How clean meat companies are flipping the script on your favourite burger

By the year 2050, our world is going to be faced with the challenge of feeding close to 10 billion people. Currently, farmed meat forms the mainstay of the diets of 90 percent of the world's population and the demand for meat is expected to double over the next 3 decades. It is well known that the current model of animal agriculture, which is highly land and resource intensive, is not the sustainable way forward for a planet battling climate change.

The latest episode of the a16z podcast, by leading venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, examines technological solutions to the challenges of food production. The podcast brings together Uma Valeti, CEO of Memphis Meats; David Lee, COO of Impossible Foods; and Bruce Friedrich, Executive Director of The Good Food Institute to discuss the potential of 'clean meat' to address, at scale, the rising demand for meat production and distribution while tackling the environmental, health, and ethical dilemmas posed by industrialised meat farming.

 

6 takeaways from the podcast

1. Once a personal food choice, meat-eating is today closely linked to global issues of health, humanitarianism, and sustainability.

2. The current model of industrialised meat farming is really bad for the environment: The practice of cycling food through livestock to feed human beings uses 30 percent of all land and over a quarter of the world's freshwater besides being very energy intensive. Even the most efficient meat, chicken, produces 40 times more climate change than plant-based meat substitutes. 

3. It is also economically inefficient: Without heavily subsidised animal feed, the industrial efficiencies of Western animal agriculture wane.

4. Animal agriculture poses serious health risks: Contamination of meat during slaughter and processing are common. 80 percent of all antibiotics produced in the US are fed to farm animals, and it is not a stretch to say that, once immune to animal and human antibiotics, bacteria can render them ineffective and cause widespread disease. Besides, animal waste from factory farms pollutes soil, drinking water, and water bodies.

5. Clean meat could be the food of the future: Innovation in the clean meat industry has brought about improved efficiencies and a millionfold reduction in costs over the last one and a half decades, making it a realistic alternative to today's industrialised meat cultivation.

6. Meatless meats have a smaller carbon footprint: A reduced dependence on animal agriculture will help keep climate change under 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Lab-grown meat substitutes are far less resource-intensive than farmed meat. They also carry significant economic efficiencies since they can make use of the existing supply and distribution infrastructure of the conventional meat industry and require almost no downstream innovation.

Now, you can have your meat and eat it too

Food is largely an emotional and cultural experience and people’s food choices are not always rational or well thought out. So, a future where the world goes the whole hog and turns vegetarian out of environmental concern is impossible and foolish to imagine. Which is why the makers of modern meat alternatives are introducing a new breed of meat alternatives that could appeal as much to the carnivore as to the vegan.

They are, on the one hand, re-imagining conventional animal agriculture in efficient, ethical, and environmentally sustainable ways. On the other, they offer tasty, high-quality equivalents that people can shift to, without feeling a sense of deprivation or understanding the larger impacts of the shift.

Memphis Meats, for instance, produces lab-grown meat from self-renewing animal cells in sterile, nutrient-rich environments. The meat is harvested at different stages of the growing process to obtain a range of textures and tenderness. The company also processes its meat into hotdogs, sausages, meatballs, and burgers that it claims are indistinguishable in taste from meat grown inside an animal and just as protein-packed. Technological advancements now allow the company to grow only the choicest cuts of meat, thereby minimising wastage, reducing costs, and improving human and animal health and safety.

                                  The Impossible Burger. Image: Impossible Foods

                                  The Impossible Burger. Image: Impossible Foods

Impossible Foods shot to fame with the Impossible Burger. Made from plant-based ingredients, the meatless patty, backed by Bill Gates, looks, cooks, smells, tastes, and even bleeds to meat lovers' tastes. Using 95 percent less land than its meaty cousin, and emitting an eighth of the greenhouse gases, it’s also every environmentalist’s dream come true.

We are living in a time where we can no longer blind ourselves to the impacts of current food production systems on our health and that of the planet. Unfortunately, as concerns regarding the ethicality and the environmental impact of animal farming intensify, the meat industry grows less transparent. Food tech companies represent a break from this culture of secrecy by making their premises and processes accessible to those interested in learning where their food comes from and how it is produced. They herald a future of food production that could save millions of human and animal lives, transform the way we see our food, and make it possible for us to connect with it in ways thus far unthought of.

Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founding Editor of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.