The chicken or the egg — or neither

This is an edited excerpt from the book "The Humane Economy (How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming and the Lives of Animals)" by Wayne Pacelle, published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers. 

For those consumers not satisfied with more humane methods of raising and slaughtering animals — as significant as they’ve been in the last five years — there are new food production strategies not just on the drawing board, but on the milk and cheese shelves and even in the meat case. The meat of the future has arrived, at long last removing the whiff of suffering or the stain of blood from the food we eat, and it promises to be one of modern science’s finest hours.

Andras Forgacs came to the downtown office of the Humane Society (HSUS) in Washington, D.C., to tempt me into eating meat for the first time in 30 years. But Forgacs isn’t a rancher or a meat industry rep, and the meat didn’t arrive sealed tight in shrink‑wrap. Rather, Forgacs is a Harvard‑educated scientist, and his meats came in the form of bite‑sized appetizers, carried in his shoulder bag. He and a few biofabrication scientists with his company had found a way to take a pinprick’s worth of muscle cells from a steer or boar and turn it into a small mound of edible flesh: "Lab‑grown meat. No animals harmed. Made in Brooklyn."

Forgacs’ company, Modern Meadow, is a pioneer in the experimental world of in vitro meat and leather production. The process is not nearly as difficult as salvaging and replicating 10,000‑year‑old, fossilized DNA from a wooly mammoth or mastodon. Forgacs isn’t interested in making Jurassic pork. Quite the opposite, he’s fabricating meat from some of the most abundant species on the planet.

Forgacs is part of a new universe of inventors who are out to change our lives, and the agricultural economy, in the most fundamental of ways. A group of scientists founded Memphis Meats to grow meat in steel tanks. Three Indian‑Americans have started a Silicon Valley-based company called Muufri (renamed Perfect Day) to create milk and cheese from genetically engineered yeast. A few months before I met Forgacs, Dr. Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands cooked up the world’s first lab‑grown hamburger and served it in London to a group of journalists.

For the diners, it was a meal to remember, though not because the futuristic fare was perfectly to their liking. Even though it will need years of refining, cultured meat is one of those bellwether products, like the first PC or those early‑model cell phones of the 1980s, whose mere existence portends that bigger changes are on the way. Dr. Post’s burger‑fabrication operation originally had a single main backer, but an important one with quite a track record as an innovator: Google co‑founder and billionaire Sergey Brin, who said he invested because "when you see how these cows are treated, it’s certainly something I’m not comfortable with." He doesn’t hold the view that developing cultured meat is impossible or naïve. "If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction," Brin told the press, "it’s probably not transformative enough."

Modern Meadow’s Forgacs had good things to say about Dr. Post and his work, but stressed that the Dutch operation is more experimental, using a different fabrication process: "He is recreating muscle fibers, one fiber at a time," and then binding them together. Forgacs thinks his own method of tissue engineering lends itself more readily to commercial application. If that sounds like a classic race between inventors, it is. Dr. Post now says he can get the wholesale cost down to $11 for a burger.

Forgacs says his burger, over time, will become competitive on price, too. He and his team start the fabrication process by taking a muscle biopsy. "Once you isolate the cells, you grow them in a cell culture," he tells me. "It is a soup that contains the vitamins, minerals, sugar and all of the other nutrients needed for growth." It gains mass through cell division — the same biological process that produces growth in an animal.

But Forgacs’ process needs fewer inputs in comparison to conventional meat production because, with no need for legs, hooves or hair, and no pumping heart or lungs, the caloric burn rate is dramatically lower. It’s a precise rifle shot, with all growth directed to edible meat and usable leather.

Listening to Forgacs, my mind went back to the observation decades ago by writer Frances Moore Lappé in "Diet for a Small Planet" that "animals are protein factories in reverse." It can take 12 pounds of grain to put one pound of flesh on a cow, to say nothing of the incredible water, land and fossil fuel requirements at every stage. Forgacs must still use plant material to grow animal flesh, but he does it all so much more efficiently. And even that hugely understates the positives. Modern Meadow’s operation also generates negligible waste — just some dead cells and other biological residue. By contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that the nation’s 18,800 Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) — facilities with large numbers of cattle, pigs and chickens confined inside — generate 500 million tons of manure annually. That’s about 1 trillion pounds, or three times the total weight of meat, milk and eggs Americans consume every year. And animal agriculture produces 243 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions — making it one of the largest emitters on the planet. A European Union study predicts lab‑grown meat could reduce land use by 99.7 percent, drain 94 percent fewer gallons of water from aquifers and rivers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 98.8 percent.

It’s fitting, too, that all of this unfolds in Brooklyn, once the site of countless stockyards, packing plants and meat markets. In 19th-century America, our cities were crowded with animals, including livestock. Raising farm animals not far from consumers, or transporting them alive and slaughtering them close to home, was a practical necessity, because in transit "beef and pork went through a series of mutations that rendered them first unpalatable, then inedible, and then dangerously toxic," according to University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon. For more than half of the Industrial Age, and for all time prior to that, most food was "local" and farm‑to‑table was the standard. After all, our nation was still largely agrarian. Many farmers did their planting and rearing at the edge of the cities or, in some cases, right within them.

