Can artificial meat save the world?
Traditional chicken, beef, and pork production devours resources and creates waste. Meat-free meat might be the solution.
On an ordinary spring morning in Columbia, Missouri, Ethan Brown stands in the middle of an ordinary kitchen tearing apart a chicken fajita strip. “Look at this,” he says. “It’s amazing!” Around him, a handful of stout Midwestern food-factory workers lean in and nod approvingly. “I’m just so proud of it.”
The meat Brown is pulling apart looks normal enough: beige flesh that separates into long strands. It would not be out of place in a chicken salad or Caesar wrap. Bob Prusha, a colleague of Brown’s, stands over a stove sautéing a batch for us to eat. But the meat Brown is fiddling with and Prusha is frying is far from ordinary. It’s actually not meat at all.
Brown is the CEO of Beyond Meat, a four-year-old company that manufactures a meat substitute made mainly from soy and pea proteins and amaranth. Mock meat is not a new idea. Grocery stores are full of plant-based substitutes—the Boca and Gardenburgers of the world, not to mention Asian staples like tofu and seitan. What sets Beyond Meat apart is how startlingly meat-like its product is. The “chicken” strips have the distinct fibrous structure of poultry, and they deliver a similar nutritional profile. Each serving has about the same amount of protein as an equivalent portion of chicken, but with zero cholesterol or saturated and trans fats.
To Brown, there is little difference between his product and the real thing. Factory-farmed chickens aren’t really treated as animals, he says; they’re machines that transform vegetable inputs into chicken breasts. Beyond Meat simply uses a more efficient production system. Where one pound of cooked boneless chicken requires 7.5 pounds of dry feed and 30 liters of water, the same amount of Beyond Meat requires only 1.1 pound of ingredients and two liters of water.
The ability to efficiently create meat, or something sufficiently meat-like, will become progressively more important in coming years because humanity may be reaching a point when there’s not enough animal protein to go around. The United Nations expects the global population to grow from the current 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050. Also, as countries such as China and India continue to develop, their populations are adopting more Western diets. Worldwide the amount of meat eaten per person nearly doubled from 1961 to 2007, and the UN projects it will double again by 2050.
In other words, the planet needs to rethink how it gets its meat. Brown is addressing the issue by supplying a near-perfect meat analogue, but he is not alone in reinventing animal products. Just across town, Modern Meadow uses 3-D printers and tissue engineering to grow meat in a lab. The company already has a refrigerator full of lab-grown beef and pork; in fact, the company’s co-founder, Gabor Forgacs, fried and ate a piece of engineered pork onstage at a 2011 TED talk. Another scientist, Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is also using tissue engineering to produce meat in a lab. In August, he served an entire lab-grown burger to two diners on a London stage as a curious but skeptical crowd looked on.
Revolutions tend to appear revolutionary only from a distance, and as Brown walks me to the production floor, I’m struck by how similar the Beyond Meat factory looks to any other. Nondescript metal machinery churns away. Ingredients sit in plastic bulk-foods bins. We put on hairnets and white coats and walk over to a small blue conveyor belt, where Brown’s chicken strips emerge from the machinery cooked and in oddly rectilinear form. They are not yet seasoned, he says, but they are ready to eat. At the end of the conveyor belt, the still-steaming strips fall unceremoniously into a steel bucket, where they land with a dull thud.
Staring at the bucketful of precooked strips, it’s hard to imagine a future in which meat is, by necessity, not meat. Or in which meat is grown in a manufacturing facility instead of a field or feedlot. But that future is fast approaching, and here in the heart of Big Ag country, both Beyond Meat and Modern Meadow are confronting it head on.
Each year, Americans eat more than 200 pounds of meat per person, and mid-Missouri is as good a place as any to see what it takes to satisfy that appetite. Columbia sits dead center in the state, so approaching on I-70 from either direction means driving about two hours past huge tracts of farmland—soy, corn, and wheat fields and herds of grazing cattle. Giant truck stops glow on the horizon, and mile-long trains tug boxcars loaded with grain to places as far away as Mexico and California.
It’s rich country that for nearly 150 years has fed the nation and the world. Yet most of the crops grown around Columbia will never land on dining-room tables but rather in giant feedlot troughs. That’s not unusual. About 80 percent of the world’s farmland is used to support the meat and poultry industries, and much of that goes to growing animal feed. An efficient use of resources this is not. For example, a single pound of cooked beef, a family meal’s worth of hamburgers, requires 298 square feet of land, 27 pounds of feed, and 211 gallons of water.
