The Future of Food
Lab-grown meat could be the surest means of feeding tomorrow’s world.
A world where no animals are harmed for food is no longer a fever dream but a not-too-far-off inevitability. Surging population, worsening climate change and spate of new diseases shaking up the US$50 trillion global meat and dairy industry are transforming the way we eat. In the UK alone, over half-a-million people now consider themselves vegan. We’re on the cusp of a food revolution: the promise of healthier, lab-grown alternatives beyond soya, tofu and tempeh that look and taste exactly like meat.
Meat without animals isn’t a new concept. Winston Churchill had long ago predicted that humans would be growing their own meat rather than cultivating animals for it. I had always imagined foods of the future would be more like The Jetsons, created at the press of a button. The show was prescient about where technology was headed and the distillation of every Space Age fantasy Americans could dream up has arrived, sort of: faux meat, seafood, cheese and eggs that are tasty and convincing enough to potentially replace that which comes from farm animals.
Liz Dee, humane investor and CEO of Baleine & Bjorn Capital, believes the tide is definitely turning. “Animal products are swiftly becoming a thing of the past as disruptive companies such as Memphis Meats are producing alternatives,” says Dee, who became a vegan as soon as she discovered the horrors of factory farming and whose family owns the iconic Smarties candy. “Clean meat is the future and that is why we’ve invested in Memphis Meats.” The San Francisco-based start-up grows ‘cultured’ or ‘clean meat’, as it’s called, using cow, chicken and pig cells that regenerate in steel tanks similar to those in a beer brewery. “These are taken from a harmless biopsy, grown in a sterile environment and are pathogen, antibiotic and hormone free.”
Memphis Meats, spearheading the revolution, has already successfully created synthesised meat similar in taste, texture and sizzle to beef, chicken and duck — all without the cruelty of farming and the violence of the slaughterhouse. Other cultured meat trailblazers such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have created burgers and steaks that are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. And while many vegans and vegetarians aren’t interested in lab-cultured meat, these products are designed to satisfy the most fervent meat lovers — as Dee puts it, “those who cannot or will not, for whatever reason, give up eating meat”.
Dee says the next-generation cellular agriculture start-ups will not only make corporations reliant on animal exploitation vulnerable but also create an entirely new industry. Beyond Meat already sells its burgers in over 19,000 stores, as well as 4,000 restaurants, hotels, and university dining halls, with plans under way to triple its production.
This sustainable, cleaner and more humane future seems all but inevitable as intensive animal agriculture can’t possibly continue with eight billion people; water and land scarcity; rainforests becoming deserts; emptying oceans; air and water pollution; and raising billions of living, sentient beings to suffer unimaginably in cramped concrete enclosures, where there is no sun, wind, rain or even a scattering of straw to sleep on.
“Feeding plants to animals and then eating the animals is like filtering water through a sewer and then drinking it,” says Bruce Friedrich, director of the Good Food Institute, a non-profit that supports and lobbies on behalf of plant-based and clean-meat companies. “Clean meat has the potential to transform the global meat industry, simply because it is more efficient.”
The soaring demand for plant-based and animal-free substitutes could make a meaningful impact. Formerly known as Hampton Creek, JUST’s long-awaited vegan eggs, Just Scramble, are made from a 4,000-year-old mung bean. Omelettes, scrambled egg, cakes and even brioche can be made using the bottled egg alternative, without the risk of antibiotics and cholesterol. It could potentially liberate billions of birds from the multi-billion-dollar egg industry. JUST plans to roll out Just Scramble in the US sometime this year at a price that’s competitive with conventional eggs. Just Scramble was also launched in Hong Kong in January at the eco restaurant chain, Green Common. Josh Tetrick, CEO and co-founder of JUST, said at the launch; "We were lucky enough to find something that has impacted our food system for thousands of years and turn it into a meal that will impact it for thousands more."
Agri-business is also starting to realise it has to adapt and is slowly embracing the shift. Along with those such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Leonardo DiCaprio, Tyson Foods Inc, the largest meat producer in the US, is pouring millions into this new food frontier. Meanwhile, meatpacking giant Cargill recently sold off the last of its cattle feedlots to free up funds to explore plant- and insect-based protein alternatives to traditionally raised animal products.
Richard Branson, who stopped eating meat due to ethical and environmental concerns, predicts it won’t be long before farms begin to be replaced by labs cultivating meat from both plant and animal cells, with this ‘meat’ replacing traditional forms in less than three decades.
In the last few years, cultured meat laboratories have been springing up all around the world. Although still expensive to produce, lab-grown meat might one day be an affordable, low-impact way of feeding the world.