“Jesus,” Molly said, her own plate empty, “gimme that. You know what this costs?” She took his plate. “They gotta raise a whole animal for years and then they kill it. This isn’t vat stuff.” She forked a mouthful up and chewed.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
On Monday, August 5th, 2013, at a television studio in London in front of around 100 people, Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands unveiled the culmination of five years of research: a lab-grown “test tube” beef burger, cooked in a pan and served to two members of the public. Though a handful of tiny pieces of such meat had previously been displayed, the burger in that pan was the first fully cooked specimen tasted and admired by everyday citizens. “A few cells that we take from a cow,” Post says, can be turned into “10 tons of meat.” What Hanni Rützler, an Austrian researcher, and Josh Schonwald, a Chicago-based food writer — the “tasters” — were eating was 100 percent perfect beef. It had never been slaughtered, had never been properly “alive,” and most importantly, had never been a living, breathing animal. The meat, which contained no fat, was pronounced to have “quite a bit of flavor” by Rützler, and the consistency was said to be “perfect.” “Some people think this is science fiction,” Sergey Brin, founder of Google and the single donor who provided funding (nearly $1 million thus far) for Post’s research, said, but he sees it as an achievable goal.
For Brin, a billionaire who wears Google Glass in the promo video for the Cultured Beef project, maybe that’s true: he’s already living in a future where man can augment himself and surpass any obstacle. For the rest of us, meat — actual beef — which has never been an animal, undercuts one of our basic assumptions about it. For us to eat meat, something must die. The research Brin is funding is, according to its leader, Post, about 20 to 25 years away from producing a commercially available product, but they’re clearly working at a breakneck pace to reach their goals.
If they succeed, they would be part of a long and concerted effort to change the way that we, the human race, eat every single day. It would broadly affect our health, our well-being, our environment, and our sense of who we are and the creatures we share the planet with.
A growing consensus among scientists, doctors, environmentalists, and animal rights activists suggest that our current system of food — specifically meat — production is not sustainable. By 2050, the global demand for meat will double as our population continues to rapidly grow. The effects of all this farming on our environment are currently devastating, and getting worse. Simply put, we are destroying the planet, and meat production and consumption is arguably the most to blame.
This is why people like Post and his team are not the only ones working on solutions: there is a small but growing community who — with financial backing and vocal support from some of the most powerful technologists and VCs in Silicon Valley — hope to apply scientific innovations to the course of human history and change the way we live. This lofty desire to apply our brains to complicated, seemingly overwhelming problems, in fact, is the story of human history. And really, in a way, it all comes down to meat.
And yes, that sounds like science fiction, Sergey.
"It’s fair to say that meat eating is critical to our history," Joseph Ferraro, an anthropologist at Baylor University says, "and without the consumption of meat, we would not have large brains, and wouldn’t be where we are today." When humans really got started on earth, there weren’t very many of us, and we weren’t very smart. Man was outnumbered by "orders of magnitude" for millennia by animals. "Two million years ago, if you were just plopped down into a random point on the inhabited earth," Ferraro says, "you probably wouldn’t have seen another person for days or even weeks." The population, he says, was "probably close to 10,000." "What you would have seen," Ferraro explains, "is a vast number of animals."
Men and animals evolved together on the planet over the course of thousands of years, with a supportive relationship crucial to our evolution. A paper Ferraro co-authored this past April suggests that early humans began to hunt — or at least to scavenge and butcher — animals for food around 2 million years ago. And at "just about that time, we see big shifts in the human fossil record of the increase in brain size, increase in body size, and hominins leaving Africa for Eurasia," he says.
Before that, humans were predominantly plant eaters. "Meat is rarely a majority of the diet of any human, even today," Ferraro says, "our diets and those of hunter gatherers were still primarily vegetative, fruit, with that extra meat component." Once our innovations and technological advances meant that we could start hunting, however, the animal food seems to have enabled some of our most critical early evolutionary processes. "The key thing about meat," he says, however, wasn’t intrinsically the meat itself: "it was a lot of calories, a lot of nutrients and vitamins and minerals in these packages … meat was the only possible source at the time and place" in man’s evolution.
