The Fat of the Lab

Whatever your ethical stance on meat, its mass production is environmentally devastating. Could laboratories offering sustainable alternatives be the answer?

Weapons of Reason
Oct 18, 2018 · 8 min read

Words Sophia Epstein
Illustration Mei Støyva

Illustration by Mei Støyva

hen Mark Post unveiled the first lab-grown burger in 2013, he was greeted with both fanfare and consternation. It had cost him $330,000. Now, Memphis Meats, the US’s leading in-vitro meat startup, is selling lab-grown meatballs for $1,000 a pop. “There has been a dramatic realisation in recent years that clean meat is no longer either science fiction or decades away, but rather something that is here and now,’ says Paul Shapiro, former-VP of the Humane Society of the United States and author of the book Clean Meat. “The burger that Mark Post made, as historic as it was, is now a commonplace event. The cost has come down by over 80%.” Good thing too, because although scientists and journalists have been warning the world about the environmental and health impacts of meat for years, meat consumption rates in the US continue to increase. The message seems to be sinking in better in the UK, where a YouGov poll found that 25% of the country are actively trying to reduce the amount of meat they’re eating. But, when it comes down to it, the problem has developed too far for 16 million people to make much of a difference.

“As people in developing countries become richer, they start to add more animal protein to their diet.”

“Maybe in certain parts of the world or within certain populations you might be able to reduce animal protein consumption,” says Post, who is now making far more affordable in-vitro beef burgers as chief science officer of startup Mosa Meats, “but globally the trend is the reverse. And that’s because as people in developing countries become richer, they start to add more animal protein to their diet.” And that’s why, Post says, “whatever you want to do in Britain and no matter what we do in the Netherlands, it doesn’t really matter because the FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organisation] actually predict that in 2050 we’ll have 70% more consumption than today.”

But is lab-grown meat actually a feasible solution to the problem? “We aren’t just doing this for the heck of it,” says Post. He believes that Mosa Meats is a mere three years away from putting their burgers on the market.

“The FAO predict that in 2050 we’ll have 70% more consumption than today.”

“They will still be limited in amount and be pretty high in price — think about £10 for a hamburger.” But three years after that he says they’ll be competitive in price with burgers currently available in mainstream retailers.

That might seem optimistic, but Post isn’t alone in these assertions. “You can only go based on what these companies are saying,” says Shapiro, referring again to in-vitro Chicken-focused startup Memphis Meats, which has already received over $20m of investment, “but they think they’ll have products on shelves by 2021.”

Not convinced? It doesn’t matter. The biggest meat conglomerates in the US are already putting money on it, literally. Tyson Foods and Cargill, two of America’s biggest meat producers, both recently invested in Memphis Meats, giving the startup an added legitimacy boost. “It’s not just the money, it’s also the knowhow,” says Shapiro. “Nobody knows how to produce meat like Tyson and Cargill.” The interest from these big names also gives these little clean meat startups links to distribution channels and supermarket shelves. “Instead of the meat industry fighting it the meat industry is pretty clearly embracing it and I think that will help accelerate the progress of these companies to the market,” says Shapiro.

And the faster they can commercialise the better. “A study from Oxford University found that producing clean beef, as opposed to conventional beef, would take 99% less land, 99% less water and produce 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions,” says Shapiro. As production increases, so will the environmental impact. But as meat and dairy products currently account for 19% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the energy it’ll take to power these labs seems comparatively insignificant (especially if they run on renewables). Now it’s just a matter of bringing it to market.

“We want to work with them to scale,” Memphis Meats CEO and cofounder Uma Valeti told Forbes. “At the end point, it will be significantly cheaper than conventional meat.” And while there’s no guarantee that’s attainable yet, the potential threat is certainly big enough to pique meat makers’ interest.

Burger lovers are also convinced — or at least more willing to try lab-grown meat than cutting down their consumption. “People seem to understand that something needs to be done, and if you can do that with a product that is essentially the same but grown in a different way they seem to be willing to accept it,” says Post. “What is really encouraging is that the younger the population, the higher the acceptance.” Shapiro cites recent research that states that a third of Americans are willing to eat lab-grown meat regularly, and another third are willing to at least try it. “If a third of Americans are willing to eat it regularly then that is a multi-billion-dollar industry right there,” he says.

