy," says Macedo. "We respect the role of meat in our cultures and traditions, and we want to support these traditions, not change them. We also know that everybody wants a sustainable, safe food supply that can feed 10 billion people within a few decades. We see our work as common ground upon which people with differing views and perspectives can come together."
There will always be people who would rather stick with good old, straight-from-the-earth whole vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains—and that's OK. But as we move forward into the future, alternatives like these will likely only become more important.
"In general, I see the value, as a global society ought to be eating less meat, especially red and processed meats and more vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains," says integrative medicine doctor Robert Graham M.D. "Eating clean meat offers us an alternative and excellent business opportunity toward less industrial-scale animal factory farming, yet its effect on climate change and human health are to be evaluated. I have some ambivalence about it, but it's something to chew on."
"In the food industry overall, we have always witnessed a strong evolution. Previous generations were eating in a completely different way than we are now, and that's going to continue," says Santo of JUST. "Hopefully our path will be toward more sustainable food. That's the only way we can go at this moment."
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