Skip to main content

Getting behind the debate over lab-grown meat

The dialogue over human health, equity and the sustainable future of our food system is just beginning.

"We built a lab with glass walls. That was on purpose," Ryan Bethencourt, program director for the biotech accelerator IndieBio, told me as we sat in the company's wide open basement workspace in the South of Market district of San Francisco.

Glass walls — it's a design philosophy that many animal rights activists have argued could turn the world vegan, if only people could see into the slaughterhouses that produce their meat.

But IndieBio is taking a different approach. "If we put a lightning rod in the ground and say we are going to fund the post-animal bioeconomy," Bethencourt, a self-described ethical vegan, explained, "then we’re going to create foods that remove animals from the food system."

He pointed me to two examples in the accelerator: NotCo, a Chilean startup using a mix of plant science and artificial intelligence to create mayonnaise and dairy products, and Finless Foods, a two-man team using "cellular agriculture" to create lab-grown or "cultured" seafood. The latter is just one of several new products in development that creates meat without relying on actual livestock, using only a few cell tissues from animals instead.

While the number of alternatives to animal protein has been growing steadily over the last several years, it remains a relatively niche market. Bethencourt and his colleagues at IndieBio are eager to get their food into the hands of the masses. "If we don’t see our products used by billions of people, then we’ve failed," he told me.

But it's not just altruism that drives this emerging industry. There's big money betting on a future of animal products made without animals.

Could the 'post-animal bioeconomy' bring us the kind of sustainable and fair food system we’ve all been waiting for?

Just look at IndieBio alum Memphis Meats, a cultured meat company that announced late last month that it had raised $17 million in Series A funding. High-profile investors have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson and ag industry giant Cargill, none of whom seemed deterred by the fact that no lab-grown meat product actually has been made available to consumers yet.

Major investment also has been pouring in for high-tech products made solely from plants. Hampton Creek, best known for its eggless mayo and dressings — and numerous controversies involving its embattled CEO Josh Tetrick — has been dubbed a "unicorn" for its billion-dollar valuation. (The company recently announced that it's getting in on cultured meat innovation, too.)

Products from Beyond Meat are in over 11,000 stores across the United States, supported in part by early investment from Gates and a 2016 deal with Tyson Foods. Gates is also a backer of Impossible Foods, which has raised upwards of $300 million since it launched in 2011 and has the capacity to churn out 1 million pounds of "plant meat" each month in its new Oakland production facility.

All of this big money, of course, has followed big promises. According to the innovators and investors involved, a sustainable, well-fed, economically thriving world that makes factory farming obsolete is within our reach.

Fake meat, Impossible Foods
I've spent the last few months talking to scientists and entrepreneurs in the plant-based and cultured meat landscape. As a vegan since my college days, it's been hard for me not to get excited by the vision they present.

But as someone who has spent the better part of the last decade working as a food justice researcher, author and activist, lingering concerns have kept my enthusiasm in check. The truth is, food scientists, corporations and philanthropists have made big promises before, but the food system is still a mess. Farmers and workers continue to be marginalized, environmentally irresponsible practices remain the norm, animals are mistreated on a massive scale, rates of hunger and food insecurity are alarmingly high and chronic diet-related disease is on the rise across the globe.

I find myself with mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. On one hand, I'm skeptical that these technological fixes automatically will lead us to some sort of agricultural utopia. But I'm also concerned that many who identify with the food movement might be missing out on the chance to shape the future of food because they're turning their backs on food science altogether.

According to Cor van der Weele, a philosopher of biology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands who studies public perception of animal protein alternatives and has a book forthcoming on the topic, my reaction is far from unique.

"Meat has, for a long time, led to a very polarized debate — you were either a vegetarian or a staunch meat lover," she explained. "Cultured meat has been very effective in undermining those polarities. It brings ambivalence more to the foreground and it also makes possible the formation of new coalitions."

I'm interested in the possibilities these new coalitions present. But it's hard not to wonder: Could what's good for Silicon Valley really be good for eaters in South L.A., food entrepreneurs in Detroit and farmers in Iowa? 