The history of man and animal is more complicated than a simple hunting relationship, of course: humans began to domesticate the gray wolf (the origin animal of all currently domesticated dogs) around 33,000 years ago (some estimates and evidence exist for a much, much earlier relationship), giving us a source of fur, security, beasts of burden, and eventually, the companionship which dogs are predominantly known for today.
Around 10,000 years ago, humans began practicing agriculture in earnest, and with it the process of bringing other animals into the domestic circle. All of this has meant that for most of our history, men and animals have had a complex and emotional, give-and-take relationship.
For a very high percentage of the 7 billion people living on earth, what to eat is not a decision that is made so much as it is passed on to us from our parents. Most people have historically eaten similarly to their families — if you’re Hindu, for example, you might not eat cows, and if you’re Jewish, you (sometimes) avoid pork or seafood. There are also regional differences in what we eat, informed by a host of evolutionary, geographic, cultural, and religious practices.
For most of human history, we ate what was local
For most of human history, we ate what was local, because there were no airplanes, steamships, or refrigerated trucks to bring us "exotic" or non-local foods. Plants that were found to be poisonous were added to the arsenal of "things we don’t eat." Over time, however, culture took over, and man began to form customs for what food — mostly animals — was for eating, and what was not. Generally, all bets are off in times of starvation, but our ideas about food are deeply ingrained in our communities, and we haven’t bothered to examine them very closely.
"We figured out how to hunt," Ferarro says, and that "enabled so much of our development." Eventually, it allowed the population to explode. This presented us with a new challenge: how to scale the hunt.
"Those are chickens," said Crake. "Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit." "But there aren’t any heads…" That’s the head in the middle," said the woman. "There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those." – Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003)
We teach children that "Old MacDonald had a farm," and that on that farm, he had a cow (moo moo), a goat (baa baa), a chicken (cluck cluck), and a pig (oink oink). The reality, most of us know, is that Old MacDonald was largely replaced long ago by massive operations run by multinational corporations that often don’t even bear the name "farm." Family farms were responsible for 90 percent of the United States’ chicken production until around the 1960s. Today, it is estimated that approximately 99 percent of the animals raised for slaughter in the US live on factory farms.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, families increasingly grew and produced less of their own food on small farms, and those operations were consolidated into the growing food industry, which began to apply manufacturing techniques to the raising of livestock so that the growing millions, then billions, could be fed fast and cheap. By the middle of the 20th century, factory farms were so ubiquitous that the "Old MacDonald" farms of our childhood imaginations were quickly becoming an endangered species.
In US law, factory farms are called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs for short). In practice, factory farms are very large — four farms in the United States produce 80 percent of the cattle raised for slaughter and half of the chickens. They’re operations that raise livestock in highly confined, high-density conditions with more than 125,000 animals under one roof. The largest food production company in the United States is Tyson Foods, which reported a revenue of $32 billion in 2011. Tyson employs 115,000 people and has 400 operation centers in the United States. It works with nearly 7,000 farms who supply it with animals for the final stages of life, slaughter, and processing. The life cycle of an animal through large scale farming operations is generally: birth at a farm (most come from factories as defined by the EPA), movement to a feedlot for "finishing" (a highly confined "city" for animals), and finally, processing at a plant such as Tyson. In 2010, Tyson "processed" (slaughtered) an average of 42.3 million chickens, 143,000 cows, and nearly 390,000 pigs per week. The company makes its profit by processing animals in efficient and brutal circumstances. For example, in 1925, the average Tyson chicken lived approximately 112 days, weighed around 2.5 pounds at the time of slaughter, and had consumed about 4.7 pounds of grain per pound of its body weight. In 2010, the same chicken lived just 45 days, was slaughtered at an average weight of 5.63 pounds, and consumed just 1.92 pounds of grain per pound. Simply put, the animals live less than half as long, eat half as much and are more than double the size they were 100 years ago.
