WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
If you can grow any meat, from any animal, in a lab without ever having to rear, raise, or harm an animal then why wouldn’t eating exotic meats become culturally acceptable?
If you’re a regular reader of my blog then you’ll already know that the future will be vastly different from today’s reality, just consider the fact that everything you know as science fiction today is already becoming science fact, from holograms, light sabres, and tractor beams, to deflector shields and telepathy – let alone everything else that’s changing. But, as technology gets more capable and powerful, for example, Artificial Intelligence (AI), we’re not only going to have to overcome some serious ethical issues, such as biased AI’s and the emergence of fully autonomous hunter-killer robots, but also cultural and societal ones, such as is eating Panda meat, Polar Bear meat, or Zebra meat right? Yes, you heard that right, and bear with me as I crank the unethical dial up to ten and take you on a trip into the future where one day maybe even a T-Rex burger is on the menu.
Obviously, today eating Panda meat isn’t right, and you’ll be rightfully arrested, but tomorrow well, and bear with me on this, if some food start ups get their way you could be chowing down Panda meat like it’s French fries and burger – without the ethical dilemma. And how is such a thing possible I hear you ask as the conservationists among you throw rocks at the screen and the rest of you grab the Soy sauce…
It’s all thanks to a technology, whose costs are plummeting right now and that one day could solve global famine, that goes by a variety of different names including Clean Meat, Cellular Agriculture, and Lab Grown Meat, that means we no longer need to rear or slaughter animals to cultivate and eat meat – hence the name Clean Meat.
The technology behind cultivating clean meat is best described as replicating what goes on inside an animal, such as growing tissue, outside of an animal. Today this process involves taking stem cells from the muscle tissue of a living animal and feeding them a natural cocktail of nutrient rich serum that causes the them to proliferate and transform into muscle cells. This is when a lab technician steps in and encourages these multiplying cells to take shape and form fibers and then places them into bioreactors with the ideal conditions to stimulate growth. Eventually, the nacent tissue grows to the point where it can be cooked and eaten, and voila, on demand beef, chicken, duck, salmon and tuna without an animal or fish in sight, from companies including Aleph Farms, who recently produced fillet steak in this way and sold $300m of clean meat to China, Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, Just, and Finless Foods.
However, if you change the formula of the cocktail then theoretically you should be able to get the stem cells to grow into meat from any animal you like or can imagine. Furthermore, once researchers have the knowledge and the process locked in then it should also be possible to create hybrid meats too and mix any animal with any other animal – Pandbra anyone? That’s a cross between a Panda and a Zebra by the way and I just patended it.
And if all of this sounds crazy, which it absolutely does, then it’s time to meet George Peppou, co-founder of the clean meat company VOW Foods whose company aims to “reinvent food” and “bring you nature’s best kept secrets.”
“At the moment, we have only domesticated for food production less than 1 percent of what’s in nature, so there are many unlocked food secrets to explore in the other 99.6 percent,” he said.
Peppou, whose company’s primary focus is cultivating kangaroo meat, further went on to describe VOW’s ambitions as building a cell library equivalent to “Noah’s Ark,” the Biblical ship built to shelter a select group of survivors along with a pair of every animal on Earth from an apocalyptic flood. But Noah probably didn’t once think about eating the animals in his care… Meanwhile Peppou’s co-founder, Tim Noakesmith, elaborates on his company’s ambitions.
“We believe that the key to bringing this technology to the world will be enabling more choice for consumers,” he added. “Right now, the vast majority of meat consumed comes from just four or five animals. This is because we have developed the processes necessary to domesticate and process these particular animals on a mass scale. The question that we asked ourselves was: What are the odds that these animals contain the tastiest, most nutritionally rich food offerings?”
That’s a tasty but difficult question to answer, after all, we don’t even understand how and why chicken, beef and pork — rather than horse, venison or rabbit — became the meats of choice for Americans.
“[Clean meat] has rewritten the playbook, and suddenly, we can think about producing food with the same level of ease from any animal source,” Noakesmith says. “VOW is on a mission to source, understand, and then catalogue the best aspects of nature. So, our physical library of cells and extensive database is like our modern Noah’s Ark, and is really the driving force behind the products we’ll bring to market.”
But if companies such as VOW cultivate it, with VOW planning to have its kangaroo meat in high-end restaurants in 2021, will the diners come? As you guessed it may take some convincing.
For comparison, look at America’s adoption of sushi, which was first considered appalling before becoming accepted decades later, after a proliferation of sushi restaurants that initially served Japanese American customers and adventurous eaters. Another example is goat meat, which has become more prevalent over the years, as more immigrants who consumed it at home bring their culinary traditions here.
“We do eat some of the exotic meats anyway,” says Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University. “There’s restaurants that have ostrich, elk, and bison burgers. There are some other meats that aren’t far away from the ones we’re familiar with.”
For my ten cents I think the path for clean meat will be as follows – companies in the sector will roll out products that most consumers are familiar with, such as beef, chicken, and pork. The next wave will be cultivated meat from animals that are eaten in only some parts of the world, such as the kangaroo. Then the final segment will be the “exotic” meats which, frankly, could include anything including Bear. Or Brontosaurus.
“We’ve been eating meat for thousands of years,” says Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Just, which primarily creates egg and whey substitutes, but who are also working on cultivating clean meat alternatives. “In today’s society, [clean meat] has manifested itself first as chicken, eggs, beef and pork. Being commonly eaten means cultures develop around it. Rituals develop around it. [Just] are trying to fit around that and clean meat is already different enough.”
When asked about the possibility of chowing down on T-Rex meat Tetrick laughs, saying that while there may be an audience for it it likely won’t happen until the latter stages of clean meat development and that in the short term his company’s focused on cultivating premium beef like Wagyu or Kobe, which costs $80 to $200 per pound.
“It tastes better and comes from farmers who understand how to raise great animals,” he said. “It’s not exactly Noah’s Ark, but if you can figure out how to get better quality meat at a lower cost, you should do that. It’s the same price to create wagyu beef as it is cheap beef. I imagine a world where my friends go to Piggly Wiggly and see conventional burgers for $2.99 and wagyu for $2.49.”
The first cultivated meat experiment was commissioned by NASA in the 2000s that resulted in scientists taking goldfish cells that were later grown into fillets and fried, although it has to be said no one ate them at the time, and then soon after a scientist and his team grew steaks from frog cells.
“The genesis of this industry is in some of the most exotic types of meat consumption,” Shapiro says.
Back to reality though, today we’re a decade or so away from being able to cultivate such exotic meats such as Giraffe and Walrus, but let’s face it, I’ve probably just got you thinking in a different way about the future of food and the possibilities, so for now you’ll just have to settle for cheap, delicious wagyu beef becoming the norm. And frog steaks… Welcome to the weird future.