The future of farming

When I stepped into the El Segundo, California office of Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, the writing was literally on the wall. Four stylishly designed posters outlined the company’s mission: improving human health; positively impacting climate change; addressing global resource constraints; and improving animal welfare.

"We're lucky that for the first time in a long time, profit-seeking behavior and what's good are aligning," Brown told me.

"The whole genius of the thesis of what we're doing is that you don't have to have the mission in mind for it to be the right thing to do," added Emily Byrd, a senior communications specialist at the Good Food Institute, a non-profit that promotes and supports alternatives to animal agriculture and works with companies such as Beyond Meat. "That's why writing efficiency into the process is so important."

Food-tech proponents insist that animals are really poor bioreactors for converting plants into protein. They suggest we simply skip that step — either by building meat directly from plant sources or using a laboratory bioreactor to grow meat cultures.

It would be a clear win for animals, and one that could mitigate the negative environmental impacts of factory farming at a moment of growing global demand. But what would it mean for farmers?

For one, it would require a lot less corn and soybeans — the two crops that dominate this country’s farm landscape. Shifting the commodity system wouldn’t be easy, but Brown argued, "If you were to redesign the agricultural system with the end in mind of producing meat from plants, you would have a flourishing regional agricultural economy."

By relying on protein from a wider range of raw ingredients — from lentils to cannellini and lupin — he said companies such as his have the potential to diversify what we grow on a mass scale. It would be better for the soil and water, and farmers theoretically could benefit from having more say in what they grow with more markets to sell their goods.

When it comes to putting this type of system into practice, however, a lot of details still need to be worked out. Byrd pointed me to the writings of David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s soap company, who envisions a world of plant-based meats and regenerative organic agriculture. He suggests that the soil fertility-boosting power of diversified legume rotations, combined with a modest amount of Allan Savory-inspired livestock management, could put an end to the factory farm and the massive amounts of GMO corn and soy (and the herbicides) that feed it.

Food-tech proponents insist that animals are really poor bioreactors for converting plants into protein.

Even cultured meat advocates see a future that is better for farmers once we move away from raising animals for food.

"In my mind, farmers are the ultimate entrepreneurs," said Dutch scientist Mark Post, who created the first cultured hamburger, at the recent Reducetarian Summit in New York. "They will extract value from their land however they can. And if this is going to fly and be scaled up, we need a lot of crops to feed those cells. And so the farmers will at some point switch to those crops because there will be a demand for it."

What crops and what types of farms would feed those cells? Right now it's unclear, as up to this point cultured meat has used a grisly product called fetal bovine serum to do the job. Along with the continued use of animal testing, it's one of the few ways that these food-tech innovators have been unable to move beyond using animals completely. Several companies claim they've begun to find plant-based replacements for fetal bovine serum, assisted in the discovery process by complex machine learning systems such as Hampton Creek's recently patented Blackbird platform. But intellectual property keeps them tight-lipped on the particulars.

As for how those crops — and others used in the production of meat alternatives — would be produced, there's not much more clarity. In my conversations with people in the food-tech world, the opinions on organic and regenerative agriculture ranged from strongly opposed to agnostic to personally supportive. But with the likes of Gates and Cargill playing an increasingly big role in the sector, it's unlikely that a wholesale switch toward these practices is on the horizon.

It's not surprising, then, that some food activists are not buying what the alternative animal product advocates are selling.

Are we rushing things?

"We want to see a food system in the hands of people and not in the hands of profit-driven companies," said Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth (FOE).

She expressed a set of misgivings about the role of genetic engineering and synthetic biology in the plant-based and cultured meat space. Are these products really about sustainably feeding the world or are they more about investor profit? Are we sure we know the long-term health impacts?

Perls noted the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's (FDA) recent decision to stop short of declaring that a key genetically modified ingredient in Impossible Foods' plant-based "bleeding" Impossible Burger was safe for human consumption. That determination did not mean the burger was unsafe, however, and Impossible Foods stands by its integrity.

