Is lab-grown the new grass-fed? A glimpse into the ethical future of meat

From climate change to public health, synthetic meat is going to change our world

Ed Silver calls himself “a committed carnivore” motivated to change his diet over concerns about climate change. Recently, the Manhattan professor joined the ranks of millions of Americans testing what might be the future of food.

First, he and his daughter pulled into a White Castle drive-through and bought one Impossible meat slider and one beef slider and performed a taste test. “The Impossible one tasted better,” he says, “but in hindsight that’s probably because regular White Castle is garbage.”

Intrigued, Silver went to Whole Foods and plucked a package of plant-based meat from the Whole Foods dairy shelf, aiming to make a Bolognese. “There’s nothing I like more than a well-seared rare steak,” he says. “But watching Brazil and Australia burn, it gets really hard not to draw a link between my food choices and larger climate processes. They’re literally burning the Amazon to increase rangeland to supply American tables. It’s hard to be a part of that or to see that your food choices are a direct contributor to the rise of [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro.”

The growing number of conscientious eaters like Silver is not the only reason the future of food looks to be dramatically different: Someone has to figure out how to sustainably and ethically feed 10 billion humans by 2050.

Venture capitalists are spending hundreds of millions seeking solutions that don’t include the one in the 1970s dystopia sci-fi flick Soylent Green (although a nonhuman-sourced product of the same name, Soylent, a liquid nutrition supplement, is quite popular among programmers too busy to cook in Silicon Valley).

“Most of the big investments are coming from venture capital firms,” says Chase Purdy, author of Billion Dollar Burger: Inside Big Tech’s Race for the Future of Food, which will be published in June. “But it’s pretty common to see names like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Li Ka-shing popping up, too.”

So welcome to the new world: Lab-grown fish, meat, dairy, and eggs are right around the corner. A winery is experimenting with synthetic vintages that it claims could someday replace high-end vintages. Edible paper plates are already here. So is chewable coffee.

What might be called the alt-meat business has been around for a while, aimed at a vegetarian subculture that has been growing exponentially in the last few decades. Gardenburger and Tofurky launched their first veggie burgers in the early 1980s.

Forty years on, the field is exploding with cash for R&D. Analysts now predict plant-based and lab-grown protein substitutes for meat, fish, dairy, and eggs could be worth as much as $85 billion by 2030.

“We want to completely replace animals as a food- production technology by 2035,” Stanford biochemist and Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown said last year. Impossible Foods has since snagged a niche in the fast-food industry, and moved beyond beef into pork and sausage, including in partnership with global chains like Burger King, Denny’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts. In March, another plant-based product, Beyond Meat, won the seal of approval from Martha Stewart, who used the brand’s breakfast sausage to make her guests frittata and grits.

“Kristopher Gasteratos predicts humanity will rapidly adapt to lab-grown meat, which he believes will replace 50 percent of the global meat consumption by the middle of this century—and that all meat will be grown in factories by 2100.”

The real Next New Thing is not plant-based, but lab-grown meat and animal proteins. Investors are pouring hundreds of millions into start-ups, looking ahead to a time in what they claim to be the not-so-distant future when humans will feed not on dead animals, or farm-fresh eggs, or milk from cows, or even plant-based processed foods, but on actual animal flesh and other animal products grown by humans with the cells of live animals in vast vats of serum or other growth solutions.

Plant-based burgers are essentially processed food. The burgers bleed without blood, thanks to a substance in soybeans called leghemoglobin.

Lab-grown fish and meat leave the animal alive, take a few cells, and drop them into a vat of solution. Over a period of weeks or months, the cells grow into actual animal flesh, which is then harvested, shaped, and packaged. The resulting product is a man-made substitute that is not just “like” tuna or beef, but actually is, at a molecular level, tuna or beef.

