I bit into the Impossible Burger and was immediately filled with awe. I lifted my head to the bartender and, with my mouth full, croaked: “This is vegan?”
I was just coming off two long days of hearings at the U Department of Agriculture, where the future of food was discussed in great detail but taste was scarcely mentioned. Now, sitting at my favorite New Jersey bar, eating something satisfying that nothing died for, was a relief.
The Impossible Burger debuted in 2016 at New York’s lauded Momofuku Nishi, but it’s no longer so exclusive. The vegan patty can now be found at restaurants nationwide, and even the fast-food hamburger chain White Castle carries it. At my local bar, it is the most popular menu item, but also the most expensive for them to offer. Each Impossible Burger patty costs them roughly $3; a hamburger would cost about $0.50 (the bar is vegetarian).
The technology that makes the patty “bleed” is copyrighted by the Bay Area company Impossible Foods, which claims its product is better for humans and the Earth than a beef burger.
But some believe we should be skeptical of these claims. The original formulation had no cholesterol, but more salt and saturated fat than a Five Guys beef patty. As for its environmental footprint, many have criticized the push to eat more soy, which the Impossible Burger contains, since it is a soil-depleting mono-crop. (In case you’re wondering, the Impossible Burger is also not organic.)
Regardless, the burger is seen as a success story by other Silicon Valley companies eager to enter an environmentally friendly market about to explode. Last year, the nearly $30bn processed meat market grew by only 2%, while the $1.4bn meat alternatives market grew by 22%.
At the bar, I told my partner why I was eating this meal: I wanted to write about this new, engineered vision for our food – vegan meat replacements today, meat grown from cells tomorrow.
Cell-grown meat, I told him, would be spurred on by synthetic serums refined from the crude system currently used, where cells are bathed in fetal bovine serum. The serum, which promotes cell growth, is collected from the hearts of calf fetuses found in pregnant cattle gone to slaughter.
Would he eat meat grown that way?
“Yeah I’d eat it. It’s science,” my companion said. “I eat science.”
A new ‘mega trend’
By many measures, farming is one of the most environmentally straining things humans do. Agriculture contributes more greenhouse gas to the atmosphere than all “cars, trucks, trains and airplanes combined”, National Geographic reports. Deforestation for new farms, often carved out of forests and jungles, extinguishes biodiversity. And the waste collected by modern industrial animal farming contributes to ocean dead zones.
But with an additional 2 billion people projected to join us on Earth by 2050, farmers need to produce far more calories than we do now. The near-universal agreement among experts is that reducing the amount of meat you eat is the best way to reduce environmental harm.
In that context, people are seeking silver bullets for complex human diets. A group of Italian researchers recently looked at the diets of vegans, vegetarians and omnivores, and found even vegans who eat loads of processed foods can have an enormous environmental impact. (Fruitarians, interestingly, had an “extremely high environmental impact”.)
I had been considering this long list of moral considerations each time I ate, and feeling queasy about the implications.
I had attempted to eat only creatures who spent their lives foraging in the dappled sunlight of a western New Jersey farm headed by my friendly farmers’ market purveyor Scott, a wind-whipped and wiry butcher. I had stopped eating chicken a while back after simmering over news that a processing plant was polluting the historic Suwannee river in Florida, my home state. I had laid pork aside when I saw a video of a pig looking like my dog when she’s happy to see me.
But it never felt like enough. Avoiding factory farming felt like avoiding plastic – impossible even with the utmost diligence. I imagined a future where our time on Earth was marked by a geological rock formation made up of flecks of colored plastic and chicken bones.
I’m not the only one with those questions. While the rate of Americans following strict vegan and vegetarian diets has barely budged in 20 years (vegetarians are about 5% of the population, vegans about 3%) the figures are misleading. Younger consumers in the US and UK are increasingly exploring “flexitarian” diets, which include meatless days or meatless meals each week, driving a push for more meat alternatives.
“It’s a mega trend that clearly has gotten a foothold,” said Chris Kerr, a chief investment officer at New Crop Capital, a venture capital firm which invests exclusively in companies looking to disrupt the meat, eggs and dairy industry. “Everyone is paying attention to it.”
New Crop’s portfolio includes nearly every vegan and cell-based agriculture startup you’ve ever heard of (and some you haven’t). Kerr and investors like him are the financial force behind products already on the market, such as meltable cheese-less cheese made from tapioca flour and pea protein (Daiya Foods); soon to be on the market fish-less tuna made of extruded bean proteins (Good Catch); and cell-based, slaughter-free hamburgers on the horizon from Memphis Meats.
Vegan meat replacements and cell-cultured meats share many of the same backers. Billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson both invested in the technology, as have agriculture giants such as Cargill and Tyson (the latter even rebranded itself as a “protein company”).
This has not gone unnoticed by livestock farmers, principally the US Cattlemen’s Association, which would like to bar these companies using words like “beef” and “meat”.
“In recent years, there have been major investments in synthetic products and in products grown in laboratories using animal cells,” the US Cattleman’s petition reads. “Such products should not be permitted to be marketed as beef or as meat … The ‘beef’ and ‘meat’ labels should inform consumers that the products are derived from animals harvested in the traditional manner.”
Last summer, a state branch of the Cattlemen’s Association successfully convinced Missouri lawmakers to stipulate in state statute that “meat” must come from an animal carcass, and other states have shown signs of following suit. The law’s most immediate impact was on plant-based meat replacements, with beef lobbyists clearly eyeing cell-cultured meat on the horizon. The law prompted a lawsuit from Tofurkey, the vegetarian turkey replacement, and from the newly formed Good Food Institute, the closest thing new plant-based protein startups have to an industry association.
