A cow is an uneconomical animal. It eats, drinks and shits. It has horns, a hide, four stomachs and a tail – all of which are of no use to us humans. All we want to do is milk it. But a cow will only produce milk after having a calf, and bull calves are useless and have to be slaughtered. An unpleasant side effect. Couldn’t it all somehow be more efficient?
We asked Isha Datar. For two years now, the 27-year-old has been the head of the small, well-connected New York non-profit organisation New Harvest, which brings together biotech scientists, young entrepreneurs and investors. If you ring Datar with a couple of urgent questions about the future of the food industry, you might just catch her on a sunny spring morning at her home office in Brooklyn. She and her New Harvest colleague still work from home, but will soon rent an office in a co-working space.
“We care about what we do, rather than whether we grow.” When we speak via Skype, Datar prefers to leave the camera off as she happens to be eating an Ethiopian dish of rice and beans. And this is part of the future too: exclusively vegetable proteins. “I love meat, but I barely eat it – or any other animal products – any more. They aren’t entirely eliminated from my diet, though. I think even if these cultured products succeed, we should all consider reducing our intake.”
It is Datar’s job to know the right people and introduce them to each other: people with a vision who want to use technology to make industrial farming obsolete. In April 2014 she heard that a new biotechnology accelerator in Ireland was seeking applicants for that summer, and winners would have access to laboratory space, mentorship and $30,000 in initial funding. In the months prior to that, two New Harvest volunteers had told Datar separately of their plans for artificial milk. Datar got in touch with both of them: Ryan Pandya in the US and Perumal Gandhi in India. Both of them loved the idea and the three of them got down to work.
Four days later, they sent off their joint application. The startup programme accepted them and they spent that summer in the lab in Ireland, developing a method for producing milk using modified yeast from raw vegetable materials. They called their startup Muufri. Six months later, Horizon Ventures, Asia’s largest capital investor, came knocking and gave them $2 million.
“The idea [of Muufri] is simple: figure out what cow udder cells are doing to make milk, and replicate it – without the rest of the cow,” Datar explains. If the concept works, it will be more efficient, cleaner and cheaper than any other known form of milk production to date. Such ideas are in no way just entertaining gimmicks, they are desperately necessary for the future of our diet. This is because agriculture is a dirty business; a third of the world’s ice-free land is currently used to raise cattle. It is where 18 per cent of greenhouse gases originate, which is more than from all the transportation in the world combined. And germs, which are now resistant to all antibiotics, develop in crowded factory farm barns.
Datar knows what the inside of a standard cowshed looks like. She grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, right in the heart of Canada’s main cattle-raising area. Her father is a doctor and her mother a landscape architect. The family has close friends who are milk farmers. “Meat used to be part of every meal,” says Datar. After school, she began studying Cell and Molecular Biology in Alberta and then Biotechnology in Toronto. Out of interest, she decided to take a course in Meat Science.
The facts are unequivocal – a kilo of beef requires 15,000 litres of water and 15kg of feed. In industrial livestock production, the cattle are fed with corn and soy, which could feed a significantly greater number of people if they didn’t have to pass through a cow’s four stomachs. But looking to the future, things will be different. “I was shocked to see how resource-intensive and how inefficient livestock production was.”
Animal feed: antibiotics
We can’t get away with this for much longer; in 2050 the world’s population will number nine billion. If we carry on eating the way we have been, we’ll need twice as much livestock as we currently have to sate our appetites. But large farms and their constant surpluses are on the way out; they are dependent on mineral fertilisers, which will only be available for another few decades and whose production requires huge energy expenditure. Organic farming may be more efficient in the long term, but it currently accounts for just 2 per cent of global production.
The low meat price is already only possible because feed is subsidised. American cows, pigs and chickens are given over 80 per cent of the antibiotics prescribed in the country. The staff in large European and American abattoirs work in inhumane conditions. And our appetite for meat also threatens other areas; the over-fertilisation of feed crops poisons natural drinking water resources. It destroys fishing grounds and in many areas makes fishing near the coast unviable. And it is fatal for tourism if beaches contaminated with algae from fertilisers keep the visitors away.