The efficiency of these operations has enabled them to produce an ever-increasing amount of animals for ballooning profits. The first few decades of the 20th century saw the introduction of vitamin supplements. Combined with artificial lighting, it allowed animals to be raised indoors (chickens will even lay eggs year round, now), and at increasing body weights. The advent of refrigeration meant that animal meat could be kept much longer, and transported farther distances, before going bad. A growing understanding of genetics led to the selective breeding of the strongest, healthiest birds. In the 1950s livestock vaccination became standard. Around the same time, the largest and most often-cited technological advance in factory farming came with the introduction of low-grade antibiotics into the chickens’ feed and water supply. Farmers were raising animals in such large quantities that disease could quickly and easily wipe out huge numbers of them; the application of antibiotics, it was thought, would lessen some of that risk. It also meant they could be raised in far less sterile conditions. But there was also an unforeseen consequence: the animals quickly grew fatter. Antibiotics, it turns out, kill off the bacterium —which makes up the microbiome — found in the guts of all animals and helps digest carbohydrates. Unable to process the bacteria, the animal puts on weight, and fast. The cause of such rapid weight gain wasn’t understood until early 2013, but it became a standard method of fattening livestock in the 1950s. Today around 80 percent of all antibiotics produced in the US are used for livestock.
Old MacDonald was largely replaced by factory farms long ago
These are just a few of the ways in which factory farms are able to meet the ever-increasing demand for animal-based food. The availability of large quantities of cheap meat has unsurprisingly increased demand steeply. The average person in the US now eats about 270 pounds of meat a year. Beef consumption has gone down, but overall consumption — of fish, meat, poultry, and eggs — has continued to rise steadily. Over the past 100 years meat consumption has steadily grown in proportion to the rest of our diets, now composing roughly 15 percent of the calories in the average US citizen’s diet. Thanks to population growth and demand in developing nations, meat consumption globally is predicted to double by the year 2050. All of this comes at a very high cost, a cost which many experts say will be devastating.
A planet in danger
"Here is the truth: The earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real." – Al Gore
To produce 1 pound of beef, the friendly neighborhood farmer will need 13 pounds of grain and an estimated 2,500 gallons of water. If a 1,000-pound cow yields 600 pounds of beef, that cow used 1.5 million gallons of water and 7,800 pounds of grain. So, on a basic level, farming at this scale is pretty inefficient, when you could effectively feed thousands of people with just the grain and water it takes to produce that one cow. It’s not that inefficient if you’re one farmer with a few cows and chickens (though it’s more expensive to raise animals that actually graze) and just your family to feed. But even when you’re as good as Tyson Foods is at maximizing profits, it’s a mathematically unsustainable equation.
Today, up to a third of earth’s landmass is used for grazing and growing crops. In the US, 70 percent of our grain goes to feeding livestock. This has led to a critical situation where demand is expected to far outweigh supply in the next 50 years. But inefficiency isn’t nearly the only problem.
Man-made climate change, or global warming, is primarily caused by an increased concentration of greenhouse gasses (GHG) — water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, ozone — in the atmosphere. Activities such as deforestation, burning fossil fuels, and yes, raising livestock emit greenhouses gasses, and all have been on a steep rise since large-scale manufacturing processes were applied to various industries, including farming. The levels of greenhouse gas emissions have seriously increased since the Industrial Revolution, and most scientists agree that we’re facing a devastating climate situation. The year 2013 will go down as the hottest on record, and livestock is partially to blame.
A 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for the UN estimated that around 18 percent of worldwide human-caused GHG emissions were the result of livestock. This study has been widely cited but is also disputed: experts believe that the 18 percent figure vastly undercounts GHGs caused by raising animals. Robert Goodland, who was the lead environmental adviser to the World Bank Group for 23 years, co-authored an influential 2009 study for the World Watch Institute with Jeffrey Anhang (also of the World Bank). It estimated the figure was actually closer to 50 percent, once undercounted emissions from respiration, land use, and methane were taken into consideration. Goodland, who is now retired, notes that the Kyoto Protocol "originally focused primarily on efforts to reduce fossil fuels or come up with renewable energy alternatives." But if the emissions from livestock are close to 50 percent of the rising GHG levels, it follows that the only "pragmatic solution," at this point, as Goodland says, "is likely to be increasing plant-based diets" and drastically reduced animal consumption. It’s a behavior, he says, that can be changed "overnight." Having a positive impact on the environment by moving to a plant-based diet, Goodland and Anhang argue, would be the most effective way to immediately and significantly reduce our man-made GHG emissions. In fact, some estimate that if we globally reduced our animal consumption by 25 percent, we could reach our GHG emission goals as set forth by the United Nations.
