World With­out Slaugh­ter



UMA VALETI RE­MEM­BERS the first time he re­ally thought about where meat comes from. A car­di­ol­o­gist turned founder, Valeti grew up in Vi­jayawada, In­dia, where his fa­ther was a vet­eri­nar­ian and his mother taught physics. When he was 12, he at­tended a neigh­bor’s birth­day party. In the front yard, peo­ple danced and feasted on chicken tan­doori and cur­ried goat. Valeti wan­dered around to the back of the house, where cooks were hard at work de­cap­i­tat­ing and gut­ting an­i­mal af­ter an­i­mal to keep the loaded plat­ters com­ing. “It was like, birth­day, death day,” he says. “It didn’t make sense.” Valeti re­mained a car­ni­vore for more than a decade, un­til af­ter he had moved to the U.S. for his med­i­cal res­i­dency. But in time, he found him­self in­creas­ingly dis­turbed by food-borne ill­ness. He was es­pe­cially grossed out by the con­tam­i­na­tion that hap­pens in slaugh­ter­houses when an­i­mal fe­ces get mixed in with meat. “I loved eat­ing meat, but I didn’t like the way it was be­ing pro­duced,” he says. “I thought, there has to be a bet­ter way.”

In a tiny R&D suite in a non­de­script of­fice build­ing in the unglam­orous Sil­i­con Val­ley ex­urb of San Le­an­dro, a lanky, red-haired molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist named Eric Schulze is fid­dling with a mi­cro­scope, and I’m about to get a look at that bet­ter way. Like the spec­i­men he’ll show me, Schulze is some­thing of a hy­brid. For­merly a Food and Drug Ad­min-

is­tra­tion reg­u­la­tor, he’s now an ed­u­ca­tor, TV host, and se­nior sci­en­tist at Mem­phis Meats, the com­pany that Valeti founded in 2016 and whose lab­o­ra­tory he is show­ing me. Lin­ing one wall is a HEPA-fil­tered tis­sue cab­i­net, to which some­one has af­fixed a “Chicken Cross­ing” sign, and a meat freezer la­beled “An­gus.” Along the op­po­site wall is an in­cu­ba­tor di­aled to 106 degrees Fahren­heit, the body tem­per­a­ture of Anas platyrhyn­chos do­mes­ti­cus— the do­mes­tic duck.

Schulze plucks a petri dish from the in­cu­ba­tor, po­si­tions it un­der the mi­cro­scope, and then in­vites me to look into the twin eye­pieces. “Do you see those long, skinny things? Those are mus­cle-form­ing cells,” he says. “These are from a duck that’s off liv­ing its life some­where.” The cells look like strands of translu­cent spaghetti, with bright dots—nu­clei, Schulze says—sprin­kled here and there.

He re­moves that petri dish and in­serts an­other. In it, scat­tered among the spaghetti strands, are shorter, fat­ter tubes, like gummy worms. Those, he ex­plains, are ma­ture mus­cle cells. Over the next few days, they’ll join to­gether in long chains, end to end, and be­come mul­ti­cel­lu­lar my­otubes. These chains will form swirls and whorls un­til they look like the sky in Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Also, Schulze ca­su­ally notes, “they’ll start spon­ta­neously con­tract­ing.” Wait. Con­tract­ing? As in … flex­ing?

“This is all liv­ing tis­sue. So, yes,” Schulze says.

The idea of a dish full of duck mince sud­denly beginning to twitch and squirm makes me shake my head. What’s mak­ing duck bits move if not a brain and nerves? Schulze is used to this re­ac­tion. “For the past 12,000 years, we’ve as­sumed that when I say the word ‘meat,’ you think ‘an­i­mal,’ ” he says. “Those two ideas are con­cate­nated. We’ve had to de­cou­ple them.”

