According to Fortune magazine, the “hottest tech in Silicon Valley” last year wasn’t designing an app: It was making meatballs.
Memphis Meats is one of several young startups entering the scene of selling lab-produced or “cultured” meat, which some experts are saying will have considerable environmental, public health and societal impact. To learn more, The Daily sat down with Bruce Friedrich, the CEO of the Good Food Institute and one of the panelists from a panel held on Thursday at CEMEX: “On Meat Without Animals: Considering Cellular Agriculture.” Friedrich is also a cofounder of New Crop Capital, the first venture capital fund set up specifically to invest in “clean meat.”
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Can you give us a brief background on why you consider cultured meat important?
Bruce Friedrich (BF): We actually call it “clean meat.” We’re shifting the nomenclature a little bit, and we’re calling it clean meat because it has no bacterial contamination, no antibiotic residues – and like clean energy, it is significantly more efficient and less polluting than the product it replaces. This is real meat, except it’s meat that’s produced in a cleaner, more environmentally friendly way.
But to actually answer your question, the conventional meat industry is environmentally catastrophic. Just to take one issue – climate change. The clean meat technology is still being worked out, but one estimate from Oxford University estimates that it will produce about 95 percent less climate change and 99 percent less land than conventional animal agriculture.
The other really big global issue with animal agriculture is the basic inefficiency. So the most efficient meat is chicken, and it requires nine calories in the form of feed to get one calorie back out in the form of chicken … We’re not going to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 with this extraordinarily inefficient system, and we’re not going to meet our obligations under the Paris climate change agreement to keep climate change under two degrees Celsius with conventional animal agriculture. Clean meat is the solution to both of those problems. It’s also better from a public health standpoint, and obviously from an animal welfare perspective.
TSD: What will be the greatest challenges to encouraging consumers to accept lab-grown meat?
BF: People right now eat meat despite how it’s produced, not because of how it’s produced. Right now, clean meat is this idea, and people are asked to consider it somewhat in a vacuum. But once you have one product, and it doesn’t have the bacterial contamination, the antibiotic residues, is better for the environment, better for animals and cheaper, and this other product that is the opposite of those things and the production of it is completely opaque … Once people are given the two options, I think they’ll absolutely move to clean meat.
TSD: But even with all this, there’s some trepidation about the idea of what some people hear as lab grown or cultured meat. I think a lot of people picture sci-fi food grown in petri dishes, and consumers don’t always make logical choices. So how do you foresee trying to overcome some of these preconceived notions people might have about clean meat?
BF: First: education. Right now, meat is produced by feeding animals, and the animals grow, and then we slaughter them. The clean meat process involves taking cells and feeding them without the inefficiencies of feeding an animal. It’s a natural process, similar to making yogurt or brewing beer. Cell multiplication is a natural process, and nobody worries about it when it’s used for medical processes. Here, it’s being used for food. Some people will balk at anything unfamiliar, but as people learn about the two processes and have the ability to compare them side by side … You’ve got much a healthier, better and less expensive product. So I don’t foresee any problems at all convincing the general public to go with the option that is both better and less expensive.
TSD: What meal containing cultured meat are you most excited to taste in the future?
BF: I’m going to have both [chicken nuggets and fish sticks] at the same time … Maybe chicken nuggets first. I was a big fan of chicken nuggets before I went vegan.
TSD: What challenges will there be with policy and regulation for this new industry?
BF: The Federal Meat Inspection Act, which is responsible for the regulation of the meat industry, as well as most if not all of the regulations promulgated by USDA, assumes a slaughterhouse. So there is a question about whether it will be the USDA or FDA who provides regulatory oversight and what exactly that will look like. Our expectation is that regulators will be excited about working with this new industry to ensure a smooth introduction of these products. At the Good Food Institute we have a policy director who was a food law professor at Valparaiso Law School, who is in the process of figuring out what the best regulatory introduction will look like, both in the United States and around the world. Because clean meat pays such significant dividends in terms of things that governments care about … our expectation is that both the U.S. government and governments around world will work very hard to ensure that as quickly as clean meat can be developed, there is a regulatory structure in place for approval and oversight.
TSD: That’s more optimism than I’ve heard about the government from anyone lately.
BF: Something like clean meat is really an across the aisle issue. There will be support for clean meat from people who care about food safety and environmentalism and other issues that will be addressed by clean meat over animal agriculture, and then there will be support for clean meat by business interests and people who care about efficiency and the bottom line … Right now, according to the CDC, there are tens of millions of food-borne illnesses every year from contaminated meat, there are more than a hundred thousand hospitalizations, there are thousands of deaths, and [with clean meat] all of that goes away. So people who are traditionally consumer advocacy-focused, and people who are traditionally chamber of commerce business-focused on both sides [can support it.] This is a better product, but it’s also a cheaper product that has better efficiency and consequently better profit margins. I could not be more optimistic.
TSD: Just to clarify, clean meat is currently much more expensive than conventional meat. But when you talk about it being cheaper, you’re forecasting a few years into the future when it can be scaled up?
BF: I think the first iPhone cost something like 2.4 billion dollars, and of course iPhones sell for a fraction of that. We are in fairly early days of clean meat development, and already the cost has come down. The first clean meat burger was introduced two and a half years ago, and $330,000 – we’ve already cut the cost by 98 percent, and it’s falling quickly.