I’m not a vegetarian, and my feelings on the issue of meat-eating range from extreme guilt to resentment to irritation, but perhaps my views are of little account:
Some 41% of all arable land…. is used to grow grain for livestock, while one-third of our fresh water consumption goes to meat production. Add in the use of chemicals and fuel, and the meat we consume represents one of the largest contributors to carbon, pesticides and pollutants on the planet.
So writes ethical philosopher Laurie Zoloth in the most recent issue of Cosmos. And of course we must add to that the massive issue of animal exploitation and suffering. But happily, Zoloth’s article is all about promoting a possible solution, which isn’t about convincing 98% of the world’s population, the meat-eaters, to change their ways.
Synthetic meat. It’s been talked about, and produced in small quantities, for a few years now, and I’ve been highly skeptical from the get-go, especially as the first samples were phenomenally expensive and disappointing taste-wise, according to pundits. But Zoloth has introduced to me a new hero in the field, the high-flying biochemist and activist Pat Brown, formerly of Stanford University. Brown is well aware that there are, unfortunately, too many people like me who just can’t wean themselves from meat in spite of the disastrous (but still psychologically remote) consequences of our behaviour. So he and a team of some 80 scientists are committing themselves to creating palatable meat from entirely plant-based sources, thus transforming our agricultural world.
Food is, of course, chemistry and nothing but. Top-class chefs may disagree, but really they, like expert cocktail mixers, are just top-class chemical manipulators. Even so, most producers of synthetic meat (aka cultured meat, clean meat, in vitro meat) have started with cells from the animals whose meat they’re trying to synthesise. A company called Memphis Meats has already produced clean chicken and duck from cultured cells of these birds, which have apparently passed taste tests. However, Pat Brown’s new company, Impossible Foods, is going further with a plant-based burger based essentially on the not-so-secret molecular ingredient, haem. Haem is a molecule found in blood, a constituent of the protein haemoglobin, but it’s also found in soybeans, and that’s where Brown’s team gets it from, at least at the genetic level. With a lot of nifty chemical engineering, they’ve created a burger that sizzles, browns and oozes fat, and they’ve got some billionaire investors such as Bill Gates and Vinod Khosla onside. The so-called Impossible Burger follows up the Beyond Burger, from another company called Beyond Meat, also backed by Gates, but it looks like the Impossible Burger has more potential.
Haem (or heme in American) is what makes our blood red. It contains iron and helps in oxygenating the blood. Abundant in muscle tissue, it’s what gives raw meat its pink colour. It also contributes much to the taste of cooked meat. The ‘Impossible’ team transferred the soybean gene encoding the haem protein into yeast, thus ensuring an abundant supply. The associated massive cost reduction is key to Brown’s biosphere-saving ambitions.
Of course, it’s not just cost that will capture the market. Taste, mouthfeel, aroma, je ne sais quoi, so much goes into the meat-munching experience, and the team has apparently worked hard to get it all in there, and will no doubt be willing to tweak well into the future, considering what’s at steak (sorry). If they succeed, it will be something of a slap in the face, perhaps, to those romantics among us who want to believe that food is more than merely chemical.
Yet I fear that the biggest challenge, as with renewable energy, will be to win over, or overcome, those invested in and running the current ‘technology’. That’s the world of people and systems that raise cows, pigs, chooks, and all the rest, for slaughter. It’s an open and shut case from an environmental and ethical perspective, but that doesn’t mean people won’t fight tooth and nail to preserve their bloody businesses and lifestyles. It’s not as if they’re going to be rehired by biotech companies. And as to the religious among us, with their halal and kosher conceptions, that’ll be another headache, but not for me. It will certainly be another scientific stab at the heart of this pre-scientific way of looking at the world and will add to the ever-widening divide between pre-scientific and scientific cultures, with not very foreseeable consequences, but probably not happy ones.
But all that’s still well in the future. It’s unlikely that these new products will hit the market for a few years yet, and it’s likely the inroads will be small at first, in spite of the admirable ambitions of people like Pat Brown and his supporters. In any case I’ll be watching developments with great interest, and hoping to get a not-too costly taste myself some time. Such fun it is to be alive in these days, but to be young, that would be like heaven…