Afraid of high-tech food? Get over it
But a backlash has begun. Plant-based meat sales have plateaued. Beyond’s stock is down 95 percent from its peak. The new narrative is that fake meat is overly processed, and consumers prefer the simplicity of real meat, even though Americans already eat processed foods by the truckload.
While many processed foods are certainly unhealthy, there’s no evidence that plant-based meats are unhealthier than their animal counterparts, and there’s nothing inherently unhealthy about the extrusion process that rearranges plant molecules into meat formations with heat and pressure. As my Climavores podcast co-host Tamar Haspel says, food processing is a tool, like a hammer; you can use it to fix your neighbor’s roof or kill your neighbor’s dog.
Consumers might be even more suspicious of alternatives brewed in industrial vats — either directly from animal cells, directly from fungi or by genetically engineering microbes to produce meat or dairy proteins, a process called “precision fermentation.” It all sounds spooky and futuristic, except most cheeses already contain a protein called rennet made with precision fermentation. Drugmakers also use precision fermentation to make insulin. Rennet used to be obtained “naturally” from the intestines of a slaughtered calf, and insulin from the pancreas of a pig, but the modern way is better, cheaper and more humane.
I recently visited a bunch of alt-protein companies in the Bay Area, and I got to try a bunch of excellent products and prototypes, including a plant-based mango-passionfruit ice cream from Eclipse Foods, fungi-based turkey slices from the Better Meat Company, salmon sushi produced from fish cells at Wildtype, cream cheese featuring dairy protein expressed by Perfect Day’s genetically engineered yeast, and butter derived from pongamia, the high-yielding super-tree I’ve pushed as a fix to global hunger and global warming.
I tasted some less excellent stuff, too — the skin on Just’s otherwise terrific fried chicken has the mouthfeel of a potato chip — but the point is that none of these foods tasted like technology. They tasted like food, in many cases exactly like the animal food they’re designed to replace.
The San Francisco startup Mission Barns is using animal cells to grow animal fat — which is easier to cultivate than muscle, and a big part of what makes meat meaty — and then blending it with plants into hybrid products. Its bacon still has a cardboard texture, but its pork meatball tastes and feels like a pork meatball. CEO Eitan Fischer expects regulatory approval for that meatball this year, and he’s confident that once it’s cost-competitive, consumers will buy it.
“People are used to the old traditional ways, but they care most about taste and price,” says Fischer, who used to run Just’s cultivated meat program. “This is more natural than pumping a pig full of antibiotics. Yes, it’s technology, but so are growth hormones and pesticides and a lot of things used in agriculture.”
We’re not going to become a vegan species, so if we want to feed a growing population without clearcutting the Amazon, we’ll need to find less land-intensive ways to satisfy our meat cravings. We’ll have to follow the advice of Buckminster Fuller that I saw at the Better Meat Company, displayed right below a wall-mounted harpoon: “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Thanks to innovation, we no longer use harpoons, or whales, to light our homes. Someday we might not use factory farms, or livestock, to eat meat.
The cultivated meat industry has made incredible technological progress since 2013, when a Dutch scientist unveiled the first cultivated burger, a 5-ounce experimental patty that cost a cool $330,000 to produce. Innovative companies like Upside and Just have driven down those costs by more than 99.9 percent in just a decade. But they’re still a long way from $4-a-pound ground beef, and many skeptics believe that despite their impressive trajectory, they’ll never get there.
One of the skeptics is Joshua March, which is a bit odd, because he runs a cultivated meat company, SCiFi Foods. He simply doesn’t think bovine cells grow well enough in bioreactors to outcompete cattle. He’s using the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to reengineer the cells so that they will grow well in bioreactors, a tweak he believes can cut his costs another thousandfold. He knows it’s yet another big ask of consumers who already might be weirded out by meat grown in tanks, but he thinks he can get the price of a hybrid burger down to a dollar.
“For a dollar, we think consumers will accept the double-weird of cultivated plus CRISPR,” he says. “If you do the Venn diagram, there’s not much crossover between people willing to eat lab-grown meat and people afraid of GMOs.”
But there are definitely a lot of people afraid of GMOs. Even before genetically modified organisms hit the market in the 1990s, opponents were trashing them as dangerous and disgusting Frankenfoods. They’re now banned in Europe, even though there’s no evidence they’re harmful to human health, and American brands constantly brag about being “non-GMO,” even oranges, sea salt and other products with no GMO alternatives. It’s just pandering to technophobia.
That’s a shame, because to feed the world by 2050, farmers will have to grow much more food while using much less land and emitting much fewer greenhouse gases. That’s going to require all kinds of new technologies, and many of the most promising would exploit the ongoing revolution in genetic engineering.
At the University of California, Davis, I watched a cow named Elle endure the first-ever implantation of a CRISPR-edited embryo that had been spliced to ensure her offspring would all be male and therefore more efficient for beef production. At the University of Illinois, I saw scientists reengineering tobacco and potato plants to photosynthesize more efficiently, experiments that could one day super-size crop yields and free up farmland for reforestation.
Meanwhile, “molecular farming” startups such as Mozza Foods and Nobell Foods are trying to engineer soybeans to grow dairy proteins, while Oliver Peoples, a synthetic biology pioneer from MIT who now runs Yield10 Bioscience, is modifying a crop called camelina to produce a higher-yielding seed oil that can grow in winter fields that would otherwise lie fallow.
Even after genetic tweaks saved Hawaiian papayas from a deadly virus, even now that “golden rice” altered to address Vitamin A deficiencies is saving lives in the developing world, “GMO” are still scarlet letters for much of the nutrition community. But even though corporations have often exaggerated the benefits of bioengineering in the past, CRISPR and other mind-blowing genetic advances have undeniable potential to turbocharge agriculture in the future.
GMO critics tend to focus on uncertainty and unintended consequences, and it’s impossible to be certain about every outcome of technological change. But it is certain that our current agricultural trajectory is warming the climate and driving mass extinctions. To feed the world by 2050 and still meet the Paris Agreement targets, farmers will need to grow 50 percent more calories with 75 percent fewer emissions.
That will require a second Green Revolution, this time without all the nasty environmental consequences, this time relying more on biology than toxic chemistry. It will require innovations like seaweed-based feed additives that reduce the methane in cattle burps, high-efficiency, low-impact microbial fertilizers that help crops fix their own nitrogen, and biopesticides that use the mRNA technology behind the Covid vaccine to constipate potato beetles to death.
Ew, I know. Still, deal with it. The Fallon standard, disgusting but safe, ought to be good enough for food that can help save the earth.
We live in an extraordinary age where we hold just about all the knowledge that humanity has acquired in pocket-sized devices that can also take videos and make phone calls and beep when we can’t remember where we left them. But for some reason, we freak out when it comes to technology in our food, even though it’s obvious that we need to transform our food system to sustain our civilization, even though the crap we shove down our pieholes every day is already killing us.
It would be nice if we as a species were capable of sticking to diets that were better for our health and for our planet, but since we’ve consistently demonstrated that we’re not, the least we can do is stop kvetching about innovations that can help us. Instead of freaking out about food and agricultural technology, we should be embracing it and subsidizing it and encouraging it in every way we can. It’s a tool, like a hammer, and we have the power to use it to fix rather than kill.