Synthetic Meat Spat Shows That Ethical Meat Doesn’t Mean Peaceful Meat

Synthetic Meat Spat Shows That Ethical Meat Doesn’t Mean Peaceful Meat

There are a few of generalisations we can probably make about meat. First, meat production is bad for the animal. Second, meat production is bad for the environment. Third, meat tastes good.

Memphis Meats’ cultured meatball (Image: Memphis Meats)

Some new startups want to give folks unwilling to go vegetarian or vegan an option that addresses all three of those concerns — a tasty, meaty food that’s better for the environment and doesn’t involve killing anything animals. There are only a few viable options far enough along in development to be worth considering, two of which are engineering a substitute from plant-based ingredients and culturing animal tissue from stem cells. But a new interview from the plant-based meat entrepreneurs shows that this whole thing could turn into a food fight.

TechCrunch interviewed Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, the company that created the much-hyped (and actually quite tasty) Impossible Burger, which you can actually buy at some restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Brown used the TechCrunch opportunity to crap all over his cultured meat competitors:

TechCrunch: Why not try “clean meat,” or lab-grown meat from animal cells? 

Pat Brown: The simple answer is because that is one of the stupidest ideas ever expressed. First of all, it’s not true you can do a better job that way. Because then you buy into, at best, the same limitations that a cow has. And it’s economically completely un-scalable.

If we could grow tissues that were a meaningful replica of animal tissues at an affordable price from stem cells, it would revolutionise medicine. Look around you. It’s not happening.

Using stem cells for medical treatments and using stem cells that simply turn into edible protein obviously isn’t the same thing. But Brown does know what’s up when it comes to biochemistry, and science in general. After all, he’s a Stanford professor that co-founded the Public Library of Science, publishers of the PLoS One journal. But this really is a competition and cultured meat is his main non-plant based competitor.

Right now, the cultured meat world includes only a handful of companies, including Mosa Meat, which produced the first synthetic hamburger in 2013, and Memphis Meats, which produced the first synthetic poultry this year. Today, the researchers are trying to figure out how to grow animal tissue from stem cells, a long-talked about idea still in its infancy. Memphis meats claims it will have products on the shelf by 2021. By comparison, plant-based Impossible Foods has been around since 2011, has raised almost $US200 million ($268 million) in funding, and has a product in restaurants. Memphis Meats has only been around since 2015 and has raised only $US3 million ($4 million), though Modern Meadow, one company producing cultured leather which also plans to make cultured meat, has raised $US53 million ($71 million).

“Social entrepreneur” and investor in Memphis Meats, Seth Bannon had some things to say about Brown’s comments and wrote them up in a Medium blog post.

Bannon does think the product is scaleable, and doesn’t have the same limitations as a cow. For example, by focusing only on growing the meat and not the rest of the cow, efficiency will go up. Cultured meat certainly doesn’t require as much time to grow as a cow does, either, since it only takes several weeks as opposed to the years needed to raise a cow. As far as environmental impact of one versus the other, he cites a 2011 Oxford analysis guessing that cultured beef and pork would require a little less energy than its livestock equivalent, while chicken would require a little more though it would take up far less space.

Bannon claims that the price of cultured meat has been dropping as well. It cost $US1,056,000 ($1,412,222) per 454g of the first burger in 2013, but has come down to $US9000 ($12,036) per 454g in 2017.

Companies producing these meats have been mum about their progress and processes, though. Memphis Meats’ last tasting was only given to folks at a press event, and they have stayed quiet about a few of the specifics of cultured meat science. For example, cell cultures currently require an animal product, called fetal bovine serum. That’s what’s left after taking the red blood cells out of cow fetus blood. Memphis Meats claims they removed the serum from their process, but won’t give details about what they replaced it with, or what scaffolding holds the cells together. Bannon replied to my comment on his blog that he thought the companies were “strikingly transparent” on other fronts, and Mosa Meat’s Mark Post has let folks tour his lab.

And aside from calling a few scientists who told me that stem cells are expensive, there no good way to accurately gauge the price as-is aside from believing the people making the product. We’ll have to wait until we see something, on all counts.

So, who do you believe? It’s easy for Impossible Meats, a veggie burger company that’s already selling its product in restaurants, to crap on its new competitors which have secured only a fraction of the funding. But does meat grown in a culture stand a chance? Post, creator of the first cultured burger, has claimed that he can make one for around $US11 ($15). Eventually, the cultured meat startups hope the whole process will look like a giant brewery where meat is raised in vats.

The fact of the matter is, it’s far too early to know just how scalable cultured meat might be — or how much better it will be for the environment, one of its main benefits. Some estimates seem to show that cultured meat is a better option for the environment than regular meat, but a recent estimate published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology shows that we really have no idea on that front. That study concluded that cultured meat would definitely require less land than raising cattle, but might require more energy to produce the same amount of meat. And the uncertainties on those estimates were very high.

Will people even eat cultured meat? They’re certainly eating the Impossible Burger, which from my own taste test is only slightly distinguishable from a hamburger so long as it has all of the fixings like pickles and sauce. It’s still a vegetable-based product as opposed to real, albeit cultured, meat. And we won’t be able to make an accurate assessment on what cultured meat tastes like until we try it.

I’ve reached out to Brown as well as some folks at other cultured meat companies. But just know that if things keep going like this, then there’s going to be some arguing over the right way to reduce our meat consumption… assuming that people are even willing to do that.