“Producing clean beef, as opposed to conventional beef, would take 99% less land, 99% less water and produce 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”

We are primed and ready to replace one meaty issue with another. If these companies follow their projected timelines, there will be competitively priced in-vitro meat available in supermarkets in ten years — well before 2050, policy-makers’ zero hour for global agricultural crisis. Great news for the planet, but for our waistlines and arteries, not so much. We’ve already proved incapable of cutting down consumption levels when threatened with world annihilation, how scary are a few heart attacks for a populace hungry for steak?

We need something else. Something healthy, but so convincingly meaty that it can’t be distinguished from the real thing. People don’t want to compromise — but thanks to technology, maybe they don’t have to.

Startup Impossible Foods also makes its burgers in a lab, but these ones bleed without the blood of any animal. Instead, the Impossible Burger is created by combining plant-based ingredients, each one altered a little to mimic the corresponding part of the burger. The fat, for example, is replaced with coconut oil that has had its taste and scent removed, while the meaty mouthfeel is recreated using a protein extracted from wheat. And that rich, meaty flavour that can’t be faked? That’s developed from a substance called heme.

“We were the first to discover that heme is what makes meat taste like meat,” Rachel Fraser, principal scientist at Impossible Foods, explains in a video. “It’s highly abundant in animal muscle tissue, and if you were to eat meat raw, that bloody flavour that you get, that’s heme.” Heme is in animals, like humans and cows, but it’s also found in plants, and Impossible Foods uses soya heme in its burger. It’s not quite as sustainable as meat grown in a lab, but its carbon footprint doesn’t even come close to that of a regular burger (95% less land, 74% less water, 87% fewer greenhouse gases).

Its taste does though. “I’m personally still a meat eater and this burger truly satisfies my craving for a burger,” says Jessica Appelgren, head of communications at Impossible Foods. She’s biased, of course, but she’s also the granddaughter of a dairy farmer, and doesn’t take her meat lightly. “Animal agriculture was our business and this burger made me believe that soon we’ll think it’s silly that we ever had this idea that meat had to come from an animal.” She’s not alone in her beliefs; the burger has convinced hordes of people — from Buzzfeed journalists to Jeremy Clarkson. Even Appelgren’s dairy farming uncle was impressed. “Oh yeah, my uncle Mike said: ‘That’s good’,” she says. “He left it there, he’s not a very expressive person, but there’s no denying that it tastes like meat.”

“We don’t need to just recreate what we have, we have the capacity to go beyond that. We intend to make a burger that’s better than a cow.”

Mark Post is less convinced. “It was fine, it looks very nice, it’s just not meat,” he says. He admits his own bias. Appelgren explains the burger is constantly improving. When Impossible Foods launched, its burger scored 30% of the votes in a blind taste test — the rest went to a beef burger. Now, it’s up to 50/50. “All the small tweaks that we made to this burger have added up to a major difference,” she says. “It’s interesting to think where we’ll be in another year.

“We don’t need to just recreate what we have, we have the capacity to go beyond that. We intend to make a burger that’s better than a cow. It’s our ambition, our goal and in our business plan, and we’re going to eclipse that point very soon.”

While Impossible’s research and development teams have brought the burger this far, humans can only work so quickly. Computers, on the other hand, don’t need to eat, sleep, or breathe, so employing an algorithm to do an bit of research and development can speed up the process.

While it hasn’t been done with meat, Chilean startup NotCo is using artificial intelligence to find plant-based combinations of ingredients that will combine to make a replica of an animal product. Its mayonnaise, for example, which is now sold in 220 shops across Chile, was created by breaking mayo down into its composite parts (colour, nutritional value, taste, texture) and then using a machine learning algorithm (which they call Giuseppe) to sort through a database of plant-based composite parts to create the recipe for a substitute. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a lot quicker than getting humans to do it — and the more combinations Giuseppe experiments with, the better it gets at making them convincing.

It might seem optimistic, but if technology can develop quickly enough to save the planet from humanity, it may also be able to save humanity from itself.

This original article appears in Weapons of Reason’s fifth issue: Food.

Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency in London.

The Food issue - Weapons of Reason

Issue five of Weapons of Reason is all about food, glorious…

The Food issue - Weapons of Reason

Issue five of Weapons of Reason is all about food, glorious food. Weapons of Reason is a publishing project by Human After All design agency in London.

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A publishing project by @HumanAfterAllStudio to understand & articulate the global challenges shaping our world. Find out more weaponsofreason.com

The Food issue - Weapons of Reason

Issue five of Weapons of Reason is all about food, glorious food. Weapons of Reason is a publishing project by Human After All design agency in London.