What Is The Future Of Meat?

17:27 minutes

cooked beef cut up on cutting board
Credit: Shutterstock

More and more people are trying meat alternatives, and for good reason: The meat industry is a major contributor to climate change. Almost 15% of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, with cattle making up about two-thirds of that. Others avoid meat because of ethical problems with slaughtering animals. 

Altogether, plant-based meats are having a major moment, making their way onto the shelves of major grocery stores, and the menus of fast food chains. It’s now possible to eat a burger that tastes, looks, and feels like beef—while being entirely made of plants.

Some scientists are devoting their careers to creating a future where more meat comes from plants, or even cells grown in a lab. Joining Ira to mull over the future of meat is Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, and Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a non-profit that promotes the research and development of cell-based animal products. 

Further Reading

  • Learn more about New Harvest.
  • Read about Impossible Foods’ announcement looking to hire more than 100 scientists to develop dairy-free milk and meat alternatives by CNBC.
  • Find out key facts and findings about livestock environmental impact from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
  • Read a story from MarketWatch about cell-based meat and the companies behind it.

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Segment Guests

Pat Brown

Pat Brown is Chief Executive Officer of Impossible Foods, in Palo Alto, California.

Isha Datar

Isha Datar is Executive Director of New Harvest in Edmonton, Alberta.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you were celebrating Thanksgiving yesterday, I hope you get a happy and safe gathering.

Perhaps you were one of the people on Thanksgiving who finds a substitute for eating that iconic Turkey. You might be avoiding meat, because the meat industry is a huge contributor to climate change. Almost 50% of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, and cattle make up about 2/3 of that. Or maybe you just don’t believe in slaughtering animals.

Well, you might be a harbinger of the future, which makes us think about, what does a future without meat look like? Joining me today is someone who has made it his goal to disrupt the meat industry, Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods based in Palo Alto, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

PAT BROWN: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you are a very accomplished biochemist, I understand, for many years before you founded Impossible Foods. Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to dive into the plant based meat sphere.

PAT BROWN: At the time that I decided to do this, I had been a professor in the medical school at Stanford for 25 years, and I never contemplated going into the business world. I wasn’t actually that interested in food. But when I had a sabbatical about 10 years ago, I basically challenged myself to find the most important problem in the world that I could contribute to solving, and when I did my research, I realized that the use of animals as a food technology is by far the most destructive technology in human history.

It is far more destructive to the global environment generally than the fossil fuel industry, for example, and you I’m sure know that we’re in the advanced stages of a catastrophic global collapse of biodiversity. It’s almost entirely due to our use of animals as a food technology. Eliminating the use of animals in food production is the way and the only way that I can imagine to actually turn back the clock on climate change.

There is very simple math I could take you through. But if I could snap my fingers and make that entire industry disappear in this second, 20 years from now, total atmospheric greenhouse gases would be not higher, but back to where they were in 2015. So I quit my job at Stanford, which I loved, and dove into solving the problem. Basically, the thesis was we don’t want to get rid of meat. We just want to find a better way to produce it. It’s just like, 200 years ago, people didn’t want to get rid of transportation.

They just wanted to find a better technology than the horse. We’re taking the same approach, and I decided that it was a completely solvable scientific problem to understand in molecular terms what creates the sensory experience that meat lovers crave in molecular terms. What’s the mechanism underlying the juiciness, the texture, or the flavor chemistry and so forth? And that we ought to be able to reproduce it far more sustainability by finding scalable, sustainable ingredients from plants that can be put together to not only deliver that deliciousness, but actually do a better job.

IRA FLATOW: Impossible Foods created the very popular Impossible Burger made from soy proteins. Does Impossible Foods plan to dive into more types of plant based meat?

PAT BROWN: Oh, sure. You know, when you look at Impossible Foods from the outside, we look like a food company. It’s in our name. But actually, behind the scenes, we think of ourselves as sort of a planet technology company that’s literally trying to save the planet with science and engineering. And we chose ground beef as our first product, basically, because we thought it would be the most disruptive product.

Our goal is to completely replace the use of animals as food technology by 2035, and part of understanding that goal is our goal is not to be a massive food company. It’s to eliminate the incumbent technology as fast as possible. We chose ground beef, because more than half of all the beef produced in the US is sold as ground beef. Our approach is market based. We felt that, if we could make a better version, a version that did a better job of giving meat consumers what they want from meat, that we could compete in the marketplace and have the biggest disruptive impact.

IRA FLATOW: When you say, compete in the marketplace, it sounds like you’re trying to win over not vegetarians, but meat eaters.

PAT BROWN: Oh, absolutely. Look, I’ve been vegetarian my entire adult life. I love vegetarians, OK? But we’re not here for vegetarians. We’re not interested in making food for vegetarians. We focus relentlessly on how to make meat consumers happier, OK?