Meat with­out an­i­mals. It’s not a new no­tion. In a 1932 es­say pre­dict­ing sundry fu­ture trends, Win­ston Churchill wrote, “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 ba­sic science to grow meat in a lab has ex­isted for more than 20 years, but no one has come close to mak­ing cul­tured meat any­where near as de­li­cious or as af­ford­able as the real thing. But some­time in the next few years, some­one will suc­ceed in do­ing just that, tap­ping into a global mar­ket that’s al­ready worth tril­lions of dol­lars and ex­pected to dou­ble in size in the next three decades. De­spite a bevy of well-funded com­peti­tors, no one is bet­ter po­si­tioned than Mem­phis Meats to get there first.

Op­er­at­ing with a team of just 10 (though it’s ex­pected to grow to 40 in a mat­ter of months), the startup has al­ready cul­ti­vated and har­vested edi­ble beef, chicken, and duck in its biore­ac­tors, a feat no one else has achieved. Even al­low­ing for the va­garies of reg­u­la­tion—it’s not clear which fed­eral agency will over­see a food­stuff that’s real meat but not from an­i­mals—the com­pany ex­pects to have a prod­uct in stores by 2021. “They’re the leader in clean meat. There’s no one else that far along,” says ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Steve Jurvet­son, whose firm led Mem­phis Meats’ re­cent $17 mil­lion Se­ries A. Be­fore he met Valeti in 2016, Jurvet­son spent al­most five years re­search­ing lab-grown meat and meat al­ter­na­tives, be­liev­ing the mar­ket was set to ex­plode. “They’re the only one that con­vinced me they can get to a price point and a scale that would make a dif­fer­ence in the in­dus­try,” he says.

Go­ing in with Jurvet­son was a lineup of house­hold­name in­vestors that in­cludes Bill Gates, Richard Bran­son, and Jack Welch; their money will be used to build up Mem­phis Meats’ al­ready for­mi­da­ble trove of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and to fine-tune the process of com­bin­ing cells to pro­duce the tasti­est steaks and pat­ties, and drive down the cost. The in­fu­sion of pres­tige also boosts com­peti­tors. Mem­phis Meats’ lineup of back­ers “is enor­mous, es­pe­cially for a small com­pany like mine,” says Mike Selden, CEO of lab-grown fish-filet startup Fin­less Foods. “When in­vestors tell me, ‘Great idea, but we can’t re­ally vet the tech­nol­ogy,’ I can say, ‘Richard Bran­son and Bill Gates think it’s great.’ ”

The busi­ness case for clean meat, as the fledg­ling in­dus­try’s pro­gen­i­tors pre­fer to call it, could hardly be plainer. As emerg­ing middle classes in places like China and In­dia adopt West­ern-style di­ets, global con­sump­tion of an­i­mal pro­tein sky­rock­ets. (Mem­phis Meats is work­ing on duck be­cause it’s so pop­u­lar in China, which con­sumes more of it than the rest of the world com­bined.) But the U.N.’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion es­ti­mates 90 per­cent of the world’s fish stocks are now fully ex­ploited or dan­ger­ously over­fished. More than 25 per­cent of Earth’s avail­able land­mass and fresh­wa­ter is used for rais­ing live­stock. Only one of ev­ery 25 calo­ries a cow in­gests be­comes edi­ble beef. And meat pro­ces­sors of­ten must pay dis­posal com­pa­nies to haul away their ined­i­ble ton­nage—hooves, beaks, fur, car­ti­lage.

But it’s not just the fi­nan­cial op­por­tu­nity that has the likes of Gates and Bran­son so ex­cited: Meat is an on­go­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal and pub­lichealth catas­tro­phe. Live­stock ac­count for 14.5 per­cent of green­house gas pro­duc­tion— more than all trans­porta­tion com­bined. As meat de­mand soars, vir­gin rain­for­est gets razed to grow feed, and fresh­wa­ter sources are diverted from drought-prone re­gions. Over­crowded pig and poul­try farms are reser­voirs for global

pan­demics; an­i­mals raised in them are pumped full of an­tibi­otics, spurring the rise of drug-re­sis­tant su­per­bugs.