But with the nation’s westward expansion, settlers could lay claim to fertile land on both sides of the Mississippi River flood plain and across the Great Plains region, the vast mid‑section of the continent, stretching from Texas up through the Dakotas and into the prairie provinces of Canada. In the years after the Civil War, sport and market hunters liquidated the bison, and federal troops and disease continued to decimate the Indian tribes. European‑Americans didn’t mix well with native people or wildlife. With the lands’ original inhabitants either eradicated or pushed into small pockets or reservations, ranchers and farmers could put longhorns and other cattle, sheep and pigs onto the "open range" — taking advantage of the natural grazing lands that had once supported millions of bison. Or in many areas they could put corn in the ground, supplanting the native prairie grasses, and feed that crop to farm animals.

By the latter part of the 19th century, refrigerated rail cars connected these farmers and ranchers to cities swelling with Americans and European immigrants hungering for meat. Increasingly, agriculture was outsourced to these rural regions, as cities turned from farming to manufacturing, construction, finance and other enterprises associated with an industrial economy.

But the cities still did much of the trading and processing of animals, even if it took cowboys and train conductors to drive the animals there, often over hundreds of miles of terrain. The destination typically was a stockyard, where the different players in the meat industry aggregated the animals and then either traded and shipped them to the East or slaughtered them on‑site. Chicago’s Union Stockyards, in the city that became known as the "hog butcher to the world," employed 25,000 people at the turn of the 20th century, and processed more than 80 percent of the meat sold in America. In the 1870s, it boasted "2,300 pens on a hundred acres, capable of handling 21,000 head of cattle, 75,000 hogs, 22,000 sheep, and 200 horses, all at the same time." Cincinnati, which specialized in collecting, trading and slaughtering pigs, was known as "Porkopolis." In Manhattan’s Meat Packing District, on the edge of the Hudson River, 250 slaughterhouses turned live animals into whole carcasses and cuts of meat.

Today, urban stockyards have mostly vanished, even in Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis and the other cities of the Midwest. The interstate highway system and the rise of trucking allowed farms to move live animals directly to slaughter plants without need of intermediate trading centers. Over time, slaughter plants migrated to rural regions too, enabled by cheap land, proximity to the farms and refrigeration. It became cheaper to ship frozen meat to cities than to move live animals. Today the slaughter plants are gone from Manhattan’s Meat Packing District, an area now known for fashion, bars and restaurants. The same is true in Brooklyn, where young professionals live in converted buildings and lofts alongside start‑ups such as Modern Meadow. Thanks to Forgacs’ company, Brooklyn may be the only geographic jurisdiction to produce more beef in labs than in fields or feedlots.

What Andras Forgacs carried in his shoulder bag was a rounded steak chip — resembling the shape and circumference of the petri dish it had grown in. "It’s very low in fat and high in protein, very healthy and shelf stable, very food safe," he told me, describing it as a kind of beef jerky. "Why grow animal products from sentient animals when you can grow them from cells?"

"The science of cell culture has been around for 100‑plus years, but the technology has accelerated over the last several decades," Forgacs explained. "We now know how to grow cells in a lab very easily. In fact, there are many products predicated on cell culture already, like yogurt, which is a food product that involves culturing lacto bacillus. Yeast is a cell culture product. A whole bunch of drugs in the biotech industry are made of cells that grow in vats, like insulin for medicine."

I asked Forgacs about the challenges he’d face in making his product commercially successful: public acceptance of eating a lab‑grown product, palatability and taste, production on a viable scale, and overcoming political and other interference from the meat industry. Food is our first necessity, and there have been a series of revolutions in the annals of eating.

Domesticating wild animals and using them for food and agriculture‑related labor was one of the most transformative processes in human history. The discovery of micronutrients was a more recent but enormous development, leading to changes in food selection and later to supplements to ward off nutritional deficiencies, such as scurvy, rickets and anemia. There were the revolutions in heating and cooling foods — cooking, baking, broiling, refrigerating and freezing. The green revolution gave us the era of high yield crops through use of fertilizer and nitrogen, and there were innovations in harvesting crops with threshers and combines. Today we debate the soundness of genetically modified organisms. With this rich history of agricultural innovation, is it so impossible that we’d come to grow meat in a lab?

Even so, I have to confess that for purely personal reasons, the lab meat tasting involved a small dilemma. I’d been a vegan for three decades, and somehow this sample offered to me felt like a breach of that discipline. Would I still be a vegan if I ate the stuff? Even though the lab meat involved no suffering whatsoever for any animal — and indeed is meant to eliminate vast suffering — it still didn’t feel right, and I had to think it through.

"The vegan definition may be blurred, since it’s an animal product," as Forgacs explains it. "But if you have a product that is .001 percent animal and the rest of it is derived from plants or brewed from plants, then you are largely eating a plant‑based product." The distinguishing feature of the lab‑grown meat was that it wasn’t ever a being. There’s no brain, no consciousness and no pain. This was a big contrast with some of the bioengineering going on in the conventional meat industry. Some of its scientists have been trying to eliminate the "stress gene" in pigs. The idea is to make them less afraid of pain and death — a truly insidious project that would permit these creatures to be endlessly exploited, while losing even the dignity of being the conscious, feeling animals they are.

Despite my mild misgivings, I took a bite of the cultured meat chip. The barbeque sauce registered with me, but there was no awakening of my taste buds. In all fairness, though, even real beef jerky wouldn’t do much for me either. The test will come, I thought to myself, when chefs and amateur cooks experiment with lab meat, and determine if it can perform in the pan or under the broiler like the meat they’re used to. Perhaps the biggest question that remains is how the product will improve in taste and function as the company scales up, and we’ll only find out when Forgacs’ company grows and is able to put a ribeye — and then the whole, vast meat locker variety of foods — in front of dedicated carnivores to see if they clean their plates.