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Fake meat grown in labs is heralded as the eco-friendly future of food

On Saturday, in our first extract from a mesmerising new book, JENNY KLEEMAN explored how we could soon live in a world devoid of intimacy — where thousands of sex robots are sold worldwide. In this second, equally haunting part, she unveils another aspect of the sci-fi dystopia that awaits us . . .

I am no vegan. I like beef as much as the next carnivore — more, probably. For me, meat makes a meal, and steak is the king of foods. I love the way it tastes, the way it feels in my mouth and in my stomach.

And I eat it even though I know the meat industry is revolting, cruel, untenable and indefensible in its treatment of factory-farmed animals and the impact it has on the environment.

Like the vast majority of the 95 per cent of the world’s population who eat meat, I am happy to turn away from how meat is made, to shut my eyes when I open my mouth. Veganism and vegetarianism might be more popular and accepted than at any other time in history, but meat-lovers are consuming more than ever before.

Every year, 70 billion animals are killed for us to eat, not because they are good for us, but because we think they are tasty.

The world’s first artificially grown hamburger – made by Professor Mark Post (pictured) – was tasted back in 2013 at a press conference for 200 journalists and academics in London

The U.S. alone eats 26 billion pounds of beef a year, which, converted into a stack of hamburgers, would stretch to the moon and back twice over. The amount of poultry eaten per person in the world’s wealthiest countries increased by 50 per cent between 1997 and 2017.

We gorge on meat even though there are few worse things we can do for the health of humans, animals and the planet, for our earth, water, air and atmosphere, for the environment both within and outside our bodies, than eat meat. The evidence for this is unequivocal and monumental.

We tell ourselves meat and dairy are good sources of protein, calcium and iron, even though we’re living in an age when we have the means and the knowledge to get the nutrition we need from plants and B12 supplements.

Meat is a fundamental part of human culture. To stop eating it would be to change the definition of a human diet.

In California, a new wave of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is betting billions of dollars on squaring this circle.

They say we can carry on eating meat without any consequences, because they can produce it without raising animals.

Not Quorn, or mock meat, or any reconfigured plant protein that acts as a meat substitute but real meat, grown outside animal bodies. Born in a flask, grown in a tank and harvested in a laboratory.

The burger was a puck of thin, pink squiggles of flesh in a Petri dish (pictured), 20,000 muscle strands grown in a laboratory

The burger was a puck of thin, pink squiggles of flesh in a Petri dish (pictured), 20,000 muscle strands grown in a laboratory

Their start-up businesses are promising us flesh without the blood, meat unconnected to the land, meat produced without the stink of manure, meat with a conscience. They are calling it ‘clean meat’.

And I’ve been invited to be one of the first people in the world to taste it.

But first, some background. The world’s first artificially grown hamburger was tasted back in 2013 at a press conference for 200 journalists and academics in London.

Made by Professor Mark Post, a physiologist at Maastricht University, the burger cost £215,000 and was bankrolled by Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and one of the world’s richest men.

It made headlines around the world as Prof Post theatrically removed a silver cloche to reveal a puck of thin, pink squiggles of flesh in a Petri dish, 20,000 muscle strands grown in his laboratory (plus a little egg powder and breadcrumbs, he explained, and some red beet juice and saffron to get the colour right).

A chef fried it in butter and it was tasted by a food writer and a food trends researcher, who pronounced it ‘bland’ and ‘dry’, but with a bite that had ‘a kind of density that was familiar’.

It wasn’t quite right, but it was a triumph. Here was ‘the first recognisable meat product created using culturing techniques’, though in reality it was proof of the concept rather than the beginning of a business.

The launch was accompanied by a promotional film in which Brin declared: ‘Sometimes a new technology comes along with the capability to transform how we view our world.’ It was, he said, ‘on the cusp of viability’.

The video cut to Harvard professor Richard Wrangham. ‘We are a species designed to love meat,’ he said. ‘It’s been fantastically beneficial for us. Once we started cooking meat, that enabled us to have lots of energy.

‘That energy enabled us to have big brains and become physically, anatomically human.’

Post then explained how the beef was grown, making it sound like a doddle. ‘We take a few cells from a cow, muscle-specific stem cells that can only become muscle. These few cells can turn into 10 tonnes of meat.’ Piece of cake.

