Two new books kept me busy last week: Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, by Paul Shapiro, and Clean Protein: The Revolution that will Reshape Your Body, Boost Your Energy–and Save Our Planet, by Kathy Freston and Bruce Friedrich.
Is a revolution coming to dinner? Well, maybe.
These authors are calling for a revolution that will be driven by new ways to produce meat alternatives and grow real meat that will all but eliminate meat produced on so-called factory farms. Conventional meat, they say, will be replaced by plant-based alternatives from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods or, down the line, by so-called clean meat, a term used to describe meat that is grown from animal cells, without the need to raise or slaughter cows, pigs of chickens.
Clean meat “could be the biggest upheaval in how we produce food since the agricultural revolution some ten thousand years ago,” writes Shapiro, a vegan and lifelong animal-welfare activist who until very recently was vice president of policy engagement for the Humane Society of the United States .
Freston, an author, vegan and wellness expert, and Friedrich, the co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, are also advocates. Their book envisions a future in which people look back at “the collective efforts of individuals, entrepreneurs and communities that pushed farmed animal protect from the center of the plate to the side of it–and then off it entirely.”
The entrepreneurs featured in these books do not lack hubris. Hampton Creek, a company best known for its egg-free Just Mayo, has yet to sell an ounce of meat, but a sign outside the lab where it is developing technology to grow chicken from cell banks says: “DESTINATION: World’s Largest Meat Company by 2030.” Pat Brown, a Stanford biochemist and founder of Impossible Foods, last year told a reporter that “we fully intend to be producing 100 percent of the ground beef in the world within the next decade or so.”
That strikes me as, er, impossible. But there’s no doubt that momentum is building behind alternatives to conventional meat, largely because of the toll that the industrial-scale farming of chickens, pigs and cows takes on the planet, on public health and, of course, on the animals. Food Navigator, a mainstream industry publication, chose cellular agriculture as the No. 1 food and beverage trend to watch in 2018, saying it has “the potential to completely transform the food supply.” The No. 2 trend? Plant-based innovation.
Hey, maybe a revolution is brewing.
Technology, after all, has transformed the way people treat other animals before. The slaughter of whales was ended in the 19th century when the discovery of kerosene eliminated the need for whale oil. Horses that once left piles of stinky manure on New York City streets gave way to cars. Today’s factory farms were enabled by antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, automatic feeders and air conditioning, without which it would be impossible “to cram tens of thousands of chickens or other animals into tiny coops, and produce meat and eggs with unprecedented efficiency–but also with unprecedented misery,” as Yuval Noah Hariri notes in the introduction to Clean Meat.
Shapiro’s Clean Meat is the better of these books. He’s a vegan and an animal-welfare activist but his book is well-researched and fair-minded. He delivers an inside look at Hampton Creek, Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow and Perfect Day, all of them companies that are trying to make meat, milk and leather without animals. He captures the excitement buzzing around these startups. And, to his credit, he grapples with the daunting obstacles facing clean meat: Technological (it’s hard to do), economic (it’s really, really expensive, now) and human (the ick factor that could be associated with consuming meat that was born in a laboratory). He quotes skeptics like Consumer Union’s Michael Hansen and food critic Marion Nestle, who say things like “the market isn’t going to want this” and “what’s wrong with food?”
Indeed, even among those vying to replace conventional meat, there’s debate over what path to take. Pat Brown, whose plant-based Impossible Burger is made from wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and an ingredient called heme, has said that growing real meat from cells is “one of the stupidest ideas ever.” Others argue that most consumers won’t settle for anything less than the taste and sizzle of real meat.
So far, the big money is betting on plant-based meat. Investors in Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, whose products are commercially available, include Bill Gates, Asian billionaire Li Ka-shing, venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures, and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams. Tyson Food owns five percent of Beyond Meat, which has raised about $72m to date. Hampton Creek, which makes a variety of plant-based products, has raised about $220m. Impossible Foods has raised about $275m.
Cultured meat, a newer and riskier business, operates on a smaller scale. It will be years before Modern Meadow (which has raised $53m), Memphis Meats (20m) and Perfect Day ($2m) make products that find their way onto grocery store shelves.
In the meantime, there are countless ways to enjoy what Kathy Freston and Bruce Friedrich call clean protein and avoid animal proteins. They argue, convincingly, that it’s easy to get plenty of protein without consuming animals. Citing scientific studies, they also write that the consumption of animal protein has been associated with heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, bone deterioration and impotence. About those claims, I’m skeptical, given our limited understanding of nutrition. Others, of course, blame carbs or sugar for many of those same ills. If you’re confused, join the club.
Freston and Friedrich are on more solid ground when they advise people on how to eat well. Reading Clean Protein led me to try plant-based substitutes for milk, eggs and cheese in the last few days, with mostly happy results. It persuaded me to add more beans and nuts to my diet. The fewer animal products that I consume, the better I feel, and the better I feel about myself.
Sadly, though, it’s unlikely that individual dietary changes, by themselves, will get us where we need to go. As Freston and Friedrich write:
Animal, environmental and health-care nonprofits have been encouraging a shift away from animal agriculture for decades. Nevertheless, meat consumption has gone up dramatically since that time, while the number of vegetarians has barely budged.
Change is hard. I don’t know if we’re going to get a clean meat revolution. What I do know is that we need one.