New Harvest’s Conference on Cellular Meat: Saturday Morning (3)

MeatIn July, I (Martin) attended New Harvest’s 2018 conference on cellular meat at MIT’s Media Lab. I wrote an extensive report on this valuable, informative, and very well-organized colloquium—partly as a means of grappling with the science, but also as a way to think about what role cellular meat might play in imagining a vegan America. Over the next four blogs—divided into Friday morning, Friday  afternoon, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon—I report on what was said, and reactions to it, as well as my own observations. Note: New Harvest will no doubt be putting all the talks on YouTube, and so you can check out what was said (and whether I accurately reported it) at a later date.

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The next morning began with an overview of the cell-ag industry by Tobias Citron of Radicle Labs, which had recently published a hundred-page report on the future of cellular meat (available for $4,000).

Citron told the audience that the nineteen companies involved in cell ag had raised $767 million in total funding, which placed them in the top quartile of sectors that Radicle had analyzed. The stated reason for this interest, Citron said, was concern for the planet, animal welfare, and feeding 11 billion people by 2100. The startup landscape that Radicle analyzed, Citron explained, consisted of companies engaged in cellular meat production (such as Memphis Meats, Wild Type, Finless Foods, and Supermeat) and production involving yeast or bacteria (Clara Foods, Bolt Threads, AMSilk, Geltor) to create biomaterials and animal byproducts. It did not include plant-based companies, such as Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat.

Within the cell-ag space, Citron continued, developments were in three areas: the first was in creating the technologies (such as Future Meat Technologies) that would form the infrastructure for the development of products; the second was in developing inputs or sidelines (such as silks and leathers); the third was in direct meat products—such as Mark Post’s Mosa Meat. The money for these startups was coming from VC companies such as Khosla and Spark, with other funding coming from grants, joint R&D projects, and strategic partnerships.

What excited investors about this space, Citron asked? He observed increased interest in replacing animal consumption, the evolution of cell ag, and the possibility of regulatory change. He said a recent survey had revealed that 63 percent of respondents were more interested in replacing animal-product consumption than they were five years ago—not least because the total addressable market for full replacement of animal products was $1.6 trillion. Even a more realistic assessment of the serviceable market potential nonetheless presented a $44 billion opportunity.

Where in terms of market readiness were these startups? Citron pointed out what had been fairly clear from the previous day’s presentations: that biomaterials were on the cusp of breaking through into the general market, although they represented much less of a potential market; meat and seafood products weren’t ready, although they held much greater market potential. Overall, Citron commented, the cell-ag space was well-funded and had various business models; VC interest was increasing and startups were pursuing diverse funding sources in a sector undergoing significant change with several novel opportunities for disruption. Alongside the enormous market opportunities, risks existed, and tradeoffs would be necessary between market readiness on the one hand and the “size of the prize” on the other.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the presentation, Citron was asked whether he saw collaboration between plant-based and cell ag. He replied that such collaboration would likely occur with blended products—such as plant-based fillers for cellular meats. Citron was asked whether he thought investment would increase over time; to which he replied that he thought investment patterns would depend on the timeframe of expectations of delivering a product, at which point he foresaw dramatic increases in investment. That said, he was fairly certain that investment wouldn’t decrease over the next three to five years.

After Citron’s overview a panel of four voices was convened to discuss the parallels between existing industries and cell-ag startups, to see if any lessons might be learned. The first panelist was Adam Flynn, the founder of ForeLight, which was engaged in creating “naturally derived replacements for synthetic ingredients used in the food & beverage, animal feed, health and cosmetic industries” using algae, cyanobacteria, and other photosynthetic organisms.

Flynn cast an acerbic eye over the landscape that Citron had just painted for us, and the enthusiasms of the day before, based on his knowledge of the failures of the algal biofuel industry from the 1990s, when it, too, had been the Next Big Thing. Both algal biofuel and cell ag, he said, made huge claims about their environmental impact and both were attempting to solve problems orders of magnitude beyond their current capabilities. Both, he felt, had dozens of applications for the technology they were developing that were ahead of that required to solve this massive problem, and that were more immediately and perhaps actually profitable than the final solution. It was folly for these companies not to concentrate on those.

Meat, Flynn commented, was very important to many people, and any industry that claimed it was going to replace it was being utterly ridiculous. Why, he asked, were entrepreneurs and scientists going for the highest goals first rather than the more profitable route—developing technical solutions, expertise, and capacity (as well as earning revenue) along the way? By way of example, he mentioned the viability of developing collagen for the spinal disk–replacement market (where the product could sell for hundreds of dollars a piece) rather than concentrating on collagen to marble meat (a marginal addition at best).

Flynn added that he feared for the future of cell ag because it had, like the algae biofuel industry, failed to bring in engineers at an early stage of development. Engineers, he pointed out, were much better at systemic thinking and providing scalable solutions than either scientists or product-development specialists. “You’re building a machine, not an animal,” he said.

