A year ago, I raved to Evan Marks, director of The Ecology Center in Orange County (CA), about the future of synthetic proteins — meat grown in labs from stem cells. He was sitting with sustainability-minded chef Greg Daniels of the Haven Collective and the two recoiled from my words like Craig and Smokey in Friday. Marks, a big name in the world of food sustainability, seemed particularly bothered.
“Agriculture and animals are synonymous,” he told me then. “Fabricating a reality where an animal is extracted from the system creates an idea that humans are in charge of the planet rather than stewards of it. We know how to farm and manage animals in a really regenerative way — it’s an idea we can return to right now and rally around.”
His point made sense to me. I believe in Marks’s idea of human stewardship and also that there are limits to our dominion over fauna. But I don’t think that stewardship and lab grown proteins are somehow mutually exclusive. In fact, I told Marks that I see this sort of innovation as something that will allow us to care for animals better.
He frowned. “Why? Because we wouldn’t have to kill them? Because they use so much water?”
“Yeah,” I said, shrugging, “basically.”
I added that I’ve personally seen huge swaths of wild land flattened to make room for ranching across North America, South America, Asia, and Africa. As far as stewardship of animals goes, our consumption of red meat has done far more harm than good — habitat destruction is the #1 cause of species extinction and much of that is to make way for our food supply.
If we could make a steak in a lab that tasted as good as steak from a cow, why on earth wouldn’t we embrace that? Why wouldn’t we abandon ranches all together, if production allowed?
As we spoke about the subject, Marks and Daniels seemed to arrive at the same conclusion: Eating lab grown protein feels unnatural. Weird. I get that idea, but also find it to be short sighted: both men have smartphones, websites, and social media accounts helping to power their careers. They support solar energy and — sorry to hammer the point so bluntly — live in houses rather than cliff dwellings or teepees.
Why would we reject technology in the world of food sourcing when we’ve used it to benefit us in literally every other segment of human existence? Because you know what’s more unnatural than quivering petrie dish meat? Seven billion people squeezed onto a planet this size. Or 25 million people scrapping for resources in Southern California’s Mediterranean climate, where Marks, Daniels, and I all reside.
The fact is, humans have made the world unnatural through poor management and excessive population growth, and even the most humane methods of ranching don’t scale well for our current situation. Still, it’s undeniable that there’s something about this whole idea that grosses out food lovers. When I asked Chef Jeffrey Boullt about lab grown meat he listened to my case and seemed to see my point before ultimately waving it off.
“Nah,” he said, “I’ll just move to a farm and raise my own chickens.”
My conversations with Marks, Daniels, and Boullt feel particularly potent now — with the food world abuzz over a lab grown poultry product launched last week by a Bay Area startup called Memphis Meats. The company recently invited writers to visit a test kitchen in San Francisco and the response to their product was overwhelmingly positive. Like their “clean meatball” of a few years back, the poultry that Memphis Meats produces (chicken and duck) was grown from lab cultures.
The company claims that their product would offer a 90% reduction in resources used. There’s also the matter of “not killing things” — which is a big deal to a large segment of the vegetarian population. PETA, the world’s most famously outspoken advocates against consuming animals, has gone so far as to back Memphis Meats as a sustainable protein source.
Ingrid Newkirk, the president of the organization, told the Wall Street Journal that they are “very much in favor of anything that reduces or eliminates the slaughterhouse.”
While the case for this sort of product is strong, its popularity will rely on taste more than anything else. Over the course of ten years of covering the crossover between food and ecology, I’ve seen over and over that people are happy to save the world, but only if it comes without any noticeable dip in user experience. The better lab grown meats taste, the quicker people will get over their hang ups.
Ali Bouzari of Pilot R + D — a food research lab — thinks that synthetic proteins will initially be for people scraping to get by but also predicts that top tier chefs will be quick to adapt.
“What’s going to be really interesting,” he said, “is when chef’s at these hot New York spots get their hands on lab-grown products and take them into a new level. Chefs are going to completely flip it on its head.”
This is a plausible scenario, though the Impossible Burger — a veggie patty that imitates meat — started with the fine dining crowd right away. It’s easy to imagine a superstar chef picking up the second generation of Memphis Meats chicken and doing something special with it this year.
As we look at the interface between our love of meat and our desire to protect the environment, we have to be painfully honest about solutions: going vegetarian once a week won’t do the trick, neither will simply opting for the 8oz filet instead of the 16oz porterhouse. We’re going to need massive sweeping change and that’s going to mean either alternate proteins or avoiding meat altogether. At current rates, avoiding meats doesn’t seem to be the best path. Our palates are developing much slower than the world is burning.
We need to be both swift and pragmatic — as lab grown meats increase in popularity and decrease in cost, ranchers will lose work. That’s a net win for the environment (just like the collapse of coal) but also comes at a high cost for working class people (also just like coal). Hopefully, rather than fighting progress tooth and nail the beef industry will begin to plan ahead. There’s writing on the wall, we’re obligated to read it.
So get ready for fake chicken and steak grown from stem cells. “It’s just weird,” is no longer an acceptable excuse. We’ve pushed the planet to the tipping point, we’re going to have to get over a few hang ups to save it. Besides, if it tastes good enough you’ll forget it ever made you squeamish in the first place.