Around the time I turned 40, I decided to address the trifecta of concerns I had about climate change, animal rights, and my health: I went hard vegan. My doctor had been warning me to cut down on red meat, and I had also moved to a rural Japanese farming village populated by farmers growing a wide variety of veggies. They were delicious.
After a while, the euphoria wore off and the culinary limitations of vegan food, especially when traveling, became challenging. I joined the legions of ex-vegans to become a cheating pescaterian. (I wonder if this article will get me bumped off of the Wikipedia Notable Vegans list.) Five years later, the great Tohoku earthquake of 2011 hit Japan, dumping a pile of radioactive cesium-137 on top of our organic garden and shattering the wonderful organic loop we had created. I took my job at the Media Lab and moved to the US the same year, thus starting my slow but steady reentry into the community of animal eaters.
Ten years after I proclaimed myself vegan, I met Isha Datar1, the executive director of New Harvest, an organization devoted to advancing the science of what she calls “cellular agriculture.” Isha is trying to figure out how to grow any agricultural product—milk, eggs, flavors, fragrances, fish, fruit—from cells instead of animals.
Art fans will remember Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, who in 2003 served “semi-living steak” grown from the skeletal muscles of frogs as an art project called Disembodied Cuisine. Five years later, they presented “Victimless Leather” at MoMA in New York, an installation that involved tissue growing inside a glass container in the shape of a leather jacket. Protests broke out when the museum had to disconnect the life support system because the jacket grew too big.
Isha wasn’t trying to make provocative art. We now have more challenging choices to make than simply whether to be vegan, pescatarian or carnivore, thanks to technology that has given us an explosion of meat-like products that run the ethical gambit in their production processes. She was and is trying to solve our food problem, and New Harvest is supporting and coordinating research efforts at numerous labs and research groups.
Civilians often clump the alternative meat companies and labs together in some kind of big meatless meatball, but, just like different kinds of self-driving car systems, they’re quite distinct. The Society of Automotive Engineers identifies five levels of autonomy; similarly, I see six levels of cellular agriculture. Just as “driver assist” is nice, having a car pick me up and drive me home is a completely different deal, and the latter might not evolve from the former—they might have separate development paths. I think the different branches of cellular agriculture are developing the same way.
Level 0: Just Be Vegan
Some plants are very high in protein, like beans, and they taste great just the way they are.
Level 1: Go Alternative
As a vegan, I ate a lot of processed plant-based proteins like tofu that feel fleshy and taste savory. I call these Level 1 meat alternatives. Many vegan Chinese restaurants serve “fake meat,” which is usually some sort of seitan, a wheat gluten, or textured vegetable protein like textured soy. It’s flavored and has a texture similar to some sort of animal protein, say, shrimp. This kind of protein substitute is a meat alternative—a plant-based protein that starts to mimic the experience of eating meat. Veggie burgers fall into this category.
Level 2: Get Cultured
These meat alternatives are also plant-based, but they contain some “cultured” proteins that are produced using a new scientific process. Yeast or bacteria are engineered to ferment some plant substances and output products that mimic or even replicate the proteins that make a plant-based recipe taste, smell, look or feel more like meat. Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger falls into this category because its key ingredient is a protein called heme that is produced by genetically engineered yeast. Heme imparts “bloodiness” and “meatiness” to the plant-based burger-like base. This process relies on the industrial biotechnology and large-scale fermentation systems that are already used in the food industry. JUST’s Just Scramble “scrambled eggs” uses a proprietary process to create a plant-based protein as well, combining processes used in the pharmaceutical business, food R&D labs, and chemistry labs.
Level 3: Post-Vegan
Foods at this level are made of plant-based ingredients combined with cultured animal cells (as opposed to the products of bacterial fermentation). In other words, cells as ingredient, plants for mass. The animal cells provide the color, smell, or taste of meat, but not the substance. This relies on industrial biotech and large-scale cell-culture production methods already used in the pharma industry. Level 3 is the first level that requires going beyond the tools and the science already available in the food business.
Level 4: That's a Spicy Meatball
Level 4 alternatives are pure cultured animal cells like the products Memphis Meats and others are working on. The texture and shape of a real steak comes from the muscle cells that grow around the bones and otherwise self-organize into bundles of tissue. At Level 4, we aren’t really dealing with sophisticated texture yet, so we’re pretty much turning the cells we’ve grown into meatballs. (The difference between this and Level 3 is that most of the mass of the food here is animal cells, whereas Level 3 is mostly plant-based with cells sprinkled on top.)