Supplying meat not only devours resources but also creates waste. That same pound of hamburger requires more than 4,000 Btus of fossil-fuel energy to get to the dinner table; something has to power the tractors, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and trucks. That process, along with the methane the cows belch throughout their lives, contributes as much as 51 percent of all greenhouse gas produced in the world.
To understand how humans developed such a reliance on meat, it’s useful to start at the beginning. Several million years ago, hominids had large guts and smaller brains. That began to reverse around two million years ago: Brains got bigger as guts got smaller. The primary reason for the change, according to a seminal 1995 study by evolutionary anthropologist Leslie Aiello, then of the University College London, is that our ancestors started eating meat, a compact, high-energy source of calories. With meat, hominids did not need to maintain a large, energy-intense digestive system. Instead, they could divert energy elsewhere, namely to power big energy-hungry brains. And with those brains, they changed the world.
As time progressed, meat became culturally important too. Hunting fostered cooperation; cooking and eating the kill brought communities together over shared rituals—as it still does in backyard barbecues. Neal Barnard, a nutrition author and physician at George Washington University, argues that today the cultural appeal of meat trumps any physiological benefits. “We have known for a long time that people who don’t eat meat are thinner and healthier and live longer than people who do,” he says. Nutritionally, meat is a good source of protein, iron, and vitamin B12, but Barnard says those nutrients are easily available from other sources that aren’t also heavy in saturated fats. “For the millennia of our sojourn on Earth, we have been getting more than enough protein from entirely plant-based sources. The cow gets its protein that way and simply rearranges it into muscle. People say, ‘Gee if I don’t eat muscle, where will I get protein?’ You get it from the same place the cow got it.”
To Barnard, the simple conclusion is that everyone should stick to eating plants—and he’s right that it would be a far more efficient use of all that cropland. And yet to most people, meat tastes good. Studies suggest that eating meat activates the brain’s pleasure center in much the same way chocolate does. Even many vegetarians say bacon smells great when it’s cooking. For whatever reason, most people simply love to eat meat—myself included. And that makes re-creating it, whether from vegetables or cells in a lab, exceedingly difficult.
In the mid-1980s, a food scientist named Fu-hung Hsieh moved to Columbia, Missouri, to start a food-engineering program at the University of Missouri. Hsieh was coming to academia from a successful career in the processed-foods industry, at Quaker Oats, and he convinced the university to buy him a commercial-grade extrusion machine, nearly unheard of in an academic setting.
An extruder is one of the processed-food industry’s most important and versatile pieces of equipment, the invention responsible for Froot Loops and Cheetos and premade cookie dough. Dry and wet ingredients are poured into a hopper on one end of the machine and a rotating auger pushes them through a long barrel, where they are subjected to varying levels of heat and pressure. At the barrel’s end, the ingredients pass through a die that forms them into whatever shape and texture the machine has been programmed to produce. The mixture emerges at the far end as a continuous ribbon of food, which is sliced into the desired portions.
On one level, an extruder is a simple piece of technology—something like a giant sausage maker—but producing the desired result can be devilishly complicated. “Some people say extrusion cooking is an art form,” says Harold Huff, a meat-loving Missouri native who works with Hsieh as a senior research specialist. Around 1989, Hsieh and Huff took an interest in using the extruder to make the first realistic meat analogue. “We didn’t worry about flavor or anything else,” Hsieh tells me. “We wanted it to tear apart like chicken—it was all just about initial appearance.” They knew there wasn’t a single physical or chemical adjustment that would bring about a solution. They just had to experiment. “You have to have the right ingredients, the right temperature, the right hardware,” Huff says. “You try things, make observations, and make adjustments” for years, even decades. And so it went, until Ethan Brown came calling in 2009.
Brown, a vegan environmentalist, had been working for a fuel-cell company and had become frustrated by his colleagues’ ignorance of meat’s role in climate change. “We would go to conferences and sit there wringing our hands over all these [energy] issues, and then we’d go to dinner and people would order huge steaks,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is stupid, I want to go work on that problem.’ ” To the ridicule of old friends, who joked that he was moving to the country to start a tofu factory, he started poring over journal articles and casting around for meat analogues to market—which is how he heard about Hsieh’s work.
Brown licensed the veggie chicken and began fine-tuning it with the scientists for mass consumption. “If we used too much soy, it was too firm, and if we reduced it too much, it became soft, like tofu,” Brown remembers. “It took us two years to figure that out, and it’s still not perfect.”