Perls was encouraged by the fact that some plant-based products — such as those produced by Beyond Meat — do not use GMO ingredients. And she recognized that, from a technical perspective, cultured meat does not necessarily use genetic modification, either — although it could in the future. But she and others are still uneasy: "The fact that there is a lot of market-driven hype propelling these genetically engineered ingredients ahead of safety assessments and fully understanding the science is concerning."

Other concerns have been raised about the healthfulness of highly processed alternative meats, which often lack a strong nutrient profile. But food-tech advocates maintain that conventional meat products go through multiple layers of processing, too, even if the label doesn't always reflect it. And they are quick to note that meat is a major source of foodborne illness and has been associated with cardiovascular disease.

"[Our] No. 1 driver is far and away human health," Beyond Meat's Brown explained. "It's absolutely the No. 1 thing that brings people to this brand."

Plant-based and cultured meat producers see themselves promoting sustainability, promising healthier options in a world that demands convenience and good taste. But it's not clear yet how universally accessible these products will be. Plant-based burgers made by Beyond Meat are for sale in a number of grocery stores (including Safeway), for instance. But at about $12 a pound, they're still much more expensive than conventional ground beef, which costs around $3.50 a pound, and even more than some higher-end ground grass-fed and organic ground beef, which sells for around $10 a pound.

Residents and activists in so-called food deserts are still calling for investments that provide access to fresh vegetables and create local economic growth. Alternative meat producers insist prices will come down once their supply chain improves, but only a concerted plan to promote equity will stop the venture-backed food-tech industry from reinforcing such longstanding nutritional and economic disparities.

"The decision about what an equitable food system looks like shouldn't be determined by biotech itself," FOE's Perls argued. "We need to move with precaution, with transparency, and with a full understanding of what we're doing so that we can make sure that we’re moving ahead in a way that has more benefits than harm."

It's hard to disagree with those assertions. At the same time, groups such as FOE have been locked in a battle with the biotech world that often doesn’t allow either side to engage in a genuine dialogue. I, for one, don't want to see that happen with these high-tech meat alternatives. Precaution is an important value, but aren't there also serious risks if we don't boldly engage with these scientific endeavors?

Let's talk things over

IndieBio companies such as NotCo and Finless Foods say they want to communicate more with the public, helping to demystify new food technology and get people to become participants in the process of innovation.

"You have to be very transparent when you are changing the way that people eat. And that's what we're trying to do here," said Finless Foods co-founder Michael Selden. "I've always been a political activist. And for me this is part of my food activism."

If there's any hope to build solidarity between food scientists and food activists, now is the time for those talks to begin. Perhaps the bigger question, though, is whether anyone is willing to listen.

"Within the scientific community, there's this idea that every innovation leads to a future world that's better," Christopher Carter, a professor of theology who studies food justice and animal ethics, said. "But for many people of color, innovation and science have sometimes been harmful, or even come at their expense."

In other words, if the biotech boosters are really interested in dialogue, it's important for them to engage with critical histories of food and technology, which will help them understand why earlier promises to sustainably feed the world have fallen short. Equity should be at the center of their work and addressing the concerns of the most vulnerable eaters and food producers must be part of their bottom line.

"If you have people at the table who are asking those kind of questions, and the people who are doing the innovation are actually taking them as valid questions, I think that could help mitigate some of the potential problems that are going to come up," Carter argued.

On the other side, a necessary first step for the most diehard critics of genetic engineering would be to become more familiar with the basic biochemistry involved in these new products. Food movement advocates also should avoid knee-jerk reactions that romanticize "natural" foods while villainizing any and all food-tech innovation.

It's clear that food tech isn't a silver bullet, but I'm also optimistic about the new coalitions that could take shape between scientists, investors, farmers, entrepreneurs and eaters. We might never come to a clear consensus, but progress is only possible if we channel our ambivalence into honest, evidence-based, historically grounded dialogue.

So if, like me, you are interested in a future of food tech that promotes real sustainability and food justice, I hope you'll join the conversation. I'll see you there, behind the glass walls.

This story first appeared on:

Civil Eats

More on this topic

More by This Author