A sub­set of af­flu­ent con­sumers is will­ing to pay higher prices for free-range beef, cage-free eggs, and other an­i­mal prod­ucts mar­keted as sus­tain­ably pro­duced and cru­elty-free, but that’s a tiny slice of the mar­ket. With the FAO ex­pect­ing meat con­sump­tion to nearly dou­ble by 2050, only a rad­i­cal break with the past will pre­vent dou­bling down on prac­tices such as high­den­sity feed­lots and ver­ti­cal chicken farms.

The idea of such a rad­i­cal break at­tracted Bran­son, who stopped eat­ing beef in 2014 out of con­cern over de­for­esta­tion and slaugh­ter­house prac­tices. “I be­lieve that in 30 years or so,” he wrote in a blog post, “we will no longer need to kill any an­i­mals and that all meat will ei­ther be clean or plant-based.”

Big as it would be if Bran­son’s pre­dic­tion comes true, those be­hind Mem­phis Meats be­lieve they’re part of some­thing even larger. Al­ready, so-called cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture pro­duces every­thing from leather and vac­cines to per­fume and build­ing ma­te­ri­als. Within a few years, pro­po­nents say, it could elim­i­nate or­gan do­na­tion, oil drilling, and log­ging. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are as broad as life itself. “Hu­man civ­i­liza­tion was largely en­abled by the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of live­stock,” says Nicholas Gen­ovese, Valeti’s co-founder. “If we can mas­ter pro­duc­ing meat with­out live­stock, it’s re­ally go­ing to be the sec­ond do­mes­ti­ca­tion.”

VALETI’S MEAT-WITH­OUT-AN­I­MALS epiphany came soon af­ter his car­di­ol­ogy fel­low­ship at the Mayo Clinic in 2005. In a cut­ting-edge clin­i­cal trial, he used stem cells to re­pair da­m­age caused by car­diac ar­rest. Stem cells are un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated cells that can be­come dif­fer­ent types of tis­sue as they ma­ture; in­jected into a heart that’s been rav­aged by a coro­nary, they can form healthy new mus­cle to re­place what has been lost. If stem cells could be cul­ti­vated into heart mus­cle, he thought, why couldn’t they be ma­nip­u­lated into mak­ing a drum­stick or a porter­house? Why not grow just the porter­house and skip the rest of the cow? And while you’re at it, why not grow a steak with a health­ier nu­tri­tional pro­file?

A bit of re­search showed Valeti that he was far from the first to have the idea—but also con­vinced him that what hadn’t been fea­si­ble was quickly be­com­ing so. Rapid DNA se­quenc­ing was mak­ing it rad­i­cally faster and cheaper to, say, pro­gram yeast cells to man­u­fac­ture pro­teins. Ad­vances in data science made it pos­si­ble to tease out re­la­tion­ships in huge vol­umes of ex­per­i­men­tal data. Mean­while, the grow­ing high- end mar­ket for sus­tain­able and hu­manely raised foods pointed to a path for a prod­uct that was bound to be ex­pen­sive in its ear­li­est in­car­na­tions.

“If I con­tin­ued as a car­di­ol­o­gist, maybe I would save 2,000 or 3,000 lives over the next 30 years,” Valeti says. “But if I focus on this, I have the po­ten­tial to save billions of hu­man lives and tril­lions of an­i­mal lives.” His am­bi­tions got a ma­jor boost in 2014, when a friend from New Har­vest, a non­profit in­sti­tute that sup­ports work in cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture, of­fered to in­tro­duce him to Gen­ovese, a stem cell bi­ol­o­gist. Like Valeti, Gen­ovese had be­come vege­tar­ian. As a high school stu­dent, Gen­ovese was a mem­ber of his lo­cal 4-H Poul­try Club, com­pet­ing to raise the largest chick­ens. “Ev­ery­one would get their baby chicks on the same day. A few months later, there’s a weigh-in, and they give out tro­phies,” he re­calls. “As a teenager, it’s very ex­cit­ing.” It was also sober­ing. Those chick­ens, he says, “looked up to you for their feed, and looked up to you to pro­tect them. You lock them up at night so the foxes don’t get them. But at the end, you send them to their demise.”