As Brown and Hsieh refined the product, it began to gain notice. Bill Gates, who has adopted the meat-production crisis as one of his signature issues, published a report about the issue on his blog, The Gates Notes, in which he endorsed Beyond Meat as an important innovation. “I couldn’t tell the difference between Beyond Meat and real chicken,” he wrote. Perhaps more impressive, New York Times food correspondent and best-selling cookbook author Mark Bittman tried Beyond Meat in a blind taste test last year (at the behest of Brown, who served Bittman a burrito) and said that it “fooled me badly.” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone invested in the company last year, not long after the powerful Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers bought a stake.
“We are going to be meat. We’ll just be slaughtering plants instead of animals.”“One of the partners at Kleiner asked me to meet with Ethan and give them feedback, because they knew I was a vegan. I said yes, really as a favor,” Stone says. “I went into it thinking it’s going to be a boutiquey thing, for well-to-do vegans. Instead, I was introduced to this big-science approach. Ethan was talking about competing in the multibillion-dollar meat business. We are going to be meat, he said, we are just going to be slaughtering plants instead of animals. And here are all the ways it matters, in terms of global health, resource scarcity, number of people in the world. I was like, ‘Oh, my god. They are thinking completely differently.’”
The day I visit, the factory in Columbia is humming because the company is preparing its first shipment of packaged product to Whole Foods, which agreed to sell it nationwide after a successful trial in some California stores. On the production floor, the extruder is roaring away, pumping out strips ready for seasoning, flash-freezing, or quick grilling. A digital readout shows the configuration of the die that gives Beyond Meat its chicken-like structure. It is the company’s secret sauce, the result of all those years of research, and Brown darts over to block my view of the readout as we approach. It’s the one thing that’s not entirely transparent about the operation.
Brown has set up a taste test: three plates of Beyond Meat in three preseasoned flavors. I pop one of the Southwest-flavored strips into my mouth, and it tastes, well, a bit like soy in the form of chicken, sprinkled with chipotle dust. That’s also how it chews—very chicken-like but somehow just shy of chicken. After all the buildup, I’m a little disappointed. But I also have the distinct impression that I’m eating something more like meat than veggies. And I’m eating it unadorned, as opposed to in Bittman’s burrito.
Over the course of the next month, I replace boneless chicken breasts with the lightly seasoned strips in various meals: an omelet with spinach and feta, a plate of fajitas, a wok-ful of fried rice. I’m never once fooled that it’s chicken. For me, chicken is the whole sensory package—crisp skin, the roasting pan, the juices—and when I want one, I make one. But when I want lean, chewy protein as a flavor medium in some other dish, I find I don’t care whether it comes from an animal or vegetable. But what if it comes from neither?
On the other side of Columbia, at a biotech start-up incubator on the edge of the University of Missouri campus, the scientists at Modern Meadow are working on a very different solution to the meat-production crisis. When I visit, a 3-D printer about the size of an HP desktop unit streams a line of yellowish goo onto a petri dish. Back and forth, the machine creates a series of narrow rows a hair’s breadth apart. After covering a few inches of the dish, the printer switches direction and lays new rows atop the first ones in a crosshatch pattern. There’s no noise but an electric whir, no smell, nothing to suggest that the goo is an embryonic form of meat that will turn into a little sausage. Once the printer finishes its run, the result looks something like a large Band-Aid.
To reach this stage, about 700 million beef cells spent two weeks growing in a cell-growth medium in a wardrobe-size incubator. The cells were then spun free in a centrifuge, and the resulting slurry, which is the consistency of honey, was transferred to a large syringe that acts as the business end of the printer.
The printed cells will now go back into an incubator for a few more days, during which time they will start to develop an extracellular matrix, a naturally occurring scaffold of collagens that gives cells structural support. The result is actual muscle tissue.
The technology in front of me is the work of Gabor Forgacs, a Hungarian-born theoretical physicist who turned to developmental biology mid-career. In 2005, he led a team that developed a process to print multicellular aggregates rather than individual cells. His printer produces physiologically viable tubes of cells that can adhere to create large complex structures.
In 2007, Gabor and his son, Andras, helped found a company called Organovo that uses Gabor’s technology to print human tissue for medical applications (pharmaceutical testing, for instance) and aims one day to print functioning human organs for transplants. Gabor was the science mind behind the company, and Andras worked in various roles on the business side.
