An end to slaughtering animals
So is it really true that in 20 years’ time, meat will grow in refrigerated polystyrene trays? An in vitro burger still costs €250,000 for now, which is normal for a prototype. According to Andras Forgacs, those first, expensive years after market maturity will belong to the production of luxury goods, such as, in leather’s case, special orders from haute couture houses or made-to-order, lab-produced treats for haute cuisine, such as meat from rare animals. After that, the price should come down radically and adapt to the mass market.
And when it comes to sustainability, the meat-lab workers already have all the trump cards: producing beef in a retort requires 99per cent less water, 96 per cent less land, 96 per cent fewer greenhouse gases and at least 45 per cent less energy, according to Forgacs’s calculations. The meat can be produced close to where it is to be eaten: in cities, where the majority of people are living. And no more animals will have to be slaughtered.
Self-aware meat-eaters are increasingly setting themselves the challenge of going and sharpening their knives and killing the animal themselves. It’s an honourable gesture, but it misses the problem because it’s not just the animals we eat that die. Animals that we don’t need die even more senselessly, such as bull calves, which have no use in milk production, and male chicks, which can’t be sold as roosters. A total of 10 million freshly hatched chicks are killed each year in Germany alone; globally the figure is more than 200 million.
Idealists are addressing the question of how chicken-farming can be made more humane by using dual-purpose breeds, by which they mean breeds of hen which aren’t optimised either for laying eggs or providing meat, but are good for both. The norm is still factory buildings full of laying hens that are packed five to a cage the size of a sheet of paper for the two years of their lives. But these factories have no future, and not just because of animal rights; they are uneconomical in the long term.
Major corporations are nervous
Isha Datar has someone in her portfolio who knows even more ABOUT the matter. If Josh Tetrick was an animal rights campaigner, he might break into egg factories like those and set free a couple of hens. But that’s not his concern. Silicon Valley is Tetrick’s spiritual home, and there they think in solutions, not problems. Tetrick’s approach is simple; what if we didn’t need hens’ eggs any more? Not because we’re willing to do without them, but because we can produce better eggs than hens can. The energy input to output ratio for hens’ eggs is 39:1; only beef is worse.
Tetrick wants to improve things; his company, Hampton Creek, is developing plant-based products that are traditionally made with eggs. You can now buy Just Mayo, an egg-free mayonnaise, in US and Hong Kong supermarkets. And even Oprah Winfrey was thrilled with Just Cookies, praising them as a “smarter cookie”. There is also vegetable cookie dough, which you can bake yourself or eat raw. It has all sold out since John Legend raved about it on Twitter. There will soon be a ranch dressing containing neither egg nor milk, but which will be “10 times more delicious than leading brands,” Hampton Creek promises. By the end of this year, Just Scramble – the first purely vegetable scrambled egg product in the world – should also be on sale.
These are simple, familiar American products and mainstream comfort foods made from various types of split pea. “A mom living out of a white envelope, shopping at the Dollar Tree doesn’t care if the mayo she is buying is vegan or not – she cares that she’s buying a product that has slightly better ingredients, better cost, and tastes great,” according to Hampton Creek. It has all been so well received that even the food giant Unilever was unsettled; in a David versus Goliath case, Unilever sued Tetrick’s company for misleading customers by calling their product “mayo” when it contained no egg. Unilever eventually abandoned the lawsuit after months of bad press. And for Hampton Creek, it turned out to be the best publicity campaign they could possibly have imagined.
Eggs without chickens
Whereas industrial food producers defend themselves with good, old-fashioned shark tactics, food pioneers are on friendly terms with each other. Everyone knows each other and values each other. When Tetrick was asked by his investor, Horizon Ventures, which other startups were worth supporting, he generously named his colleagues from Modern Meadows. Datar also has great faith in the Hampton Creek idea. “It’s going great for Josh. Now we’re more fans than supporters,” she says.
In egg matters, she’s already taken a mental step further; she and two New Harvest volunteers – Arturo Elizondo and David Anchel – set up Clara Foods in early March. The very young startup is working on actually producing hens’ eggs from vegetable proteins. Their first goal is to create albumen which can be beaten and which thickens when heated. In other words, all the qualities that make egg whites so indispensable for us in the kitchen. The young company’s website is still very sparse but the Clara Foods trio hope to have developed lab-produced edible albumen by the end of summer.
Clara Foods is still in its very early days. Muufri has only existed for a year more and has already expanded; the old laboratory had become too small and there are now five members of staff. Ryan Pandya wants to have a marketable product by the end of 2016. Depending on its composition, Muufri could replace more than just cow’s, buffalo’s or goat’s milk. It could replace a mother’s breast milk too. Producing dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese is a long-term goal. “Yes, we’re hiring” it says on the Muufri website, and so is almost every other biotech startup. This isn’t where the big money is to be made yet, but it can only be another few years away.
More futuristic than science fiction
If anyone can recommend strategies to help deal with pending food crises, then it’s future trends researcher Hanni Rützler. She explains, “There will be lots of varying concepts alongside each other which will also reflect the particularities and needs of different food cultures.” The inventors of milk and in vitro meat are important in that process. “Small startups are currently more flexible and ready for the future. They can take the first step quickly by fundraising. And if they’re successful because they pick up precisely on their customers’ needs, desires and wishes, then people will also happily snap them up.”
That is to say, precisely the people who come together at New Harvest, the organisation with a sect-like name and a mission to change the future. They don’t foresee any dystopian scenarios of cows dying and babies going hungry; they see a better reality, like those days when science fiction was still optimistic and healthy. When Star Trek was the futuristic ideal of the United Nations and the replicator on the USS Enterprise could synthesise any meal in the galaxy on demand.
Muufri, Modern Meadows and Hampton Creek aren’t working on imitation food. This is real. It may still be considered unusual now, but it has a brighter future than the practices of the meat industry. Old-fashioned cows with their horns, ears, hides and udders might only be good as museum-piece animals for petting zoos. And if someone does treat themselves to a luxury real steak, then the cow might actually have stood in a meadow before it died, an existence that for most cows is now just a utopian memory.It will take many small steps to get there. “We can all make environmentally considerate“