How test-tube meat could be the future of food

Story highlights

  • Tech entrepreneurs are addressing the challenges of global food production
  • One startup, Modern Meadow, wants to engineer meat in a lab
  • Research shows current methods of raising meat are harmful to the environment
  • But survey finds 80% of Americans would not eat meat grown in a lab
In a nondescript hotel ballroom last month at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, Andras Forgacs offered a rare glimpse at the sci-fi future of food.
Before an audience of tech-industry types, Forgacs produced a plate of small pink wafers -- "steak chips," he called them -- and invited people up for a taste. But these were no ordinary snacks: Instead of being harvested from a steer, they had been grown in a laboratory from tiny samples of animal tissue.
One taster's verdict on this Frankenmeat? Not bad, actually.
"It was delicious. It tasted like a thin piece of beef jerky," said Michael Wang, a program manager in Washington. "I would have never thought it wasn't real meat."
Forgacs is co-founder and CEO of Modern Meadow, a young company that is developing lab-engineered meat and leather products, known as cultured meat. He is among a new breed of youthful entrepreneurs who are applying tech-startup principles -- innovation, efficiency, data-driven processes -- to address the growing challenges of global food production.
"Once you start to see food as technology, as a form of hardware, you start to ask, why can't food get better?" asked Rob Rhinehart, CEO of Rosa Labs, a nutritional-science startup based in Los Angeles. "But there's a lot of disagreement about what our products are. Is it fake? Is it real?"
For those reasons, these biotech food entrepreneurs may face an uphill climb.
Research shows that conventional methods of raising beef are environmentally harmful.
To an eating public increasingly focused on organic, farm-to-table food, cultured meat -- also known as "in vitro" or "test-tube" meat -- sounds unnatural and unappealing. A recent Pew survey found that 80% of Americans would not eat meat that was grown in a lab, although younger and college-educated people are more willing to try it.
"Cultured meat is so new and such a radically different way of making meat to what has gone before," said Neil Stephens, a research scientist at the University of Cardiff in Wales who has been studying lab-engineered food products.
"There is an empirical question to answer about whether people will accept it as meat, and what criteria we use to define cultured meat as meat."
Problem ... and solution?
As these entrepreneurs see it, our current large-scale methods of raising meat are wasteful and harmful to the environment. Research supports this: Raising livestock, for example, requires massive amounts of water, pollutes rivers with manure and, according to the United Nations, produces an estimated 14.5% of global human greenhouse-gas emissions.
On top of that, global demand for meat is expected to double over the next 40 years, placing further strain on the planet's natural resources.
By comparison, lab-grown meat would leave a much lighter footprint and might eventually help alleviate food shortages in some parts of the world, advocates say.
They also say that cultured meat is more humane because no animals are slaughtered.
"It's the future," said entrepreneur Biz Stone, a vegan and co-founder of Twitter and Jelly. "We can't sustain the current model of raising enough animals to feed 7 billion people."
Beyond Meat makes fake chicken strips that look like the real thing.
Spotting an opportunity, a handful of biotechnology startups have begun developing alternative food products. Using a formula developed at the University of Missouri, Beyond Meat takes plant protein from soy and peas and applies heating, cooling and pressure to realign it so that its structure resembles meat tissue. The company's fake chicken strips are in 4,000 stores across the United States and have fooled people in blind taste tests.
Hampton Creek Foods has received $30 million in funding for its business model, which revolves around a plant-based substitute for eggs. Its first product, a vegan mayonnaise called Just Mayo, hit stores in California last fall. And after a $2 million crowdfunding campaign Rosa Labs recently began mass-producing Soylent, a drink supplement aimed at meeting all the human body's nutritional needs.
"There's such a wide-open space for innovations if you're starting (a company) around food," said Hampton Creek Foods CEO Josh Tetrick.
But the most fascinating, and polarizing, startup in this emerging space is Modern Meadow. Launched in 2011 by Forgacs and his father Gabor Forgacs, a biophysicist, the company plans to make cultured leather products before tackling the thornier process of growing meat.
"You don't waste as much material (with cultured leather) because animals don't come in the shape of a couch or a handbag," said Andras Forgacs at the SXSW panel discussion in Austin, Texas.
To make cultured beef, Modern Meadow takes muscle cells from a steer and places them in a liquid or gel containing amino acids, vitamins, minerals and sugars -- ingredients that cells feed on -- to stimulate tissue growth.