Clean Meat May Solve Our Factory Farming Problem
Clean Meat May Solve Our
Factory Farming Problem
Imagine a burger. Brioche bun, tomato slices, an oversize leaf of butter lettuce, pickles, extra special sauce. Not a veggie burger. Real, juicy, slightly-charred-on-the-outside meat. Only it didn’t come from a cow. Or a turkey. Or any other animal grown on a farm. How? Scientists are developing ways to grow meat—just meat—without carving up a single animal. It’s called clean meat, and no, this is not a satire. Clean meat is exactly like the meat you would get in a conventional burger (or on a drumstick, or a pork chop, or a rib eye). Except it’s grown from a small sample of animal stem cells rather than taken from an animal born and raised on a farm.
Matt Ball, a long-time vegetarian and nonprofit veteran, is an activist on staff at the Good Food Institute, an organization that provides strategic support to clean meat start-up companies. According to scientists and environmentalists, we have a lot to gain by flipping our food system. There’s animal welfare, yes, but clean meat would be better for us and the planet as well. (According to The New York Times, “In the United States, 42 percent of agricultural emissions come from animal agriculture.”) While clean meat is probably several years away from your dinner plate, the technology is in a fascinating stage of development right now. And if the whole idea of meat from animal stem cells creeps you out, Ball has a perspective that might change your mind.
A Q&A with Matt Ball, MS
Agriculture in the United States became industrialized after World War II, and it has become even more efficient in the decades since. When my grandparents were kids, almost half the people in the United States worked in food production. But now, fewer than 2 percent of people in the United States are farmers, and the population for which they’re providing is much larger. So fewer people are producing a lot more food, and they’re able to do it on a scale that makes prices much lower.
The percentage of the average family’s budget that goes to food is smaller than it’s ever been. So besides the fact that food is cheaper in general, the industrialization of animal agriculture specifically has led to a cheaper, more abundant supply of meat. It’s a lesson in basic supply and demand: If something is cheaper, people will consume more of it. And we’ve gotten to a place where eating a lot of meat is the new normal.
Plant-based meat and clean meat are two ways to produce the meat people are used to without the downsides of conventional meat production.
Plant-based meats are meat-imitating products that are made entirely from plants. This isn’t just your average veggie burger or black bean burger or the hunk of tofu your hippie uncle ate in 1990. Scientists have taken conventional meat and broken it down into its constituent parts—amino acids, lipids, minerals, and water—and then re-created those elements from things found in the plant kingdom. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are re-creating the smell, taste, and mouthfeel of meat with products made entirely from plants. These plant-based meats have been really successful in the mainstream. They’re now being served in upscale restaurants as well as common burger joints, like TGI Friday’s and White Castle.
“Clean meat,” on the other hand, is actual animal meat. Actual animal cells. It’s the same as conventional meat right down to the DNA. But instead of growing it on an animal, clean meat is grown in a clean facility. (Scaled up, these facilities will look like breweries.) And it’s just the meat—not the brains, not the bone, not the feathers or the hair or the hooves.
Winston Churchill actually predicted clean meat technology in 1931 in an article called “Fifty Years Hence.” Churchill thought that in fifty years, we would be able to grow chicken meat without having to grow an entire chicken. It’s been a staple of science-fiction for many decades now, but it actually came into science-fact through the technology of tissue engineering for human medical purposes. For decades, doctors have been growing human cells and tissues outside the actual human body to use for transplantation—heart cells for people who have damaged hearts, or skin cells for people who need skin grafts. And then people looked at this technology and said, “This works. Why can’t we use it to grow meat directly as well?” That’s how this technology came to be used for food.
Some of the world’s leading figures in clean meat started out as medical doctors. Dr. Mark Post, an MD from the Netherlands, created the first clean meat burger, which he unveiled in 2013, and then he went on to found the company Mosa Meats in the Netherlands. Dr. Uma Valeti, another prominent figure in this industry, was a practicing cardiologist before he became the cofounder and CEO of Memphis Meats.
There are several areas of public and personal health concern that are or could be addressed by clean meat.
Food safety. If you study food safety issues, you see that meat is often contaminated with pathogens, and that often has to do with feces. The big industrial animal farms can produce as much waste as a city, but there’s no sewer system, no wastewater treatment facility. Instead, you get manure lagoons. Then maybe a hurricane hits, or there’s some other disruption, and these manure lagoons overflow and run off into the environment.
In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving last year, we saw a whole bunch of issues with contaminated turkeys. The recent romaine lettuce recalls, too, have been caused by manure runoff seeping into irrigation water. If you grow meat directly—that is, without the animal—then there’re no intestines, no feces, and no fecal contamination. That would be a major advance for public health.
