Behind The Hype Of ‘Lab-Grown’ Meat

Some folks have big plans for your future. They want you to buy their burgers and nuggets grown from stem cells. One day, meat eaters and vegans might even share their hypothetical burger. That burger will be delicious, environmentally friendly, and be indistinguishable from a regular burger. And they assure you the meat will be real meat, just not ground from slaughtered animals.

That future is on the minds of a cadre of Silicon Valley startup founders and at least one nonprofit in the world of cultured meat. Some are sure it will heal the environmental woes caused by agriculture while protecting the welfare of farm animals. But these future foods’ promises are hypothetical, with many claims based on a futurist optimism in line with Silicon Valley’s startup culture. Cultured meat is still in its research and development phase and must overcome massive hurdles before hitting market. A consumer-ready product does not yet exist and its progress is heavily shrouded by intellectual property claims and sensationalist press. Today, cultured meat is a lot of hype and no consumer product.

“Much of what happens in the world of cultured meat is done for the sake of PR,” Ben Wurgaft, an MIT-based post-doctoral researcher writing a book on cultured meat, told Gizmodo. Wurgaft finds it hard to believe many predictions about cultured meat’s future, including the promise of an FDA-approved consumer product within a year.

The truth is that only a few successful prototypes have yet been shown to the public, including a NASA-funded goldfish-based protein in the early 2000s, and a steak grown from frog cells in 2003 for an art exhibit. More have come recently: Mark Post unveiled a $US330,000 ($420,150) cultured burger in 2013, startup Memphis Meats has produced cultured meatballs and poultry last and this year, and Hampton Creek plans to have a product reveal dinner by the end of the year. (Memphis Meats declined to be interviewed for this story, and all quotes attributed to them come from prior reporting.)

Because many in the cultured meat industry see this meat as cruelty-free, animal rights groups have become more vocal about cultured meat in its recent past. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered a one million dollar prize for whoever could “produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro (lab-grown) chicken meat” in 2008. That contest’s deadline lapsed in 2014, but in 2016 a non-profit called the Good Food Institute spun off of animal rights organisation Mercy for Animals. The GFI’s mission is to promote what they call “clean meat,” or “meat that is produced through cellular agriculture” instead of slaughter, Bruce Friedrich, the Good Food Institute’s executive director told Gizmodo. Today, several startups have entered the cellular agriculture space, many of whose founders are vegan or who tout their product’s presumed ethical superiority. (Memphis Meat’s website explicitly states that their product is not vegetarian or vegan, though it has been promoted by the GFI and vegan company employees have said they would eat their own product.)

“We have a food system that isn’t working, people are eating food that degrade their body, a billion go to bed hungry every night,” Josh Tetrick, CEO of the controversial food company Hampton Creek, told Gizmodo. He proposed that all these crises could be solved “with plants” but since “people love meat,” cultured meat can help. The problem is real: Meat consumption continues to increase, and could increase by “4 per cent per person over the next ten years,” according to Ensia reporting. Livestock represent approximately 15 per cent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

But first, startups need to actually launch the consumer product, which means overcoming critical production and distribution challenges before even thinking about selling it as a reasonable, affordable alternative to slaughtered meat.

“The important point is that no one has done this at scale yet.” Existing cost estimates relying on prototypes “are based on existing extrapolation of lab-scale processes that aren’t just unsustainable, but also not an accurate representation of what this would look like,” Eitan Fischer, director of Cellular Agriculture at Hampton Creek told Gizmodo.

For now, we know that the meat is made by growing animal-derived cells in the lab and harvesting the meat after a month or so. Part of that scale-up includes developing industrial bioreactors for growing the meat — eventually, cultured meat producers hope the process will look a lot like the beer brewing, where cells grow in big tanks. (Bioreactors as large as 20,000 litres exist for other purposes, but would need to be designed specifically for growing cow, chicken or pig cells.) Companies are mum about their progress on these bioreactors. Hampton Creek told Gizmodo that they had a bioreactor and explained how the scale-up might work, but would not give details on the size.

And yet, cultured meat startups love bringing up slaughtered meat’s greenhouse gas emissions. “With plants providing nutrients for animal cells to grow, we believe we can produce meat and seafood that is over 10x more efficient than the world’s highest volume slaughterhouse (a 1,000,000-square foot facility in Tar Heel, N.C.). All this without confining or slaughtering a single animal and with a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions and water use,” Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick wrote on a LinkedIn post this past June.

But despite what you may have heard, the evidence as to whether cultured meat is better for the environment is inconclusive. “On the environmental studies, the work that’s been done is very preliminary,” Hampton Creek’s Fischer said. A 2011 study estimated that the product might produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, but use about the same amount of energy as the European pork industry. One 2015 study found potential environmental benefits in China, but another 2015 estimate found it could use just as much energy as animal-based meats. The common theme is uncertainty.

It seems that the very idea that cultured meat will be better for the environment than slaughtered meat doesn’t just require new means of food production, it requires the world around it to change in order to sustain it — for the products to be made and shipped predominantly with renewable energy, for example.

When Memphis Meats discusses the environmental benefits on its website, given the inconclusive data, these claims seem reliant on optimism. “When people tell stories about cultured meat one of the things they do is quickly fill in blanks on the page around the meat,” said Wurgaft. He thinks that some stakeholders treat cultured meat as an object on which they can hang other hypotheticals about the future.

