Sir Winston Churchill may be known for many things, but futurism is not generally among them. It should be. In 1931, almost a decade before he became a wartime prime minister and helped save the world, Churchill wrote a magazine article entitled “Fifty Years Hence” in which he predicted what we now know as “clean meat.”
“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” Churchill penned in Strand Magazine. “The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products.”
He was off by a few decades, but Churchill’s prediction is coming true. And while lab-grown meat has yet to reach market and displace our absurd animal agriculture system, the argument in favour of a clean-meat revolution is that it, too, could help save the world.
Churchill wasn’t alone in his vision. There was a French chemist who made a similar prediction in the late 1800s and, unsurprisingly, Star Trek also imagined a future world fed on clean meat in its Next Generation incarnation. (“We no longer enslave animals for food purposes,” Commander Riker explained to an alien while showing off the Enterprise’s replicator.)
But the concept began evolving from science fiction to science fact a couple decades ago, in the mid 90s, when NASA began funding research on growing cultured meat for long-haul space flights. They were beaten to the bite by the NSR/Touro Applied BioScience Research Consortium, which turned a few goldfish cells into fish filets in 2000. But the following year, NASA scientists came through with cultured turkey meat using stem cells that were soaked in nutrients until they turned into muscle cells and then fibres — in other words, food for a someday Thanksgiving in space.
Since then, there’s been a worldwide race to bring clean meat to market — and some are predicting it could even be on menus by year’s end.
People eat a lot of animals. Fifty-six billion land animals wind up in our bellies annually, according to a decade-old UN estimate that showed consumption rising dramatically since 1950. That’s the worldwide total, the majority of which is accounted for by poultry in sheer numbers if not in weight. Canada slaughtered over 715 million land animals last year and consumed over 68 pounds of meat per person, while the U.S. killed over 9 billion animals and ate an astounding 220 pounds a pop. (Compare that to India’s billion-strong population eating around eight pounds per person.) So that’s over 17 per cent of the world’s livestock slaughtered by less than five per cent of the world’s population. Billions more are farmed for milk and eggs. Nobody knows how many trillions of sea creatures people consume, but we downed an estimated 174 million tonnes of them in 2017. Three-quarters of the world’s fisheries are “either exploited or depleted,” according to the UN, and total depletion could be three decades away.
Animal agriculture accounts for 30 per cent of all land use. It contributes 18 per cent of greenhouse gases, according to the UN, or 51 per cent, according to a broader recalculation by the Worldwatch Institute. The latter report argues the UN “vastly underestimated” the impact of livestock when it comes to CO2 respiration, land use by logging carbon-capturing forests for grazing, and methane (primarily the cow and sheep farts that contribute a mind-boggling 37 per cent of the world’s total).
Farming animals is also a leading cause of biodiversity loss and water pollution, and is highly inefficient, requiring five to seven kilograms of grain to produce one of beef, and consuming up to 50 times as much water as growing vegetables does.
Yet our demand for meat is expected to double by 2050 as our population balloons to 9.7 billion. So how do we feed all these people without destroying the planet? And what do we do about the ethical horrors of modern industrial farming?
Do we even need to eat animal protein at all? The militant vegans who made international headlines for waving signs outside of Toronto wild-game restaurant Antler Kitchen & Bar this spring told me “Hell no” — and while their protest would’ve made more sense down the block at, say, McDonalds, they weren’t wrong on this point. People do need protein, and we can get it from non-animal sources. Theoretically, anyway.
The thing activists forget in their understandable zeal is that most of the world likes the taste of meat. They don’t eat it because it’s cruel or environmentally destructive. They eat it despite that. Because it tastes really good. So everyone becoming a vegan is simply an unrealistic option if you want to help the planet and reduce animal slaughter. To bring enough meat-eaters onside to make a discernible difference, you need to provide an alternative with the same taste, smell, and texture.
“Plant-based meat is on track to become a $5.2 billion industry— and the cattle lobby is pushing back.”
