The broad avenues that lie south of Market Street in San Francisco are dotted with the headquarters of famous tech firms, from Uber and Airbnb to BitTorrent and Dropbox. Grand arts and civic buildings sit incongruously among office blocks, huddles of the city’s homeless and hip shared workspaces in which tech entrepreneurs and scientists plug away at their ideas to change the world. One such workspace houses Finless Foods, a company growing fish flesh in their laboratory, aiming to feed the 5,000 and then some without needing to kill a single animal. It was founded in 2016 by university buddies Mike Selden and Brian Wyrwas, bright-eyed biochemists in their mid-20s who are on a mission to save the oceans and bring affordable, contaminant-free fish to the masses.
Finless Foods is the first firm to enter the race to take cellular agriculture – meat grown outside of animals – to market with marine, as opposed to land animals. In 2013, the godfather of what is also known as cultured or in-vitro meat, Professor Mark Post from Maastricht University, unveiled the first ever cultured beefburger - no livestock required. It was dry and anaemic, but, says Post, “it showed it could be done.” Three years later, San Francisco startup Memphis Meats delivered a succulent beef meatball, following up this year with fried chicken and duck a l’orange. Meanwhile, Hampton Creek foods (also in San Francisco) are boldly promising they will be selling cultured poultry as soon as the end of next year.
Selden and Wyrwas’s lab was only established in March 2017, and as Selden says, “Fish cell culture was really not a thing. Human cell cultures - we do that all the time and there’s all sorts of papers on animal culture, but for fish, Brian had to invent a protocol to do that.” Yet by the end of our first conversation I am invited to taste their first prototype. “We’re small but we’re moving very quickly, and so are the investors,” says Selden, with the robotic urgency of someone who dedicates every waking hour to their vocation.
He bristles at the phrases “Frankenmeat” and “lab-grown meat”, insisting that “they’re not fair or accurate”. He makes his point by comparing the process of culturing meat cells to another passion of his: brewing beer. That hallowed, ancient process tends to happen in giant, sterile, sealed fermenters, which are not unlike the bioreactors that will be used for culturing meat in industrial quantities. Trusty beer, he points out, “is often prototyped in a facility that looks like a laboratory: it’s white, everyone’s wearing lab coats and gloves, and is using lab equipment. So if we’re lab-grown meat, then beer is lab-grown beer. We’re not going to have armies of scientists sitting over petri dishes forever.”
The technology for culturing animal cells was originally developed for medical use; in fact Post, whose early burger attempt was funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, had a background in repairing heart tissue. An early attempt by academics to culture fish (the results of which were published in 2002) tested the processes as a potential renewable protein source for astronauts embarking on a four-year schlep to Mars. Brin’s motivation to jumpstart the path to cultured meat was simple: “There are three things that can happen going forward. One is we will all become vegetarian – I don’t think that is really very likely. The second is we ignore the issues, and that leads to continued environmental harm. And the third option is we do something new.” Other high-profile investors include Kimbal Musk (brother of Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk), Bill Gates, Richard Branson and traditional meat and agriculture corporations such as Tyson Foods. A representative from Tyson, the world’s second largest processor of chicken, beef and pork, informed me by email that the move is “part of its overall strategy to invest in solutions to feed a growing world population”.
The principle for culturing cells is relatively straightforward. Animal cells can be obtained harmlessly by biopsy from a living beast, or in the case of Finless, says Selden, “We have an agreement with the aquarium at the bay that whenever a fish dies, they call me and I jump in a car, pick up the fish, bring it back and Brian cultures it up.” By “culturing up” he means feeding the cells in a solution of salts, carbohydrates and proteins. “Typical division time for most animals is about 24 hours,” he says. Whether you’ve got two cells or two tonnes, you’ll have double a day later, although this may get faster.
The greatest challenge lies in making the process affordable enough to scale-up production and be competitively priced. An alternative needs to be found for the animal serum – commonly foetal bovine serum – that’s currently used to kick-start cell division. “It’s about $500 a litre, and it’s totally against the mission of our company,” says Selden. “We’re trying to make food that doesn’t harm animals and it’s kind of doing the opposite. Also, animal serum is variable from batch to batch.”
I visit Finless Foods’ lab ahead of the prototype tasting. They’re moving to new bespoke quarters later this year, but in the meantime share a workspace with various young companies developing biotech solutions to the world’s problems. We pass Clara Foods, which has created the world’s first animal-free egg, and a centrifuge whizzing around something to do with regenerating “the nipple-areolar complex” for women after mastectomies. Senior scientist at Finless, Jihyun Kim, proudly invites me to peer through her microscope at fish cells developing in a beaker of clear, pink liquid resembling the run-off from defrosting pork. A pattern has formed on the bottom of the beaker – the slightest sliver of fish. It doesn’t look appetising, but neither do the contents of an abattoir.
