(2024-02-09) The Empty Promise Of Endless Steak

Joe Fassle: The Empty Promise of Endless Steak. The Revolution That Died on Its Way to Dinner

It is a gleaming vision of a world just beyond the present: a world in which meat is abundant and affordable with almost no cost to the environment. Animal slaughter is forgotten

Meat without killing is the central promise of what’s come to be known as cultivated meat. This isn’t a new plant-based alternative.

Between 2016 and 2022, investors poured almost $3 billion into cultivated meat and seafood companies.

it is increasingly clear that a broader cultivated meat revolution was never a real prospect, and definitely not within the few years we have left to avert climate catastrophe.

Now, as venture capital dries up across industries and this sector’s disappointing progress becomes more visible, the reckoning will be difficult for many to survive.

Why did so many people buy into the dream that cultivated meat would save us?

For all its terrifying urgency, climate change is an invitation — to reinvent our economies, to rethink consumption, to redraw our relationships to nature and to one another. Cultivated meat was an excuse to shirk that hard, necessary work. The idea sounded futuristic, but its appeal was all about nostalgia, a way to pretend that things will go on as they always have, that nothing really needs to change.

Josh Tetrick was the chief executive of a vegan food company called Hampton Creek when he first got excited about growing meat in a laboratory. A former D1 football player, Mr. Tetrick had been an animal-rights activist since high school, and he started Hampton Creek in part, he said, to save farm animals from short, brutal lives as flesh-and-blood cogs in a global supply chain.

back in law school, he read about something that piqued his interest: NASA-funded scientists had attempted to grow meat (goldfish meat, in that case) in a laboratory.

The most basic part of the process — turning a few living cells into many — was not new.

typically produces only “cell slurry,” a viscous mass. To turn it into something someone could eat (or sell), you’d need to mix in vegetable matter like pea and soy, for a kind of plant-animal hybrid. Or you could try something vastly more difficult: getting the animal cells to form into muscle-like tissue.

Making any of that happen affordably and at large volumes is a problem that even today no one has solved.

Mr. Tetrick decided to join the excitement. It was a good time for a new horizon: That year, Bloomberg ran a scathing investigation that found that Hampton Creek, now called Eat Just, had sent people out to buy up jars of its vegan mayonnaise to give the impression of higher consumer demand. (Eat Just says the program was in part for quality assurance purposes.) Bloomberg also reported that Mr. Tetrick had engaged in a romantic relationship with a subordinate, that Eat Just had wildly overestimated its sustainability impacts and that the company had been accused by a senior executive, the influential Silicon Valley angel investor Ali Partovi, of deceiving investors

Challenges were mounting, however. The company was exploring duck products like foie gras and duck chorizo when, sometime in 2018, scientists ran a scan on the cells being used — and found mouse cells. It wasn’t a result of poor hygiene; the contaminants originated from laboratory materials, not live vermin. But Eat Just had to scrap the whole cell line, and ended up scrapping the duck products altogether

In the next year alone, at least 20 new cultured meat companies announced they were entering the already crowded fray

Something was happening, but what, exactly? In 2019, as all these companies worked to find viable paths to market, scientists working for the company that would later become Upside ran genetic tests on a high-performing chicken cell line. To their dismay they, too, found contamination with laboratory cells, but in this case it was a rodent even less palatable than mouse: rat.

Josh Tetrick remembers being in Boulder, Colo., on Thanksgiving Day 2020, endlessly calling his team for updates from Singapore, where Eat Just was seeking its first government approval.

Eat Just’s cultivated meat division had the capacity to produce only a small amount of chicken, and that at a steep financial loss. The process still relied on fetal bovine serum, a product of the brutal animal supply chain that cultured meat was supposed to make obsolete. The product, the company said, was about 30 percent plant-based ingredients, a cross between a chicken nugget and a veggie burger. Regardless, the approval was treated as a historic event.

In November 2021, Upside opened its factory in Emeryville, Calif

As I recently reported with Matt Reynolds, however, Upside has been brewing its chicken cutlets almost by hand in minuscule quantities, using disposable plastic bottles — an unwieldy, unscalable and unsustainable process that seems to generate more plastic waste than meat

As for Eat Just, in May 2022, its cultivated meat division, Good Meat, announced plans to build two factories

But projected costs spiraled, just as start-up funding skidded into a steep decline.

“The unfortunate outlook that I’m required to have is one that is very long term,” he told me. “You have to have a view of not just the next 10 years, but the next 50 years.”

Mr. Tetrick’s competitor, Upside Foods, doesn’t have any products in stores either, but it said it’s still optimistic about its prospects.

true, of course, that innovation is rarely linear. Setbacks are to be expected in the development of any new technology. Progress, too — and there have been some recent advances

Researchers at Tufts University have engineered cow cells to produce a protein that previously needed to be purchased at great expense.

Still, some people view the industry as a rising threat. Florida and Arizona have recently introduced bills that would ban the sale of cell-cultivated meat

But as familiar as cultivated meat’s bumpy trajectory may be, one thing stands out: The industry, and in particular, its two biggest players, Upside Foods and Eat Just, built expensive facilities and pushed for government approval before they had overcome the most fundamental technological challenges.

Dave Humbird said the industry had “wishcast” its way to market readiness, something he’s never seen work. His prediction for the future of cultivated meat: “R-and-D will go back into academia. And that’s probably a good thing.”

Joel Stone is a consultant who specializes in industrial biotechnology. I asked him how likely it was that within my lifetime even 10 percent of U.S. meat supply will be cultivated. “If I was going to put odds on it, the odds would be zero,” he said, flatly.

We are in the middle of a slow-motion global catastrophe. (climate change)

Cultivated meat was an embodiment of the wish that we can change everything without changing anything.

the more time I’ve spent around this industry, the more I’ve felt that the whole project is fundamentally rooted in despair, an acknowledgment that real change, political change, was impossible, so we might as well offer people a sparkly new product to buy.

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