“It’s Missouri and France,” said Paul Shapiro, CEO of the Better Meat Company, about places which have sought legal shelter from veganism. Better Meat Company makes wheat-based additives to stretch real meat. Shapiro is also a proponent of cell-cultured meat. “In what world do France and Missouri have the same policy positions?”
‘We’re all sort of futurists’
The US Department of Agriculture’s cafeteria is a paragon of mainstream American food culture. None of the food on the rambling breakfast buffet, from the watery honeydew to the sausage-y southern classic biscuits and gravy, threaten to excite you.
The large, light-filled dining hall is in stark contrast to the windowless auditorium where cell-cultured meat proponents and cattle ranchers argued about what, exactly, “meat” means – and how to refer to these new products.
The newcomers abandoned their first choice, “clean meat”, when ranchers complained it implied their products were “dirty”. Many cellular agriculture companies object to “lab-grown”, because they contend their products, when they are available to the public, would be grown in industrial facilities resembling breweries more than “labs”.
Bizarrely, American regulation of plants and fish is handled by the FDA, and meat by the USDA. This joint USDA-FDA hearing was held to determine who would have dominion over the new proteins.
Cattle producers have pushed for daily USDA inspections, the sort industrial slaughterhouses are subject to, while cell-cultured meat companies prefer oversight by the FDA, which is more familiar with novel biological products, such as genetically edited mosquitoes.
Bureaucrats chose the large room because they anticipated public protests, the sort engendered by proposals to sell genetically modified salmon unlabeled at US supermarkets. Instead, few representatives outside of cell-cultured meat firms, cattle ranchers and animal welfare activists showed.
Advocates for either side of the debate were unmistakable. Cattle ranchers swaggered with shining silver belt-buckles, 10-gallon hats, and tasseled suede. Proponents of cell-cultured meat wore tailored skinny suits in sensible tweed.
“We are striving to create, on a cellular level, the exact same fish meat people currently eat,” said Mike Seldon, CEO of Oakland-based Finless Foods. He hopes to have a bluefin tuna flesh product (at the cellular level) available soon. He expects it to sell at roughly $165 a pound to be used in spicy tuna rolls, for example. (The average price of fresh bluefin tuna at Toyosu fish market in Tokyo, where 80% of fresh tuna is consumed, was $127 a pound in December 2018.)
Seldon hopes to launch his fish flesh in restaurants, as the Impossible Burger did with Momofuku, and said the burger’s success was a proof of concept.
“We’re all sort of futurists,” Seldon said, painting a future where factories in city centers produce cell-cultured meat in 1,000-liter bioreactors designed to make 30 tons of product in three weeks, like a brewery for meat.
These bioreactors do not yet exist, and that is just one of the technological challenges cell-cultured meat faces. The largest impediment to commercial viability is serum. Currently, fetal bovine serum is commonly used to encourage cell growth. It’s hardly cruelty-free, since it is harvested from calf fetuses in slaughtered cows, and extremely expensive at roughly $1,000 per gallon, investors said. Creating a synthetic, plant-based serum has proven to be a difficult and expensive endeavor, a problem companies are working feverishly to solve.
There are also questions about how to make these products appeal to consumers. Will cell-based meat use antibiotics? If meat cells are grown in plant-based serum, how will it be labeled for allergens? Will their supply chain – which industrializes the biological processes of an animal – prove to be as climate-friendly as companies claim?
On the upside, Oxford University researchers predict cell-cultured meat could produce up to 96% less greenhouse gases than rearing cattle. However, the same analysis gave an enormous range for energy savings – cell-cultured meat may be up to 45% or as little as 7% more energy-efficient than traditional meat.
Carolyn Mattick, a professor of sustainability at Arizona State University, whose recently published article in Environmental Science & Technology examined cell-cultured meat, argued that not enough information is available to substantiate claims from engineers that their products would be more environmentally friendly than meat.
“Until high-quality, peer-reviewed life cycle analyses are performed on specific production processes, we really can’t quantify the environmental impacts of cell-based products or determine the tradeoffs with respect to livestock rearing,” she said.
Where is slow food in all that?
In January, I gave up meat for the second time in two years. After a failed two-week stint in veganism (is it really healthier if I’m snacking on Oreos?), I went for vegetarianism this time.
In this quest, I visited Superiority Burger, whose philosophy is radical compared with Impossible Burger. Chef Brooks Headley, whose punk roots led him to buck corporate America’s meat industry through vegetarianism, developed the Superiority Burger there. If Impossible Burger is a triumph of science, Superiority is a triumph of cooking – and one that is open source. He thinks of it as a “vegetable croquette” powered by red quinoa and walnuts, and sells it for $6.
“I don’t have any issue with fake meat, but I think it’s weird, and kind of gross, like cigarettes,” said Headley. “Also, that stuff is just really, really processed.”
“I think if you ate an Impossible Burger or Beyond Beef every day, it would be weird,” said Headley. “People that eat meat don’t want to eat less meat.” His goal, he said, was to sell things “recognizable as real food, and sell it as cheaply as possible so it’s accessible to everyone”.
For proponents of the slow food movement, this illustrates the crux of the problem. Silicon Valley wants to replace meat – with intellectual property.
“They never even admit that there already is a better way, and a lot of farmers and a lot of farmland is devoted to doing that in the right way,” said chef Dan Barber, whose restaurant Blue Hill helped bring “farm-to-table” food to the mainstream. “They loop that into the conversation of, ‘We’re going to save the planet because people will replace corn-fed beef with a plant-fed thing.’”
A prime example of this new mentality, Barber believes, is the Impossible Burger. Their attitude, Barber said, is: “I’ll save the world, but you have to pay me.” If they are so virtuous about it, he wondered, why don’t they open source their technology for creating a bleeding plant burger?
“It’s not making me hungry, let’s put it that way.”