Generating Meat In Labs: The Technology, Opportunities And The Consequences

Generating Meat In Labs: The Technology, Opportunities And The Consequences

by Rajeev Srinivasan - Nov 6, 2017 02:16 AM +05:30 IST
Generating Meat In Labs: The Technology, Opportunities And The ConsequencesCustomers select pork at a supermarket in Hangzhou, east China’s Zhejiang province on April 12, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
  • The distinction between real animals and faux meat and how to explore the opportunity in plant-based alternatives.

A number of research articles in the recent past have pinpointed the consumption of meat as one of the gravest environmental threats to the planet, especially at a time, when increasing prosperity among a rapidly growing population of humans leads to greater demand for meat. There are several perspectives: the profligate use of water, food and energy to raise livestock; the impact of such large-scale animal husbandry on global warming, on antibiotic resistance, and the ethical issues related to eating animals, harvesting their skins, raising them in cruel factory farms and slaughtering them inhumanely.

In a strange way, some of these problems may well be worse in India than in the West. There is some evidence that, cruel as American practices are, a cow there may consume 1/10th the amount of feed to produce a kilogram of beef compared to what a free-range cow consumes in grass in sub-Saharan Africa. India is also widely accused of antibiotic misuse, leading to resistance. Furthermore, India is one of the more water-stressed nations in the word, and it will get even worse with the melting Himalayan glaciers and the very likely diversion of the Brahmaputra in Tibet by the Chinese. We need to pay attention to animal husbandry.

The most radical solution would be to avoid all meat and dairy products, and to encourage people to confine themselves to a totally plant-based, or vegan diet. However, that is not likely to work in practice, partly because of homo sapiens’ history of hunting and gathering. Besides, people like to eat meat, and there’s no denying the pleasures of carnivorism. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy suggested raising cattle that were genetically engineered to happily offer parts of their bodies to the diner, but that seems rather extreme. Another idea has come from companies such as Soylent that produce a ‘meal-replacement powder’ that you can mix with water and consume. It has all the ingredients of a balanced diet except, possibly, taste. Perhaps, that’s one reason it has not become a roaring success.

The only humane and sustainable choice is, it appears, to generate meat and other animal products in the lab, either from animal cells grown painlessly in labs, or generated from plant proteins. There have been earlier examples of this, for instance, the meat substitutes in Chinese vegetarian restaurants that approximate chicken or duck, and are made of soy or gluten. However, that is so obviously not meat that it is a turnoff for many people.

The current crop of technologies produces results much closer to the real thing. There is a big flashing red ‘Danger’ sign, though, because we may be on the slippery slope towards GMOs (genetically modified organisms), which, I have, in these pages, spoken of as a grave concern because of unforeseen consequences. For the moment, though, the Silicon Valley companies that are leading the charge, are almost, entirely avoiding GMOs, but that is a big caveat. I am comforted by the fact that being labeled GMO is such a turnoff in the market that nobody will do that in the West, but the danger remains that we in India will end up being guinea pigs. But let’s put that policy issue aside for a moment and look at the emerging technology and opportunities.

Technology disruption

As in many other industries, technology is beginning to disrupt the meat industry, perhaps even more than its impact on agriculture in general. And when technology comes in, you can expect that the industry will be upended, as is happening, for example in banks (blockchain), retail (e-commerce), transportation (electric cars), telecommunication (smartphone) and so on. This seems to be a hot area for venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and I am indebted to KQED Forum (Faux Shrimp and Veggie Burgers That Bleed: The Future of Fake Meat) and the San Francisco Chronicle (What is meat?) for information.

It is no surprise that Silicon Valley, with its “wealth, innovation and culinary knowledge”, is at the forefront of the meat revolution, with man-made steaks, seafood, vegi-burgers that ooze (man-made) blood, if that is your choice, bluefin tuna (severely overfished), milk and eggs. Silicon Valley also tends to believe with an evangelistic zeal that technology can solve some of the world’s intractable problems. They think that land, water and energy use can be improved with the use of technology. “The future belongs to scientists who can hack yeast cells to produce egg whites, torque plant proteins into muscle-like fibres and grow slaughter-free “duck” or “chicken” in factories”, says the San Francisco Chronicle. Besides, the area is a biotech powerhouse, given pioneers such as Genentech, and Stanford and UC Berkeley.