Flynn’s astringent comments were greeted with laughter that was at once nervous, relieved, and amused—much as a cold shower can dampen enthusiasm, refresh a body, or wake or sober you up. It wasn’t clear to this correspondent whether the audience felt the comparisons between the biofuel industry were stretched or highly applicable or merely sour grapes. Perhaps different constituencies felt all three were relevant.

Flynn was followed by Niyati Gupta, the founder of Fork & Goode, which is a vertical farming operation based in Singapore. Gupta’s aim had always been to produce high yields for her vegetables close to where they were in high demand: i.e. the city. To her, the parallels between vertical farming and cellular agriculture were numerous: both offered the potential for an efficient, shorter supply-chain from farm to table in urban areas; both were (in theory, at least) more robust than conventional agriculture in reacting to market and climate volatility; both offered traceable supply lines (unlike industrial agriculture); both had the potential to grow what was needed (and thus to cut down on food waste); and both offered the prospect of a smaller environmental and energy footprint than traditional methods of food production. As it stood, Gupta acknowledged, both technologies were very expensive—a situation that would require increasing yields to bring down the product-to-expense ratio.

Gupta pointed out that vertical farming was considerably more developed as a production-method than cell ag. Hundreds of companies (with more than $500 million in funding in the U.S. alone) were generating billions of dollars globally: companies such as Plenty, Bright Farms, and Aerofarms. Although the vertical farming companies had originally been vertically (!) integrated, new industries were springing up to supply materials for such farms—such as more efficient LED lights for indoor growing.

The lessons for cell ag, Gupta concluded, were threefold. First, cell ag should focus not only the reduced footprint and environmental benefits of its products but on leveraging technology to deliver superior products that were safer, easier to cook, and as (or more) shelf-stable than traditional agricultural products. Secondly, Gupta argued that it was unlikely cell ag would consolidate behind one technology, but there was plenty of room for (and need of) further technological development. Finally, Gupta urged those involved in cell ag to consider themselves “part of the solution” and to act as responsible food producers. All parties should start planning engagement with the community and the government; the latter that might require a more formal industry organization than was currently the case.

The third speaker on the panel was Vince Sewalt, who had worked for several decades on enzymes with DuPont. For Sewalt, the enzyme industry (now more than three decades old) offered useful comparisons across the board for the cell-ag space. Both enzymes and cell ag involved proteins “packaged” with other “stuff.” Both involved genetic selection; both offered the option of genetic modification; and both contained the possibilities of protein engineering. Both had similar manufacturing processes, using cell cultures with “recovery” steps.

Sewalt observed that the trajectory of enzymatic production had followed a path of removing the “natural” source for enzymes (my quotes) in favor of expressing them in microbial production: he mentioned that chymosin (found in rennet) was no longer generated from calves’ stomachs nor was papain (used to tenderize meat) any more extracted from papaya. He added that the sustainability, healthfulness, and affordability of enzyme production was not easily solved by non-biotechnological means, and foresaw that cell ag (like the enzyme industry) might end the wasteful and unsustainable practices of intensive animal agriculture. In the medium term, however, he said that “enzyme technology” would continue to supplement current meat-culture technologies, and that the risk for cell ag was that a lack of standardization (which had dogged enzyme-manufacturing in its earliest days) might inhibit general acceptance. Perhaps, he added, these issues could be tackled now rather than later.

Finally, Katharine Kreis, of Mission Driven Food Science (PATH Innovation) offered a perspective on using new technologies as a means of addressing malnutrition throughout the developing world. Her perspective was that the essential amino acids found in animal-sourced foods had been “proven” (my quotes) to be necessary for the linear growth of children, and that cellular technology might be useful in offering added nutritional value to these foods.

The point of Kreis’ presentation was on the risks and challenges associated with introducing a “novel” product (my quotes) in a global context, even for philanthropic purposes. As a cautionary example, she used the introduction of golden rice. Golden rice, a genetically modified form of the staple that had enhanced Vitamin A, has still not been grown commercially because of fears that it would: promote the use of monocultures, limit farmers’ choices, threaten biodiversity and conventional rice breeds, and jeopardize food sovereignty. Independent of the worth (or otherwise) of these arguments, Kreis observed, it was important for the cell-ag industry to make sure it handled the regulatory process, consumer perceptions, and market dynamics adroitly, lest they become insuperable problems to acceptance. She emphasized how important it was to avoid technical jargon surrounding procedures and the product and to focus on the familiar aspects of both as opposed to the novel or cutting edge elements of either.

To that end, Kreis observed, it was essential to consider a multisectoral approach when exploring the market potential of cultured proteins, especially in low- and middle-income settings and countries. She advised that, should the market be oriented toward the developing, it was advisable to model environmental, health, and agriculture outcomes, and perhaps offer a carbon-offset model for how production methods compared with conventional agriculture. Such an approach might not necessarily help one’s business model, but it might lower or remove hurdles to acceptance and therefore enable more market penetration.

