Cleaning the record on clean meat

Lora Kolodny of TechCrunch recently ran a fascinating interview with Impossible Food’s CEO Pat Brown. I’m a big fan of their work but Pat gets quite a number of things very wrong when discussing clean meat. I’m a bit of a clean meat aficionado, so let’s examine his points one by one to set the record straight.

“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.”

This misses entirely one of the core innovations of clean meat! Namely, that by focusing only on the biological processes that cause a cow to produce meat and ignoring the rest, you can dramatically improve the efficacy by which meat is made. Cows spend energy and resources on growing many things that have nothing to do with meat — bones and brains and hooves and fur and the list goes on. By growing meat only in a controlled environment and not these other things, clean meat production leaves behind the limitations of a cow.

As evidence for this, consider that to harvest meat from a cow you need to birth it, let it grow in a field for 2 to 3 years (feeding it all the while), only to slaughter it and cut it up for meat. Clean meat, however, can be produced from scratch in as little as two weeks. Clean meat does away with the limitations of traditional animal agriculture.

A study out of Oxford University showed clean meat could potentially be produced with 96% less greenhouse gas emissions, 45% less energy, 99% less land use, and 96% less water use than meat made through animal agriculture. Same limitations as a cow? No sir.

“And it’s economically completely un-scalable.”

I’m not sure what he’s basing this on but it’s not the consensus opinion held by the top researchers in the field. I invite Pat to join me later this year at the next International Conference on Cultured Meat in Maastricht. I’ve attended the last two years and met many of the preeminent researchers in the field. Essentially everyone believes the cost to produce a pound of clean meat will soon match the cost to produce a pound of meat through animal agriculture. It’s only a matter of time. And many see a path, at scale, to producing clean meat that’s even cheaper than that harvested from slaughtered cows.

I’d love to show Pat a graph of the production cost curve for clean meat! When Dr. Mark Post grew the first cultured burger in 2013 it cost $330,000 to make — about $1,056,000 per pound. Only 3 years later, Memphis Meats had brought costs down 58 fold to $18,000 per pound. One year later in early 2017 they dropped the costs another 2x to $9,000 per pound. I can’t disclose specifics, but I can say they’ve continued to drop costs significantly in the last few months. And they’ve achieved these costs reductions without the benefits of commercial scale, and on only $3M of funding (disclosure: I’m an investor through Fifty Years), while Impossible Foods has raised $182M.

Memphis Meats’ southern friend chicken cost $9,000 to make in early 2017

To back up his claims, Pat says:

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

Again, this points to a big misunderstanding. The reason tissue engineering has not transformed the field of regenerative medicine has nothing to do with the costs of culturing or bioprinting tissue, and has everything to do with the difficulties of getting the body to accept a bioengineered organ. The immune system is designed to detect and fight off foreign elements, and tissue engineers vis a vis medicine haven’t overcome this hurdle yet. Furthermore, bioprinted organs require both function and structure — a difficult challenge the field hasn’t yet overcome. Clean meat, meanwhile, requires only a mass of cultured cells.

The challenges that are holding back the use of tissue engineering in medicine don’t exist with clean meat and so don’t pose the same impediments.

“The simple answer is because [clean meat] is one of the stupidest ideas ever expressed.“

Hard to argue with this one :-) Surely if he poked around the internet he’d see clean meat doesn’t rank anywhere near the top of the list.

I understand why Pat might feel threatened by clean meat — perhaps he sees the field as a competitor. Consumers do unfortunately still have an overwhelming preference for real meat burgers vs plant based burgers — and Impossible Foods is going to great lengths to get plants to taste and feel like what clean meat already is — real meat. This might explain why, at the top of the interview, he objects to Impossible burgers being called “plant meat” and says he prefers to just call them “meat”. It’s true that, with the possible exception of Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger, Impossible comes closest to the taste of a real meat burger, using only plants. But they are, at the end of the day, made of plants, and not animal muscle and fat. Clean meat, on the other hand, is just that — real meat.

In reality, both plant based alternatives and clean meat are necessary parts of the solution. Animal agriculture is simply unsustainable, contributing more to greenhouse gas emissions than all trains, trucks, cars, planes, and boats combined. The demand for plant based alternatives is growing, as is the demand for real meat. Given the severity of the climate crisis, and the size of the meat markets, there’s both a need and room for several ten billion dollar solutions to be built. So can’t everyone just get along?