He earned degrees in cell bi­ol­ogy and tis­sue en­gi­neer­ing and even­tu­ally got a job in a lab run by Vladimir Mironov, who was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the use of bio­print­ing—3-D printing us­ing liv­ing cells—to gen­er­ate re­place­ment or­gans. In 2010, Gen­ovese ac­cepted a three­year fel­low­ship from Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals, the con­tro­versy­court­ing an­i­mal wel­fare non­profit, to con­duct re­search into cul­tured meat. The PETA con­nec­tion also made him a tar­get for protest from lo­cal hog farm­ers, who ob­jected to his pres­ence af­ter he moved to the Univer­sity of Mis­souri. Af­ter learn­ing about Valeti’s work, Gen­ovese quickly nabbed a po­si­tion in his new lab at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota.

By 2015, with Gen­ovese on board, Valeti re­al­ized it was time to ditch academia. An­other New Har­vest contact sug­gested he reach out to IndieBio, the life-sci­ence­sori­ented tech ac­cel­er­a­tor. He did, and within an hour he was on the phone with its di­rec­tor, Ryan Bethen­court.

Bethen­court, a ve­gan, was well versed in the chal­lenges and prom­ise of cul­tured meat.

He had pre­vi­ously tried to per­suade Mark Post, a Dutch re­searcher who’d pro­duced the first full ham­burger patty out of lab-grown beef, to bring his work to IndieBio. (Post de­murred but sub­se­quently launched MosaMeat, backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.) “I said to Uma, this is an op­por­tu­nity to be­come a leader in this space and trans­form food as we know it,” Bethen­court re­calls. IndieBio be­came the first out­side in­vestor in Valeti and Gen­ovese’s startup, ini­tially dubbed Crevi Foods, af­ter the Latin word for “ori­gin.” (The founders quickly re­al­ized that it was a bit too clever. “No­body un­der­stood it,” Valeti says.)

In Septem­ber 2015, the two men moved to the Bay Area and started cul­tur­ing cow mus­cle and con­nec­tive tis­sue cells. (We think of meat as syn­ony­mous with mus­cle, but much of meat’s fla­vor and mouth­feel comes from the break­down of col­la­gen, a com­po­nent of skin, lig­a­ments, and fas­cia. It’s nec­es­sary to blend dif­fer­ent types of cells to make lab meat that tastes like the real thing.) By Janu- ary, they had enough to make their first tiny meat­ball. “I’ll never for­get when we first tasted what we had har­vested,” says Valeti. “It just im­me­di­ately brought back all the mem­o­ries you get when you eat meat.” It had been 20 years since Valeti had, but it nonethe­less con­firmed that, as far as they still had to go, they’d pro­duced, on the most fun­da­men­tal level, meat.

That helped validate the idea of try­ing to grow meat in the first place. All the aims of Mem­phis Meats and its ilk— mak­ing food health­ier, more hu­mane, and more ecofriendly—could ar­guably be bet­ter served by lead­ing con­sumers to plant-based al­ter­na­tives. Such op­tions are get­ting more so­phis­ti­cated: An­other Sil­i­con Val­ley startup, Im­pos­si­ble Foods, has raised al­most $300 mil­lion for a veg­gie burger that browns like ground beef and even “bleeds” when served rare, thanks to the pres­ence of heme, a com­po­nent of the blood mol­e­cule he­mo­glo­bin, which is also found in plants. The Im­pos­si­ble burger mim­ics the taste of a haute fast-food patty, though its con­sis­tency is not quite there—the out­side caramelizes, but the in­te­rior is a tad pud­dingy. (Gates has put money into Im­pos­si­ble, as well as in its com­peti­tor, Be­yond Meat.)

