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“We grow meat from cells, they are just not connected to a cow”: Didier Toubia on the future of farming

Reducing the environmental impact of meat is becoming big business. The CEO of Aleph Farms explains why he is betting on lab-grown meat.

By Philippa Nuttall

Aleph – the first letter of the Phoenician, Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, and the precursor of the modern “a”– derives from the word for ox; the letter itself came from an ancient hieroglyph representing an ox’s head. The character has a special significance for Didier Toubia: “Our name and symbol represent the roots of human civilisation, of which agriculture was fundamental.”

Toubia, a food engineer and biologist, set up Aleph Farms in 2017 as a joint venture between the Israeli food company Strauss and the Israel Institute of Technology. As the name suggests, the firm wants to keep one foot sturdily planted in the world of agriculture. Most farmers would be hard pushed, however, to recognise any link to their day job.

Workers at Aleph Farm don’t pull on wellies, wade through muddy fields or drive tractors. Instead, they don white coats and work in pristine laboratories that have never seen a farm animal. They create meat in “bioreactors”, closed systems that “mimic the cow’s body”, rather than slaughterhouses. The beef cells, which are not genetically modified, are kept “cozy and well fed” with a broth of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids, says Toubia. “In three to four weeks they mature into 3D structures that comprise whole cuts of steak.”

In the words of Leonardo DiCaprio, the Hollywood actor turned environmental activist who has invested in Aleph Farms and sits on the its board, the company’s aim is to allow the world to satisfy its craving for meat, while “helping solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges”. These include climate change, biodiversity loss and the need to provide food for a growing global population that increasingly wants to eat meat. Worldwide meat consumption has more than doubled in the past 20 years, reaching 320 million tonnes in 2018, and is forecast to rise by another 13 per cent by 2028.

[see also: Why we all – and men especially – must eat less meat to save the Amazon]

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Toubia, 47, was born in France and studied for a master’s degree in Dijon, before emigrating to Israel in 1999. He has worked for the International Finance Corporation, a branch of the World Bank, in West Africa, looking after agricultural food technology projects. His master’s thesis focused on malnutrition. Toubia came to the conclusion that people are going hungry not because of a lack of resources, such as land and water, but because of a misuse of these resources, combined with unequal access to basic nutrition. A key motivation for leaving France was “a real excitement” about the opportunities Israel could offer: “in such a young and dynamic environment, the possibilities are endless”. 

Toubia is a busy man; I caught 30 minutes of his time as he waited to board a flight ahead of attending Cop26 in Glasgow. What his company – and others in the market – are attempting sounds like science fiction to most of us, but Toubia is sanguine about the technology. “The Israeli Institute of Technology has been growing pieces of tissue for 20 years,” he says. “We decided to adapt the process to grow pieces of muscle, for meat.” The company produced its first cultivated beef steak in 2018.

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“It is very inefficient to produce meat harvested from the carcass of a slaughtered animal,” says Toubia. One study suggests cultivated production can reduce the climate impact of eating beef by 92 per cent and air pollution by 93 per cent, while using 95 per cent less land and 78 per cent less water. The reasoning goes that such potential gains would leave more space for nature and help stymie biodiversity loss. Other studies are more reserved about the possible advantages, suggesting they “may be exaggerated”.

But Toubia says there are other environmental benefits. The sterile environment eliminates the use of antibiotics, he claims, and reduces the risk of pathogens, contaminants and food-borne illnesses, such as avian flu. “Cultivated meat is 100 per cent clean and can be trusted, unlike supermarket meat which is a black box,” says Toubia. He cites the US, where every year, around one in six – or 48 million – people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalised and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases. “Clean meat”, he claims, can help avoid epidemics because everything about the meat is controlled, while with cows and sheep, “we have no idea if the animal is healthy or what its bacterial load is”. 

But lab-grown meat isn’t a replacement for everything, he clarifies. “This is not an alternative to grass-fed, organic meat produced in extensively-farmed systems, but for intensive agriculture. We are a replacement for factory farms. Only 5 to 10 per cent of meat harvested from slaughtered animals comes from sustainable practices. This is a different type of meat that is slaughter-free.” He compares cultivated and traditional grass-fed, organic meat to “white and red wines: they are not interchangeable and offer different value propositions”. 

For the moment, however, lab grown meat remains a marketing pipe dream. The number of companies focused on cultivated meat is growing — up from around 55 firms worldwide in 2019 to more than 70 in 2020. Financial interest, from governments and private investors, is increasing, with around $366m raised by cultivated meat companies in 2020, nearly six times the amount invested the previous year. In addition to investment from the seriously rich and famous, such as DiCaprio and Bill Gates, the industry has also benefited from cash from some of the world’s biggest meat processors and animal-feed firms, including Tyson and Cargill. And around 15 types of cultivated meat are being researched, from standard beef, chicken and pork, to fish and seafood, and the more exotic options of kangaroo and horse. 

[see also: The vegetarian in the abattoir]

For the moment, however, it is not available to purchase anywhere in the world. Aleph Farms is “working on getting regulatory approval” for cultivated meat in the UK, the EU, the US, Singapore and the UAE. Toubia is optimistic the green light will be given. It will take “three, four, five years to become mainstream” and “by 2028, lab-grown beef should be at price parity with beefsteak”, he claims.

Regulators do not move at the same pace as start-up companies, however. In the EU, for example, lab-grown meat will need approval from the European Food Safety Authority before it can appear on supermarket shelves, a process that can take three years or more.

Anybody who feels squeamish about the idea of eating meat grown in a lab should think again, insists Toubia. He compares his “hydroponic meat” to tomatoes or other fruits and vegetables grown without soil. “We use the same cells as living animals, they are just not connected to the body of a cow. There is no ethical issue to growing lychees this way. We are replacing unethical farming practices with a better option.”

However, we are unlikely to be growing meat at home, as we do with tomatoes, any time soon. When I suggest that one day people will be able to pop a few cells into a machine in their kitchen when they get up and come back to find a steak waiting for them, Toubia laughs. “It isn’t like a coffee machine,” he says. “They take four weeks to grow, and they need control, supervision and standards.” 

[see also: Pat Brown: “Farm animals are the most destructive technology on earth”]

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