“Fairly early on, people asked us, ‘Hey, could you make meat?’ ” Andras remembers. “And we were pretty dismissive of the idea”—it was simply too far from Organovo’s mission. But by 2011, Organovo had brought on a new management team and laid plans to go public (which it did in early 2012). Gabor began brainstorming new projects with his two closest scientific collaborators—Françoise Marga and Karoly Jakab. Andras, meanwhile, had moved to Shanghai to work in venture capital. He saw how diets in China were changing and how much of the meat came from places as far away as Latin America and Australia.
“If we can make living tissues, then we can certainly make food-grade ones.”That confluence of factors made bio-fabricated meat appear more attractive. Even better, Gabor suspected meat would be simpler to produce than functioning human parts. “If we can make living tissues, then certainly we can make food-grade tissues, which don’t have to be as exacting,” he says. “We do not have to worry about immune compatibility, for instance.”
In late 2011, Andras returned to the U.S., and the team landed a USDA Small Business Innovation Research grant shortly thereafter. It then received a grant from Breakout Labs, an arm of Peter Thiel’s foundation. (Thiel is a co-founder of PayPal and a tech investor and futurist.) With help from the grant, Andras set up a business office at Singularity University on the campus of NASA’s Silicon Valley research park, and Gabor set up his scientific headquarters in Columbia. Modern Meadow was born.
As ghoulish as growing lab meat sounds, the concept has a long history, and not just in science fiction. In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote, “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” He was wrong about the date, but the same sentiment drives the meat-alternatives community today. If you consider the conditions under which meat is produced—how the animals are treated and how much waste is involved—factory farming, not tissue culture, seems the ghoulish option. By comparison, lab meat looks both humane and sensible; a study for the EU predicted that, if produced on a large scale, lab-grown meat would use 99.7 percent less land and 94 percent less water than factory farming, and it would contribute 98.8 percent fewer greenhouse gases.
Over the past few decades, a handful of scientists have pursued lab-grown meat, most notably Mark Post in the Netherlands. Post created the burger for his London taste test using a different tissue-engineering process that involves growing cells around a cylindrical scaffold. According to Isha Datar, the director of New Harvest, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that focuses on meat alternatives, Post’s process may actually be “more amenable to mass production, theoretically” than Modern Meadow’s 3-D printing. On the other hand, Datar points to the head start Modern Meadow has: “It’s an actual business. The other groups are all academic, and you never know if they have the power to get out of the lab.”
By August, Modern Meadow was experimenting with other bio-assembly techniques that could quickly lay down large cell arrays. And Mark Post revealed his own high-profile Silicon Valley backer: Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose track record bringing improbable products to market isn’t bad.
But being first to market doesn’t matter if the meat coming out of the labs isn’t appetizing. Post’s burger got tepid reviews from his two tasters. And Modern Meadow’s current product is hardly even recognizable as meat; it lacks blood and fat, which are responsible for most of actual meat’s color, flavor, and juicy texture. Karoly Jakab shows me a couple of the samples he’s storing in the lab refrigerator: They look like tiny beige-gray sausages—fully grown, rolled-up versions of the Band-Aid I saw coming out the printer—about the size of an infant’s pinkie finger.
To make the meat more appealing, Modern Meadow has enlisted the Chicago chef Homaro Cantu, whose restaurant, Moto, has become an icon of molecular gastronomy. For Modern Meadow, he’ll be working on what Andras calls “last-mile issues” like texture, flavor, appearance, and mouthfeel by, for instance, suggesting how much fat to add and what kind. And sometime in the next couple of years, Andras says, with Cantu’s help, Modern Meadow plans to start conducting invitation-only tasting sessions, where friends of the company will sign waivers and sample dishes.
There will be plenty of technical hurdles just to get to that point, but putting lab-grown meat in the hands of the masses could be even trickier because there is no regulatory precedent. Meat falls under the USDA’s jurisdiction, but Andras expects the FDA to be involved too. “They have the sophistication and understanding of how tissue engineering works in medicine,” he says. Approval could take at least 10 years.
In the meantime, Modern Meadow needs to make money, so the team is focusing heavily on growing leather, which turns out to be easier than meat and won’t face as many regulatory hurdles. Gabor hands me a pepperoni-size disc of dark-brown leather, indistinguishable from the stuff used in one of my favorite pairs of shoes. It even smells like leather. It is leather. Much as the company is partnering with chef Cantu on perfecting the meat, it’s in talks with fashion brands and automakers to create products with the lab-grown leather.