But the lab-grown-meat crowd be­lieves plants will never be the whole an­swer. Meat is sim­ply too com­plex and cul­tur­ally in­grained. “Hu­mans evolved over thou­sands of years eat­ing meat,” says Valeti. A high-tech veg­gie burger might be able to re­place ground chuck, but that’s one nar­row ap­pli­ca­tion. Lab meat, he says, “be­cause it’s meat, can be cooked any way meat is cooked. Peo­ple can buy it off the shelf, take it home, and cook it in the ways they’ve known for cen­turies.”

Those ar­gu­ments led Hamp­ton Creek, one of the best-known and best-funded plant-based food star­tups, to ex­pand into clean meat. For its first four years, Hamp­ton Creek fo­cused on us­ing plant pro­teins to re­place eggs in prod­ucts like may­on­naise and cookie dough. But CEO Josh Tet­rick came to ap­pre­ci­ate con­sumers’ at­tach­ment to what they know. “A big lim­it­ing step to plant-based meat is cul­ture. My fam­ily

wouldn’t go to Walmart and buy some­thing that says ‘plant­based ham­burger,’ ” says Tet­rick, who grew up in Alabama.

Tet­rick’s pivot to­ward clean meat hap­pened amid a con­flict with the com­pany’s board of direc­tors, which led to all five out­side direc­tors re­sign­ing. That fol­lowed a long se­ries of com­pany stum­bles, in­clud­ing an at­tempted coup by top ex­ec­u­tives who tried to go be­hind Tet­rick’s back to the board and were promptly shown the door; ac­cu­sa­tions of a large-scale buy­back pro­gram to boost sales, which drew scru­tiny from the Jus­tice Department; and the loss of one of its big­gest distrib­u­tors— Tar­get. Skep­tics won­der if the com­pany’s sur­prise June an­nounce­ment that it will have one or more cul­ti­vated-poul­try prod­ucts in stores by the end of 2018 was a di­ver­sion­ary tac­tic. The time­line seems op­ti­mistic. Even if the kinks can be worked out that quickly, there’s no guar­an­tee reg­u­la­tors will sign off in time. Still, Hamp­ton Creek has raised more than $200 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­i­tal and has a team of 60 work­ing on R&D, in­clud­ing top cell bi­ol­o­gists from academia and in­dus­try. In Septem­ber, to punc­tu­ate an an­nounce­ment that it had se­cured patents around its clean-meat pro­cesses, Tet­rick tweeted a video of what looks like a burger siz­zling in a skil­let; a spokesman de­clined to say whether the video shows the com­pany’s first clean beef. A knowl­edge­able in­dus­try in­sider says Hamp­ton Creek’s progress and dys­func­tions are real. “I think the only thing that will pre­vent Hamp­ton Creek from be­ing first to mar­ket with this is the com­pany ex­plod­ing,” says the source. (Asked for a re­sponse to this state­ment, Hamp­ton Creek de­clined to com­ment.)

FOR MEM­PHIS MEATS, with its sig­nif­i­cant head start and singular focus, the path to suc­cess is straight­for­ward. It needs to make its meats more ap­pe­tiz­ing and much cheaper. One morn­ing this sum­mer, Valeti as­sem­bled his full team to talk about how far they had come and how far they still had to go. A few weeks ear­lier, Mem­phis Meats had held its first-ever tast­ing for out­siders, invit­ing more than 25 peo­ple to sam­ple fried chicken and duck à l’or­ange. The event was deemed a suc­cess. “They re­ally nailed the tex­ture and mouth­feel,” one guest, sus­tain­able food ad­vo­cate Emily Byrd, said. But it was ex­pen­sive. Grow­ing that “poul­try” cost about $9,000 per pound. At his com­pany meet­ing, Valeti re­vealed that the most re­cent har­vest, in May, had been con­sid­er­ably cheaper, with the meat cost­ing $3,800 per pound. “I want it to keep go­ing down by a thousand dol­lars a month,” said Valeti. “Our goal is to get to cost par­ity, and then beat com­mer­cial meat.”

