Why In-Vitro Meat Is Good for You

Power Player / by Lee Billings /

Jason Matheny on the world’s addiction to meat and how to grow ground beef in a test tube.

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These days seemingly everyone recognizes that our globalized society is hooked on plentiful and cheap fossil fuels, and that this dependence poses great challenges for future prosperity. But there is another addiction that goes largely accepted and often unnoticed, a hunger that may be growing even faster than that for oil. The developed world is addicted to meat, and rising nations, like China and India, are beginning to embrace that lifestyle.

Arguments against eating meat are often made on grounds of cruelty and personal health, though, ultimately, the most compelling argument may be ecological: Meat requires extreme amounts of resources to produce, and consequently carries a vast environmental footprint.

But what if there was a way to have your meat and eat it too? What if meat could be made free of animal cruelty, with minimal adverse consequences for the health of individuals and the planet? Researchers around the world are now focused on finding ways to grow meat artificially, using bioreactors rather than livestock. New Harvest, a non-profit company created in 2004, is channeling much of the funding for this work. Seed’s Lee Billings spoke with New Harvest’s co-founder and director, Jason Matheny, on the state of meat substitutes and the environmental perils of the status quo.

Seed: What is New Harvest?
Jason Matheny: New Harvest is a nonprofit that supports the development of new meat alternatives, including cultured or in vitro meat, which is meat grown independently of a living animal. When it was founded in 2004, there was no organization scanning the horizon for new technologies that could potentially replace conventional meat, and no organization serving as an information clearinghouse for research that could advance these new meat substitutes. New Harvest’s goal is to push forward technology that could satisfy the growing global demand for meat in a way that’s healthier, more energy-efficient, and sustainable.

Seed: What drew you to this work?
JM: My background is in public health. Before New Harvest, I’d been working in India on a Gates Foundation project, and while I was there, I was surprised to see the prevalence of American-style factory farming. I was amazed that, in this country with a long history of vegetarianism, there was a doubling of meat consumption every decade. The same, it turns out, is true for most of the developing world. China and India both are expected to double their meat consumption again over the next decade, and then again over the next. Worldwide, the expectation is that total meat consumption will double by 2040.

Think of what this means, given the problems with meat consumption right now. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that nearly one-fifth of the human population’s carbon footprint is due just to meat consumption. That’s more than all the trucks, cars, and planes put together. Meat consumption is also connected with public health problems: Swine flu and avian flu both originate and spread through factory farms, and cardiovascular diseases associated with animal fats cause millions of deaths per year. If we’re going to make a dent in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and improve public health, we really have to find a better alternative.

Seed: Right. So why not just eat less meat?
JM: I’m a long-time vegetarian myself, so I’m all in favor of behavioral change. But behavioral change is hard to accomplish at a population level very quickly. There’s a strong innate human appetite for meat, probably because it was biologically important in our ancestral environment. Protein was harder to get, we didn’t have industrialized agriculture to provide us with plant proteins very efficiently, and fats and micronutrients were also scarce in our diet. Eating meat made a lot of sense in the late Pleistocene. Now things are different. We have the same kind of conflict with our evolutionary programming when it comes to things like sugar and fat. These things taste really good to us because they were rare and valuable when we were evolving. Our challenge is in developing a technology that can satisfy those cravings with fewer negative consequences.

Seed: What about plant-based meat substitutes?
JM: Plant-based meat substitutes have gotten a lot better over the last 20 years, and there are great products out there getting closer to what meat-eaters expect in a product. But they aren’t there yet; the products still aren’t fooling most people. It’s unclear how much more they can improve—there’s only so much you can do with plant proteins to texturize them and give them the “right” taste profile. And lots of people are allergic to soybeans, or concerned about phytoestrogens. Just as we’re exploring lots of different renewable energy sources, we need to have a diversity of possible alternatives to meat, because chances are that one technology won’t work for everybody. There will probably always be some part of the market that, for whatever reason, wants to eat animal muscle rather than texturized plant proteins. Supporting parallel technologies is key.

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