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What I talk about when I talk about public opinion on cultured meat, microbe magic, and the scourge of palm oil.
Tickets for my east coast event on April 6th are available now. It will be a great conversation with thought-provoking bites hosted by Farm to People in Brooklyn.
On with the show. Last week, Kim Severson of the New York Times wrote about cultured chicken. The New Secret Chicken Recipe? Animal Cells. The headline played up the idea that we were reading this future fantasy in the eponymous food section: Severson traveled to Upside Foods, which I also visited in my book. I tasted the company’s chicken in its Berkeley offices; Severson tasted her “chicken” in the company’s new 53,000-square-feet pilot facility in Emeryville, CA. She wrote: “Growing cells into meat remains the Wild West of food production.” Hard to imagine cowboy boots and saloons from where Severson was standing, but there’s certainly a Gold Rush happening in the sector.
The new pilot facility cost tens of millions in venture capital money. (I’ve heard some say $50 million, others say double that.) In it, dozens of gleaming bioreactors await nutrients and cells. Nearby rooms are perfectly chilled for the hoped for food production. It’s Willy Wonka meets a Wall Street bank vault. Perhaps that’s the Wild West part—the gobs of VC money and seemingly light regulatory oversight. (It’s not approved for sale in the US, but the regulatory agencies don’t seem to be in the drivers seats.)
Severson is good at what she does, and I enjoyed reading her take on the industry. I also gleefully dug through the comments to see what readers thought. My main agenda were the comments, not the comments within the comments. (Some comments have been condensed for brevity.) Here goes:
Comments in favor of cultured meat: 146
Comments against cultured meat: 124
Unclear, neither pro nor con: 48
Snarky comments that made me laugh: 46
Soylent Green reference (of course this came up): 17
Complaints that Danny Meyer (restaurateur quoted in the piece) is an idiot: 8
Vegans whining that people should eat less meat, or just eat their vegetables (Yeah!): 29
Is there any cholesterol? Does it have the same nutrients found in animal protein? 13
I’m sure they’re using fetal bovine serum: 8
This can’t happen soon enough: 12
I can’t wait for humans to be cultured: 6
Um, but is it kosher? 3
My favorite comment: “Isn’t all meat cellular?” (They’re right. Everything we eat is made of cells. And chemicals!)
Another in this realm: "‘Just one in 10 Americans would be interested in trying food or beverages grown from cells.’ So I guess only 1 in 10 Americans would want to try: yogurt, bread, beer, cheese, or, my personal favorite, the purest of the cell-grown foods, Marmite.”
Vegans go meta: “Is 'cultured meat' a living thing that should be afforded the rights of any other living thing?”
A common thread was this: “Nope nope nope! What keeps the cells inside your body from getting overrun with bacteria? Your immune system. What keeps the cells in their vats from being overrun with bacteria? Tons and tons of antibiotics!” (Cultured meat founders like to say they plan to avoid antibiotics, but I’m unclear how they can do this.)
Ditto: “There’s one technical issue…how to prevent opportunist infection with bacteria or viruses when the process is scaled up? All edible animals have immune systems to keep such infection problems under control - but lab grown meat doesn't. We know how hard - or impossible - it is to eliminate nasty infectious micro life from hospitals once they have appeared. I predict it will be harder to do than ensuring clean rooms for wafer production, and that will keep the price high, unless an immune system equivalent is developed in parallel. Throwing tons of antibiotics at it would be as a much of a losing struggle as it is in existing animal production.”
Here’s one making the link to Big Ag: “Anything funded and developed by ADM and other mega ag firms is not something I would ever want to eat or support. Either give up meats for plant-based protein, or eat the real thing from local farmers. It only takes a nice drive into the country-side for many people to purchase, directely, from the farmer. Or, check your farmers markets.”
The pro approach: “I’m sure Big Meat will do everything it can to freak us out about this technology. But the current state of meat production in this country is already so horrific, it has no where to go but up.”
More pro: “Why would anyone who doesn't feel squeamish about eating the flesh of slaughtered animals feel squeamish about the technology?”
Why bother? “The way I see it is that vegetarians (me) aren't interested in fake meat with fake blood and real meat eaters aren't interested in fake meat with fake blood so why? Also, the manufacturing, processing and packaging of this product probably is most likely if not more destructive as meat farming. Again why?” (People really want to know why.)
Arguing for a hybrid: Cultivated meat is a staple of science-fiction, in which the postulated societies often consider meat from animals to be an abomination. Certainly I think the animals would be in favor of cultivated meat, and the many animal-supporting arguments vegans and vegetarians make for their choices all stand up as reasons for cultivated meat to take over. The two keys are going to be flavor and cost. Affordable non-animal meat will be a real change agent, and if the flavor is as good or better, then 'real meat' will become a snob-appeal luxury item. I can't see much downside, except for the 'coal miners' factor... the ranchers and farmers who will need to switch to other 'crops' will be impacted. A wise rancher might invest in these companies when they can.”
The funny stuff:
“Hope to see this product available at Trader Joe's soon.”
“What about dark meat chicken lovers?”
“You lost me at ‘edible scaffold’.”
“I would not be "chicken" to eat the ‘new chicken’.”
The last word: “I have to laugh at a society that would eschew cultured meat because it's artificial or unhealthy, as if the gazillions of tons of Cheetos, AM/PM hot dogs, frozen pizza, RockStar, and Cocoa Puffs we eat are wholesome and natural.”
Microbes are like Disneyland. They can convert inedible resources into edible food, enhance flavor and texture, upcycle food waste and improve nutrients in food. We can also eat it—if it’s grown into a big mass. Here’s a conference you can attend if you want to nerd out on these organisms. It’s in Copenhagen this May. (Bonus points if you take me with you.)
So many of today’s plant-based foods include coconut oil, so wrongly I assumed it was the big kahuna of fats to worry about. But the oil that’s ubiquitous—and also saturated so not truly good for our health—is palm oil, which Bloomberg reports is in 50% of packaged foods at the grocery store. I’ve read about a few companies working on the issues found in coconut and palm, and I’m cautiously optimistic that they will find healthier solutions that use food waste and are better for the planet. One company working solely on palm oil is No Palm Ingredients, which couples industrial waste—like potato peels and rejected veggies—with a fermentation process to create oils that may sub in for palm oil. (Another company taking on the unsexy subject of oil is Zero Acre Farms, which shares less about its process but has already raised $37 million dollars.)
Where you can find me:
I wrote about lab-made chocolate for The Atlantic. There are only four companies that I know of working on this seemingly outlandish idea, which may one day be not so outlandish. As I learned more and more about the cocoa industry, it felt like everything was wrong with it. Whether this idea is the top solution is a big question I have.
I Zoom’d with the Harvard Food Literacy Project this week. The two hosts threw me some great questions on areas we tend to avoid: policy and taxes. Watch it here.
Lorin Fries interviewed me for Forbes.com. It’s a really enlightening Q & A that I didn’t cringe upon reading.
I’m moderating a panel at the Future of Protein Production Summit.
I’m the health track keynote at Food Integrity 2022.
I get to MC two days of cooking demos at Future Food Tech in San Francisco. (Got any jokes for me?)
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