The main challenge for the makers of lab-grown fish and meat alternatives is persuading people to try them. The first step is getting consumers beyond the sci-fi strangeness of the brave new world. One way has been to employ chefs to work with the products, and then normalize them in high-end restaurants. The makers and their investors imagine a future in which a wholesale paradigm shift has occurred, in which humans of the future are more grossed out by the thought of killing animals in abattoirs than of millions of pounds of live flesh slowly growing in massive vats of solution located at industrial compounds on the outskirts of cities.

Leaders in the industry have already accomplished that paradigm shift personally. Memphis Meats founder Uma Valeti’s first stop on the way to acceptance was learning at age 12, at a birthday party in Vijayawada, India, that the chicken tandoori and goat stew he loved involved killing. He spotted cooks decapitating and gutting animals to keep the loaded platters coming. “It was like, birthday, death day,” he told Inc. last year. “It didn’t make sense.” He didn’t give up meat until a decade later, when he grew concerned about contaminated foods. His start-up, Memphis Meats, leads the lab-grown meat industry in the United States. The product is not yet on the market, but Bill Nye the Science Guy was invited to taste test it last year and gave it his thumbs up.

Before they even get to the taste issue, these labs have a cost hurdle. The first lab-grown burger was produced in 2013 at a Netherlands lab at a cost of $1.2 million per pound. Now, at least nine American cell-culturing companies (out of 26 total worldwide) are reportedly close to getting the cost down to $50 per pound.

Those pushing this revolution say it’s already worth it. “You can get a piece of meat for a dollar at McDonald’s right now and that’s not counting the bread,” says Kristopher Gasteratos, director of the Cellular Agriculture Society, who coined the term “neomnivore” for the ideal lab meat market.

He predicts humanity will rapidly adapt to lab-grown meat, which he believes will replace 50 percent of the global meat consumption by the middle of this century—and that all meat will be grown in factories by 2100. The impact that would have on reducing greenhouse gases would be huge.

Companies will at first aim at high-end markets like the one for Kobe beef. “In many ways it is like Tesla,” says Gasteratos. “They started off with a rival for a high luxury car; now they have scaled it to a $30,000 car.” His organization has created a scale model of a “slaughterhouse of the future”—a lab-meat production compound producing 1.8 billion pounds of meat annually at such a huge scale that it becomes more financially viable than slaughterhouse meat.

Once they get the cost down, the start-ups will have to persuade governments to approve their products. The USDA and the FDA have already agreed to work together to regulate and inspect the products, and are awaiting applications.

The biggest challenge after the how and the cost is the sell. There is a strong yuck factor to confront—live flesh growing in tanks brings to mind the 1950s horror movie The Blob.

Koert van Mensvoort, who runs Next Nature Network, an international nonprofit exploring the intersection of biology and technology, says he is not worried about people rejecting lab meat. “Often, people say when they hear of something new, ‘Um, I’m not going to do that.’ But if you offer the product—if you say, ‘We have a snack here. Do you want to taste it?’—they immediately try it,” he says. “There is a difference between a citizen and a consumer.” Van Mensvoort notes that people already consume meat without knowing its origins or how it was produced. “We want to introduce this product in a transparent way. My suggestion is to introduce it first in high-end restaurants with fine chefs who can work with it. Once they are accustomed to it, it will spread.”

“This is a different form of food evolution, and if it is evolution for the good of the planet, then it’s smart—if it is just for sheer capitalist gain, it’s not.”

Van Mensvoort has produced an online interactive restaurant called Bistro In Vitro, a virtual restaurant playing with possibilities of lab-grown meat from entrée to main to dessert. A menu of imaginary experiments by chefs goes from the seemingly edible to a Dutch-style joke called a “throat tickler,” a “dessert” of ground alt-meat with moving tentacles that could be out of Futurama. None of it is yet available.

Lou Cooperhouse worked in the US food industry for several decades before deciding to found BlueNalu, a lab-grown fish enterprise based in California that is on the verge of putting its product on select restaurant menus in San Diego. The company has been lab-producing fish that are threatened—mahi-mahi, yellowtail, red snapper, and Chilean sea bass. Initial experiments were so successful that he just acquired another $20 million in seed capital.

