Put down your cheeseburger, because what I'm going to tell you may be a little scary.
In the future, you may be drinking cockroach milk; you may be eating beef that's been grown with a machine; it's hard to say exactly. What is certain, however, is that the insouciant economy of meat that exists right now, in which animals are slaughtered far from the public eye, and then handed out in neat brown bags to waiting drive-thru car windows, can not continue.
The commercial meat industry today contributes heavily to global warming, ecological problems, and, of course, that never-more-mundane American trait, obesity. But how do you get people to stop eating mouth-watering beef with such obtuse arguments as these?
Fortunately there are alternatives that may be capable of wooing even the most die-hard carnivore. Investors, many from the technology sector, are looking at "clean meat"—meat produced without animal slaughter (cultured or "lab-grown," as it is often colloquially referred to)—and plant-based meat alternatives (your old, floppy, tasteless veggie patty these are not) as the solution to the many problems of commercial meat production.
According to Bruce Friedrich, the director of the Good Food Institute, an organization that helps to fund research and policy initiatives for these alternative food solutions, the key to getting people to switch is straightforward. Consumers want something that is good-tasting and competitively priced; they probably aren't trying to save the world.
MUNCHIES spoke with Friedrich recently to discuss the future of food, technology, and clean meat.
MUNCHIES: What does the Good Food Institute do? Bruce Friedrich: So, the GFI uses markets and food technology to transform animal agriculture. We look at all the myriad harms of raising animals for food and are looking for ways to decrease the amount of conventionally produced meat, dairy, and eggs that people use.
Everything that the GFI does is lined up to make plant-based and clean meat, dairy, and eggs as convenient, delicious, and price competitive as possible. Our policy director's primary focuses are, one, finding out the regulatory pathway forward for these clean alternatives once they are introduced commercially. Her second primary focus is leveling the playing field for the plant-based alternatives. As one example right now, it is technically illegal to call soy milk "soy milk" on the packaging, and that's one of the issues that we are looking at and intend to reform.
You're going to face the same labelling hurdle when you eventually get cultured meat on the shelves, right? I think that will be a slightly lower bar than the current, entrenched, bizarre regulatory status. We haven't made a thorough dive into the standards of identity. I suppose if the standards of identity say something that indicates the method of creating the beef, or chicken, or pork, then we'll be in exactly the same place that we are with the standards of identity with regard to dairy and eggs and other products.
What is your relationship with traditional agricultural business—are they competition? Well, our hope is that they will see the writing on the wall and decide to diversify their holdings. We think, who better than Smithfield to be making the best plant-based and clean pork products? Who better than Tyson to be making the best plant-based and clean chicken products? And so on.
We have no interest in competing with these companies. We would like to see these companies become the leaders in these new technologies.
Why is food now driven by what appears to be a technological revolution instead of a culinary one? Well, if you talk to people in Silicon Valley about why they are making the investments that they are making, if you talk to people who are in venture capital, and especially people who are in ag-based venture capital, the two big questions in cause-based technology, or at least agricultural cause-based investing are "How do we feed 9.7 billion people by 2050?" and "What do we do about climate change?"
Then it becomes very clear that our present method of producing meat is not the right answer to either of those questions and is in fact a significant contributor to global poverty now. We're absolutely not going to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 with our present system of producing meat, dairy, and eggs, and it is a huge contributor to climate change.
With innovations like the "bleeding" Impossible Foods burger, isn't this just the next step in America's desire to have its cake and eat it too? We want chips without fat. We want desserts without sugar. We never want to have to think about self-control. Maybe. It seems to me that if we can create products that are all around better, that is something we should do. On the one hand, I think we should be having deep ethical, philosophical conversations, but my hunch is that it will be easier to have those conversations over a veggie burger that is more sustainable, less environmentally problematic, and so on, than it would be over something that is contributing to a significant degree to those problems.
Cultured meat or lab-grown meat is one of the most well-known innovations happening right now in terms of agriculture technology. What is the biggest innovation that people aren't talking about? So, two things: One is, "lab-grown" is really a misnomer. The reason that we are calling it "clean meat" is that there have been multiple studies done that indicate that both organic animal-based meat and conventional non-organic animal based meat is swimming in bacteria, like salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli.
Clean meat—meat grown in a culture without animal slaughter—has none of those problems. It is also not contaminated with added hormones or antibiotics that are fed to these animals. Every processed food starts in a food laboratory, but for the same reason that you wouldn't call corn flakes "lab-created corn flakes," similarly, this is not lab-grown meat. When clean meat is actually commercialized and sold, it will be grown in a factory that looks an awful lot like a brewery.
There aren't going to be massive food labs creating clean meat, anymore than there are massive food labs creating corn flakes or any other processed food. And in fact this is significantly less processed than the vast majority of processed foods because all it is is taking cells, adding sugars, and causing the cells to do what they do naturally, which is grow when sugars are added to them. So, the process is very similar to the process to creating yogurt or the processes for brewing beer. It's a fermentation process essentially.
If you tour a meat factory in the future, it will look like a brewery—basically with big meat fermentors, and there will probably be big meat factories and much smaller meat factories.
You see this is an industry that can be taken up on a local or regional scale, by business people and chefs? Absolutely. Yes. In fact there's a company out of Israel that is in the process of launching right now called Super Meat, and they are doing clean meat and they are talking about people having small meat fermentors in their homes. You'll be able to get cells and sugars and, with your desktop meat-maker, create your burger or chicken or whatever else.
That's a long-winded way of saying it's not lab-grown meat.
So, that's not a term you like, it seems. Well, it's not right. I don't like because it creates a vision of something that's not what's happening. This is a more natural process than taking corn and making corn flakes.
This is just taking cells from an animal, adding sugars, and causing them to multiply.
As for the innovations that I'm excited about, one of them is the variety of plant-based proteins that have not yet been explored for their capacity to be turned into plant-based meat. The most innovative and animal-based meat-like, plant-based protein in Europe is lupin, and nobody is using lupin in the United States.
The second one is the technologies that will be used to approximate the texture of meat. We've been using fairly basic extrusion technology that hasn't changed in decades for most of the plant-based meats so far. We're interested in looking at other potential technologies for their capacity to approximate the texture of various animal-based meats.
Thanks for speaking with me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.