Selden, Post and the other cultured meat startups exude confidence about solving the serum puzzle: with venture capitalists to keep sweet, and stiff competition, a certain swagger must be displayed at all times. The serum provides proteins called growth factors. “We’re trying to find which growth factors are most important for fish cell growth,” says Selden, “and we’re making those ourselves in-house.”
They produce them in a similar way to how human insulin is made for people with diabetes. Up until 1978, medical insulin was extracted from ground pig or cow pancreases. These days we can genetically modify yeast or bacteria to produce human insulin. Similarly, the serum alternative will involve putting fish DNA inside yeasts, “which then act as little protein factories”. Selden assures GMO haters that this doesn’t mean the meat cells are GM, “but they used proteins produced by a GMO to signal them into dividing and growing.”
At Finless Foods they say they’ll have a blue-fin tuna product ready for market in late 2019. Post is more conservative; he says he is happy with his product, but is at least three years from selling one. As well as working on his own serum alternative, he is seeking to replace the bovine collagen he uses “so the cells can find each other and form a fibre.”
Hi-tech, plant-based protein alternatives, meanwhile, are starting to give meat a run for its money. Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat makes chicken strips largely from a protein in peas, and beefburgers that bleed beetroot juice. After Bill Gates tried a Beyond Chicken taco, he blogged about being fooled into thinking it was the real thing. Meanwhile the Impossible burger exploded out of Silicon Valley and is available in restaurants across the US. It is uncannily beef-like, oozing cholesterol-free fat and pink through the middle. Impossible’s not-so-secret ingredient is heme, a compound that is abundant in meat but can be sourced from plants. According to Impossible’s blurb, heme is what makes “meat sizzle, bleed and taste gloriously meaty.”
But in the eyes of the cultured meat trailblazers, fancy vegetarian food will never have mass appeal. Demand for meat, and fish, is only going one way. “The question is, which product can satisfy the craving of the population for meat?” posits Post. “At the moment it’s there and it’s increasing ... culturing is going to cover the entire gamut of meats that are out there. It will be much more difficult to achieve that goal with vegetable-based proteins.” This is a sentiment the Chinese government has got behind, announcing a $300m investment in cultured meat produced in Israel. The US may be among the world’s most carnivorous nations, but as China’s economy swells, the planet’s most populous country is catching up.
Hampton Creek is a little different. The company already produces a range of plant-based vegan foods. Their “Just” branded mayonnaise, dressings and cookies is delicious. As we perch on stools in the industrial open-plan, dog-friendly office and test kitchen, CEO Josh Tetrick tells me his life mission is to transform the food industry by testing the culinary properties of all plants. He has a storeroom housing endless shelves of white tubs of ground-seeds, and lab machines that use AI to “find plants as fast as we can that we can make better products from”. I taste a “scrambled egg” prototype made from a substance found in a variety of mung bean. It’s surprisingly good. So why isn’t he making plant-based meat alternatives? “I can’t imagine the people I was raised with in Birmingham Alabama under any scenario choosing a plant-based hamburger ... it’s an identity thing.”
Tetrick is a controversial figure. He recently fired three top executives who he claimed were planning a coup and when we meet, he is plotting to control the cultured meat industry, buying up patents across the globe. He admits, however, that the road to public acceptance of cultured meat is paved with “gnarly problems, communication issues, regulatory issues.” When you tell people about growing animal muscle and fat cells in factories, the initial reaction is invariably revulsion. But after you point out the ethical and health benefits, they warm to the prospect. Cultured meat doesn’t involve intensively farming and slaughtering animals, nor the associated environmental and animal-cruelty costs, not to mention the risks of human contamination with disease, antibiotics, pesticides and – in the oceans – mercury and plastics. Fish farming, which accounts for over half of global fish consumption, increasingly relies on pesticides, fungicides and antibiotics, which pollute open water surrounding the captive fish. Aquaculture also employs inhumane methods to physically detach parasites from the fish. Farmed fish are not even immune to absorbing mercury and toxic industrial byproducts such as PCBs and dioxins, although being in shallower water reduces their exposure.
This is why companies such as Hampton Creek and Memphis Meats are referring to their produce as “clean meat”, and it’s catching on: clean meat, clean conscience.
However, research into public attitudes to cultured meat, published in January in the peer-reviewed journal Plos One, found that while politically liberal consumers were more receptive to the idea than conservatives, and while most respondents to their online survey were up for trying it, only a third were willing to eat it regularly in place of conventionally produced meat. The key consumer concerns were cost, flavour and it being unnatural.
Naturalness is perhaps one of the most slippery concepts ever to have been massaged by advertising copywriters. As New Harvest, an organisation that funds cultured meat research, states on its website, “bread, cheese, yogurt and wine are unnatural. All involve processing ingredients derived from natural sources.” No one can argue that intensive farming is natural. Eating insects is arguably more natural, and yet westerners turn their noses up at the idea.
