On August 5, 2013, Dutch scientist Mark Post presented to the world the first lab-grown burger ever created. The event took place in London, the burger was cooked by chef Richard McGeown, and only Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald – two food critics – could taste it. Hanni Ruetzler said that it tasted like meat, “just not as juicy.”
The burger cost a devilish €250,000 to produce. Five years later – last July – Dutch startup Mosa Meat – whose Chief Scientific Officer is Professor Post – announced its aim to start commercializing lab-grown burgers in three years. It will not be a $1 McBreak but an expensive delicatessen for high-end restaurants. Yet, it will be possible to buy it.
This article tells the story of the quest to create lab-grown meat and of the country that is spearheading this revolution. And no – plot twist – it’s not the Netherlands. Rather, the Netherlands is certainly a country that is playing a major role in making this innovation a reality but there’s another nation, even smaller (its size is exactly half of the Netherlands actually), where cultured meat is being pioneered. That nation is Israel.
Before we delve into the reasons that put the Promised Land on the map in such a peculiar field, we better address the question of what clean meat is and why it’s a product that could potentially revolutionize the lives of billions of beings on this planet.
The potential of clean meat
In a nutshell, “clean meat” (we’ll see in a bit how the use of this term is intensively debated) is meat grown from in-vitro animals’ cell culture instead of from slaughtered animals. There are different procedures to grow it that also depend on the kind of meat being produced (at the moment, the main efforts are focusing on beef, chicken, and pork).
Mosa Meat harvests muscle tissue from a living cow with a biopsy. The muscle cells are then dissected, divided, and cultured (from one muscle cell, its possible to obtain up to one trillion of them). Afterward, the cells merge in a so-called myotube that is used to create muscle tissue. But, as I said, the process varies and the race is on to find the best way to cheaply produce clean meat.
Symbolically, this race started in 1931 when Winston Churchill famously suggested: “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.”
The British Nobel prize for Literature also foresaw that we would obtain the first samples of such meat in just 50 years. Alas, we missed the mark because, as it can be seen from this handy timeline of the history of clean meat, the field started to truly develop only in the twenty-first century when technological innovations and political, social, and environmental necessities gave it a boost.
Indeed, if clean meat would replace intensive farming as an industry standard, the benefits for the environment would be immense. As consumers, we would also have “cleaner” meat, meaning a product that doesn’t have the antibiotic residues and bacterial contamination that come with slaughtered meat. Moreover, cheap quality meat could also represent an asset in the fight against hunger. We would also save the lives of over 56 billion animals annually. Yes, that’s the number of farmed animals that are killed every year by humans.
Clean meat sounds then like a silver bullet that could relieve humanity of some of its most pressing challenges. This is why it has become one of the favorite themes of the Effective Altruism movement, the philosophy that “uses evidence and analysis to take actions that help others as much as possible.” And with “others”, they mean animals too, of course.
Clean meat is appealing to them since it may be a highly effective way to tackle one of the issues that rank the highest in their cause-priority list: factory farming. Moreover, the Effective Altruism movement is particularly popular in the tech and startup worlds, and with all its emphasis on efficiency and impact it’s not difficult to understand why.
That’s the other aspect which makes the clean meat revolution so appealing for so many bright minds. Were this to take place, it wouldn’t just be a way to reduce the suffering of millions of beings. It would also be a gigantic business opportunity. In this regard, it’s no coincidence that American seed accelerator Y Combinator – the launchpad of companies like AirBnB and Reddit - indicated clean meat as one of the nine ideas they’d like to fund in the coming year.
In other words, clean meat is poised to become the clean energy of food. To make this idea work, we should start consistently sticking it to this name: “clean meat”. If only it were that simple.
A war of words
Over the years, clean meat has been defined in myriad ways. Obviously, in the beginning – when the media was still not interested in this field – the preferred choice was usually clunky scientific terminology. “Tissue-engineered meat” or, at best, “in-vitro meat” were among the most popular options.
However, it quickly became evident that if the tissue-engineered meat producers wanted to have a shot at popularizing their product, they needed to change its name. Otherwise, the media would have came up with names of their own, as they actually did, starting to call this weird, new futuristic food “lab-grown”, “synthetic”, or, at worst, “frankenmeat”. (My utopian favorite term would undoubtedly be the retro-steampunk “Churchillian meat.”)
To fix the situation, the Good Food Institute – an American non-profit organisation that promotes plant-based and clean meat –researched terms more likely to elicit a positive reaction in potential buyers and now encourages the use of the term “clean meat”.
I also have a feeling that “clean meat” is an optimal way to express what this new product will be about: a sustainable version of traditional meat. Obviously, defining something as “clean” implies that the opposite is “dirty” which is not a particularly enthralling perspective for traditional meat producers that are fighting against the use of this expression.
For this story, I interviewed several entrepreneurs and scientists active in this field. The general consensus was that, at the moment, “clean meat” is the best option available. “But probably each country will have its own expression because ‘clean meat’ doesn’t translate equally well in all languages,” remarked Didier Toubia, CEO of Israeli clean steaks startup Aleph Farms.
The debate around the possible names of clean meat may sound trivial to a layman but at stake is the possibility to have a public debate in which this new product is less likely to be framed as an aberration created by some mad scientist rather than a much-needed sustainable innovation.
“Words are the most powerful tool of the human arsenal,” the Jewish tradition suggests in this regard. “Words have power, holiness, and even a life of their own,” cautions Rabbi Lazer Gurkow. The fact that Jewish teachings give such importance to the power of language is coincidental but it offers itself as a serendipitous bridge to the idea that is the core of this article: the Israeli tech ecosystem as a particularly fertile ground for the cultivation of clean meat.
In this sense, it’s difficult not to think that, in the Jewish context, the expression “clean meat” echoes the divine warnings about clean and unclean animals contained in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
The promised land for clean meat
In Israel, there are four promising startups working to create the meat of the future: Aleph Farms, SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, and BioFood Systems. Interestingly, they focus on four different products. Aleph Farms’ aim is to grow nothing less than a whole steak; SuperMeat wants to bring its customers lab-grown chicken, FM Technologies is developing a “distributive manufacturing” model that would allow small businesses (and ideally even individual consumers) to produce small quantities of clean meat, and BioFood Systems wants to produce beef products using bovine embryonic stem cells.
While SuperMeat’s attempt sounds like the most realistic and FM Technologies’ as potentially the most revolutionary, Aleph Farms promises to bring to your table the Holy Grill of clean meat: a perfect replica of the juicy chunk of meat you put on the BBQ.
Clean meat startups usually focus on growing processed meat (e.g. hamburgers) rather than entire cuts (e.g. a t-bone steak) because it’s quite complicated to recreate their labyrinthine structure of blood vessels. For this reason, as soon as I heard about Aleph Farms’ challenge to hit the market with a fully lab-grown steak, I reached out to its CEO and co-founder Didier Toubia. A biologist and food-engineer by education, Didier Toubia worked for many years in the field of medical innovation before switching to the clean meat space.
“In my career, I always looked for ways to combine business and worthy causes,” he told me via phone, “I’m doing this also for the next generation. I’m a father of two children and I want to leave them a healthier and cleaner world.”.
It’s easy to imagine that Toubia’s medical background influenced his approach to clean meat sphere, conceived by him not “just as a mass of muscle cells but as a tissue with a precise structure.” Indeed, to develop its lab-grown steak, Aleph Farms acquired from the Israel Institute of Technology the rights for the use of a patented tissue, originally developed for medical applications.
“This is the first competitive advantage of the Israeli clean meat ecosystem,” highlighted Mr. Toubia, “As a country, we have a noteworthy pedigree in science and technology studies, especially in stem cells research. And this way we can leverage the know-how of the many good universities that are based here.”
I then asked him about others competitive advantages of Israeli firms in the clean meat field. He states, “in Israel, there’s the world’s largest per capita population of vegans, around five percent of the population. The average consumer is usually keen on exploring meat alternatives. This is also due to the fact that animal welfare is held in high regard by the Jewish tradition.”
Right after my discussion with Didier Toubia, I bumped into a video on the Youtube channel of SuperMeat, the Tel Aviv-based startup that aims to develop cultured chicken meat.
In the video, several rabbis discuss why we should consider clean meat “kosher”. In particular, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner argues that the essential issue is whether “we should rule according to the process” or “according to the result.” Quite convincingly, he claims that we should just look at the process (after all, that’s what the whole concept of kosher is about) and therefore conclude that lab-grown meat is clearly “parve”, neutral.
Intrigued by this video, I reached out to Shir Friedman, SuperMeat’s VP of marketing. “Certainly, there are also cultural reasons behind Israel’s interest in clean meat. Veganism for ethical reasons is a quite popular choice here,” she told me.
Also Shaked Regev agrees on this point. He’s working for The Modern Agriculture Foundation, an Israeli accelerator devoted to the research and promotion of cellular agriculture and he's also a PhD student in Computational and Mathematical Engineering at the University of Stanford.
“I started to be interested in clean meat around 2011, when I found out about Mark Post’ attempt to create the first burger in Maastricht,” Shaked Regev told me. “We were a tight-knit community of animal rights activists and we soon spotted the potential of clean meat, we realized that it could make intensive farming obsolete. For us, this was not just a side interest; in many cases – myself included – it influenced what we decided to study at university.”
As for other contributing factors, Shaked Regev points to the usual suspects: “the world-class know-how in the field of stem-cell and tissue-culture research and the right mix of governmental support of technology and innovation.”
The reference to the governmental support brought up in my mind that this wealth of innovation is happening within a highly controversial political backdrop.
I wasn’t sure whether I should have mentioned it here. Obviously, the work in the clean meat field of these scientists, entrepreneurs, and academics has nothing to do with governmental policies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, two considerations prevailed in my judgment.
On the one hand, technological innovation doesn’t spawn out of thin air; it’s always entrenched into the social and political fabric. Therefore, it’s relevant to keep the bigger picture in mind (i.e. the socio-economic context) every time we discuss it, not to wield it as a rhetorical weapon but just for the sake of a more complete story. On the other hand, it’s also somewhat hopeful to observe that the site of the “world’s most intractable conflict” is also one where a most pressing human challenge is being fruitfully tackled. If solved, the clean meat challenge could make the whole world a much better – clean, peaceful, livable – place.
Beyond clean meat
But what happens if clean meat turns out to be an impractical solution? Maybe the tech will never scale, the price tag will never drop substantially, and this high-tech food will remain at best a gastronomic extravaganza, a sort of new molecular cuisine.
All of this may well be true. History proliferates of examples of much-hyped technologies that never really took hold. After all, we’re still waiting to see the Virtual Reality boom happen.
Yet even the possible failure of clean meat is in itself a stride in the right direction, part of the greater debate to fix urgent problems of global hunger, animal welfare, and climate change. If clean meat is not the silver bullet that we’re hoping for, it just means that we’ll have to try different strategies. “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” famously stated Deng Xiaoping.
Developments in the field of plant-based meat, for example, may render superfluous our quest to grow real muscle tissues in a lab. For the layman, plant-based meat consists of vegan products that mimic the flavor, shape, and structure of real meat. One of the best examples is the Impossible Burger, a vegan burger that “bleeds”. (Israel is also at the forefront of this field with larger corporations like Soglowek investing big money in the sector.)
Or maybe we could all just switch to a vegetarian lifestyle that doesn’t need meat, be it clean or plant-based. Maybe, the future of meat is that there is no future for meat.
Beyond this array of possible solutions, one thing is doubtless: we need to end intensive animal farming.
This article was originally published on Forbes
Header image credit: Mosa Meat
Sign up for our newsletter. Every week, our founder Mathys will send you the best stories about the world of doing good.
A new expansion has added environmental challenges to Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, the latest in a popular series of strategy video games that has been running since the 1990s. The expansion – called Gathering Storm – adds new features to the game, most notably anthropogenic climate change and natural disasters.
The game involves developing a civilisation from its humble beginnings in the Stone Age to nowadays and beyond, while choosing from a vast array of technologies and cultural policies. As the game and the ages progress, your energy choices become increasingly important. Indeed, Gathering Storm is based on a simple model of global warming wherein CO₂ emissions from energy sources induce sea level rise, as well as more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as droughts and storms. In turn, these can have potentially devastating effects on your cities and units, pushing the player to think about different adaptation strategies such as flood barriers for coastal cities.
The game even progresses into a “future era”, where players are offered options like carbon capture and storage technologies or “seasteads” to house segments of the population. From early on, this new expansion compels players to think about some of the potential long-term consequences of actions that may offer short-term benefits. One example would be chopping down forests to accelerate production or convert land for other uses which, in the long run, renders a city more vulnerable to flooding and reduces the carbon sink capacity of your civilisation.
When asked about whether Gathering Storm was somewhat of a political statement, the lead developer, Dennis Shirk, remained largely agnostic: “No, I don’t think that’s about making a political statement. We just like to have our gameplay reflect current science.” It is certainly true that the game does not coerce players into taking any particular pathway, yet it does include a “World Congress” in which climate or deforestation treaties and humanitarian aid can be ratified. We would also argue that the very inclusion of anthropogenic climate change and an associated system of incentives and punishments is inherently a political act. Moreover, in the social studies of science, what one considers to be “current science” has political ramifications.
In the case of Gathering Storm, for example, in most scenarios a player could probably continue to be a “free rider” and rely solely on technological solutions. That is only possible because those technologies are known in advance and players are given virtually perfect information on the different stages of climate change and its effects. One of the consequences is that the game essentially eliminates the very uncertainty which is inherent to the “current science” on climate change and conveys a sense of technological optimism whereby innovations alone can sustain human prosperity.
We are not suggesting that the developers are necessarily liable or even responsible for promoting these views. Rather we wish to illustrate how different depictions of the future can restrict or encourage certain courses of action. The developers could have chosen to make the effects of climate change and access to mitigating technologies more random (although we do not know how difficult that would be to implement in practice nor its effects on gameplay).
In contrast to this incidentally optimistic outlook, there is an interesting Polish video game by the name of Frostpunk. Frostpunk is set in a dystopian alternate reality in which a volcanic event has triggered a colossal global ice age. The game’s primary scenario consists of surviving the winter – which gets incrementally colder as time progresses – in “New London”: a settlement of survivors clustered around a large coal-powered generator. The player must choose between a number of difficult policies and options to ensure the survival of the population. These include 24 hour shifts, child labour, corpse disposal strategies and, more drastically, whether to welcome refugees or refuse them entry.
While Frostpunk does not directly address the issue of anthropogenic climate change, it evokes extreme scientific scenarios (from the 1970s and 1980s) of global cooling and nuclear winters. The game also takes place in what we understand is Victorian Britain, epitomising the industrial revolution and the onset of the new geological era we now live in: the Anthropocene.
Both these games go a long way in engaging and educating their players on climate change, forcing them to deal with the kinds of political and ethical trade-offs that exist in real world decision-making. We highly encourage these innovations, not just in video games but more broadly in bridging the gap between science and the digital arts.
In the academic journal Environmental Communication, we argue that science and the humanities (including the arts) need to work together in the case of complex issues such as climate change, so as to better communicate scientific thinking and its political ramifications. Video games – as interactive and playful products – offer truly exceptional opportunities to do just that. We welcome these initiatives with open arms, so long as they remain responsible and stimulate critical thinking.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Noam Obermeister, PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Cambridge and Elliot Honeybun-Arnolda, PhD Candidate in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. Read the original article here.
Evidence of the devastating impacts of anthropogenic climate change are stacking up, and it is becoming horrifyingly real. There can be no doubt that the climate crisis has arrived. Yet another “shocking new study” led The Guardian and various other news media this week. One-third of Himalayan ice cap, they report, is doomed.
Meanwhile in Australia, record summer temperatures have wrought unprecedented devastation of biblical proportions – mass deaths of horses, bats and fish are reported across the country, while the island state of Tasmania burns. In some places this version of summer is a terrifying new normal.
The climate disaster future is increasingly becoming the present – and, as the evidence piles up, it is tempting to ask questions about its likely public reception. Numerous psychological perspectives suggest that if we have already invested energy in denying the reality of a situation we experience as profoundly troubling, the closer it gets, the more effort we put into denying it.
While originally considered as a psychological response, denial and other defence mechanisms we engage in to keep this reality at bay and maintain some sense of “normality” can also be thought of as interpersonal, social and cultural. Because our relationships, groups and wider cultures are where we find support in not thinking, talking and feeling about that crisis. There are countless strategies for maintaining this state of knowing and not-knowing – we are very inventive.
The key point is that it prevents us from responding meaningfully. We “succeed” in holding the problem of what to do about the climate crisis at a “safe” distance. As the crisis becomes harder to ignore – just consider the current batch of shocking reports – individually and culturally we will dig deeper to find ways to strategically direct our inattention.
The standard narrative for a piece like the one I’m writing here, as a social scientist, is to now say something about how the crisis could be better communicated. The billion-dollar question, of course, is whether this most recent disaster can be used to motivate real change. No doubt it is important to keep this kind of commentary up. It is key that we consider how to give the climate crisis traction in a culture so accomplished at distancing us from uncomfortable realities.
But let’s be honest. No one really knows what works. We have never been here before. And I’m starting to think that more of this kind of analysis is, perversely, another example of distancing us from that crisis. Intellectualising terrifying climate crisis stories as an issue for “communicators” and “the public” is another way of detaching ourselves from their reality, from the relevance to me and you.
So let’s cut through all that and stop invoking an imaginary audience. Many terrible things are happening as a result of climate change – their happening is being reported. How are you receiving it? How does it feel? Are you shocked, horrified, scared, bored, tired? What do you do with the terror? Do you compartmentalise it somewhere “safe”? Perhaps like me, you know you care. You attach importance to climate change, you want to act correctly, avoid risking other lives, damaging homes and habitats. Perhaps you know you are scared too – scared of contemplating what we have already lost or of what will happen as the crisis gets closer still. Scared of what you are being asked to give up.
Add in some residual guilt and you might then engage in a defence of some kind, consciously or otherwise – telling yourself that others are more responsible, there is nothing we can do, everybody else seems to be carrying on as normal. As the crisis deepens, the walls close in, you might double down on those defences.
So where do we go from here? How might this knowledge help us – you and me? We must make a commitment, but not of the kind you might imagine. The shocking reality of the climate crisis is making its way into the webs of everyday life, emotions, thought processes, relationships, hopes, dreams and fears. Perhaps we should commit to letting it, as an alternative to doubling down on our denial.
We can do this individually, but more important is collectively acknowledging our fears about actual and anticipated losses. Fears about the loss of species and habitats, but also our established ways of life. This leads to more constructive questions, about what we want to hang on to, what are our obligations? I don’t have ready answers to these questions, but I am still confident we can find ways to keep doing the things we really care about – for ourselves, each other, the places we live in. But we need to talk about these choices.
Such a process is still miles apart from many “sustainability” agendas. Halting the climate crisis is still predominately framed as a matter for individual choice and change – use less plastic, cycle to work, fly less. But the behavioural response required is way more complicated than that.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the personal is political. I am talking about a politics that grows from opposition and critique of our current systems. This is evident in young people organising school strikes and protesters willing to get arrested for their direct action. But we also need to pay more attention to what is lost, to who and what we care for, to other possible ways of being.
Some conservation scientists, at least, see recent cultural change as a hopeful sign of a growing sense of care and responsibility. So stop feeling guilty, it’s not your fault. Be attentive to what’s going on, so that you might notice what you care about and why. What are you capable of, and what might we be capable of together, when we aren’t caught between knowing and not knowing, denial and distress?
See what obligations emerge. There are no guarantees. But what else do we do?
The newest addition to a generous list of 520 (!) candidates for the upcoming 2020 US presidential election, was senator Cory Booker. On February 1st, Booker announced he is running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.
Booker, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate started his career in politics in 1998 as a Member of the Municipal Council of Newark with an upset victory. Between 2006 and 2012 he served as the 36th Mayor of Newark and assumed office as a US Senator in 2013, making him the first Black senator from New Jersey.
As Senator Booker joins the most diverse Democratic presidential candidate pool in history with five women, one LGBTQ+, one Latino and two Black candidates (as of February 4th 2019) he’s also making history as the party’s first vegan candidate.
A vegetarian since 1998 and vegan since 2014, Senator Booker often speaks about how switching to a plant-based diet has improved his life both mentally and physically. Alongside advocating for a plant-based diet for personal health reasons he is also very outspoken about the negative effects of the animal farming industry on the planet and on the lives of fellow humans.
In an interview with plant-based magazine VegNews Booker said:
“You see the planet earth moving towards what is the Standard American Diet. We’ve seen this massive increase in consumption of meat produced by the industrial animal agriculture industry. The tragic reality is this planet simply can’t sustain billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture because of environmental impact… We will destroy our planet unless we start figuring out a better way forward when it comes to our climate change and our environment. ”
Booker’s dietary preferences stand as a stark contrast with the current president ’s notorious diet of steak with ketchup and twelve diet cokes a day, as does his central message of unity and grassroots action.
Cory Booker is not the only vegan US politician who’s running for future elections. Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, a vegan advocate who has several initiatives such as promoting vegan lunches in local school districts, will be running for mayor of New York City during the 2021 elections. A fellow New Yorker and vegan, Council Member Helen Rosenthal will also be running in the 2021 elections but for New York City comptroller.
Many people have declared 2019 the year of the vegan and the plant-based diet the future of nutrition. A new way of eating with the premise of a flourishing planet and better lives for its inhabitants is making its way through our society from music to technology, and now outspoken vegan politicians with a real shot at the office in the country that is the world’s largest meat consumer.
All signs point to a plant-based future.
Speaking of a plant-based future, our first Kinder Conversation on the Future of Meat is fast approaching. We'll talk about the 'new meat' and how as a society we can (and should) reduce our dependency on animal farming. Get your tickets before we sell out: http://bit.ly/KinderMeat
Header image is by Sean Davis via Flickr.