Remember those man-made chickens in David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead? Well, this is the real thing. It is really meat and it is really happening. Not-so-mad scientists are in labs right now creating something of a food revolution: meat that is slaughter-free and planet-friendly.
Clean meat, the catchier name for the product of ‘cellular agriculture’, or cultured, lab-grown meat, has attracted funding from big-name investors such as Bill Gates and Google’s Sergei Brin.
“We are growing the four necessary components to have meat: muscle, fat, blood and connective tissue,” says Arturo Geifman, chairman of Biofood Systems, one of several prominent clean meat start-ups in Israel – the other country in the race with the Netherlands and the US to put clean, juicy steaks on supermarket shelves.
Biofood Systems, Aleph Farms and SuperMeat are three Israeli companies leading the way in clean meat development and production. Biofood Systems’ focus is cell-grown minced beef; Aleph Farms broke new ground in December 2018 with the launch of its first cell-grown minute steak; and, following successful crowdfunding, SuperMeat is planning to produce cultured chicken and duck.
Aleph Farms was co-founded in 2017 by Israeli food-tech incubator The Kitchen, part of the Strauss Group, and the prestigious Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Its method is to apply the same scientific concepts used for organ regeneration in humans to growing beef.
“We are working on solving both taste and texture challenges,” says the company’s co-founder and CEO, Didier Toubia. “Texture is very important, and the co-culture of various types of cells together into a 3D structure similar to conventional meat is one of our competitive advantages.”
As for the international competition, the Dutch company Mosa Meat – the recipient of Brin’s investment – introduced the world to the first test-tube burger in 2013 and Memphis Meats in California, just one company involved in a growing Bay Area faux-meat industry, is hacking yeast cells to produce lab-grown egg whites. Strides are also being made with other animal-product substitutes: Modern Meadow is cultivating leather in its New York labs.
That the Netherlands and the US are finding competition and opportunities for collaboration in Israel isn’t that surprising. Considered a tech powerhouse, the so-called Start-Up Nation already has a reputation for innovation, not least in the domain of food production. The most famous example of this being the drip irrigation system that significantly reduced the amount of water required to grow crops in arid regions when it reached the market in 1966.
As a relatively new country absorbing huge numbers of immigrants, mass-produced food became the norm in the 1950s. In those same austere days, and long before star chefs started outdoing each other by creating mock-meat dishes, Israelis were also innovating at home, making chopped liver out of aubergines.
Statistics show Israel’s vegetarian population is second only to that of India, with 13% and 38% of people abstaining from meat, respectively. Anti-meat protests are a regular occurrence in the streets of cities such as Tel Aviv, and many clean innovators cite the country’s vibrant vegan culture as one motivator for the development of cellular, cruelty-free meat.
Religion and ethics also play a key role in inspiring clean meat production in Israel. One of the ideas behind millennia-old kashrut or kosher laws is that slaughtering animals should be done with the least possible suffering. In 2018, exposés concerning extreme abuses in supposedly humane kosher slaughterhouses in Israel caught the nation’s attention.
All of this begs the question: How kosher is clean meat?
“It depends which kosher organisation you ask,” Geifman explains. “In principle, there is no reason [for it] not to be kosher.”
SuperMeat, meanwhile, conducted talks with rabbis on the matter, all of whom agreed that clean meat is kosher in one way or another.
“There is a debate on which type of kosher label clean meat will fall under; in Judaism, any food needs to be labelled as meat, dairy or neither, which we call parev, due to kosher laws that prevent Jews from having dairy and meat at the same meal,” explains SuperMeat’s co-founder Shir Friedman. “If clean meat is considered parev, that could actually open the door for a kosher cheeseburger, a delight that Jews are prevented from having.”
Cellular meat companies are also keen to underline the environmental benefits of their products.
“The most popular protein source for human consumption is conventional meat, but it comes with ecological hurdles as animals are not efficient meat-making machines,” Friedman explains. “They waste a lot of energy, land, fresh water – all to supply us with very little meat in return, and all the while emitting great amounts of greenhouse gasses.
“On top of that, for animals to grow, they need food themselves – 80% of which is not being converted back to the meat that we eat.
“This means we are wasting incredible amounts of food that could be used to help feed almost 1 billion people.”
The UN report World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision states that by 2050 the Earth’s population will be close to 10 billion; likewise, Toubia estimates meat consumption will increase by 70% in the next few decades. Both of these factors will place strain on water and land resources, which, among other things, are required in massive quantities to raise beef cattle.
The October 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advocates slashing global meat consumption in the battle to save our planet – by as much as 90% in the case of UK and US beef consumption.
Clean meat may sound like science fiction, but, according to Geifman, it’s simply the natural solution to the problem of finding an innovative way to meet demand.
In 2017, clean pioneers, meat-product manufacturers and food conglomerates met at Technion for the Future Meating conference, signifying that clean meat was something to be taken seriously by the mainstream food industry. However, pricing remains a pressing issue in the race to get it to mainstream consumers. In 2013, Mosa Meat’s clean burger came with a price tag of €250,000 (£225,000) – this has since shrunk to around €9 (£8).
Biofood Systems plans to get its minced beef on supermarket shelves with a two-pronged approach. “The first is disruptive and cost-effective culturing of bovine embryonic stem cells, on dispersion, scaffold-free in a low-cost growth media,” says Geifman. The other, he explains, is to scale up technology that they can license globally to meat manufacturers, so they can produce their own raw material.
Most expect clean meat to be on general sale at competitive prices within three to five years.
“Israel is not only the most vegan country in the world, but it is also very progressive in its start-up mentality, being the number one worldwide in number of start-ups per capita,” says Friedman. “The combination of these two factors make Israel an optimal hub for clean meat R&D and production.
“It is a very hot topic here and almost everyone has heard of it and is excited about it. People recognise us on the street, wish us luck, and urge us to hurry up and get it on their plates already.”
Whichever way you slice it, Israel’s clean meat pioneers have a major part to play in determining how the world will eat.