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Our “Clean Meat” Future Will Be Radical–But Also Inevitable

In a new book, Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society spells out why the world is ready for cellular agriculture and plant-based meat revolution, and what it will take to move the concepts out of science fiction and into reality.

Our “Clean Meat” Future Will Be Radical–But Also Inevitable
[Photo: aoldman/iStock]

At first glance, the $10,000 price tag on the copy of Clean Meat: How Eating Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World currently up for auction on eBay seems exorbitant, especially given that the standard retail price for the recent release falls in the region of $26. But this is not a standard copy of the book. It’s bound in leather that the Bay Area-based biotech startup Geltor grew from microbes treated to form a collagen that resembles leather from actual cows.

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The book, which is all about the technological breakthroughs in producing animal proteins from cells, not slaughter, is essentially wrapped in its own methods. Paul Shapiro, the former vice president of policy engagement for the Humane Society of the United States, wrote Clean Meat, which came out earlier this month, to chronicle the technological advancements in the realm of cellular agriculture and plant-based proteins–all of which happened in the last five years–and the myriad companies that have sprung up in the space. Throughout the book, Shapiro holds conversations with the founders of companies like Modern Meadow, which, similar to Geltor, is growing a leather-like substance via fermentation, and New Harvest, a nonprofit based in New York that funds research in the field of cellular agriculture.

After coming up with the idea to produce an animal-free leather copy of the book, Shapiro decided that all proceeds from the bidding (someone has already pledged top dollar) will go toward the nonprofit The Good Food Institute, which advocates for plant-based and clean meat alternatives to large-scale animal agriculture.

In a way, transforming the book into a fundraising vehicle for the very causes and developments it describes testifies to where we, as a society, are at in the process of integrating clean meat into our lives. Shapiro, both in Clean Meat and in conversation, is optimistic that we’ll reach the tipping point soon, but he’s also aware of all of the work–from innovation to advocacy to fundraising to corporate mindset shifts–that needs to happen before factory-farm-free becomes the norm.

[Photo: Eric Day]
For Shapiro, writing this book at this time was just common sense. “We’re quickly reaching peak meat,” he says. “And the question really is: How are we going to feed the coming billions of people on our planet in the next few decades?” Certainly not through large-scale animal agriculture, a key driver of climate change and one of the most resource-intensive and wasteful industries on the planet. In a particularly compelling passage of the book, Shapiro encourages readers to imagine, while walking through the grocery store, over 1,000 single-gallon jugs of water stacked up next to each whole chicken for sale: That is how much water is required to bring a single chicken from farm to shelf, and poultry is far less resource-intensive and environmentally damaging than beef.

Moving down the food chain from meat to grains and vegetables allows more food to be produced, and makes it easier to feed people en masse (we would have much more grain to give to people, for instance, if we did not have to allocate so much of it for animal feed). But global trends are pushing people away from plants and toward more meat consumption: As nations like China and India develop, Shapiro notes that people living there previously on a primarily animal-free diet are now beginning to adjust to a more American-style diet, heavy in meat and dairy (and thanks, in no small part, to the proliferation of fast food empires like McDonald’s across the developing world).

“So we’re at the point where we can try to persuade people in the United States to voluntarily eat less meat, which is a good idea, but we can also try to produce meat with fewer resources,” Shapiro says. “It’s kind of like how you can try to get people to turn off their light bulbs more, but you can also invent a light bulb that’s so energy efficient that it wouldn’t even matter if they left it on.” The idea behind clean meat, Shapiro says, is avoiding the potential pitfalls of calling for a sweeping behavior shift, and instead tweaking the root of the thing that fuels that behavior in the first place.

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For those (and there are many) who insist that meat grown through cellular fermentation is too weird and radical, Shapiro directs them to some examples of pretty significant supply-chain shifts from the not-too-recent past. Up until the mid-19th century, lamps around the world were lit largely with whale oil, a commodity so valued that it gave rise to an entire industry centered in New Bedford, Massachusetts, but also one that placed an enormous strain on both natural resources and human labor. When the Canadian geologist Abraham Genser commercialized kerosene in 1854, the market swung toward the petroleum-based alternative, and whale oil use all but diminished.

Clean meat is the kerosene to factory farming’s whale oil. And arguably, it places much less of a relative drain on natural resources, as extracting petroleum still causes harm to the environment. While producing one pound of beef requires around 1,799 gallons of water, the Impossible Burger–the eerily meat-like substitute derived entirely from plant-based materials–uses 75% less water and generates 87% fewer greenhouse gases than traditional livestock agriculture. Memphis Meats, which is focused on growing chicken products (and other meats) through cell culture, claims that once the process scales, it will require significantly less water than poultry farms.

These numbers are promising, and the developments necessary. But still, we’re just at the point where we can see the potential, but clean meat is still hovering on the edges of the mainstream, mainly due to costs; several restaurants now serve the Impossible Burger, but a pound of Memphis Meats’ lab-grown chicken will cost you around $2,400, as of last estimate in June 2017. Still, costs are falling precipitously: Mosa Meat, the Dutch company founded by Mark Post–who could perhaps merit the title of the godfather of cellular agriculture for his early innovations in the field–debuted a lab-grown burger in 2013 to the tune of $325,000 per patty. Today, that estimate hovers around $12.

What most energizes Shapiro about clean meat’s potential to scale is the extent to which big meat companies like Cargill and Tyson Foods (the largest meat producer in America) have gotten on board. Tyson last year took part in a $55 million investment round for Beyond Meat, a startup specializing in plant-based proteins, and Cargill contributed to a $17 million round for Memphis Meats. “If you want clean meat to be commercialized, then you want the meat industry’s involvement,” Shapiro says. It’s the same principle that guides smart investments across myriad other industries. “If you look, for example, at the difference between Canon and Kodak, they were both big players in the gelatin film space, but when digital technology started gaining traction, Canon invested heavily in the new innovations, and Kodak did not,” Shapiro says. “Kodak is now bankrupt and Canon is now the largest manufacturer of digital cameras.”

So what might we expect from our future of cleaner meat? For one, Shapiro says, we’ll start to see a shift away from “big meat” companies, and toward “big protein.” While plant-based meat companies like Impossible and Beyond Meat, and cellular ag companies like Memphis Meats, necessarily follow different methods, their aims are the same: To develop meat alternatives with significantly less environmental consequences. With both receiving investments from Silicon Valley players and big meat alike, it makes sense that the dozen or so companies working in this space keep in mind their common goal–instead of fostering competition.

It’s perhaps best to end with something Post, of Mosa Meats, told Shapiro in Clean Meat:

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“Twenty years from now, if you enter the supermarket, you will have the choice between two products that are identical. One is made in an animal. It now has this label on it that animals have suffered or have been killed for this product. It has an eco tax because it’s bad for the environment. And it’s exactly the same as an alternative product that’s been made in a lab. It tastes the same. It has the same quality. It has the same price or is even cheaper. So what are you going to choose?”

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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