The scientific solution to this looming crisis is clean meat: animal muscle tissue grown in a lab from stem cells taken from a living animal and then multiplied and differentiated using cellular agriculture and tissue engineering techniques. Scientists are also developing increasingly realistic plant-based meat simulacra as part of this two-pronged approach to putting “alternative protein” on our plates.
But the question remains: will carnivores bite?
“We are dealing with a crisis. So what are some innovative, exciting solutions to this crisis?” asks filmmaker Liz Marshall in the second-floor lounge of Toronto’s Bell Lightbox theatre. Marshall is here for Hot Docs Film Festival where she is pitching her in-development doc Meat The Future to international buyers.
Already two years in the works, her film tracks the clean-meat industry’s “genesis phase,” following biotech startups like San Francisco’s Memphis Meats, which introduced the first lab-grown meatball in 2016 before expanding to chicken and pork.
“These are entrepreneurs using the mechanisms of hardcore capitalism to disrupt [animal agriculture],” she says. “The case that’s being made for clean, cultured, in vitro, lab-grown — whatever you wanna call it — cellular agriculture is compelling and very persuasive.”
Oxford University researchers found clean meat could be “potentially healthier” than farmed meat and is definitely better for the environment, with up to 96 per cent lower emissions and water use, and 99 per cent less land use.
Land and water use matter a lot in Israel, a hotbed for clean-meat startups thanks to their tech-forward culture and claim to the most vegans per capita in the world. Tel Aviv-based SuperMeat has food engineers, biologists, and chefs working to bring their cultured chicken to market. They first made news with an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which sold nearly $230,000 of pre-purchased lab-grown chicken, then raised millions more in seed funding. They’ve also partnered with European poultry giant PHW, another example of a traditional meat company — like Tyson and Cargill investing in Memphis Meats — betting on the clean-meat movement.
“We focus on chicken for the positive impact it will have on human health, on resource consumption, and also we wanted to aim at the animal who is numerically the most consumed,” explains SuperMeat co-founder Shir Friedman, adding that poultry cells also have advantages for large-scale production.
This matters as the industry struggles to increase scale and reduce cost. (Memphis Meats currently spends around $2,400 USD to make 450 grams of beef — a small fraction of the $330,000 price tag on the first-ever clean-meat burger, developed by Dr. Mark Post in the Netherlands in 2013.)
“Every animal’s body is made of cells that are fed nutrients through the bloodstream. When you take a cell sample and supply it with these same nutrients externally, the cells multiply and grow to form the same tissues that we buy in the supermarket as our meat products,” Friedman says, adding cells are harvested through a “painless biopsy.”
Friedman says potential consumers are “enthusiastic to see clean meat on their plates,” and one recent study found a third of Americans willing to eat clean meat, up from 20 per cent in 2014. But given the widespread backlash against GMOs, it seems likely many will also consider this “frankenfood.”
“A misconception people have is that clean meat is lab meat when, in reality, clean meat will not come from a lab but from a factory, just like many other foods we consume, and will be free of antibiotics, arsenic compounds, Salmonella, et cetera,” Friedman says. “Cultured meat is identical to conventional meat in every way other than the production method. It is not a substitute. It will be sold by meat companies, and its target audience is people who like and eat meat.”
But there are also substitutes, and plant-based protein alternatives that look, taste, and (mostly) feel like meat are fast becoming a multibillion dollar industry. And, unlike clean meat, which is too expensive for the mass market at this point, these meat alternatives are ready to eat now.
Mythology is a hip new diner in Parkdale — a rough-but-gentrifying Toronto neighbourhood — serving traditional fare like steaks and Reuben sandwiches. Just without using meat. Or as a Yellow Pages subway ad put it: “vegan, organic comfort food that even flesh-eating carnivores will love.”
Mythology co-owner Doug McNish was recently named Toronto’s best chef by Now Magazine readers — and not best vegan chef, either. “Oh my god, it was amazing,” he exclaims. “It’s something that reflects the times, that things are changing. Someone who does this for a living can actually become the best overall chef in one of North America’s largest cities.”
McNish began following this path after watching an undercover slaughterhouse video. (“The ethical choice is pretty straightforward — should we be killing and causing pain and torture to satisfy our appetites?”) But his decision ran against his love of meat, so his menu targets similar “ethical vegans” using seitan, a gluten-based protein that can be shaped and seasoned to replicate various meats.
