I stopped by a local sports bar this weekend and ordered a burger. I was prompted to do so after listening to a podcast about synthetic meat. Evidently products are already out there and ready for a test drive.
I’m not a vegetarian or even much of a peacenik when it comes to industrial agriculture or animal welfare. That’s not a battle I’m willing to fight – because I won’t win. I buy most of my meat in bulk directly from local farmers. It’s grass fed, organic, regenerative, blah, blah, blah and I fill multiple freezers with an entire pig, a whole lamb, a side of beef, and many chickens. So I have no squeamishness about eating meat, just so you understand where I’m coming from philosophically. But I was intrigued to see if meat cultured in a lab was any good. I keep a few packages of veggie burgers on hand for when guests have special dietary requirements. They aren’t bad, but no one will ever mistake them for meat.
But the Impossible Foods burger I had at the sports bar was genuinely… meaty. The texture, the taste, and all the subtle indicators put it on the same level as a regular beef burger. Yet it’s made entirely from plants. This is the second generation of this particular product and the company is working to expand their offerings to include cultured pork and chicken. Evidently ground beef was chosen as their initial product since it’s so ubiquitous in the market. If they can ramp up the scale of their manufacturing process and get really efficient this could catch on.
The key ingredient of the new meatless meat is heme – a molecule that has the bloody properties we associate with meat. Yeast has been genetically engineered to create heme that was extracted from the roots of the soy plant. The yeast is grown in fermentation vats like beer. Then the heme is added to the regular soy substrate of the synthetic meat. This may not sound appetizing, but the burger was genuinely tasty. And you need to compare the fermentation vats to an industrial abattoir which isn’t so pretty.
I’ve been to a few breweries in my day and they range from boutique gastro pubs to industrial facilities that look more like oil refineries. But the process is the same. A feedstock is added to a vat and micro organisms transform it into something humans really like.
The advantage of synthetic meat – from my perspective – has nothing to do with animals per se. Instead it’s mostly about ramping up a supply of tasty high protein products to satisfy exploding global demand. Feeding grain and soy to animals in concentrated factory conditions in order to make meat is radically less efficient than just brewing a meat-like substance from the plants directly. Basically, yeast is better at turning the feedstock into a meat-ish product than cows. If these products get good enough people will embrace them not as substitutes, but as good food unto themselves.
Every once in a while my friends and I will order take away Chinese food from a local shop. The food is nothing special, but it gets the job done when no one feels like cooking. It’s a basic guilty pleasure. We’ve come to order the meatless version of General Tso’s Chicken because the quality of the real chicken isn’t very good, but the imitation plant based “chicken” chunks taste fine. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a low bar. But it works. So synthetic meat probably isn’t going to compete with a thick rib eye steak, a suckling pig roast, or a delicately cooked whole chicken. Instead a high quality fake meat will simply be a better option than low quality industrially produced real meat. If a reasonably good cultured meat were used in a Big Mac or Ikea meatballs or chicken nuggets would anyone even notice the difference?
Last night I made salmon for dinner. I much prefer wild caught fish to the farmed stuff which has a mushy texture and far less flavor. Producers have to add dye to farmed salmon to make it pink since the food pellets that are fed to farmed fish leaves them pale. They’re also loaded up with antibiotics to speed growth and prevent concentrated fish populations from dying of communicable diseases. Of course wild caught fish stocks are crashing all over the world so there aren’t a lot of good options for people who enjoy seafood. Enter Finless Foods where synthetic fish is being cultivated.
If there’s any question about the company’s market aspirations check out the New England white guy who founded the company giving his sales pitch in Mandarin to a Chinese audience. Asia wants – and can increasingly afford – more and better food including fish. The oceans can’t support a couple billion additional sushi lovers. Finless is looking to make lots of money bringing a clean viable product to a huge market.
Again, the initial products will likely be some version of frozen breaded fish sticks and Asian style fish cakes. I keep a generous supply of canned salmon around because it’s a good source of shelf stable protein and once it’s fried up with cornbread it’s pretty tasty. If a synthetic version was available that was equally good at an equivalent price I’d buy it. Over time it’s possible that sushi grade cultured fish might slide off the assembly lines as well. 合成寿司 Gōsei roll anyone?
There’s already a wide variety of milk-like dairy products on the market made from soy, coconut, rice, and so on. Partly this is a response to consumer demand for lactose free drinks. But these items have different nutritional qualities and taste different than real milk. One company, Perfect Day, is using specialized yeast to create a chemically identical milk product using ordinary sugar as the feedstock. Again, the promoted concept may be about sparing animals from factory farms or preserving the environment. But the bigger picture is about economics. The fermentation vats are ultimately going to outperform cows through much higher efficiency.
The early adopters of synthetic dairy products will probably follow the same trajectory as the meatless meat and fishless fish. The manufacturers of cheese pizzas, yogurt, ice cream, and cheese cakes will hop right on board for straightforward business reasons. Lower costs, greater quality control, and more reliable supply chains. And I’m willing to bet these products will be substantially better than Velveeta or Kraft American Singles. Could they be any worse? The makers of baby formula will no doubt replicate the exact molecular structures of mother’s milk too. Or so they will insist.
A while back I attended a talk at the Long Now Foundation based here in San Francisco. Jesse Ausubel suggested that we wouldn’t even need to grow grain, soy, or sugar to feed the yeast in vats. Plain old hydrogen is an excellent chemical feedstock for hydrogenomonas. These micro organisms are capable of combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere to produce all the protein we need. Put a biodigester next to a power plant (nuclear, gas, coal, wind, solar, hydro…) that supplies the hydrogen and enough diversified formatted foods can be produced to feed an entire city.
If you think all this talk of laboratory food is ridiculous or unappealing you really need to spend some time discovering where your current food supply comes from. Most of the nitrogen molecules in your body right now were created in a factory using the Haber Bosch method. Natural gas is used to fix atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form needed by plants. Enormous amounts of this synthetic fertilizer is what makes it possible to feed seven billion people. Take away that factory made nitrogen and our crop yields would drop like a stone. Without Haber Bosch nitrogen half the humans on the planet would starve to death. Synthetic food grown in fermentation vats is just a matter of cutting out the inefficient middle steps of agriculture. Like it or not it’s coming to fish sticks, chicken nuggets, and meatballs near you. And you might not even notice.