Right now, the primary “media” for cell cultures is fetal serum (the most common type is harvested from cow fetuses), and it currently takes roughly 50 liters of serum and costs about $6,000 to produce a single beef burger. A key breakthrough needed to push us into Level 4 reasonably is figuring out a viable way of feeding cells using non-animal sources of energy. This will involve new science on the cell side and on the media side. And we need to better understand and reproduce nutrients and flavor molecules in addition to producing pure calories.
Level 5: Tastes Like Chicken
Now we get something actually like a chicken thigh or T-bone steak. This is the Jetsons’ version that people imagine when they hear the phrase “lab-grown meat.” It is very much the goal of the alternative meat effort, and no one has achieved it yet. Scientifically, this requires the kind of advanced tissue science that is currently being developed to allow us to swap failed organs in our bodies with replacements grown outside of our bodies.
A beaker full of animal cells doesn’t give you the texture of a steak; with this technology, scientists can use 3-D scaffolding to encourage 3-D growth, and they can grow blood vessels in these tissues as well. We can even use plant-based materials as the scaffolding, but what we really want is for that scaffolding to also grow, which is how organs in our body grow. It turns out that research in regenerative medicine and tissue science is giving us a better understanding of how we might create the texture and scaffolding required to grow an actual kidney instead of just a petri dish full of kidney cells. Scientists have not really focused however, on the idea of deploying tissue science for food ... yet.
Level 6: ZOMG What Is This?
Tasty fake meat is exciting, but not nearly as exciting as the idea of a completely new food system with a diversity of inputs and completely new outputs—a completely new food science. Imagine augmented meat tissue with novel nutritional profiles, texture, flavor and other characteristics—in other words, instead of just trying to recreate meat, scientists develop completely new ingredients that are actually “post-meat.”
Let me explain what investors and I find so exciting about all this activity. My dream, and Isha’s dream, is that we figure out a way to make use of extremely efficient “energy harvesters” like algae, kelp, fungi, or anything else that can take a renewable energy source like the sun and convert it into calories. The idea is to figure out a mechanism to convert these organic stores of energy into inputs for bioreactors, which would then transform these calories into anything we want.
Scientists have made so many advances in terms of using microbes as factories (including fermentation) as well as in genomics, tissue engineering, and stem cells, that it’s feasible to imagine a system that unleashes a culinary bonanza of nutritional, flavor and texture options for future chefs while also lowering the environmental impact of belching cows, concentrated animal-feeding operations, and expensive and energy-inefficient refrigerated supply chains. (The livestock industry uses 70 percent of all land suitable for agriculture, and livestock accounts for as much as 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.) Eating meat is one of the most environmentally negative things humans do. I can imagine a food supply system that is even more efficient than eating fresh plants, which still requires refrigeration: Move the materials and calories around in shelf-stable forms, and simply “just add water” at the end in the way that adding water magically spawned sea monkeys when I was a kid.
Such a food industry would also need to develop bioreactors—think bread machines with cell cartridges or breweries that make meat, not beer—that would intake the raw materials and spit out lamb chops. That feels like an engineering task to be undertaken once the cellular biology gets worked out.
So far, most of the investment in the companies trying to rethink meat has come from venture capitalists, and they are impatient. This puts the startups they underwrite under pressure to get products to market quickly and generate financial returns, and makes it highly unlikely that we’ll get to Level 4 or 5 with VC-backed science alone. Basic research funding from philanthropy and government needs to be increased, and biomedical researchers need to be convinced to apply their expertise and knowledge to cellular agriculture.
And, indeed, many labs that Isha is working with are working on the basic research. Some are focused on establishing cell cultures from agricultural animals; others are working to grow animals cells on plants by removing cells from the plants, replacing them with living muscle cells effectively using the plant as a scaffolding.
The work of Isha's small network of scientists reminds me of the early days of neuroscience, when there was almost no federal funding for brain research. Then, suddenly, it became “a thing.” I think we’re reaching that same moment for meat, as climate change becomes an ever more pressing concern; the health impact of eating meat becomes more clear; and our population approaches 10 billion people, threatening our food supply.
Most of the people currently supporting the cellular agriculture movement are animal rights advocates. That’s a fine motivation, but figuring out a completely new design for the creation of food is going to take some real science, and we need to start now. Not only might it save us from future starvation, make a major contribution to reversing climate change, correct the antibiotic resistance armageddon, and help restore fish populations in the oceans, it might also unlock a culinary creative explosion.
1 Disclosure: After meeting Isha, I recruited her to be a Director’s Fellow at the Media Lab where she is inspiring us with her work and her vision.