Are we heading towards a clean meat revolution, a future of food that doesn’t harm animals – or the planet?

  • Clean food: icky or planet-saving?
  • Meat is muscle, and scientists know how to grow that in a lab
  • Memphis Meats and Finless Foods – clean food superstars
  • Clean food is not quite ready for our dinner tables yet

The future of food is clean meat – animal protein produced in a laboratory rather than a stockyard. Its champions, people like Emily Byrd at the Good Food Institute, call it ‘clean’ because these are burgers and fish fillets you can eat without worrying about how a living, breathing, feeling animal was treated. There’s no stain on your conscience when your fried chicken is cultured from cells rather than hatched from eggs.

Clean food: icky or planet-saving?

For many of us, the idea of white-coated lab technicians growing our food in petri dishes is more than a little unsettling. We get that. When Amy Fleming, a journalist at the Guardian, was offered a first look at cultured fish protein, she was underwhelmed. A thin, almost transparent layer of ‘fish’ clung to the bottom of its beaker. “It doesn’t look appetising”, she writes, “but neither do the contents of an abattoir.” That’s a good point. Even the meat lovers among us can be a bit squeamish about where that sirloin comes from in all its gory detail. But that’s not the only, or even the best reason, to give the so-called ‘Frankenmeat’ a chance on your table.

It’s important to understand that as the global population grows, expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, it becomes wealthier, too. The developed world’s demand for juicy burgers and rich steaks is spreading, changing global consumption patterns. And as Bahar Gholipour, writing for NBC News, warns, in 2012, “meat and dairy products accounted for 70 per cent of global water consumption, 38 per cent of land use, and 19 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions”. Those numbers have only grown since then, primarily in the developing world, according to the OECD. The UN agrees, estimating that global meat production is set to nearly double by 2050, placing unsustainable burdens on the environment. It’s time to make a change.

A hand in a medical glove holding a petri dish with minced meat inside, while the right hand is holding a tweezer with a small piece of meat in it
For many of us, the idea of white-coated lab technicians growing our food in petri dishes is more than a little unsettling.

Meat is muscle, and scientists know how to grow that in a lab

Meat is just muscle, and scientists have discovered how to take a painless sample of cells from a cow, chicken, pig, or fish, and by feeding these cells a cocktail of nutrients and GMO proteins, get them to divide and grow. This kind of biotech was once cutting-edge, but since the early experiments with cultured proteins by Mark Post, a professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, researchers have refined their techniques. They can now produce ‘clean’ proteins that are approaching the taste and texture of their natural counterparts.

Even though he’s a vegan, Ryan Bethencourt, the co-founder of IndieBio, a biotech accelerator focused on clean food, doesn’t expect people to renounce their taste for meat. He just wants to satisfy this demand in a way that doesn’t kill the planet or harm the animals. Offering $250,000 to startups, he backs big money and big ideas. “Anything that falls in between – forget about it,” he says.

Memphis Meats and Finless Foods – clean food superstars

Memphis Meats is one the most celebrated successes backed by IndieBio. Uma Valeti, its CEO, wants to save the animals and the planet. They’re working on techniques to continuously divide harvested cells, meaning that, in the future, they’ll only need one sample – ever. She told the Guardian that their “goal is to entirely remove the animal from the meat production process”. Cultured beef may not seem like a planetary solution, but Valeti wants to change your mind. “If the US switched to Memphis Meats beef”, she explains, “we would expect the greenhouse gas reduction to be like taking almost 23 million cars off the road. One burger could save the amount of water used in 51 showers.”

Mike Selden, the CEO of Finless Foods, is another IndieBio entrepreneur. His company is developing clean fish, growing this protein in a brewery-like environment. He urges you not to confuse cultured proteins with synthetic and unnatural food. What they’re doing, he argues, is really no different than making beer, bread, cheese, or wine – none of which are found in nature. But Selden has hit a (temporary) snag. His goal is to eliminate animal suffering, but his fish need foetal bovine serum to encourage cell division. That means lots of suffering calves. “It’s about $500 a litre, and it’s totally against the mission of our company,” says Selden. “We’re trying to make food that doesn’t harm animals and this is kind of doing the opposite.”

Clean food is not quite ready for our dinner tables – yet

That’s heartbreaking for animal lovers like him. But right now, that’s not the biggest problem for clean food. Three things are holding it back. First, most people don’t seem ready to switch from ‘natural’ meat to the cultured variation. Selden, Valeti, and Bethencourt need to push consumers closer to the clean table, and they know that taste has the power to do that. They’re working tirelessly to create a product that you’ll prefer to its natural counterpart, but early taste tests aren’t as promising as the glowing recommendations offered by insiders. That’s the second problem, and the science of taste is complex. Early experiments with clean hamburgers quickly revealed that the flavour’s in the fat. Clean meat is pure protein, and experts warn that growing complementary fat cells is another issue entirely. Moreover, experiments in recreating wine by chemically mimicking its ingredients and processes have been underwhelming, with initial taste tests likening the synthetic vintage to the flavour and smell of an inflatable pool shark. Finally, the cost of producing Finless Food’s protein is about $19,000 per pound. That’s a bit pricey for Wednesday dinner! Costs are dropping quickly, though, and everyone in the industry expects that economies of scale will soon kick in, further lowering these numbers as production scales up. Professor Post, whose first clean hamburger cost an astounding $300,000, thinks that $10 a pound is not unreasonable once we see industrial-level production. His company, Mosa Meat, has almost reached that price-point, and its clean hamburger now sells for just $30 a pound. That’s pricey, but not ruinously so if it saves the planet and satisfies our consciences.

These problems are real, but we’re betting on the future of food. Clean meat can provide guilt-free enjoyment, and if it can save the planet as well – what’s not to like?

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