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20 April 2022

We invented the cow 10,000 years ago. Lab-grown meat is just the next step

Every year, 70 billion animals are slaughtered at an enormous cost to the planet. How close are we to a high-tech alternative?

By Jenny Kleeman

At 8am Pacific Time on 4 November 2021, the world was invited to Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, to watch the cardiologist turned start-up founder and CEO Uma Valeti lift an enormous pair of scissors, each blade as long as his leg. “It’s not a dream any more,” Valeti enthused. “Let’s make some meat!”

At this, he sliced through a huge ribbon the colour of beef carpaccio; balloons and confetti rained down, and Upside Foods’ $50m facility for growing meat in a factory – culturing it from cells instead of cutting it from dead animals – was officially open. With typical Silicon Valley understatement, Upside Foods is calling it the Epic (the Engineering, Production and Innovation Centre). The 53,000 sq ft space is “a groundbreaking, world-changing cultivated meat facility”, according to Upside’s chief operating officer Amy Chen.

Livestream viewers were taken on a virtual tour of the “cultivation room”, a vast maze of snaking silver pipes. Masked technicians in blue gloves, white lab coats, hairnets and surgical overshoes inspected gauges and tweaked dials. The camera tracked a technician striding along a gangway through a field of shiny bioreactors: great cylinders with riveted portal windows like those in space rockets. A voiceover informed us that, at capacity, the Epic will produce 400,000 pounds of meat a year: “It will serve as an international model for cultivated meat production. In other words, this is just the beginning.” The shot cut back to Valeti. “We’ve never been as close as we are today to realising our mission of creating a world where meat is a force for good,” he beamed.

Even the most ardent carnivore might struggle to argue that meat is a force for good today. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gases than the exhaust from every form of transport on the planet combined. While doctors try to curb the prescription of antibiotics to slow the emergence of medicine-resistant superbugs, 80 per cent of the antibiotics used in the US are administered to healthy food-producing animals to minimise infections on crammed farms. Industrial animal agriculture is a major cause of deforestation, water waste, water pollution, eutrophication and outbreaks of diseases such as E coli and salmonella, not to mention a significant contributor to new zoonotic diseases and global pandemics. Every year, 70 billion animals are slaughtered to satisfy the global appetite for meat, their lives often miserable and artificially accelerated.

[See also: “You can’t be a CEO without a carbon agenda”: Santiago Gowland]

Ever since the Dutch physiologist Mark Post lifted the cloche on the world’s first lab-grown hamburger in 2013, cultivated meat has promised to save the planet and reshape the future of food. The process is simple, in theory. A sesame seed-sized biopsy of tissue is taken from a living animal; stem cells are isolated, bathed in a nutrient medium and placed in a bioreactor. One cell becomes two, two become four, and this exponential growth continues until there are enough cells to harvest, cook and eat. The process costs the same no matter which cells are being cultured, be they Wagyu beef, lobster or chicken. Any animal flesh can be created in this way, configured into any shape or texture: kosher bacon, ethical foie gras, even human meat – theoretically, anything is possible. If you’re allergic to fish, you will have a reaction to cultivated fish – but still, this is not meat as we know it. Its legal and ontological status remain unclear.

When I tried San Francisco-based EatJust’s lab-grown chicken in November 2018, it was in nugget form – a mass of cells mixed with plant products and encased in a battered crust. The nugget had the unmistakable taste of chicken and some of the juicy mouthfeel you expect when you bite into meat – but the texture was so mushy I had an almost irresistible urge to spit it out: some primal part of my brain decided meat with a consistency this wrong must be dangerous.

But that was more than three years ago, and the science has improved. The nuggets I tasted made history in 2020 when Singapore granted them regulatory approval, meaning that for the first time meat grown in vitro could go on sale. (They had a limited run at a Singaporean private members’ club, priced at $23 a nugget.) Several other companies have since reported success in growing cuts of meat, including the Israeli firm MeaTech, which 3D-printed a 4oz steak in December 2021.

Post’s history-making burger, unveiled in London, cost €250,000 (£210,000) to produce, and while costs have fallen dramatically since 2013 it will be several years before cultivated meat can compete in price with meat from an animal. The first products were grown in foetal bovine serum (FBS), extracted from the hearts of calf embryos: a costly, unsustainable and controversial substance. Animal-free alternatives have since been developed, but it remains to be seen whether they are as effective. Another cost is running the bioreactors – either enormous ones, or a very large quantity – that producing cultivated meat at scale would require.