There are other devastating effects on the environment too: the EPA estimates that runoff (which it regulates) from factory farms into waterways is the largest single pollutant in the US. Livestock also drink about half of the country’s potable water each year, and they produce more excrement than humans, waste which is usually just spread on the ground, further contaminating the water (and remember, there’s a decent amount of antibiotics in that waste, too).
Up to one third of earth's landmass is used for livestock
This is what people mean when they tell you, as Ashley Byrne of PETA told me, that "factory farming is unsustainable." The population explosion means more mouths to feed, and meat consumption overall has been on the rise proportionally to the rest of our diets; this increases pressure to raise more animals, and more food to feed them, which in turn gravely stresses our environment. The huge number of animals produces waste and polluting byproducts, and eventually, we’re going to not only simply lack the livestock to meet demand, but will face the high environmental costs to boot. Most experts believe that our effect on climate change is reversible, but only if we act immediately.
"We have three options moving forward," says Sergey Brin in the Cultured Beef promo. As he tells it, we can all become vegetarians, we can continue to destroy the planet, or we can "try something new."
Vegetarianism is on the rise — by some estimates it’s at an all-time high of 10 percent in the United States — but it also feels fair to agree with Brin when he dismisses it as the most likely way to address our problems, even as some meat eaters reduce their consumption. "People know that how they eat affects their health," Dr. Donald Smith of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City says, and that affects their behavior. Beef consumption has been on a slight decline in the US in recent decades, partially because people have recognized it’s better for their hearts — a 2001 study found that people who avoided meat were "far healthier, especially in terms of coronary heart disease" and "40 percent less likely to develop cancer compared to meat eaters."
Initiatives like Meatless Monday — which encourages families to replace meat in just one weekly meal — have proven quite popular. But, for most people, when you cut out meat, you need to replace it with something. Americans aren’t going to go for a plant-based diet that easily, right? And that’s where a handful of new, Silicon Valley-funded companies swoop in.
Meat eaters know the feeling: you’re at a barbecue with friends or around the table at a family holiday, and the one, lone vegetarian drops a pale tofu dog on the fire or pulls a basketball-shaped Tofurkey out of the oven. Maybe they don’t know they’re missing out, maybe they do. Either way, what they’re eating doesn’t look that great, does it? Does it taste like meat? Does it even matter?
To the vegetarian, it usually really doesn’t. Meatless meats have been around for a long time: big names in the market include Boca Burger (owned by Kraft Foods), Morningstar Farms and Gardenburger (both owned by Kellogg’s) and Lightlife (ConAgra). But the new companies trying to create meat alternatives, or meat replacements, aren’t really trying to go after vegetarians. "We already have them," says Ethan Brown, CEO of Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat, "and we know that." His company, founded in 2009, was privately funded by Kleiner Perkins and The Obvious Corporation. (Obvious is a web incubator that was founded in 2006 by Evan Williams and Biz Stone and has gone on to also create and launch products like Medium). "The goal is to get everyone else on board."
For Beyond Meat, and a handful of other companies such as Hampton Creek Foods, a San Francisco-based startup that makes egg replacement products, the model is pretty straightforward. They work in concert with world-class food scientists to come up with meat alternatives — let’s call them Tofurkey 2.0 — for consumer products that aren’t only better-tasting than their ancestors, but they’re healthier, and often cheaper, and marketed in a way that meat eaters won’t be turned off of.