This depends on making our product not just a sad, little imitation of meat, but uncompromisingly delicious to hardcore meat lovers. And I think we’ve succeeded pretty well actually. As it turns out, more than 90% of the consumers that buy our products in restaurants or in retail are currently consumers. And once they try our products, 75% of them become repeat consumers.

The fact that most meat today is made from the cadavers animals, it’s not part of the value proposition to people who love meat. They love meat not because it’s made from animals, but in spite of the fact it’s made from animals. They love it. Because it’s delicious, nutritious, convenient, affordable. If you can deliver that without using the animal to make it, consumers are wide open to that, and we see that in the market.

IRA FLATOW: I want to now bring in our second guest who is also working on the future of meat in a very different way. Isha Datar is Executive Director of New harvest, a nonprofit that promotes the research and development of cell based animal products. She’s based in Edmonton, Alberta. Of course, that’s in Canada. Welcome to Science Friday.

ISHA DATAR: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Briefly tell me what is cell based meat.

ISHA DATAR: Cell based meat is the idea or the concept of producing meat from cell cultures rather than from the carcasses of animals. And before I dig too far into the meat side, I think the concept that we are excited about is the production of all kinds of foods, even beyond meat, such as milk, and eggs, and perhaps even more products that are produced from cell cultures rather than from whole plants or animals.

IRA FLATOW: Where are we in research and development of this type of product?

ISHA DATAR: That’s a great question, so this is an interesting field. Because there is quite a lot of private investment in this space right now. Just this past June, we crossed over into over a billion dollars invested into hundreds of companies around the world producing meat, milk, and eggs from cell cultures. But on the other side of things, the public funding side is actually quite underfunded.

And I would say, the R&D is at the point where we’re seeing a lot of companies taste testing prototypes and slowly scaling up. But we don’t have a huge understanding behind the fundamental questions of this research, such as what constitutes as meat versus cell culture. You know, when does that transition take place? Also, how do we actually produce this at a scale that is cost competitive?

IRA FLATOW: Give me an idea of what cell based meat tastes like.

ISHA DATAR: I was able to taste a cell cultures meat product in the form of a chip several years ago, and what was cool is that it had the same mouth feel as a potato chip. But it was made entirely from muscle cells, and what was so exciting about that taste test was realizing that by producing foods from cell cultures countries, we don’t have to mimic the meat that we know today. We actually have this enormous culinary opportunity to apply this technology in ways to make protein that we’ve kind of not experienced before.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re not really very close to going to a burger shop and getting a cell based meat hamburger.

ISHA DATAR: Well, that’s a tough question. I think what most people think of when they think of a cell culture meat product is a product that is 100% grown from cells, grown in a bioreactor somewhere. But there are several companies who will want to put a product on the market within the next five years. I think we just need to readjust our understanding of what that product might be, and it might be something kind of similar to what Pat is working on, which is largely plant based burger with some cell cultured elements incorporated or some animal cells incorporated. That’s the kind of product that, I think, we could see on the market pretty soon.

IRA FLATOW: Is that because you think that the plant based or Pat’s product is very competitive at this point, and they’ll get a bigger audience, while you’re still a little bit behind?

ISHA DATAR: No, I think it’s because there’s this idea that cell cultures, products, and plant based products are these two discrete categories. But instead, we should think of them as two tool boxes that we can access in order to create alternative meat products that address all kinds of different markets, and different tastes, and experiences. And I think that, obviously, from a cost perspective, it’s going to be a lot more reasonable to introduce something that is plant based with some cell cultured elements then it will be to introduce something that is 100% cell cultured.

So I think it kind of opens the door a little bit, and also, from a regulatory perspective. It’s probably a lot easier to introduce something where the cell cultured elements are an ingredient rather than kind of the bulk of the product, and I guess you should think of it as slowly opening the door towards and slowly transitioning towards more cell cultured products. That being said, you know, I think our nonprofit has the same goal that Pat does, which is to minimize the impact of animal agriculture today. The outcome that we’re looking for is that positive impact on the world, and we don’t know for sure if the cell cultured product is really the goal and if the 100% cell cultured meat is going to be the thing that causes that change.

IRA FLATOW: Pat, I understand that you’re not a fan of cell based meat.

PAT BROWN: No, that’s not quite correct. It’s that cell based feed could become a product that can compete successfully in the market against the animal cadaver products. I would be its biggest fan. I just don’t think that my understanding of the technology that it really is economically scalable. And when you’re making it directly from primary ingredients, distinct sort of proteins, and small molecules, and so forth, you control all the knobs in a way that’s a lot harder to do when you’re basically stuck with sort of genetically wired animal cells.