Antibiotic overuse. The vast majority of antibiotics we use in the world don’t go toward making sick people better. They’re mostly fed to animals raised for meat. In industrial animal agriculture systems, animals get subclinical doses of antibiotics. This is to keep them alive and to allow them to grow in extremely dense and confined conditions, where if one animal were to get sick, a whole herd of livestock—thousands and thousands of animals—could catch that illness and die. The conditions that necessitate this kind of antibiotic use are devastating, but that’s not even the scariest part; antibiotic use in animal agriculture is a primary driver behind the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
Antibiotic-resistant infections already kill thousands of people. But if you want to be really scared, Google “the end of working antibiotics.” Once we lose the ability to use antibiotics because pathogenic bacteria have become resistant to the ones we have, even minor scrapes could lead to deadly infections. It would be devastating for public health. A transition to clean meat can help. Since clean meat is grown in a clean facility—where there are no animals, no feces, no illness—it won’t require antibiotics. We hope it will help us extend the useful life of our antibiotics.
Nutrition. On a personal health level, it is possible that we can tweak the composition of clean meat to have a different nutritional profile. It doesn’t have to be exactly like the meat you buy today. Just as bison meat has a different nutritional profile from chicken, which has a different nutritional profile from pork. You could take cow cells and grow them so that they don’t have as much saturated fat. You could even add in other types of cells to fortify meat with omega-3 fatty acids.
This technology is possible, but it’s not yet certain if or when clean meat companies will go after it. Some companies might just want to give people exactly what they’re used to. Others might think: Well, we should give people better meat. How this will play out is still a question.
As I mentioned, agriculture in general and animal agriculture in particular have become much more efficient than they were a hundred years ago, but they’re still inherently inefficient. When we think about our food system and how we can lower our environmental impact, we usually think about food waste; common figures state we waste 25 to 40 percent of our food. But consider how resource-intensive it is to produce meat: According to the World Resource Institute, it takes nine calories of plant crops to yield one calorie of chicken meat. And we know the total burden of food waste in animal agriculture is much higher than 25 to 40 percent.
Clean meat is a much more efficient process: You don’t need to grow crops to make it, and it cuts out the energy needed to grow and sustain a living animal. You can produce just as much meat with much lower input—and drastically reduce the harmful outputs. The more crops you need to grow livestock, the more fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides you use; the more land you take up; the more water you need; and the more greenhouse gases you emit. Without animal agriculture, we can reduce harm to our planet in all of these areas.
If you offer people an honest description of how clean meat will be produced and the benefits it might offer, you’ll find that the majority of people in the United States are willing to try clean meat. And in our polls, 40 percent of people would be willing to pay more for it than for regular meat.
If you ask people what they think about meat, you’ll often hear they eat meat in spite of how it’s produced, not because of how it’s produced. In 2018, Oklahoma State University released a poll that found 47 percent of people want to ban slaughterhouses, and over two thirds are uncomfortable with how animals are used in our food system today. Once you can give people a better option—especially one that speaks to their values—they’ll pick it.
For people who jump to the fear that clean meat is weird or unnatural, the example I like to give is this: Forty years ago, the first baby conceived through in-vitro fertilization was born. At the time, there were people all over the political spectrum, including scientists and politicians and theoreticians, who thought that IVF was the greatest present threat to humanity. They said it would undermine what it means to be human, that we would soon have frankenbabies, etcetera. Now there’s no moral judgment about in-vitro fertilization. About 1.5 percent of the babies born in the Western world were conceived through IVF. It’s a nonissue. That is how these kinds of technologies enter the public mind: There may be some initial backlash, but the benefits outweigh the weird factor. Ultimately, they’re accepted as normal, and we hope, in the case of clean meat, even the default.
Yes. That is absolutely the case. Again, it’s supply and demand, and right now plant-based meat companies are unable to meet demand. As demand outskirts supply, these companies are going to charge whatever the market will bear that maximizes profits, which in turn allows them to build more production facilities. Eventually, as they ramp up production and other companies move into this space, they’ll all be able to bring down prices, maintain profits, and meet demand as it continues to grow.
The same thing will happen with clean meat, but that is further down the road. While Impossible Foods can make the Impossible Burger at a large enough scale to put it in restaurants across the country, right now, clean meat companies are able to produce only enough for a tasting here and there, and only for a select number of people. First these companies have to get to the point where they can produce at scale, and then they have to be able to scale up to drive down prices.
This will all take place eventually. Plant-based meat and clean meat are more efficient to develop than conventional meat. They require fewer inputs to produce the same outputs. Someday they will be able to compete on price with—and then eventually undermine—conventional meat. It just will be a while until that kind of scale is reached.
Conservatively speaking, we’re probably a decade away from clean meat on a scale of the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger. The price won’t be competitive yet, and clean meat won’t be everywhere, but it will be something that people can access if they want it.
I’ve been really surprised at how quickly the field of clean meat has moved in just a few short years. This is not just about burgers. Memphis Meats is producing poultry, New Age Meats is producing sausages, and Just Meat launched a partnership to produce clean Wagyu.
Matt Ball is the senior media relations specialist at the Good Food Institute. After years as a vegetarian, Ball left Carnegie Mellon’s environmental engineering PhD program to pursue work in environmental and animal advocacy. He has served as the executive director of Vegan Outreach as well as the director of engagement and outreach for Farm Sanctuary. Ball holds an MS in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University and an MS in forest ecology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.