On January 31, the team behind a young biotech startup gathered around what may be the world’s most expensive meatball and got ready to take a bite of their product—real, edible beef from a lab, not a cow—for the first time. At $18,000 a pound, the meat produced by Memphis Meats probably won’t be on your table anytime soon. But in a few years, it might change the world.
The startup and its investors watched as a professional chef rolled the meatball, preparing it with “traditional Italian seasoning,” and then dropped it into a sauté pan to sizzle.
The company’s first choice for an independent taster canceled at the last minute, so Stephanie, a friend of a friend of an employee, stepped in. In a video of the event, Stephanie is shown gamely poking the meatball, then taking a bite. “Tastes like meat. It’s a meatball,” she says, looking a bit confused, as if she might have missed the big reveal. “Can I have more?”
Nicholas Genovese, one of the company’s founders, has been a vegetarian for years. When he first tried a morsel, he was smitten. “I really miss this,” he said. Another of the Memphis Meats co-founders, Dr. Uma Valeti, a cardiologist, traces the idea for the company to a birthday party he went to when he was 12, growing up in India. “In the front, there was a lot of fun and dancing and eating,” Valeti tells Newsweek. But then he walked into the backyard. “I actually saw the slaughtering of animals happening in the back. To me, it was a very distinct moment: birthday, death day.” Like the vast majority of those who are bothered by the ethical implications of eating animals, Valeti was troubled—but he kept eating meat.
Years later, Valeti found himself a physician in the world of biotech research, working on a potential therapy that could use stem cells to regenerate cardiac muscle after a heart attack, when he had an epiphany: “If you’re regenerating heart muscle, why couldn’t you use the same technique to make meat?” Valeti joined forces with Genovese and Will Clem, a tissue engineer whose family owns a chain of barbecue restaurants in meat-crazed Memphis, Tennessee. The trio was accepted by IndieBio, a “synthetic biology accelerator” with offices in San Francisco and Cork, Ireland, that tries to catapult biotech companies to market using the same finance-plus-advice-and-connections model that Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator has applied to get so many technology companies off the ground.
While the number of people on Earth who have eaten meat grown entirely in a lab is probably in the low double-digits, there are several companies and nonprofits trying to solve the problem of humankind’s bloody urge for meat. A lot of big-name investors are eyeing lab-grown meat, or “cultured meat,” as it’s referred to in the field, not just as a solution for some of humankind’s biggest problems but also as a profitable business.
Ninety percent of human diets include some kind of meat, and given the calories and nutrition packed into each bite of the stuff, it’s hard to imagine the reward centers of our brains ever really shaking the rush that comes with smelling bacon. But meat is inordinately expensive for the planet. According to a study by Chatham House, livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making it a bigger contributor to global warming than all the cars, trucks, planes and boats in the world. Meanwhile, clearing land to graze animals is a major contributor to deforestation. In just a single year, the expansion of soy farms (used primarily as cattle feed) in South America was responsible for clearing more than 4,500 square miles of rainforest. And the world’s hunger for meat is only rising: Consumption is expected to nearly double by 2050. Even with advanced farming techniques, it's hard to imagine the Earth keeping up. Livestock now uses 30 percent of the surface of the planet, and 33 percent of farmland goes to producing feed, according to a 2007 United Nations report. And as water grows more and more scarce, it may be harder to justify the 450 gallons of water needed to produce the beef for each of your quarter pounders.
The answer to most of these concerns, for most of us, has been “but steak tastes good!” As long as it makes economic sense to eat meat from animals, the vast majority of us probably will. Valeti hopes his company can change that math. He says Memphis Meats could produce one calorie of lab-grown beef with just three calories of energy, a far cry from the 23 calories of feed-based energy required to produce each calorie of beef that comes from a cow.
The Memphis Meats meatball wasn’t the first cultured meat the world has chewed on. In August 2013, a company called Mosa Meat in the Netherlands, headed by Maastricht University’s Mark Post, served up the first burger made entirely from lab-grown cells. Its $330,000 price tag was bankrolled by Google CEO Sergey Brin. That price, of course, isn’t the end goal; Peter Verstrate, head of Mosa Meat, says the company can already make meat that costs $27 to $45 per pound, and he expects to go in the market with a premium-priced product in five years; five years after that, he says, prices will be down to a level competitive to what we pay for beef now.
Lab-grown meat is “a very sexy subject,” Verstrate tells Newsweek, and Mosa Meat has made huge strides since the demonstration just two and a half years ago. Tasters at the time praised the burger’s “mouth feel” but noted it lacked a real meaty taste. That’s because it was all grown with “25,000 individual small muscle fibers, and each of these fibers [was] made from hand in an individual petri dish,” according to Verstrate. The meat had no fat and none of the metallic blood taste that normally marks a burger. Mosa Meat’s newer products have, it says, addressed these gustatory issues.
Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow is also planning a move into lab-grown animal products. Although the company’s early focus is leather, it sees tremendous potential not just in re-creating meat but also in rethinking what it could be—developing, perhaps, a lab-grown protein that is healthier and more delicious than even the best grass-fed beef. (Valeti has similar plans for Memphis Meat, imagining a time when fats in their lab beef can be tweaked to reduce heart disease. For instance, a burger might be heavy in omega-3 oils normally found in fish instead of saturated fat.) Modern Meadow has reportedly attracted investment from Horizons Ventures, the Hong Kong–based firm of billionaire investor Li Ka-shing, and from the Thiel Foundation, funded by legendary tech investor Peter Thiel.
The competition doesn’t faze Valeti. “We need to have about 1,000 cultured meat companies in the world,” he says. “They’re not our competition; our competition is the existing meat industry.” Lab-grown meat may do more than disrupt agriculture. Cultured meat, for example, defies traditional religious dietary frameworks like halal and kosher. And it’s hard to know what these products will mean for those who consider themselves vegetarian. In 2008, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals offered a $1 million reward to the group that could produce meat in commercially viable quantities, and that started a near–civil war in the organization. The process of growing meat right now relies on fetal bovine serum, an expensive cocktail that comes from unborn cows, a hurdle that all producers will have to overcome to truly cut ties with the meat industry, but that breakthrough seems to be on the horizon.
Although cultured meat is cellularly identical to meat from a cow, Vestrate says there should be no conflict for those who have moral or philosophical qualms. “ If you’re a vegetarian principally for ethics, but you love meat, I don't see why you shouldn’t skip to this product. No animal has to be killed, so why wouldn’t you?”