Ethan Brown folds his lanky frame into one of the metal chairs at the Main Squeeze, an organic juice café in downtown Columbia, and begins talking about how he’ll define success for Beyond Meat in the near term. “I want to be in the meat aisle,” he says. “You go to the grocery store, and they sell meat in one section and vegetable-based proteins in another section. Why are they penalizing the non-meat?” He points to the rise of soy milk and its eventual inclusion in the dairy aisle—which helped to drive a 500 percent increase in sales since 1997—as his model.
“Our earliest adopters are the vegans and locavore types who prefer tofu and beans and quinoa,” he says. “But the sweet spot for us is folks who are simply cutting down on their meat consumption. They still eat at Taco Bell, but they know they shouldn’t do it that much.”
There’s an uncanny valley of food. Until engineered meat is perfect, it will be creepy.
Appealing to those people with a near-perfect imitation of meat makes sense on one level. But there’s also a risk, Andras Forgacs says. In the world of animation and robotics, there’s a concept called the “uncanny valley,” which states that if a simulated human too closely resembles the real thing, it will repel people. “There’s also an uncanny valley of food,” Andras says. “Until it becomes perfect, it’s going to be creepy.”
I’ve seen the uncanny valley response up close, when I’ve tried to serve my wife Beyond Meat. She has no problem eating processed meats that bear no resemblance to the animal they come from: hot dogs, say, or on the high end, goose liver pâté. And she’ll eat other soy proteins, such as tofu, that don’t pretend to be meat. But she won’t touch Beyond Meat. To her, it imitates the real thing just a little too closely.
Modern Meadow may simply back away from the uncanny valley, rather than try to cross it. “I have an analogy that goes back to Organovo,” Gabor says. “We will never be able to print a heart exactly as it appears in nature—but we don’t have to. What we need is to create an organ that functions as well as your heart, or better, from your own cells so that it works in your body. That we can do. And the same goes for meat. What we are going to put into your mouth is not what you’d get when you slaughter a cow. But from all other points of view—nutritional value, taste—it will be just like the real thing. You recognize it as meat, but it’s a different kind of meat.” Like a hot dog or goose liver pâté.
And if fake meat doesn’t have to perfectly mimic real meat, it can be made even better than the real thing. The teams at Beyond Meat and Modern Meadow envision super meats enhanced with things like omega-3 fatty acids and extra vitamins. “You could eat a Beyond Meat Philly cheesesteak that lowers your cholesterol and gives you sexual prowess,” Brown says. He is only half joking.
However they move forward, neither company envisions its product entirely replacing meat, nor do they see themselves as being in competition with each other. Isha Datar of New Harvest predicts a portfolio of approaches that would address the meat-production crisis: lab-grown meat and plant-based meats, yes, but also sustainably raised livestock and less meat-intensive diets. A 2012 study at the University of Exeter in the U.K. calculated the degree to which diets must change in order to feed the world in 2050 and stave off catastrophic climate change. The researchers found that average global meat consumption would have to decrease from 16.6 percent of average daily calorie intake to 15 percent. That may not sound like much, but it translates to roughly halving the amount of meat in Western diets—a major change, but conceivable with high-quality meat alternatives.
One theme cuts through all those visions of the future: Educated consumers who have the benefit of total transparency into the meat-production process. Brown has considered installing cameras on the Beyond Meat production floor and streaming the video online so people can see for themselves how harmless the process is. The contrast to the secretive policies of industrial slaughterhouses would be stark.
Andras Forgacs imagines something even more dramatic. He pictures Modern Meadow’s production facilities as regional petting zoos. “You’d need to replenish the cell source periodically so all we’d really need is a few animals from which we could take occasional biopsies. They’d be like mascots. Other than getting poked every month or so, they would lead these perfectly charmed lives.” People could come meet the animals as they grazed and then make their way into a facility to watch a giant 3-D printer stream the cells onto trays, where they would grow into pork chops and steaks.
“Would you rather visit a slaughterhouse and see a cow get killed, skinned, and disemboweled right before you go eat a steak dinner, or would you rather visit a petting zoo and a facility that looks a little Willy Wonka–ish and then go eat the meat right afterward?”
It’s a dream, but Andras insists it’s not outlandish. “Bio-fabrication already exists, and it’s inevitable that in the coming decades there will be applications beyond medicine—consumer applications, like food.” The question is whether the world will be ready for them.