In September, China announced that it signed a deal to buy $300 million of meat from Israel.
This raised eyebrows for two reasons.
First, Israel isn’t known as the Pampas of the East; you don’t see vast hordes of beef cattle munching their way across grasslands in a country that’s 60 percent desert.
Second, this meat will never set a hoof on the ground or peck a corn kernel. It’s cultured in stainless steel bioreactors in labs that look more like breweries than farms.
The three Israeli companies providing the meat — Meat the Future, SuperMeat and Future Meat Technologies — are among a herd of tech companies making designer meat, cultured meat or “clean meat,” as it’s sometimes called: growing meat without the cost and trouble of breeding, feeding, raising and slaughtering critters for their flesh.
The idea has attracted investment as well as attention.
San Francisco-based Memphis Meats has raised $17 million — some from food giant Cargill and maverick billionaire Richard Branson — and has expanded from burgers into chicken and duck. The billion-dollar holistic foods giant Hampton Creek has promised its own line of clean meat. Bill Gates and Google Ventures have bought into man-made-meat start-ups. The Tyson chicken empire has hatched its own attempt.
MEAT’S FUTURE A NECESSITY?
It’s worth the trouble. Humans’ love affair with meat is on a collision course with the future.
As living standards rise around the world, so does the appetite for meat: Global consumption grew by an estimated half-million tons in 2016 and is expected to ramp up from there. Americans get an estimated 80 percent of their protein from meat, eating an average of 260 pounds per person every year. Britons each down more than 81 pounds (and 46 pounds of fish).
It’s not just that meat tastes good; literally and figuratively, meat is in our blood. Meat is humans’ best one-stop source of nutrition, including iron and vitamin B12. Meat has the eight amino acids humans need from outside of our bodies, and the amino-acid profile of meat is almost identical to that of human muscle.
But all this goodness comes at a cost.
Almost 800 million acres in the continental US alone — more than 40 percent of the land area — is grazed by beef and dairy cattle.
Another 155 million acres in the lower 48 are planted annually with corn and soy that’s fed to cattle, and 56 million more are devoted to hay. Many of those acres are likely to be contested as the current US population of about 326 million adds another 74 million people by 2025, just seven years from now.
Every day, US cows guzzle 2 billion gallons of water. In a world increasingly marked by drought — and forecasts of water wars in some regions — livestock’s thirst may leave more and more humans dry.
Also, finishing beef cattle for market typically takes them to feedlots where the cows are crowded together (up to 100,000 in a square mile have been documented); rivers of urine and rain running off manure mountains have poisoned rivers and surrounding farmlands. To keep the animals healthy amid the filth, they’re typically pumped full of antibiotics that then enter the human food chain.
And those are the problems at ground level.
By some estimates, a single cow farts and belches as much methane every day as a moderately efficient car engine; the proportion of greenhouse gases supplied by cattle is estimated to be from 14 percent to 25 percent. With our atmosphere growing increasingly methane-dense from fossil-fuel use, garbage dumps and manufacturing off-gases, the extra that cattle contributes is becoming more of a concern.
Now designer meats are promising to keep the good, but carve away the bad.
San Francisco-based Memphis Meats, for example, says its lab-based meat-manufacturing process cuts greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent below traditional methods of raising, slaughtering and processing. Man-made meat also reduces the amount of water needed to turn a cow into a burger by more than 90 percent and the amount of land by 99 percent.
Although the cost of turning out a five-ounce burger in a lab still averages above $11, Future Meat Technologies estimates that tweaking the technology and scaling up production will bring the price of designer meat to or below $2.50 a pound within a few years.
So how do you make meat without slicing up animals?
It starts with choosing the plumpest chickens or meatiest cattle, then extracting cells from them. These may be stem cells, which can be chemically directed to become any kind of cell. Or, they may be adult cells, which are then engineered to revert to stem cells. The cells are bathed in a nutrient mixture that may still contain animal fluids, although the shrinking number of meat makers still using animal components in their cultures are working to find effective non-animal substitutes. These cultures are then incubated in bioreactors. After three or four weeks, a cluster of cells produces a commercial quantity of meat — such as a standard-size burger patty.
Future Meat Technologies does it a little differently. It grows its fare using mesenchymal cells, which grow faster and with a lighter nutritional demand than stem cells. The cells can be chemically nudged to become meat or fat; then the two can be carefully combined to produce the right texture and “mouth feel.”
That kind of blending, like making wines, involves art as well as science. Memphis Meats, for example, has sorted out cells that yield key flavors, textures and aromas and then can be balanced for the best eating experience. Meat designers also can tune up the nutritional content of lab-grown meats and cut down on cholesterol. People who have tasted these man-made meats say the results taste just like meat — which isn’t surprising; it is meat. It’s just been derived through a different process.
And then there’s Impossible Foods, Silicon Valley’s most publicized contribution to clean meat. Patrick Brown, a Stanford University biochemist and the company’s founder, is betting his backers’ money on something called heme.
Heme is a biochemical compound that not only puts the “hem” in hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells) but also is a basic element in enzymes and muscle proteins.
More important to Brown’s venture, heme also gives meat its characteristic texture and brings out meats’ flavors when cooked.
But Brown doesn’t take heme from cows. Instead, he extracts it from soy and cultures it with a strain of genetically engineered yeast that speeds growth. His recipe then blends the heme with proteins from wheat and potatoes for texture, and adds coconut oil, which melts when it hits the skillet, just like the fat in beef.
THE SECRET INGREDIENT
So, while a flock of plant-based meat substitutes is already on the shelves (Beyond Meat’s “Beast Burger” and “Beyond Burger” are gathering rave reviews), the Impossible Burger is the only one with meat’s secret ingredient.
The result: One reviewer noted the burger’s “mineral, meaty flavor” if it’s not cooked past medium rare, and a texture close to a conventional burger patty, although looser. Another taster said, “It’s definitely not an old shoe” but “it’s a substitute, not a replacement” for the real thing.
And yet, Impossible Foods soldiers on. Its faux beef is being served up in more than 100 restaurants, including the BareBurger chain in New York City and Fatburger in Los Angeles. It plans to put its meat in 1,000 stores in 2018 and expects to be producing 1 million pounds of meat every month in the near future.
But whether people are ready to overcome the “ick factor” and accept meat from a lab instead of a pasture is an open question.
Focus groups have found that some people worry about “Frankenmeat” or just don’t like the idea of eating meat grown in a tank; at least as many others say they would take a taste.
The best way to induce people to accept manufactured meat may be to introduce them to it early. Future Meat Technologies distributes “grow boxes” and flasks of starter cells so schools, or even families, can try growing meat themselves. Integriculture, a Japanese start-up using a soy-based medium to make foie gras, has created a nonprofit that gives young people heated boxes where they can culture meat cells in a growth medium. Although the product is a slickery glob, the aim is to accustom people to the idea that, in the future, real meat won’t come from the wild. TJ