[See also: Lee Schofield on how farming needs to re-wiggle its approach to nature]

These are serious challenges, but not insurmountable. When more than 130 countries around the world aim to be carbon neutral by 2050, a high-tech revolution in meat production looks like an attractive business opportunity. In 2015 Upside Foods (then called Memphis Meats) was the world’s first cultivated meat company; now there are more than 70, and the market is predicted to reach $25bn by 2030. Upside alone has attracted more than $200m in funding from investors including Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Kimbal Musk (Elon’s brother), as well as Whole Foods and the world’s largest conventional meat producers, Tyson and Cargill. Last December the Israeli start-up Future Meat Technologies raised $347m in Series B funding (ie, beyond the initial stages) – the single largest investment in cultivated meat yet.

Where Upside goes, others follow, making the opening of the Epic a milestone for the industry. Yet this $50m facility is producing something that still isn’t approved for sale anywhere outside Singapore. Was November’s grand opening the clearest sign yet that the industry is moving forwards – or does its shiny promise obscure how far there is to go?

A few weeks after the ribbon-cutting, I spoke to Eric Schulze, Upside Foods’ vice-president of product and regulation. The Epic shows the industry isn’t “a flash in the pan”, he told me. We were on Zoom, and Schulze wore a Breton T-shirt, tartan neckerchief and fisherman beanie, his look as idiosyncratic as his turn of phrase. “We built it to literally be transparent. We built it underneath an apartment complex, in a residential neighbourhood with high foot-traffic, so people walking their dogs can stop in and see how their food is made.”

The launch product will be a chicken fillet. (Schulze corrected me when I referred to it as a chicken breast: you can’t have a breast when there is no animal.) Each will be identical in shape, weight and nutritional content. “In an animal, of course, the breast size would vary. We can produce the same tissue, but then highly control the output product.” In an age when data matters, and when we expect technology to give us complete control over the physical world, such a standardised product has a particular appeal.

Fillets are just the beginning. Chicken nuggets are also in the Upside pipeline, along with duck, beef, pork, fish and shellfish. “We’re focusing on very familiar favourites because we know we have to earn consumer trust,” says Schulze. “We do that primarily through the safety of our product and then, of course, familiarity and deliciousness.”

But however delicious and familiar the lab-grown duck may be, Upside is not yet able to sell it with regulatory approval. In 2019 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculture established a joint protocol “to help ensure that foods comprising or containing cultured animal cells entering the US market are safe and properly labelled”, but there is no timeline as to when they might approve such food. (The European Food Safety Authority and the Food Standards Agency [FSA] in the UK are similarly noncommittal.)

Schulze knows the regulatory process from the inside: in 2016, he was regulating novel foods himself at the FDA, including genetically engineered animals, when he read about Memphis Meats’ prototype: a meatball. Intrigued, he dropped Valeti a line. “He hired me early to build a programme that blends product development and regulatory compliance into product design. That, to our knowledge, is novel out here in Silicon Valley.”

In the pipeline: equipment at Upside Foods’ cultivated meat facility in Berkeley, California, January 2022​. Photo by Gabriela Hasbun/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

Last year’s investment in the Epic suggested they were confident that approval was imminent, but when I tried to pin down Schulze on a date, he was evasive. “I believe we’re pretty close,” he said. “We don’t know, is the candid answer. If you use other foods, it’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of typically six months and maybe two years from submission.” He wouldn’t say when Upside had submitted its application.

Why open the Epic now? The Silicon Valley culture of haste arguably resulted in EatJust selling its nuggets in a Singaporean club, instead of waiting for approval to put them on supermarket shelves in the US. I wondered if the ribbon-cutting was a stunt to spur the FDA into action, but Schulze dismissed that idea. “We are just trying to transparently let the US government and consumers know where we are,” he said. “We want to make sure that when we are issued the no-questions letter [of approval], that the switch can be flipped.”

If and when it arrives, the first people to taste the Upside chicken fillet will be diners at Atelier Crenn, a three Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant where the 14-course menu starts at $345 a head. Its celebrated chef, Dominique Crenn, took meat off her menu in 2019 because of its environmental impact; successfully reintroducing meat in cultivated form would be a marketing coup both for her and Upside.

But can such an elite product really shape the future of food? “We will be producing a very small amount,” Schulze admitted. “We want to maximise increasing the consumer experience at every step. We’ll start there, but that’s not the end of our journey.” He wouldn’t tell me which stores would stock Upside’s chicken fillets, or how much they would cost. “The products initially going on the market will be price-premium. But there are conventional meat products that cost more than ours.”

No one is entirely sure what consumers will one day call this kind of meat. “We want the term to be descriptive, accurate, appealing and non-disparaging,” Schulze said. (Four years ago, when “clean meat” was the industry standard, conventional meat producers took offence: if meat cultured in a bioreactor is “clean”, it follows that meat grown on the bodies of animals is unclean.) “Studies indicate that ‘cultivated’ performs above average,” Schulze added.