"There is a growing market of educated consumers," Brown says. They shop at places like Whole Foods — incidentally the first place Beyond Meat sold its products to. These consumers, Brown says — some of whom are vegetarians but many who are not — are health conscious, and they care about the environment. Beyond Meat started, in June of 2012, by selling a chicken-like product to Whole Foods, which used it in prepared foods such as "chicken" salad. In April of 2013, their consumer packaged Chicken-less Strips were put on Whole Foods shelves nationwide. The products are vegan, and made from a combination of soy and vegetable proteins. "What we envision," Brown says, "are supermarket aisles where in the future, you’ll have two choices: meat or meat-free protein, sold side-by-side. You won’t need to go to a special vegetarian section in most supermarkets," he says, because most people will eat a combination of both. Beyond Meat’s products are attractively packaged: the food itself looks a lot more like meat than its meatless 1.0 predecessors. "I tasted Beyond Meat’s chicken alternative," Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote this past March, "and honestly couldn’t tell it from real chicken."
Hampton Creek Foods takes a similar approach, but it’s trying to convince people to replace eggs. An easier sell, if you consider that many doctors regularly suggest people limit their egg consumption anyway: with 184 mg of cholesterol, egg yolks contain one of the highest concentrations per serving of any food, which, in addition to foods high in saturated fat, raise cholesterol levels in the blood. But it’s also true that eggs are the "most consumed animal protein in the world," says Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek Foods. People have been using (egg-based) egg replacements for years, but a lot of those products aren’t good for baking or using in recipes, or they aren’t that much cheaper than eggs themselves. The goal of Beyond Eggs, Hampton Creek’s egg product, is to function just like an egg, regardless of how it’s being used, and still be cheaper than eggs. Their powdered egg alternative is made from peas and sorghum, among other things. It’s totally plant-based. Hampton Creek Foods is funded by Khosla Ventures, which routinely supports technology-based, environmentally disruptive businesses, and also by Gates himself, through Khosla.
The goal is to put the burger before the cow
For both of these companies, selling to consumers is only part of the equation. Selling wholesale to other, much larger food companies is also a big piece of their business. "If we can convince a General Mills that our product will be cheaper, and taste just as good," Tetrick says, "that’s how we succeed." And he’s probably correct: if General Mills can use a cheaper egg substitute that tastes identical in its processed foods or baked goods, who will know or care? "I started out wanting to create a world-changing business," Tetrick says. He doesn’t bother using the word "vegan" on his products, though they are, in fact, animal-free. In many ways, Tetrick is angling to change the world’s egg consumption the way that margarine changed the world’s butter consumption: by being much cheaper, while still behaving a lot like the original.
There’s a lot of money to be made in these startups: they’re nascent markets, ready for growth. Astute money men — people like Khosla or Gates — are often best at seeing the future, and in this case, they see "tremendous market potential" in the words of Gates. They’re small companies which apply scientific methods and develop their products in labs and at universities. And they have the environment in mind. Ethan Brown sees reducing meat consumption by 25 percent as a "reasonable goal," and one which "would have a very, very positive impact" on the environment, according to experts like Robert Goodland, whom he cites.
But what about your hardliner? The person who, regardless of health, food safety, environmental, or ethical concerns, just wants a great burger, made of real beef, at his weekend brunch? He hasn’t been forgotten either. In fact, he’s getting arguably the biggest chunk of money and scientific research in food technology.
Because in this case, the goal is nothing less than putting the egg before the chicken. Or more properly, the chicken breast before the chicken… or even: the burger before the cow.
How to grow beef in a lab
"Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing, by growing these parts separately in a suitable medium." – Winston Churchill, (1936)
Since the 1990s, the possibility of growing animal cells in a lab by using stem cells has become a viable prospect. NASA spent the early 2000s working with turkey stem cells, and the first edible specimen — cultured goldfish cells — were successfully produced in 2002. In the United States, the effort to grow meat in a lab has been most vocally supported by Jason Matheny, who in 2005 authored an influential paper in the journal Tissue Engineering, a paper responsible for renewed interest in the topic of growing meat in a lab in the US. In 2009 he told the University of Chicago Magazine that cultured meat "will be the purest meat ever," lacking the additives, antibiotics, and growth hormones given to most livestock today. In 2004 he founded New Harvest, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness of in vitro meat, also called test tube meat, or cultured meat. In 2008, Mark Post began investigating culturing meat in a lab with $4 million in funding from the Dutch government. When that funding ended, Matheny worked to broker a deal for Brin to begin funding Post’s work, though it was done anonymously until last week.