As far as cultured meat’s other big promise — meat without murder — it is also uncertain. The most talked-about hurdle in slaughter-free meat production is how to feed the cells. The agricultural industry treats cows like little factories: plants consume solar energy, cows consume plants, cows turn solar energy into energy consumable by humans. Like cows, cells grown in a culture must be fed too. The most prevalent option is a serum made from the blood of calf fetuses called fetal bovine serum — clearly not a vegan or slaughter-free option. Expensive and proprietary replacements exist as Good Food Institute senior scientist Liz Specht showed me, but every cultured meat company’s Holy Grail is an affordable serum without animal products.

“We have validated our first process and created Memphis Meat without fetal bovine serum,” Steve Myrick, VP of Business Development at Memphis Meats told Gizmodo a few months ago. “We’re in the process now of applying that to all of our product. That’s one of our proudest accomplishments.” What that serum is actually made from, neither they nor Hampton Creek would say, citing intellectual property claims. But Mike Selden, CEO of cultured fish startup Finless Foods, told me that it “was a pretty black and white path to fully identifying the necessary growth factors” required to create a slaughter-free serum substitute. “Once they’re identified, we can produce them in transgenic yeast, bringing cost of a blended product (not 100% fish, part plant matter) down to about $US100 ($127) a pound.”

Still, the bulk of crucial facts surrounding cultured meat’s progress are obscured as intellectual property, despite claims of a “transparent production process” from Memphis Meats, for example. The nature of being a business requires hidden details — about the serum, the bioreactors, and how all of those animal cells are going to stick together — much like the secret formulas of Coca-Cola or KFC’s chicken. Hampton Creek has just announced that they are “in talks” to licence these propriety methods to “some of the world’s biggest meat companies.”

Despite our inability to truly assess the current state of cultured meat, press coverage alone would make you think that the future will be “full of lab-grown meat.” I am just as guilty as the rest for fuelling the hype.

“There has been a lot of news coverage for almost seven years now, even in times when there wasn’t a lot of new things going on,” Mark Post, Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, co-founder of Mosa Meat and creator of the first cultured hamburger, told Gizmodo. “It seems a bit excessive. It’s either one way or the other. It’s negative for reasons that are not traceable but there’s no particular evidence, it’s just feelings, or it’s very positive which is more related to high expectations and wishful thinking. The reality is that we don’t have a product yet. It’s taking quite some time and there are still hurdles to overcome on getting there.”

Today, estimates for the launch of the first consumer product range from Hampton Creek’s 2018 claim to Memphis Meat’s 2021 claim. Many industry observers think these dates are overly optimistic, though this could depend on the initial price. But oversell in coverage isn’t new — in interviews with Gizmodo, at least three different commentators cited Alexis Madrigal’s 2013 chart in The Atlantic. It demonstrates that predicted dates on plenty of estimates for when in vitro meat would hit the shelves have passed.

Industry observers not involved in the startups are sceptical for lots of different reasons. Several, in interviews with Gizmodo, said that waves of speculation prevented productive conversation about how this never-before-eaten food would be scaled and regulated by the FDA, and how it would evolve.

Some said that the vegan mindset felt uncomfortable. “It seems strange that vegans would be trying to market a product to non-vegans,” Erin Kim, Communications Director at New Harvest, a non-profit that funds open science cultured meat projects, told Gizmodo. “I think that it’s pretty lofty to be trying to sell a product to a group that you’re not a part of.”

Other in the industry were concerned that the secrecy that comes along with IP (intellectual property) claims could induce fear in the public. “I’m frightened about the ways that genetically modified [food] entered the public, which was more related to IP and ownership than science and technology,” said Isha Datar, New Harvest’s Executive Director. “I found that cultured meat could be transformative but didn’t want the same thing to happen with it [as it did] with GMOs.”

Datar also thought it surprising to apply West Coast Silicon Valley startup thinking to the traditional middle-America meat world. Tetrick from Hampton Creek told Gizmodo that the company entered the cultured meat space because he wanted to reduce industrially-produced meat consumption in Trump country. Aren’t these regions already distrustful of the liberal coastal elite? Why would they buy this liberal meat?

This is a small industry making huge promises about what the future of meat will look like. Of course, startups need to make lofty promises (and hit goals) so they may continue to be funded. But in this case, we don’t know whether the solution they’re offering will actually be the best.

While confident that his company would hit the 2018 deadline, Tetrick, Hampton Creek’s CEO, agreed with the concerns. “The idea that one or more companies in Silicon Valley and Israel will suddenly solve the problem in the next couple years is insanity,” he said, nor did he think cultured meat was a perfect solution. “We’re just kind of balancing the imperfection versus the urgency. Given all the challenges around it — technical, cultural, regulatory — it’s worth a bet.”

Still, overly positive press and ethical optimism can make us dream of a world that doesn’t yet exist, where all meat is brewed in a bioreactor, instead of a future where we pursue other options that solve the problems of industrial agriculture. It’s exciting that a version of the future feels like it’s around the corner, but folks have been writing about lab-grown meet since at least 2003, without a commercial product to show for it. It doesn’t exist yet, at least not in a way that you, a consumer, can eat it.

“Where I think we veer more into ‘bad’ territory is when the kind of imagination offered by this technology might also limit us. I don’t think in vitro meat is ‘the’ future of meat,” Christina Agapakis, biologist and creative director of Gingko Bioworks, a synthetic biology company that produces custom microbes, told Gizmodo. “It might be a future of meat, but I think the way food and technology will mix will be much more complicated than any one current vision might offer.”

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