Putting their money where their mouth is, there’s significant venture money flowing towards these companies. Impossible Foods, which makes plant-based burgers, has raised $200 million (Rs 1,300 crore) from investors including Bill Gates, Vinod Khosla, and Eric Schmidt and Sergei Brin of Google. Others including New Wave Foods (plant-based shrimp), Finless Foods (cultured seafood), Clara Foods and Geltor (fermenting yeast cells to create egg whites and collagen).

There is an Indian connection too. Memphis Meats, one of the leaders in the industry, was founded by Uma Valeti, a cardiologist of Indian origin. He says his method of inducing animal stem cells to become muscle tissue (aka meat) in a large bioreactor vat upends the current production process, because it eliminates slaughter, the risk of food poisoning from e. coli contamination via the animal’s intestines, and the need for using antibiotics at all; not to mention, there’s no belching of methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

It would seem that the market for meat (of any kind) in India, is limited, given, that the country has the largest vegetarian population in the world, and a plethora of regional cuisines, that are largely vegetarian. But the fact of the matter is that with affluence, populations everywhere tend to consume more meat, and that is likely to happen in India as well. Given the increasing tensions over cow slaughter, it would be socially beneficial. On the other hand, if we can imagine a future where the cow has little economic value, that may also have consequences.

Entrepreneurs who start off in this domain now may reap the benefits soon; besides, there is the export market, too. India is a big exporter of buffalo meat. Certainly, being able to create milk product without cows will be beneficial to the majority of people who are lacto-vegetarians or ovo-lacto-vegetarians. But all this is a long way off, as at the moment, factory-farming is the default method, even in India, with its attendant evils like cruelly confined animals, birds, and smelly lakes of fecal matter that pollute the groundwater.

The world at large really cannot afford factory farming. As the world population grows to 7.5 billion by 2050, there simply isn’t enough land, water, or energy available to supply meat to the growing number of people who want to eat it. There are several technologies that are competing to come out on top of the pile: this is an example of the typical ‘pre-paradigmatic phase’ before a ‘dominant design’ emerges, according to David Teece of UC Berkeley.

Turning vegetable protein into meat

The basic insight here is that an iron-containing molecule called “heme” gives meat its unique taste. When refined, it looks like blood, and it is the same molecule in our blood, thus, hemoglobin. It plays a similar role in the taste of fish, eggs and other animal foods. Instead of using animal tissue, Impossible Foods uses a heme found in soy plants. It genetically modifies this single ingredient to produce it at scale in a vat. The rest of its product is based on potato protein. That single ingredient, nevertheless, creates a concern — it is patent protected and is the ‘secret sauce’ behind its product.

Impossible Foods produces ground beef, which is essentially impossible to tell from the real thing; and eventually, they expect to move towards steak, chicken, pork, lamb and fish, but getting the texture and feel of slabs of meat will take time and effort. Today, they are able to produce ground beef at prices that enable their customer restaurants to sell the burger at $10-$15, as compared to a standard burger at, maybe, $5-$7. With scale, they expect to bring the price down.

With comparable technology, Beyond Meat has been able to turn pea protein into muscle fibres.

Using a recipe of pea protein and algae, New Wave Foods has been able to create shrimp that is passably close to the real thing. They make a batter that is poured into a mould that takes the shape of the shellfish’s curve. They add a fish flavour that is also vegan. There is an ingredient named lycopene, which gives the colour in tomatoes, that is added for colour. The shrimp is also non-allergenic, and totally vegan. They still haven’t quite managed to replicate the texture. The product is still a little too dry, although it looks awfully similar to the real thing.

And consider the other side of traditional shrimp production. In coastal areas of India, especially in Andhra Pradesh, large scale shrimp farming has had disastrous consequences in terms of the destruction of mangroves, pollution, and in parts of Asia, it has led to human trafficking and slavery. Shrimp consumption in China doubled between 2005 and 2015.