Around 30 labs in the world are working to create cultured meat
Nicholas Genovese of the University of Missouri estimates that "around 30" labs — most of them at universities, often with some private funding — are working on creating cultured meats. It’s nearly identical in some ways to research being done in tissue engineering and organ creation work, both using stem cells. Geneovese’s own work has been funded by PETA for the past two years. In 2008 PETA announced a $1 million prize for the first lab to successfully grow test tube chicken. "We want to focus on chicken," Ashley Byrne of PETA says, "because chickens are the most widely abused animals in the world."
"Most scientists are focusing on one particular part of the problem," says Genovese. For example, he’s working on creating the best, non-animal medium in which to grow the cells. The process of creating meat in a lab is a complex one. In the simplest of terms, the most common procedure begins with extracting stem cells from a live, adult animal. A growth serum (Post's contains animal blood but future growth mediums will be animal-free) is then added to the cells, which are grown on a scaffolding (like a skeleton) to form a muscular structure. This muscle is often exercised to create a richer, tastier flesh.
At Mark Post’s London tasting, both Hanni Rützler and Josh Schonwald noted the same thing was missing from the meat: fat. Post calls it a "technical bottleneck," and it’s one of the next phases of research. "What we love about meat is the fat, that’s what makes it taste good," says Ethan Brown, "but it’s also the least healthy part of the meat." For people developing cultured meat, however, the goal is to get it as close to the "real" thing as possible, fat and all. "They’re going to get there," Isha Datar, director of New Harvest says, "it’s just a question of when."
Post estimates that within 20 to 25 years, we could have a commercial product: lab-grown beef which is indistinguishable from that which comes from an animal, grown in a lab. Theoretically, one crop of stem cells could create a huge amount of meat, with no animals harmed, no grazing land needed, grown in a sterile environment. "This product would address all of the major concerns of large-scale farming today," Datar says: environmental, health, and ethical. PETA thinks their chicken challenge is likely to bring a product to market in far less time, though. "I do think we’ll make the goal within the next few years," Byrne says.
There are, of course, serious challenges to getting a product to market, and at the scale which would be required. There’s still no fat in the meat, and for a product to be marketable, it’s going to need to be nearly identical to real meat, or it will simply be an "expensive Gardenburger," as one environmental scientist with doubts about the project called it. It’s also insanely expensive right now: calling Post’s tester the $325,000 burger (as the media has, over and over) is generous: Post’s research has cost, conservatively, in the realm of $5 million so far. But theoretically, there’s no reason this product couldn’t be much cheaper than meat from an animal in the future: that’s how it worked in Neuromancer, and it makes sense, mathematically.
The final challenge, however, is whether people will buy it. Can we get over our sense of how "weird" cultured meat is? "To me," Ethan Brown says, "that will all be a question of how it’s marketed." Once we stop talking and thinking about it as the "Frankenburger," we’ll go a long way towards realizing just how world-changing such a product could be.
Of course, there are those who say we don’t have 20 to 25 years left to address the environmental issues. For them, the in vitro meat project, even if successful, is just too far off, and they believe that people need to reduce their meat consumption now to impact the environment positively.
But that’s not going to stop us from trying. And it’s not going to stop people like Sergey Brin, who see business opportunities in addition to the ability to address ethical and environmental concerns, from pouring money into projects that the rest of us still think of as science fiction. Two million years ago, there were probably naysayers too, laughing at the guy with the DIY spear running after a bear. And there were also probably plenty of people who disagreed when it was first suggested that you could raise massive quantities of animals, and that meat could be something which even poor people could afford to eat on a daily basis. At every turn, man’s innovative nature has answered the call to solve critical problems. Why should this time be any different?