“People think that they’re going to be eating brown rice, tofu, sprouts, and, you know, crappy salad,” he says. “That’s not the truth at all. I’m just utilizing [plant] protein, taking that chewy texture and turning it into something really delicious. You definitely switch a lot more people over by creating dishes this way.”
That’s also the business model behind a series of food-tech startups. Bill Gates has put money into plant-based companies like Beyond Meat, which has been sold at Whole Foods since 2013 and is currently on Canadian A&W menus, and Impossible Foods, which sells its Impossible Burger in over a thousand restaurants. Though made from wheat, coconut oil and potatoes, the patty is so much like beef it even “bleeds.” The secret is lab-made heme, the molecule that carries oxygen in the blood (and in plants) and gives burgers their unique taste, sizzle, and smell.
“My wife says the thing that she misses about a burger is that carnivorous juicy flavor. Well, that’s exactly what Impossible Foods has done,” says McNish. “I think it’s amazing these companies are putting all this money in and getting venture capital. It’s great for the movement.”
Plant-based meats are already en route to being a $5.2 billion industry by 2020, and they’ve become realistic enough that the cattle lobby is pushing back. But livestock farmers are even more afraid of the potential for cultured meat. The FDA is holding hearings this summer, and efforts are underway to ban both lab-grown and plant-based products from using terminology like meat, steak and burger. Missouri has already passed such regulations.
“I think it’s questionable if states even have the right to do this — it’s a federally regulated issue,” says Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. “But the fact that major meat companies are so involved in the clean-meat industry provides some counterbalance to that pushback.”
Shapiro compares Tyson and Cargill to Canon, which invested in digital photography while Kodak stuck to their analog guns. “We all know the results,” he says, predicting the cattle lobby argument against the term “clean meat” will eventually become similarly moot. “At first digital photographs were called digital and now we just call them photos.”
While researching his book, Shapiro ate clean beef, duck, fish, chorizo, and foie gras. He says there was no difference aside from the lack of fat or connective tissue (and scientists are developing clean animal fat, too).
“It’s analogous to the old ice industry,” Shapiro explains. Ice used to be “harvested” from northern lakes until the invention of refrigeration. “It was called artificial ice, and people asked ‘Is this going to be dangerous?’ Some protested it was against the laws of nature. But now we all make artificial ice in our freezers and know the end product is just ice. The same is so with clean meat. We’ve invented a technology that allows us to produce [it] without animals. But the end result is just meat.”
Some optimists are claiming lab-grown clean meat will start being eaten later this year — JUST’s CEO Josh Tetrick told CNN that “before the end of 2018 is an accurate timeline” for cultured products like chicken nuggets, sausages, and foie gras to be served at some restaurants in the U.S. and Asia.
Though based on her research, filmmaker Marshall thinks that aside from pop-ups and one-offs, the mass market is still a decade away. But given she sees a “near-trillion-dollar market opportunity here,” it’s just a matter of time.
Investor website The Motley Fool explains that while clean meat in grocery stores is still years away, it’s a $10 billion opportunity if it captures even one per cent of the meat market. They add that the investments of meat giants Tyson and Cargill should “not be taken lightly,” though they currently advise investing in these diversifying companies over the startups.
Shapiro compares clean meat’s future market potential to kerosene ending the whale oil industry and electricity taking over after that. “I do think that those who make early investments in this are likely to be richly rewarded just because of the opportunities to disrupt such a major market as the meat industry with something that is going to be more efficient.”
Scientists have said dramatically reducing animal agriculture is the easiest and most effective way to address climate change. But given how tasty meat is, the only way that will ever happen at scale is if alternative proteins become indistinguishable from the real thing, and at an equivalent price.
“The goal…is that you walk down the aisle of the grocery store in the meat section, and you don’t know the difference,” says Marshall. “You know the difference as a consumer, but it doesn’t matter to you, and the hope is that you choose their product because it has a smaller footprint.”
Winston Churchill would be proud.