Getting behind the debate over lab-grown meat

Memphis Meats, fake meat

Memphis Meats
Southern fried chicken, prepared with meat cultivated by Memphis Meats.

“We built a lab with glass walls. That was on purpose,” Ryan Bethencourt, program director for the biotech accelerator IndieBio, told me as we sat in the company’s wide open basement workspace in the South of Market district of San Francisco.

Glass walls — it’s a design philosophy that many animal rights activists have argued could turn the world vegan, if only people could see into the slaughterhouses that produce their meat.

But IndieBio is taking a different approach. “If we put a lightning rod in the ground and say we are going to fund the post-animal bioeconomy,” Bethencourt, a self-described ethical vegan, explained, “then we’re going to create foods that remove animals from the food system.”

He pointed me to two examples in the accelerator: NotCo, a Chilean startup using a mix of plant science and artificial intelligence to create mayonnaise and dairy products, and Finless Foods, a two-man team using “cellular agriculture” to create lab-grown or “cultured” seafood. The latter is just one of several new products in development that creates meat without relying on actual livestock, using only a few cell tissues from animals instead.

While the number of alternatives to animal protein has been growing steadily over the last several years, it remains a relatively niche market. Bethencourt and his colleagues at IndieBio are eager to get their food into the hands of the masses. “If we don’t see our products used by billions of people, then we’ve failed,” he told me.

But it’s not just altruism that drives this emerging industry. There’s big money betting on a future of animal products made without animals.

Just look at IndieBio alum Memphis Meats, a cultured meat company that announced late last month that it had raised $17 million in Series A funding. High-profile investors have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson and ag industry giant Cargill, none of whom seemed deterred by the fact that no lab-grown meat product actually has been made available to consumers yet.

Major investment also has been pouring in for high-tech products made solely from plants. Hampton Creek, best known for its eggless mayo and dressings — and numerous controversies involving its embattled CEO Josh Tetrick — has been dubbed a “unicorn” for its billion-dollar valuation. (The company recently announced that it’s getting in on cultured meat innovation, too.)

Products from Beyond Meat are in over 11,000 stores across the United States, supported in part by early investment from Gates and a 2016 deal with Tyson Foods. Gates is also a backer of Impossible Foods, which has raised upwards of $300 million since it launched in 2011 and has the capacity to churn out 1 million pounds of “plant meat” each month in its new Oakland production facility.

All of this big money, of course, has followed big promises. According to the innovators and investors involved, a sustainable, well-fed, economically thriving world that makes factory farming obsolete is within our reach.


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