The reality is a little more complicated. A biopsy of stem cells is taken from an adult animal — they are called ‘starter cells’ because they have the ability to grow, divide and become fat and muscle.

Only a small number are needed for the process to begin.

A biopsy the size of a sesame seed is fine, and it can be taken from a live animal, under anaesthetic, if you choose.

The starter cells are put into a seed tray, bathed in a medium of nutrients and growth factors, and placed in a bioreactor to encourage them to proliferate. One cell becomes two, two four, four eight and so on, until there are trillions.

These are then organised into a gel scaffold that helps them form the shape of muscle fibres, which are eventually layered. It takes about ten weeks to grow enough cells to make a burger, but, because the growth is exponential, it only takes 12 weeks to produce enough for 100,000 burgers. (For comparison, you’d get about 2,000 burgers from a single cow, who’d have to have lived at least 18 months before slaughter.)

The burger (pictured) was ¿the first recognisable meat product created using culturing techniques¿, though in reality it was proof of the concept rather than the beginning of a business

The burger (pictured) was ‘the first recognisable meat product created using culturing techniques’, though in reality it was proof of the concept rather than the beginning of a business

Burgers, croquettes and sausage meat don’t have much structure and are relatively straightforward to produce. A sirloin steak would require a serious amount of work to get the fat, cartilage and muscle into the correct texture and configuration, but advances in tissue culture technology will speed up the process.

Unlike animal meat, this so-called ‘clean meat’ — a term preferred to alternatives such as ‘cultured meat’, which sound off-puttingly scientific — can be controlled down to the last cell. The possibilities are endless: Meat with extra omega-3 fatty acids to counter heart disease caused by animal fats. Meat without the risk of E. coli or salmonella, as no animal intestines are grown and no animal will foul itself with fear when it’s being slaughtered (which happens on even the most friendly of farms). New textures, flavours and shapes of meat that would be impossible to create inside an animal. Foie gras without force feeding. Pig-less, kosher bacon.

But none of this has been put on the market yet, even though there has been an explosion of start-ups around the world racing to be first. It’s the California entrepreneurs who are making the broadest strides, fuelled by venture capital from investors who realise the meat and poultry industry in the U.S. alone is worth over $1 trillion a year.

Whoever can make a dent in that — even if it’s only cornering one per cent of the market — is set to make a fortune.

SO HERE I am in San Francisco, at the headquarters of a $1.1 billion food start-up that has announced it’s about to become the first to sell ‘clean meat’ to the public. It’s called JUST — that’s as in ‘guided by reason, justice and fairness’, according to its labels.

In its open-plan office, someone swerves around desks on a skateboard. Speakers play smooth jazz. Around 100 people work here, but there are also two golden retrievers bounding around with wagging tails and lolloping tongues. A couple of kids are kneeling beside a low table, doing some colouring.

Two enormous black and white photographs are mounted on a wall. In one, JUST chief executive Josh Tetrick is next to Bill Gates, who’s stuffing something into his mouth. On the other he’s with Tony Blair doing the same thing.

I’m here to taste the ‘clean meat’ JUST is about to launch,

Vitor Santo, the senior scientist of what JUST calls its ‘Cellular Agriculture Platform’, fills me in on technical details.

‘We are working with different species. Our most advanced product is chicken, but we are also working with beef, pork, other avian species,’ he tells me. ‘You start with a small isolation of cells from the animal, like a biopsy. You take this to the lab and you culture the cells with nutrients, a liquid medium that contains all the things the cells typically need.’

The most promising-looking cells in the lab are transferred to bioreactors to be produced on a larger scale and are finally sent to chefs for product development.

The medium in which the starter cells are grown is a big deal when it comes to presenting yourself to the world as animal-free. Pharmaceutical and medical researchers generally use foetal bovine serum (FBS), made from unborn baby cows. Serum is blood without cells, platelets or clotting factors, but it has nutrients, hormones and growth factors that cause cells to proliferate. FBS is extracted by plunging a needle into the beating heart of a living calf foetus that has just been sliced from its mother’s uterus in an abattoir.

Blood is drained from its heart for about five minutes until the foetus dies, and the serum is then extracted. It is difficult to imagine a less vegan substance than FBS.

But serum from calf foetuses is particularly rich in growth factors. You can chuck practically any kind of cell in it and it will flourish and proliferate. It’s been an important part of medical studies, used to develop vaccines, and in cancer and HIV research.