“People always wonder how it compares to fished fish,” Cooperhouse says. “We provide exactly the same nutrients as in the fish, but in a tank. The tank is like a tank in a brewery—exactly the same. It is a little like 3D printing or food extrusion—you have the cells and you create more.”

BlueNalu and other lab-grown meat and fish start-ups envision a future, not too far-distant, in which they have achieved economies of scale in the production so that they can produce millions of pounds of food. They don’t suggest that they will entirely replace harvested live animals, but they believe they will be a significant supplement as existing stocks dwindle due to overfishing or environmental pressures on cattle and hog farming.

Besides fish and meat, research is well underway on lab-grown dairy and eggs, as well as chicken. Proponents of lab-grown proteins point to the environmental, health, and ethical benefits of the new products. In terms of the environment, a cowless planet is a healthier planet, and the labs can create enormous amounts of meat from small cultures. Mosa Meat for example, has claimed it could make up to 80,000 Quarter Pounders from a single sample.

And no cow would have had to die.

Neomnivores point to sanitary lab conditions and purity as a health benefits. There would be no animal feces to pass on E. coli, for example. Scientists could engineer meats without carcinogenicity and are already experimenting with hollow shells of fat molecules for taste without actual fat, enabling Jack Sprat’s wife, for example, to have her fat and eat it too, but without cardiac damage from cholesterol.

Chef Gerard Viverito is working with BlueNalu to help bring its lab-grown fish to table. He got interested in sustainable food in restaurant kitchens after noticing that he was receiving smaller and smaller fish. Viverito is currently canvassing a group of chefs to find out their interests and concerns, and to brainstorm recipes. “If you went to back to the 1950s and said you were going to produce a Chicken McNugget, they would say, ‘What in God’s name are you talking about?’ This is a different form of food evolution, and if it is evolution for the good of the planet, then it’s smart—if it is just for sheer capitalist gain, it’s not.”

Viverito points out that Americans already eat fish of dubious origin. In 2016, the nonprofit seafood sustainability advocate Oceana found that 30 percent of fish, and a shocking 87 percent of snapper, sold in grocery stores and at restaurants are mislabeled. “If people are going to eat foreign fish, they might as well eat one grown by a US company,” Viverito says. “If people really sat down to research what they put in their bodies and find out how it was caught, how it was grown, then they can make informed decisions. The future is not going to be bright until people take it upon themselves to do the research.”

Back in New York City (where there are no lab-growing meat enterprises within thousands of miles), Ed Silver peeled open his package of plant-based Impossible Meat to prepare his Bolognese, planning to sneak it in and see whether his family noticed.

“Cooking it was an anxious process,” he explains. “Out of the package, it looks like Play-Doh and smells like it too. I gave the dog a bit of the raw stuff and he gobbled it up and then looked at me with head cocked as if I’d betrayed him.”

The meat didn’t brown “properly” in the pan, but he persevered. When he detected a lingering “artificial smell,” he poured in twice the usual amount of spice. Once it simmered, he found the texture indistinguishable from real meat sauce.

When he served it, he had “a decent approximation of my usual sauce.” Wife and kids didn’t notice a difference. He, on the other hand, did. “That aftertaste didn’t go away, though, and I found myself happy with a single serving— which, all things considered, might be a good thing.”

By morning the refrigerated leftovers had completely lost the artificial taste, Silver said, and he ate them with relish. Silver plans to buy Beyond Meat again for burgers and kebabs. “We’re apex predators,” he says. “We’re built to enjoy meat. But when the environment changes and the prey disappear, apex predators turn on each other and then die. So it’s time to figure out a new way. I’m probably the ideal target for lab-grown meat. When it’s available commercially, I will be first in line.”

Food Stylist Michelle Gatton. Prop Stylist Noemi Bonazzi.