[See also: Peat, pesticides and plastic: how British gardeners are destroying the planet]

It’s hard to imagine “cultivated” catching on; to most ears, the word means either educated or grown in soil. In the absence of a strong alternative the term “lab-grown” lingers, no matter how much the industry wants consumers to forget its high-tech origins. “Names like ‘lab-grown’ frankly are designed to drive clicks. They are just not accurate,” Schulze said, firmly. “All food made in a modern global system makes its way through a modern laboratory at some point.”

What if, by the time Upside is able to produce affordable cultivated meat, the world has moved on – turned vegan or switched to plant-based alternatives? Schulze wasn’t convinced. “Having the option to eat meat is core to our identity,” he said. “We invented the cow 10,000 years ago, and it shone with the bright brilliance of human innovation at that point, the most modern invention humans had ever come up with.” Perhaps seeing my raised eyebrow, he doubled down. “Humans invented the cow,” he said emphatically, “just like every fruit and vegetable that we eat right now was invented by a human being and directly cultivated by that person. We see our work as continuing that innovation.”

Ivy Farm is less coy about where its meat comes from: the company name is a play on IV – in vitro. “I wanted something that would make scientists double-take, but that most people wouldn’t really think about,” explained Dr Russ Tucker, Ivy Farm’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

Opening in 2019 with Tucker as the sole employee, the farm now has 50 staff: technicians, biochemical engineers, cell biologists, researchers, branding specialists and product designers. Together, in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Oxford, these experts are culturing cells and drawing up the packaging for what they hope will be the first British cultivated meat to go on sale.

If there is a perfect CV for a career in growing meat, then it is Tucker’s. His father, paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were all butchers; his maternal grandfather was both a butcher and a farmer; and his mother grew up putting the jelly into pork pies on the family farm in Worcestershire. “Meat has always been part of my history,” he said. (Omicron had forced us to meet on a video call, where Tucker’s blue shirt and neat beard gave him a more corporate air than Schulze, though the juddering wi-fi spoke to a company still in the making.)

After completing a PhD in biomedical engineering at Oxford University, Tucker spent five years at the Boston Consulting Group, advising supermarkets around the world “on everything and anything”. He learned about food supply chains, and was shocked by the volume of meat being imported into the UK. Then he remembered reading about cultivated meat, and saw an opportunity: “To the shock of my husband, I handed in my notice.”

Ivy Farm has raised £16.5m to date, from private investors Tucker won’t name. He has big plans. “By 2025 we want a 12,000-ton facility – ideally in the UK – which I think is enough pork to supply Oxfordshire, so it’s just a start. When we start to scale, we can get closer to price parity [with conventional meat].” The company is focusing on ground meats, and aims to launch a pork sausage in 2023. “We think our technology can do it. Our biggest hurdle is regulation.”

[See also: Who wants to live forever? Big Tech and the quest for eternal youth]

Brexit offers an opportunity for the UK to be nimble, to create a bespoke regulatory framework that fits the new technology – one that the FSA doesn’t seem to be taking, according to Tucker. In a statement, Michael Wight, the FSA’s head of food safety policy, told the New Statesman: “Our priority is to protect consumer interests and ensure food is safe and what it says it is… We also recognise the potential of alternative proteins to contribute to broader sustainability goals. Currently, there are no authorised cultured meat products on the GB market, and we have not received any applications for regulatory approval.”

Ivy Farm has yet to submit an application. “Right now, if we [did], it would be to a black box,” Tucker said. “We would be waiting for 18 months with limited feedback and fingers crossed for the green light. Without guidance, it is likely they would have further questions, delaying approval.” This makes it very difficult for any British company to commit funds, he said, or look attractive to global investors.

“Is it an area of focus for the government right now? Probably not. The FSA, as I understand it, is weighed down with CBD applications [for medical cannabis] and the many novel food applications that have come through. We’re at the back of the queue.” Tucker sighed. “My biggest concern is that we get to a point where we look elsewhere, building a facility in Singapore or the US. I am a very proud Brit and I want this industry to flourish in Britain. We have phenomenal biotechnology and engineering expertise that we should be tapping into here.”

Last year Ivy Farm tried to chivvy the government by commissioning research into the potential benefits of cultivated meat to the UK economy. It found that the industry could support 16,500 jobs, contribute £2.1bn to GDP, and generate more than £500m a year for HMRC by 2030. “We’re hopeful that they will see the potential. Even a signal would really help in saying to investors, this government is open about the opportunity. And that costs nothing.”

Tucker told me he was in touch with more than 20 supportive MPs – but he is wary of naming anyone apart from Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire. “Some are from farming constituencies,” Tucker smiled. “So they have to think about things.”