That enables something that, I think, is really interesting, which is that what we have– and I’d say, we’re close to it right now. –a meat product that’s as good as the best version from an animal. The next day, we can make it better. We could dial in the flavors, and textures, and juiciness, and form factor, and so forth with a blank slate. But honestly, I just want to say, Isha, I’m a fan of what you’re doing and the companies that are working on cell cultured meat. And I wish them the best. I just don’t see it being economically competitive.

IRA FLATOW: Before I get an answer from Isha, let me remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking about cell based meat, and the Impossible Burger, and a meeting of the minds here. Isha, how do you react to Pat’s statement?

ISHA DATAR: Pat has very many legitimate concerns about the scale of the technology and all the more informed by his background in biochemistry. This is novel science in many respects, and I think that’s why New Harvest approach has been very much about how do we build the field and disciplines that continues to ask these questions. I think a lot of us believe that growing various proteins from cell cultures rather than from whole animals can have these enormous benefits, but there’s a lot of fundamental questions we need to ask about scaling up.

What does the supply chain look like? Where will the starting materials come from, and can we make those research quantum leaps that allow us to mass produce certain types of proteins using these cell cultured technologies? Further to his statement about tuneability, I think that’s another piece that we’re extremely excited about. We have one of our research fellows out of Tufts University recently published on changing the kind of nutritional content of meat that we will soon be able to do if we introduce these cell cultured ingredients.

IRA FLATOW: Pat, I’ve heard an argument from some people that they like to try meat alternatives, but feel that the Impossible Burger is plant based. Yeah, but maybe just too processed.

PAT BROWN: Yeah, I think that that’s a very unfortunate label. When people think about processed food and the things that are problematic with the foods that are commonly called processed foods isn’t that they were produced through a process. I mean, a loaf of bread, it is highly processed.

You know, everything from harvesting the wheat to mixing it with yeast, and salt, and maybe olive oil, which has been processed from an olive. Pretty much everything that is food on the table, and just think of it when you’re eating your Thanksgiving dinner what the process was by which it got there. And don’t even get me started about meat from animals. It comes from the process. The reason that the term is taken on kind of a pejorative meaning is because of Twinkies and potato chips.

The problem with those foods, it’s that they were made with no concern for the nutrition of the consumer, that they’re full of junk. You know, they’re full of sugar, and fat, and calories, and very devoid of valuable nutrients. That’s the problem, so what I would say is read what’s in the product. Read the nutrition facts. That’s what should be important.

IRA FLATOW: But people who look at that package, if you look at the ingredients on the list, there are a lot of ingredients in that package.

PAT BROWN: Well, I would say, think about how many ingredients go into making your Thanksgiving dinner, like there are people who even will say, like there’s too many syllables in that ingredient. It’s nuts. Pay attention to what those ingredients are, what the nutritional facts are. Did the producer of this food, whether it’s your grandma or Impossible Foods, produce it with your health and well-being in mind? Which we certainly do.

IRA FLATOW: One last question for you. I know you’re a privately held company. You’re not traded on the stock market. Do you feel like, if you became publicly traded, you might lose control of the quality of what you’re trying to do?

PAT BROWN: That is probably the principal reason why we’ve held off on going public. I didn’t found this company, because I wanted to found a business. Because I’m trying to save the planet from environmental catastrophe, and it’s critically important for us to have the ability to stay focused on the long term mission.

IRA FLATOW: Isha, I have one last question for you, and that is my blank check question. Because as you’ve said, there is still a lot to learn about your technique. If I could give you a blank check, like I have in my back pocket– sorry, I can’t give it to you. You’re not here. What would you do with it? What kind of technology, what kind of resources do you need? Well, how would you spend it?

ISHA DATAR: That’s a great question, Ira, and I love how Patrick talked about kind of the long view here. Because what, I think, we need to see is seeing agriculture to become an established discipline and a area of research that a high school student can enter and want to contribute to producing animal products without animals or producing all kinds of foods in this new way. I think the food science field could use this kind of reinvigoration of skills from sciences that we’re kind of normally focused on medical technology is applied to food science. So if you handed me a blank check, what I would do is create the first institute of cellular agriculture at some university somewhere in the world, but a university that uniquely brings together excellence in agricultural and meat sciences, and excellence in biomedical technologies, and establish kind of the first place for this field to develop. And from there, we can kind of create the scientific infrastructure of the industry that we want to build.

IRA FLATOW: That is a great place to end it. That’s all the time we have for this hour. I’d like to Thank my guests, Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods based in Palo Alto, California. Isha Datar, Executive Director of New Harvest, a nonprofit that promotes the research and development of cell based animal products. She’s based in Edmonton, Alberta. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

PAT BROWN: Thanks, Ira.

ISHA DATAR: Thanks so much.

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