It was the juice Prof Post used to grow his famous hamburger. It’s also a major reason why his burger was so absurdly expensive: FBS costs anything from £300 to £700 a litre, and it takes 50 litres of the stuff to produce a single burger.

Vito Santo tells me JUST is making ‘modifications’ in the composition of the media in order to make it ‘more affordable’.

‘Our strategy is to test different plant-based proteins and check which ones promote cell growth. That’s actually what happens in nature: the animals feed themselves with plants.’ If JUST have managed to do this it will be quite a selling point. As well as being the first to put ‘clean meat’ on the market, they will be doing it in the most vegan-friendly way possible.

‘Have you actually found a plant-based medium that works?’ I ask.

‘There is still work in progress,’ he replies. ‘We are screening a lot of plants. We have some formulations that work pretty well.’

His aim is to find an animal serum-free medium, but it’s obvious they’re not there yet.

Even then, even if they get there and JUST manages to grow meat on an industrial scale without animal serum, there is no way this product can be entirely animal-free. They will still need animals for the starter cells — though admittedly the use of animals will be minuscule compared with actual farming.

The idea that the thousands of crammed animals in the stench and filth of a factory farm can be replaced with shelves of sterile vials is a remarkable one.

‘How far off are we from growing cuts of meat?’ I ask.

‘We could grow a steak in a week, if we wanted to,’ Vitor replies airily.

This stops me dead. ‘Really?’

‘It’s a matter of doing it in a scalable way. We know how to do it, it will just take a while to integrate into this workflow.’

It’s now two hours into my tour and at last it’s time for the taste test. I’m absolutely psyched. I’m about to taste the future.

I take my seat at a table where customer service manager Josh Hyman is waiting for me in front of a camping stove, as if he were on the set of a TV cookery show. ‘Any allergies, sensitivities, things you do not eat?’ he asks as he fires up the stove. I don’t have any. I’ll eat pretty much anything.

It turns out I’m still not getting to eat the meat yet. First, I have to try JUST Egg — which is eggless, of course — one of their plant-based creations.

Josh scoops something out of a jar and it sizzles in the pan. ‘Is that real butter?’ I ask. ‘Yeah,’ he replies, casual as anything. ‘I figure that 95 per cent of the people that eat scrambled eggs do this. So, why not be like them? It doesn’t hurt. Makes it taste good.’

‘What? This is a vegan company, a food company built on the promise that it doesn’t exploit animals, and you’re telling me butter doesn’t hurt and makes things taste good?’ I want to say. But I don’t. ‘It’s fat,’ he continues, breezily. ‘I could use oil, but I don’t want to.

‘That’s why I asked if you were allergic to anything. Are you ready? Here it goes. Mung bean egg.’

He pours out the JUST Egg liquid from a plastic bottle into the hot pan. It’s pale yellow and shiny, just like a freshly whisked egg. It bubbles and sizzles, like an egg would. It begins to brown around the edges, puckering and curling, just like an egg would. It’s kind of incredible this isn’t egg.

‘You can even flip it, no problems,’ he says, turning it over with a spatula. ‘I’m going to use two things to season it with.’ He takes a pinch of something from a grey crucible.

‘The first is black salt, which has a naturally occurring sulphur compound to it, so it just gives you a little bit of that eggy smell and that eggy flavour. And I’m going to do a little bit of cracked pepper too. And that’s really it. Looks done to me.’

He serves it into a bowl and hands it to me.

This looks like egg. It sounds like egg, it cooks like egg. It feels like egg on my fork and in my mouth — fluffy and spongy and hot.

But it is totally bland. Without butter and pepper and sulphurous salt, it would taste of nothing. In other words, it’s fine so long as you completely mask what it is, or what it isn’t. If this is the apex of plant-based food technology, then despite all JUST’s exotic seeds and clever robots, they still can’t turn plants into animal proteins.

‘Now for what you really came for,’ Josh declares, producing a black dish. ‘There’s our little chicken nugget.’

I look down to see a lone, beige rectangle nesting in grease proof paper. ‘You can dip it in a little bit of the sauce, if you like,’ he says, pointing to a bowl of something pinky-yellow.

‘So it’s already cooked and done?’ I say. I thought he was going to fry something on the stove for me. This feels weird. ‘It’s cooked and done,’ he nods.