For all the scientists’ frustrations about regulation, cultivated meat isn’t shop-ready yet. Neil Stephens, associate professor of technology and society at the University of Birmingham, told me the industry was still at the small-scale, “craft” stage. “It would almost look embarrassing if all the countries in the world went out and legalised cultured meat,” he said, “because people aren’t ready to sell it.”

Stephens had been following the fledgling industry long before Post unveiled his famous burger in London; indeed, he was there for its launch. “We’ve seen increasing numbers of people demonstrate often very attractively constructed small runs of cultured meat products,” he said. “We’ve seen the first commercial sale in Singapore. These are all relatively craft-level, hands-on operations. People don’t really expect the cells to operate in the same way at vast volumes. But quite how that will be different – until you do it, you’re not going to know.”

He saw the Epic as the latest in a series of high-profile launches that have become almost routine within the industry. “There’s so much value – symbolic and monetary – invested in this notion of being the first to do something,” he told me. “Since Mark Post made the first burger, no one has made the second.” Getting burgers right matters – because they are a junk-food staple and because of the environmental damage caused by beef production. If a key mission of the industry is helping humanity get to net zero, then it should be seeking to replace every burger it can with cultivated beef. But instead of making rival, better burgers, companies are focused on developing new products, new firsts. “It’s a symptom of where the sector is at,” Stephens said. “It’s still presenting itself as this frontier-pushing, trail-blazing technology.”

Its ever-changing name points to a different target audience at any given time, Stephens noted. As an exciting scientific breakthrough, it was “in vitro meat”, for the benefit of the research community. When the industry wanted to attract investors and regulators, it was “cell-based meat”. “Clean meat” was supposed to appeal to consumers, but the product wasn’t ready to go to market, and it upset the meat producers who are powerful lobbyists as well as potential investors. Stephens saw “cultivated meat” as “the bland middle ground”, an indication that developers are still focused on investors and regulators, and not yet customers.

[See also: Is reality a hallucination? The neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so]

Those regulators will also have to rule on claims that cultivated meat is better for the planet. In Stephens’ view, this is not clear cut. “What is the level of energy usage? We don’t know. And it depends what you compare it with: beef and chicken are massively different [in terms of the emissions they cause]. People in the livestock sector will tell you they anticipate significantly improving the environmental impact of livestock meat. It’s all moveable.”

When I asked Eric Schulze of Upside about the benefits to the planet, he was as robust as the research would allow. “I’m incredibly confident that this will be better for the environment,” he assured me. “But to be fair to science and to my profession, we will need to collect those data and a lifecycle assessment [needs to be] done at scale.” In other words, they won’t know until they do it.

At Ivy Farm, Russ Tucker wanted to emphasise the sustainable measures he would be taking: “We are committed to using renewable energy. I’m confident we can find a solution around the heating and cooling of the bioreactors to make them even more efficient.”

Meanwhile, how big is the potential market for cultivated meat – particularly when meat-free alternatives are proliferating? Google searches for “vegan food near me” increased 5,000 per cent year-on-year in 2021. Research by the FSA suggests a third of British consumers would be willing to try cultivated meat, but whether they would then go on to eat it instead of conventional meat – in the same way that oat and soya milk has replaced cows’ milk in so many people’s diets – remains to be seen. Those consumers who want antibiotic-free meat that causes less environmental damage are the same people who choose to eat less processed food. Meat produced in bioreactors may have seemed an eye-catching solution to a global problem in 2013, but in many ways now runs against the spirit of our times.

Tucker disagrees, and argues that cultivated meat would complement rather than replace animal meat; that it would put pressure on livestock farmers to raise their standards. At any rate, the volume of the international meat trade seemed to him unsustainable. “We’re importing £4.4bn worth each year. It’s crazy. Seventy per cent of animals [farmed in the UK] are factory farmed.

“There’s huge potential for cultivated meat to come in and let the best of farming flourish. We’re not making cuts [of meat], so you can let farmers breathe again and create the delicious cuts where provenance really matters. The mince in your lasagne ready meal? That can be cultivated. Cultivated meat is part of the solution – it’s not the solution.”

Schulze feels that eating meat is a fundamental part of being human, and always will be. “We know that meat has played an incredibly important part in our story as a species. That doesn’t mean it has to stop here. We see our work at Upside Foods as allowing us to continue eating things we know and love.”

The cultivated meat companies offer an alluring proposition: meat with a clean conscience. They are selling us the promise that we can continue to consume as much as our hearts desire, without having to think about downsides for the animals or the planet. But whether growing meat instead of breeding it is the latest step in human evolution – and whether this is hype, hubris or justified self-belief – well, that depends on how much you’re prepared to swallow.

[See also: The fidget business]

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder