Reporter Chase Purdy takes a bite out of the emerging, billion-dollar, lab-grown meat industry. To help the environment, consider having a more sustainable burger.
Chase Purdy, a reporter for Quartz and POLITICO, and a National Fellow at New America, begins by detailing how the meat and the dairy industries damage the environment. His saga then shines a spotlight on start-up companies that hope to grow meat in lab vats using starter cells from living animals.
Writing with verve and wit, Purdy turns an arcane subject into an entertaining narrative, with clear explanations of the technology involved and profiles of two colorful advocates: Dutch cell-cultured meat pioneer Willem van Eelen and vegan activist Josh Tetrick,who runs JUST, Inc., the first Silicon Valley food technology start-up to reach a valuation of a billion dollars.
Purdy offers a fact that may drive readers straight to a vegan diet: the meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than all cars, ships, trains and airplanes combined. The author adds that the meat industry slaughters 65 billion animals annually, and people kill a trillion fish each year.
The food system that we have built over the last century is a dead end for the future.Chase Purdy
Purdy says it simply: reducing meat consumption would forestall this environmental threat. He cautions, however, that “cell-cultured meat” companies must cut their production costs, pass government regulations and overcome consumer skepticism.
Willem van Eelen
Pioneering Dutch doctor Willem van Eelen conceived of lab-grown meat in the late 1940s and, Purdy explains, spent his life raising money and recruiting scientists to work on it. He won his first patent in 1999.
In 2013, Mark Post, a member of van Eelen’s scientific consortium, introduced a prototype of lab-grown hamburger meat on British television. Purdy stresses that at the time cell-cultured meat was prohibitively expensive. It cost $330,000 to grow enough for a five-ounce hamburger. However, the author notes, an Israeli company hopes to make cell-cultured meat available for $10 a pound by 2022.
Purdy reports that more than 30 companies – with start-ups in Holland (Mark Post’s Mosa Meat), Tokyo (IntegriCulture), California (Memphis Meats and JUST), and Israel (SuperMeat, Aleph Farms and Future Meat Technologies) – are racing to get cell-cultured meat to market.
Big Money and vegan activism have collided and have found a common rhythm.Chase Purdy
Purdy makes clear that lab-generated meat is the wave of the future. He reports that venture capitalists and large food companies have invested more than $100 million in its development. Those involved include the Goldman Sachs Group, UBS, Bill Gates, the Singaporean sovereign wealth fund, Khosla Ventures, Tyson Foods, Cargill and Richard Branson.
Meat From Cells
Purdy offers a nicely comprehensible overview of the meat-creating process without getting bogged down in either scientific or disgusting details. Cultured meat requires cells, a nutrient medium and a “sterile bioreactor.” Scientists harvest cells from a living animal via a biopsy and place the cells in a “nutrient-dense medium.” The most productive medium, Purdy marvels, is “fetal bovine serum,” extracted from a cow fetus.At $1,200 per liter, the author points out, it’s too expensive for mass-production, and it raises ethical questions. Cell-cultured meat companies are working on proprietary plant-based nutrient-medium recipes.
Scientists place the cell-and-nutrients mixture in a bioreactor, where the cells grow into meat. Bioreactors regulate nutritional content, pH levels, acidity, temperature and oxygen.After the cells grow sufficiently, scientists spin the bioreactors to separate liquids from solids and remove the solid material – a “pinkish-gray mass” – that they spin again to render it edible. Purdy recognizes that his description of the process sounds pretty gross, but insists that it can produce a palatable product.
The Food Economy
Purdy reports that JUST is the lone plant-based meat start-up with experience in marketing food. Under its passionately vegan CEO, Josh Tetrick, JUST has been selling popular vegan products in groceries and restaurants worldwide since 2011.
Condiments, egg alternatives and cookie dough helped cushion JUST with capital, but those products make only small nips at the heels of what Tetrick describes as an entrenched and degrading food economy built on animal suffering.Chase Purdy
In 2017, Tetrick announced that JUST bought van Eelen’s patents – along with those of van Eelen’s American colleague, Jon Vein – and hired van Eelen’s daughter as an adviser. Purdy unveils the sources of the money that can make JUST a success: Tech-investment firm Khosla Ventures, Hong Kong’s Horizons Ventures, and business heavyweights Peter Thiel and Marc Benioff have all invested. Purdy marvels that in 2017, JUST became Silicon Valley’s first food-technology “unicorn” – a start-up valued at more than $1 billion.
The Israeli government, Purdy discovered, supports cultured-meat start-ups by offering grants and funding a “food technology incubator.” Purdy breaks down why Israel has focused on developing lab-grown food technology. Because it has minimal land and water, the nation is forced to import force much of its food.
In what Purdy presents as a setback, in March 2018, the Netherlands’ food safety authority labeled JUST’s meat “illegal goods.”In 2019, the European Union prohibited plant-based meat manufacturers from using the terms “burger,” “steak” or “milk” on their packages.
Unpredictable global economic growth, increases in inequality and forced migration due to climate change and political turmoil are expected to impact food security negatively across many regions of the world.Chase Purdy
Leaders of the cell-cultured meat businesses worried that conventional meat companies would influence the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to craft regulations that put meat producers at a disadvantage. Purdy explains how the FDA eventually will handle “premarket safety tests” in this sector and, he reports, the USDA will monitor the lab-created meat’s processing – similar to the way it monitors conventional meat facilities.
Sustainable Animal Agriculture
Purdy points out that most food is human-engineered – including fruits and vegetables – and that most meat and eggs come from animals who live far from nature. The author is adamant that solutions to global hunger and food-related climate change will likely emerge from laboratory innovations.
An Unlikely Success
If you aren’t vested in the food industry, aren’t vegan and aren’t passionate about animal rights, you might assume that Purdy’s non-meat meat saga wouldn’t hold your attention. However, surprisingly, his writing skill and honed eye for the telling – and often hilarious – human detail yank this story out of arcana and into the realm of fascinating industrial fables. Because Purdy is describing the future, he is also describing the arduous route pioneers must travel to get there despite determined efforts by the government and their competitors to undermine and forestall them. The lessons he raises are universal for all start-ups.