Cultured meat, or growing clean meat in a lab

The approach followed by Memphis Meats and others is to actually grow meat in a lab, which, by definition, is clean and untouched by impurities or antibiotics. In 2013, a team from the University of Maastricht, funded by Google’s Sergei Brin, demonstrated a burger made by this technique of cultured muscle tissue grown in a lab. Of course, the cost of the prototype was enormous: $325,000; but today, they claim with scale, a burger at $11. A similar entity in Israel, Supermeat, is making chicken; and Finless Foods is working on bluefin tuna.

Memphis Meats produced its first meatball in 2016; and in March 2017, it held a tasting of duck a l’orange and fried chicken. In five years, it expects to have steak on the table. It has recently found a new nutrient solution for the vats as opposed to the earlier solution that used fetal bovine serum extracted from slaughtered animals (that was of course a contradiction in terms).

Some say, we will eventually have cultured meat that is so cost-effective that it can feed the entire world inexpensively. I hear this and think about the 1950s prediction that nuclear energy would be so cheap “that we will be giving it away unmetered”.

Microbial factories brewing proteins

Several companies are using yeast-based fermentation to create milk, egg whites and gelatine — proteins that are chemically identical to the animal based products, but are plant based. They describe the process as similar to brewing beer, except that they are producing these proteins. Geltor is making gelatin, and Perfect Day Foods is making cow’s milk.

They use genetically engineered yeast to express the appropriate proteins, and the GMO yeast is then filtered away from the final product. Of course, that is a slightly nervous-making proposition.

The demand

Is there a market for such products? That is an interesting question, because many are turned away from what they perceive as ‘Frankenfoods’. The British magazine New Scientist had a long-running cartoon series lampooning what they called ‘Nufood’. It is true that there is an ‘ick’ factor. How can you eat meat that came from a lab? How can you eat meat from an animal that was raised in appalling conditions, and slaughtered brutally? So, it means a marketing campaign is necessary, so that people slowly get used to the idea (as in the case of self-driving cars).

Meat and poultry is a $200 billion market in the US alone, and anything that can be delivered at lower prices will almost certainly become appealing. It is believed, that by scaling up the cultured meat, products can be cheaper than the real thing. Perhaps the Chinese, notorious for their large-scale consumption of all sorts of meat, especially pork, are ahead of the curve. A recent report “Israel found an unlikely buyer for its lab-grown meat: China” speaks of a $300 million agreement for three Israeli companies, SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies and Meat the Future, to provide their products. China imports $10 billion worth of meat.

In particular, research shows that Asians and Hispanics in the US would be more receptive to cultured meat. But it was interesting to see a picture of a grocery store shelf in the aftermath of a hurricane in Texas. The shelves were empty, except for the vegan aisle: that is, few, at least in Texas, care for vegan products. That may mean that the appeal of meat products is still high, and how much of that will become demand for cultured meat is open to the question. Vegans are only one per cent of US population, but half of them are millennials, so perhaps there are shifts in tastes. Only a real marketing campaign will be able to tell.

How would the market for ‘faux’ meat be in India? Will traditional non-meat eating Hindus start consuming the stuff once the ethical aspect of killing animals is done away with? Will Muslims stop slaughtering goats on Eid because the cultured stuff is easily available? We don’t know. The social impact is unknowable at the moment.

The consequences for farmers

The cultured meat movement is not intent on replacing traditional meat, but supplementing it, at least at the moment. Over time, things may change. For instance, soy, the basis of most animal free foods today, has its downsides as it carries estrogen-mimicking compounds. Perhaps the acreage of soy will diminish, as other plant proteins, such as pea protein replaces whey, soy and seitan (wheat gluten).

Today’s farming practices are essentially unsustainable. There is no way we can have land to produce meat to feed nine billion humans, as it is predicted the population will be, in 2100. We are killing some 10 billion animals already, if you don’t count fish.

We are producing enough food to feed everyone in the world, but much of that is being fed to animals for meat. Clearly, there’s something wrong with this picture.

Over time, if cultured meat takes off, the scale effects suggest that it will bring down demand for traditionally reared cattle, poultry and other animals, thus, reducing the acreage under cultivation for animal feeds as well. We may also see a two-tier system: those who can afford to eat real animals, and those who must instead depend on faux meat. Do you remember that distinction in the original Blade Runner?

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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