"The great thing about animal agriculture," says Isha Datar from her office in New York City, "is that it is offensive in so many different ways."
Datar, of course, is being facetious. But with her company, New Harvest, a nonprofit focused on funding research for lab-grown animal products, Datar hopes to turn growing dissatisfaction with farming practices into a wave of funding for animal products—minus the animals.
"A lot of nonprofits are built around a problem," says Datar, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in biochemistry and biotechnology. "We’re built around a solution, and all the problems that it solves are diverse and many."
Since taking over as CEO of the 12-year-old organization in 2013, Datar has helped kickstart a small line of research endeavors and companies, including Muufri, a San Francisco-based startup currently developing cowless milk using yeast cultures ("I got to taste one of the early prototypes, and it tasted just like skim milk," says Datar), and Clara Foods, which specializes in egg whites that come before the chicken. New Harvest is also invested in lab-grown meats and helped provide a part of the funding used to create scientist Mark Post's $325,000 lab-grown burger, which garnered significant press attention for its astronomical price tag. (The price of the patty has since dropped to about $11/burger).
All these products are protein-for-protein the same as their naturally grown counterparts, but the environmental, economic, and ethical impact of creating them is significantly smaller. On the environmental and economic side of things, demand for meat, which is projected to grow by 10% to 100 pounds per person by 2030, is not remotely sustainable, not with livestock already consuming one-third of all grain worldwide, dominating agricultural land use, and, in the U.S., costing taxpayers $20 billion per year. And ethically speaking, the situation isn't much better for the animals involved, who are all too often overfed, overworked, and overbred to the point of sickness or death. In other words, lab-grown animal products can offer an arresting alternative.
But an agreement that there is a problem doesn't always translate to action. According to Datar, the primary driver behind her work at New Harvest is the lack of funding available for research into lab-grown animal products, which, since its advent, has been orphaned by the scientific community at large.
"You cannot apply for a grant to do cultured research today because so much of tissue engineering is focused on medicine," says Datar, referring to the growing field of lab-grown human organs. "And neither food nor medical science has taken ownership of cultured meat as an area of work that needs to be done."
Without the backing of the most powerful funding entities, Datar has focused on building the foundation of this new industry from the ground up. And she has succeeded by raising hundreds of thousands in funding from 358 individual private donors eager to change the way animal products are produced, and by connecting a small legion of like-minded scientists working to develop new methods for growing animal products in labs. One day, she imagines a third party will join the fray: corporations interested in leveraging their wide-ranging distribution networks and global connections to bring responsibly grown animal products to supermarkets and homes around the world.
"Corporations are run by individual people and I don’t think that every individual person agrees that animal agriculture is the best way to move forward," she says, citing the costly mass culling of millions of chickens last year to prevent an outbreak of the avian flu. "That’s a large percentage of money disappearing overnight."
For now, though, the work of New Harvest's partners remains in the prototype stage and probably won't be found in your local grocery store for a decade or two. When products like Muufri milk, Clara Foods egg whites, and lab-grown burgers do become widely available, Datar has no doubt that buy-in from consumers and investors alike will already be there.
"We’re trying to produce products that people are familiar with and perpetuate these traditions and cultures around eating animal products, while also eliminating all the problems associated with it," Datar says. "It would be incredible to be able to have these familiar products without knowing that slaughter was involved, without knowing that these animals were raised in very difficult scenarios, without knowing that gallons and gallons of water were used to produce them."
In July, New Harvest will bring all these disparate parts together at the nonprofit's first-ever Experience Cellular Agriculture conference. The one-day meetup will include the founders of New Harvest's companies as well as big names in the sustainable, alt-food arena like Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick and Alexander Lorestani, founder of alt-gelatin maker Gelzen. For the first time, some of the brightest minds in cell agriculture will share a stage.
"What we’re thinking about is a whole new economy where we produce all kinds of agricultural products without animals," says Datar. "There will be many layers and there will be lots of people with competing products actually creating something sustainable that can ultimately change the way that food is produced. The research is where everything starts."