What do agricultural giant Cargill Inc. and billionaires Richard Branson and Bill Gates have in common? They’re among a group of investors who have given, so far, $17 million to Memphis Meats — a startup company that’s growing meat (beef, chicken and duck) from animal cells. No actual animals are involved, just their cells, so the idea is that one day environmentally (and ethically) devastating concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) could become a thing of the past.
Branson is so confident about Memphis Meats’ future that he told Bloomberg News, “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”1This so-called “clean-meat movement,” also known as the cultured protein market, has struck a chord with many, from animal rights groups and vegans to environmental groups and media outlets.
There’s no doubt that industrial agriculture, including CAFOs and the monocrops used to support them, is destroying the planet and must be changed. But is lab-grown meat really the direction we should be heading?
Do You Really Want Elite Billionaire Investors in Control of Your Burgers?
Once you get past the science-project feel, the idea of lab-grown meat sounds plausible — even ingenious. Meat without any of the environmental downsides and with no need to send animals to slaughter? Grown neatly and efficiently in a lab, resulting in juicy steaks, chicken and duck — enough to feed the world? It sounds too good to be true, but that hasn’t deterred a laundry list of investors from staking their claim in this emerging market.
In addition to Cargill, Branson and Gates, other investors in Memphis Meats include General Electric CEO Jack Welch, venture capital firm DJF (which has also invested in Tesla, SpaceX and Skype) and billionaires Kimbal Musk (brother of tech billionaire Elon Musk) and Kyle Vogt (co-founder of a self-driving car startup).
The “meat” starts with cells taken from live animals. The cells are then grown in a lab for four to six weeks. Reportedly, a beef meatball was created in February 2016, followed by chicken and duck in March 2017,2 but the product is still far too expensive to bring to market.
It costs about $9,000 to produce 1 pound of lab-grown chicken and about $18,000 to produce 1 pound of beef meatballs.3 This sounds like a lot, but when the first lab-grown hamburger was debuted in 2013 by professor Mark Post and colleagues from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, it cost $350,000.4 As for how they did it, Post was vague when speaking to The Washington Post, stating, "I would elaborate, but these methods are soon going to be patented."5
Aside from the cost, other hurdles also remain, like the controversy over Memphis Meats’ use of fetal bovine serum, although they say they plan to replace it with a plant-based product instead.6
Is This Really ‘Clean Meat?’
You need only watch the Memphis Meats video above to get a glimpse of the feel-good vibe the company is going for. The Good Food Institute (GFI), which seeks out entrepreneurs and scientists to form plant-based and lab-grown meat companies, also put out notice that the preferred term for the latter is “clean meat” — not cultured meat and certainly not lab-grown either. According to GFI:7
“When we talk about the fact that this meat is ‘clean,’ our conversations immediately focus on the aspects of this technology that are the most relevant and beneficial for consumers: namely, that this meat is cleaner than the meat from slaughtered animals, both in terms of basic sanitation and environmental friendliness … First impressions are critical. We don’t want to start a discussion by having to disabuse people of negative associations and inaccurate assumptions.”
But is it really accurate to call this new product “clean meat?” It would seem that this term already belongs to grass fed farmers who are raising animals on pasture, without reliance on chemicals or genetically engineered (GE) feed, in accordance with the laws of nature. In reality, the startup companies are using the term clean meat to refer to both meat produced without animal slaughter and plant-based meat alternatives.
What’s clear is that their makers want these science experiments to appear like real meat, only better. It’s promoted as a win-win for everyone, nonhuman animals included, but do you know who the biggest winners will be? The billionaire investors slated to get even richer if their fully patented meat products take off. No one can patent a natural cow, chicken or duck, but with the advent of lab-grown meat, the resulting beef, chicken and duck is very much patentable — and fully controlled by its makers.
As we’ve seen in the past with Monsanto’s patenting of GE seeds, putting the food supply in the hands of a private corporation is rarely a good idea. (The patenting of seeds and the subsequent restrictions on seed have led to what is essentially a takeover of the farming industry by chemical companies.) There’s more, even, than money at stake as, if you control the food supply, you essentially control the world.