The soil suffers massively from intensive farming, particularly in South America, but also increasingly in African soy-growing regions. If the damage that agriculture causes to water, air and the land was factored in, meat would long since have become prohibitively expensive and the system would fall apart. It is high time to come up with alternatives. But Datar thinks it is unrealistic for everyone to go vegan tomorrow in view of the risks. We all like our burgers and milkshakes too much. And it would take someone of at least a Bond super-villain’s calibre to get the population explosion down to a manageable level.
Hanni Rützler, an Austrian nutrition and trend researcher, has the required vision. In her 2015 food report, she outlines four alternative scenarios to industrial meat production: soy instead of meat, ie plant-based replacements such as tofu, wheat gluten or the like for those who no longer want animal products. Organic meat instead of factory farming for those who can afford pork tenderloin from a pig that has been stroked. Insect protein instead of meat, which only meets serious resistance in Europe and North America. And test-tube meat from the laboratory. Science fiction incarnate.
When one of Isha Datar’s university professors in Toronto mentioned the concept of lab-made meat, she was fascinated. She wrote a paper on the subject and got in touch with Jason Matheny, the founder of New Harvest. She was soon swapping ideas with biotechnologists from all over the world and speaking about the subject in public. Then, in 2013, aged just 25, she became the executive director of New Harvest.
This company is where the people who have identified certain problems that we face come together. Such as young Californian entrepreneur Josh Tetrick who is developing a plant-based substitute for hens’ eggs, and professor Mark Post from Maastricht University, the first man to publicly eat a hamburger made of lab-grown meat. Also, Gabor Forgacs of Modern Meadow, who has developed a second type of in vitro meat. Even the New York startup Exo is in New Harvest’s circle of acquaintances. Exo makes protein bars and cookies from cricket flour; the products are aimed at office-workers and athletes. This is because insects are fantastically good at recycling food and produce only a fraction of the greenhouse gases for the same amount of protein.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations predicts that in 20 years’ time, at least 10 per cent of global protein supply will come from insects. There is potentially a lot of money to be made in this area; synthetic biology is currently a hot topic with investors. Some very large players want to get involved – the super-wealthy entrepreneur Li Ka-shing, the Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and cloud computing pioneer Marc Benioff . All are names that make eyes light up in Silicon Valley.
Datar spends a lot of time on the road these days; she’s just been to San Francisco, in March she was at the SXSW Conference in Austin and soon she’ll be at the Expo 2015 in Milan. But she mainly communicates online. For a long time she only knew her two Muufri partners via the internet; they drew up their joint application using online tools. How else! “This is the best way to keep overhead costs low,” she explains, as we chat over Skype.
Meat from the 3D printer
Between spoonfuls of bean stew, Isha highlights the differences between the various approaches to creating meat in the lab. The first belongs to professor Mark Post, who, in 2013, to much media acclaim, presented the world’s first in vitro burger: beef fibres cultured solely in the lab which grow in a ring shape around a gelatinous, plant-based nutrient.
Posts Cultured Beef Project project attracted global interest; Hanni Rützler attended the hamburger tasting. The in vitro meat is based on muscle and stem cells taken from a living cow, and, in theory, can divide endlessly in a nutrient solution. Lab-produced meat is currently similar to mincemeat. It could be used in hamburgers or sausages. Something like a marbled steak is still a long way off, but Post is continuing his research. “We are working with Mark – we just provided him with $50K in funding a few weeks ago,” says Datar.
The startup, Modern Meadows, founded by Gabor Forgacs and his son Andras, pursues another approach. They started out developing real leather from raw vegetable materials. Then they moved on to lab-produced meat which grows in layers of fat and muscle cells. The cells are arranged in a procedure similar to 3D printing. Modern Meadows is being supported by the Google think-tank project Solve for X. The idea for meat from a retort is not new. In a 1932 essay, Winston Churchill laid out his vision of how the world might look 50 years’ hence. “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” This is the favourite quote of everyone in the industry, even if Churchill was too optimistic, time-wise.