I decide to have it without the sauce. I bite through the batter. It’s warm, crispy, deep-fried, heavily seasoned. Then there is the meat. And, yes, it is chicken. It tastes like a chicken nugget: there is the flavour, the aroma of chicken on my tongue and in my nose.

But it’s so mushy. So very, very mushy. Yet — chicken.

A cultured-meat sample produced in a lab at the Ochakov Food Ingredients Plant in Russia

A cultured-meat sample produced in a lab at the Ochakov Food Ingredients Plant in Russia

‘Tastes like chicken?’ Josh asks immediately. ‘Tastes like a chicken nugget,’ I reply.

‘Yup!’ he says, beaming.

The nugget is so small there’s only enough for three bites, and I nibble to make it last. But as I chew, I gradually realise it is disgusting.

At first, the meat is familiar — it has the juiciness, the unmistakable tackiness of animal flesh on my teeth — but it has the texture of the most low-grade processed food I could ever imagine.

The consistency is so wrong, the meat is so far removed from animal tissue, that my brain is telling me this is very bad meat and I should spit it out. There are no discernible pieces of meat in this nugget. It is chickeny mash, bulked with filler, in a crunchy crust.

I have no idea what I’m eating, and I find this unsettling. During my tour, I haven’t been shown any raw ‘clean meat’. The nugget arrived warm, but I didn’t see it being cooked.

Everything has been simplified, romanticised and sidestepped to gloss over how far ‘clean meat’ is from being ready for human consumption. I have no idea if what I just ate was grown in baby calf blood or magic plant juice.

I don’t even know which part of the chicken it originally came from — blood, bone, feathers?

I ask: ‘Do you know how much it cost to make the nugget that I just ate?’ Josh shakes his head.

‘A lot of money?’

‘Yup.’

‘In the hundreds of dollars or the thousands of dollars?’

‘Somewhere in the hundreds,’ he replies, ‘but I’m not sure exactly.’

This has been an exercise in spin, an entertaining one, and one that I know will go far; the story of JUST’s adventures in meat is a story journalists will want to tell, and investors will want to hear. But it’s a story.

I take a big gulp of water. I need to rinse my mouth. What is really growing here, I realise, are my doubts about ‘clean meat’.

And this feeling is reinforced when I take a look at the few academic papers available that examine the claims made by the industry. It seems that even its conscience-clearing benefits are contested. At least four robust pieces of research conclude that, while it might be more efficient than beef production in land, water and energy use, it produces more greenhouse gases than raising poultry — as much as 38 per cent more, according to one study. We’d be better off eating chicken to save the planet.

And, of course, ‘clean meat’ is still bad for us. The risks of eating mountains of red meat won’t go away just because it’s been grown in a lab.

It will still give us cancer and heart disease, it still has cholesterol, fat and no fibre, even if it can be engineered to be a little better for us one day.

As I see it, the danger is that, if we are told the meat we are eating is ‘clean’, we might feel we have a licence to eat as much of it as we please, even though it is more damaging for the planet and for our bodies than a plant-based diet.

So is plant-based meat the answer? Perhaps not. Plant-based imitation animal products are ultra-processed foods, made from an eye-watering number of components.

JENNY KLEEMAN: I look down at the chicken nugget to see a lone, beige rectangle nesting in grease proof paper

JENNY KLEEMAN: I look down at the chicken nugget to see a lone, beige rectangle nesting in grease proof paper

When I look up the ingredients of the JUST Egg I ate it reads like a chemistry experiment, a roll call of isolates and gums and oils and extracts and flavourings, tetra-sodium pyrophosphate, transglutaminase, potassium citrate and more.

A plant-based Beyond Burger is billed as being made of pea protein and coconut oil, but it also contains methylcellulose, maltodextrin, vegetable glycerine, gum arabic and succinic acid. You need to do a lot of tinkering to turn plants into something resembling animal products.

And when you add up the miles required to ship these components to the factory, and the nutrition they provide, or don’t provide, in comparison to vegetable dishes that aren’t pretending to be meat and that anyone could make from ingredients grown in their garden, it seems like quite a silly idea to be going to all this effort.

  • Adapted from Sex Robots & Vegan Meat: Adventures At The Frontier Of Birth, Food, Sex And Death by Jenny Kleeman, to be published by Picador on July 9 at £16.99. © Jenny Kleeman 2020.

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