That re­mains a dis­tant goal. But the­o­ret­i­cally, cul­ti­vat­ing meat should have high startup costs but low op­er­a­tional costs: Given the right con­di­tions, liv­ing cells di­vide on their own. The ma­jor fac­tor gov­ern­ing costs is the nu­tri­ent-rich medium in which those cells grow. All the com­pa­nies that have suc­cess­fully grown meat have re­lied on fe­tal bovine serum, which is ex­tracted from cow fe­tuses, as a key medium com­po­nent. But FBS is ex­pen­sive, and sig­nif­i­cantly weak­ens claims cul­ti­vat­ed­meat com­pa­nies can make about ve­gan or cru­elty-free prod­ucts. Hamp­ton Creek says it has grown and har­vested chicken with­out FBS, al­though it has been tightlipped about its meth- —RYAN BETHEN­COURT, a Mem­phis Meats in­vestor ods. Mem­phis Meats ac­knowl­edges it used FBS to start its cell lines but says, “We have val­i­dated a pro­duc­tion method that does not re­quire the use of any serum, and we are de­vel­op­ing ad­di­tional meth­ods as we speak.”

Tet­rick likens the ex­pense of medium—it’s called “feed” at Mem­phis Meats—to the need electric-car mak­ers have to de­velop bet­ter bat­ter­ies. “If we fig­ure out how to sur­mount that lim­it­ing step,” he says, “sud­denly all the eco­nom­ics start look­ing bet­ter.”

Electric cars are an apt metaphor, be­cause when­ever clean meat does hit su­per­mar­kets, it will al­most cer­tainly be pricier than con­ven­tional meat. Mem­phis Meats and its com­peti­tors will likely spend a few years court­ing con­sumers who buy wild-caught At­lantic sal­mon and grass­fed sir­loin at Whole Foods. “They’re go­ing to have to some­how po­si­tion it as some­thing worth pay­ing more for,” says Patty John­son, an an­a­lyst who cov­ers the meat in­dus­try for Min­tel Group. One pos­si­bil­ity, she says: Like Im­pos­si­ble Foods, Mem­phis Meats could per­suade in­flu­en­tial chefs to fea­ture its wares on their menus. An­other would be ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neer­ing nu­tri­tional pro­files so the com­pany could tout in­creased health ben­e­fits—adding, say, omega-3 fatty acids to beef to make it as healthy as sal­mon.

Valeti is care­ful to avoid sound­ing as if he wanted to put Big Meat out of busi­ness. He ar­gues that the big meat pro­ces­sors will be keen on clean tech­nol­ogy, whether as li­censees, cus­tomers, in­vestors, or ac­quir­ers. (Agribusi­ness gi­ant Cargill joined Gates and Bran­son in Mem­phis Meats’ Se­ries A; Tyson Foods has a ven­ture fund that in­vests in sim­i­lar tech­nolo­gies.) Cows and pigs aren’t get­ting any cheaper to raise or slaugh­ter, but if lab meat fol­lows the course of other early-stage tech­nolo­gies, it can con­tinue to get more in­ex­pen­sive for years to come. “It’s not crazy to think you might one day be able to brew meat at $2 per pound, $1 per pound,” says Bethen­court. “At that point, we can re­place pretty much all in­dus­trial meat. In 20 years, I think peo­ple will look at grow­ing and killing an an­i­mal as bizarre.”

And while Mis­souri’s pig farm­ers may see their doom in a world of meat with­out an­i­mals, com­pa­nies that buy meat from farm­ers view it very dif­fer­ently, ex­plains Jurvet­son. When an out­break of avian flu or mad cow strikes, “if you’re in their in­dus­try, it’s a very scary world,” he says.

Valeti won’t mince words, ei­ther. “The sta­tus quo in an­i­mal agri­cul­ture is not OK. That sta­tus quo is go­ing to kill a lot of peo­ple.” All the more rea­son to bring on the sec­ond do­mes­ti­ca­tion.

“We have the po­ten­tial to save billions of hu­man lives and tril­lions of an­i­mal lives.” –UMA VALETI, co-founder of Mem­phis Meats

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.