Meat without consciousness is a far more philosophically befuddling concept. Post says that 16 people have tasted his product, “and all agree that it’s meat”. However, Arnout Fischer, associate professor of consumer behaviour at Wageningen University in the Netherlands has found that “in the minds of many people, cultured meat is currently somewhere in a ‘grey border zone’ between being perceived as meat or not meat. In several of our studies it was shown that people associate it with some properties of meat, but also with some properties of meat replacers – ie vegetarian burgers etc.”
Without a brain, cultured meat can indeed be thought of as almost plantlike. “If you look under a microscope, you see the same cell structures as you would meat from an animal,” says Koert Van Mensvoort, director of the Next Nature Network, a non-profit organisation in Amsterdam that investigates how technology transforms our relationship with nature. “But there’s a different story there that forces us to reevaluate our positions.”
Which is partly why he thinks the new culinary possibilities created by cultured meat should be explored, rather than seeing it as replacing the sausages and burgers we’re so familiar with. “Meat sashimi, for instance – growing the meat in very controlled circumstances, you could make sushi or sashimi softer and better than the best sushi you have tasted.” Knitted steak, made from long strands of cultured meat, is another recipe in his In Vitro Meat Cookbook.
“Why not look into high-protein, exquisite, slightly weird, extraordinary dishes?” he says. Acting as “a radar for potential futures,” he posits that we could one day culture-up our own cells for meat. Lovely pink beakers of human flesh. He surely can’t mean ethical cannibalism? “You could say it’s an intimate dish for a loved one – you give your body to your lover.” It’s a niche idea, he admits. “Most people I speak to say this is horror, they don’t see the poetry in it just yet.”
People are already coming around to the idea of produce grown in factories rather than fields. Marks and Spencer has introduced microherbs cultivated free from pesticides in air-raid shelters, 33 metres below Clapham High Street in south London. And perhaps knowing that cultured meat isn’t a new idea might help normalise it. Winston Churchill was banging on about it in 1932. “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,’’ he wrote, presciently.
How a clean-meat revolution could affect the landscape and environment is riddled with ifs and buts, not helped by the secrecy among the startups. Hanna Tuomisto, a specialist in the environmental impacts of food production at the University of Helsinki, started investigating the implications at Oxford University in 2008. Feeding the cells is one thing, but to convert a mush of them into muscle-like structures adds a second layer of energy burn, and she can only guess at the expenditure involved. “When we estimate energy consumption,” she says, “it’s at the same level as beef or higher now, but there is lots of uncertainty in bioreactor design and the scales we are looking at now are quite small.” Culturing fish cells will probably use less energy than land animal cells, because fish cells will merrily reproduce at room temperature.
However, if the land freed up by moving from intensive farming to cultured meat was used to grow bioenergy crops (a big if), this could mitigate the carbon generated by culturing. Post, meanwhile, thinks enterprising farmers might switch to crops that could provide the nutrients for cultured meat factories. Either way, converting the grassland we use for grazing would have serious drawbacks. Grassland has higher biodiversity than arable land, and converting grassland to arable land would release, Tuomisto says, “a lot of carbon from the soil.”
When it comes to the craggy grasslands, especially highlands, that aren’t suitable for arable use, nobody’s in doubt that there will still be demand for free-range animal meat. “There will likely always be a role for family farms to play in feeding the planet,” says Memphis Meats CEO, Uma Valeti, “and we have no problem with that – in fact, my co-founder used to be a family farmer. But family farms can only produce a tiny fraction of the world’s demand for meat.”
We do, of course, rely on animals for more than their meat. Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow is already on the case with culturing leather, but alternatives for all animal products need consideration.
The world’s first cultured fish tasting takes place on an afternoon in early September, as the mist rolls over San Francisco from the bay. Silicon Valley chef Laurine Wickett will be preparing the fish at her gleaming catering kitchens. Before she fries the five bite-sized, cultured-carp croquettes she has made, she describes the raw paste of harvested cells within them as having a delicate flavour of the sea, a little like the water in an oyster shell. As I suppress thoughts of beakers of pink liquid and taste my perfectly-cooked croquette, I find it both delicious and disappointing. It’s only 25% fish and the subtle carp flavour is eclipsed by the potato. I just about detect a pleasant aftertaste of the sea, though not fish as such. But then, far from a polished product from a development kitchen, this is a first prototype – a benchmark of scientific progress. Selden and Wyrwas only tasted their fish for the first time a few days before.
Despite the stingy fish-to-potato ratio, each tiny croquette had cost $200 (£150), working out at about $19,000 (£14,380)-per-pound of fish. But such is the speed of technological advance that they’ve already slashed that by more than half.
Afterwards, Selden and Wywras are flushed with the raw elation of having given birth to something important, and they talk frenetically about strategies for developing a more mature fishy flavour, expansion into fresh premises and the structural wonders their newly recruited tissue engineer will create. Next stop: cultured sashimi.
- Amy Fleming’s flights were paid for by Visit California
This article was amended on 20 September to remove a repeated paragraph.