Synthetic Meat Spat Shows That Ethical Meat Doesn't Mean Peaceful Meat

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

There are a few of generalisations we can probably make about meat. First, meat production is bad for the animal. Second, meat production is bad for the environment. Third, meat tastes good.

Some new startups want to give folks unwilling to go vegetarian or vegan an option that addresses all three of those concerns—a tasty, meaty food that’s better for the environment and doesn’t involve killing anything. There are only a few viable options far enough along in development to be worth considering: Engineering a substitute from plant-based ingredients or culturing animal tissue from stem cells. But a new interview from one side shows that this whole thing is going to turn into a food fight.

TechCrunch interviewed Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, the company that created the much-hyped (and actually quite tasty) Impossible Burger, which you actually buy at some restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Brown used the TechCrunch opportunity to shit all over his cultured meat competitors:

TechCrunch: Why not try “clean meat,” or lab-grown meat from animal cells?

Pat Brown: The simple answer is because that is one of the stupidest ideas ever expressed. 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. And it’s economically completely un-scalable.

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

Stem cells used for medical treatments and stem cells that simply to turn into edible protein obviously aren’t the same thing. But Brown does know what’s up when it comes to biochemistry, and science in general. After all, he’s a Stanford professor that co-founded the Public Library of Science, publishers of the PLoS One journal But this really is a competition and cultured meat is his main non-plant based competitor.

Right now, the cultured meat world includes only a handful of companies, including Mosa Meat, which produced the first synthetic hamburger in 2013, and Memphis Meats, which produced the first synthetic poultry this year. Today, the researchers are trying to figure out how to grow animal tissue from stem cells, a long-talked about idea still in its infancy. Memphis meats claims it will have products on the shelf by 2021. By comparison, plant-based Impossible Foods has been around since 2011 and has raised almost £160 million in funding and has a product on the shelves. Memphis Meats has only been around since 2015 and has raised only £2.4 million, though Modern Meadow, one company producing cultured leather which also plans to make cultured meat, has raised £42 million.

“Social entrepreneur” and investor in Memphis Meats, Seth Bannon had some things to say about Brown’s comments and wrote them up in a Medium blog post.

Bannon does think the product is scaleable, and doesn’t have the same limitations as a cow. For example, by focusing only on growing the meat and not the rest of the cow, efficiency will go up. Cultured meat certainly doesn’t require as much time to grow as a cow does, either, since it only takes several weeks as opposed to the years needed to raise a cow. As far as environmental impact of one versus the other, he cites a 2011 Oxford analysis guessing that cultured beef and pork would require a little less energy than its livestock equivalent, while chicken would require a little more though it would take up far less space.

Bannon claims that the price of cultured meat has been dropping as well. It cost £814,500 per pound of the first burger in 2013 but has come down to £6,940 per pound in 2017.

Companies producing these meats have been mum about their progress and processes, though. Memphis Meats’ last tasting was only given to folks at a press event, and they’ve stayed quiet about a few of the specifics of cultured meat science. For example, cell cultures currently require an animal product, called foetal bovine serum. That’s what’s left after taking the red blood cells out of cow foetus blood. Memphis Meats claims they removed the serum from their process, but won’t give details about what they replaced it with, or what scaffolding holds the cells together. Bannon replied to my comment on his blog that he thought the companies were “strikingly transparent” on other fronts, and Mosa Meat’s Mark Post has let folks tour his lab.

And aside from calling a few scientists who told me that stem cells are expensive, there’s not a good way to accurately gauge the price as-is aside from believing the people making the product. We’ll have to wait until we see something, on all counts.

So, who do you believe? It’s easy for Impossible Meats, a veggie burger company that’s already selling its product in restaurants, to crap on its new competitors which have secured only a fraction of the funding. But does meat grown in a culture stand a chance? Post, creator of the first cultured burger, has claimed that he can make one for around 11 dollars. Eventually, the cultured meat startups hope the whole process will look like a giant brewery where meat is raised in vats.

The fact of the matter is, it’s far too early to know just how scalable cultured meat might be—or how much better it will be for the environment, one of its main benefits. Some estimates seem to show that cultured meat is a better option for the environment than regular meat, but a recent estimate published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology shows that we really have no idea on that front. That study concluded that cultured meat would definitely require less land than raising cattle, but might require more energy to produce the same amount of meat. And the uncertainties on those estimates were really high.

Will people even eat cultured meat? They’re certainly eating the Impossible Burger, which from my own taste test is only slightly distinguishable from a hamburger so long as it’s got all of the fixings like pickles and sauce. It’s still a vegetable-based product as opposed to real, albeit cultured, meat. And we won’t be able to make an accurate assessment on what cultured meat tastes like until we try it.

I’ve reached out to Brown as well as some folks at other cultured meat companies. But just know that if things keep going like this then there’s going to be some arguing over the right way to reduce our meat consumption... assuming that people are even willing to do that.

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