The ensuring discussion, which was moderated by Don Atkins of BIO (Biotech Innovation Organization), focused mainly on parsing Adam Flynn’s caustic observations. Flynn reiterated that a task of the magnitude that cellular ag’s typically required the financial resources, technical skills, and all-round capacities of major corporations or governments (and around $12 billion of investment), and not private or venture capital or labs. It was self-evident to Flynn that the market for byproducts and enzymatic-, yeast-, or bacteria-based technologies would find the market sooner, and thus should be the focus.

Sewalt echoed some of Flynn’s caveats. It was vital, he said, not to underestimate the difficulties along the entire research–production axis, and essential that companies do the homework necessary to make sure their products were safe so that they received regulatory approval. Responding to this observation, Flynn was withering. Safety, he acknowledged, was essential, but that the cell-ag industry needed to take a more critical view of itself. Too many bad ideas were getting funded, and a supportive come-one-come-all culture was standing in the way of clear thinking about development. He felt it was obvious that cell ag was a business-to-business and not a business-to-consumer industry, and would always be that way: it was the only way it could benefit from the economies of scale already embedded in the agriculture and food delivery systems. As such, cell ag was crying out for streamlining and consolidation—with the remaining organizations either forming their own trade association or joining existing ones.

Kreis advised companies to value the role that academia and civil society could play as neutral, third parties providing necessary checks and assessments on the entire chain from development to product roll-out. Gupta in turn stressed the need for industry standards and definitions for the product. Sewalt agreed with Kreis that NGOs had a crucial role to play and that it was important for companies to engage with them.

Flynn had not finished his naysaying. Commenting on what balance might be achieved between the excitement and hype surrounding the new technology’s possibilities and skepticism and humility regarding whether that technology would work and how big of an impact it would have, Flynn was astringent. He told the audience that, as it stood at the moment, he could not recommend anyone fund cell ag. He repeated that this industry was not the Internet or a start-up or app developer: the premature launch of a product that was unsafe or a huge monetary loss for investors could hold back acceptance or development for a decade or longer.

Sewalt affirmed that danger and how thorough safety assessments and minimizing timelines would help reduce false expectations. If both were not done appropriately, he added, then regulatory agencies would be more skeptical and place more hurdles in the way due to heightened concern. Echoing this, Kreis urged companies to be realistic and appropriate with their ideas on the scale of their delivery, and only bring a product to market when the time was right—a timing that would be helped if the products were buttressed by third-party literature.

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The next panel was a discussion on audiences and conversations, featuring Jack Bobo, Cody Creelman, Patrick Hopkins, and moderated by Isha Datar.

First up was Jack Bobo, the chief communications officer of Intrexon, a company “whose mission is to address some of the world’s greatest challenges through the application of biology,” but whose expertise in this panel was on public perception and consumer preferences as they might relate to cell ag. Bobo argued that the 1950s and 1960s (at least in the U.S.) had been perceived as the “age of technology,” in which food was tied to technological advancements in entertainment (TV dinners), refrigeration, cooking, and so on. The 1980s and 1990s, he continued, was the “age of aspiration,” in which people were encouraged to imagine their food-consumption as a means of personal development. Now, he said, we were living in the age of “conspicuous production” (using “conspicuous” in the sense of “making visible”). Consumers wanted to know the story behind what they ate, and bought items as an extension of their values—whether that might be environmental sustainability, social justice, or animal welfare.

Influential in his thinking, Bobo continued, had been three books, which he strongly recommended attendees to read. First was Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet, which, Bobo said, discussed two different ways of thinking about social amelioration. The wizard believed that science was the solution to our problems, and this thinking had characterized American thinking in the 1950s and 1960s. The prophet, however, considered science a problem to be solved, and this had been the zeitgeist of the environmental movement as it emerged in the 1960s. Bobo also recommended Danielle Nierenberg’s edited volume, Nourished Planet, and Hans Roslin’s Factfulness.

Bobo argued that we live in a paradoxical time. By objective measures, he said, the rates of human population growth, child mortality, poverty, and deaths through famine were all heading in the right direction—although we needed to get better faster. However, our perceptions were that things were growing worse. This was not necessarily false reasoning, he argued, but that it was safe to say that the current global food system was the both the best it had ever been (never as many people fed) and the worst it will ever be (because of its environmental consequences).

The next speaker, Cody Creelman, a farmed animal veterinarian from Canada, offered an interesting contrast. Creelman, a young man with an extensive social-media presence, was very concerned to present an image of the cattle-ranching industry as cognizant of its responsibilities, technically savvy, and willing to engage in dialogue. It was not immediately clear, listening to his talk, just what he felt he might contribute to the discussion, other than to express his feelings that calling cell-ag “clean meat” (and other terms) hurt his and other ranchers’ feelings (!). Much as in Benjy Mikel’s discussion a day earlier, Creelman was eager to emphasize that everyone was in the same business and that it was important to engage with traditional farming communities. To the delight of Xun Wang (of Triton Algae Innovations), Creelman suggested that it might be possible for algae to be fed to cows instead of wheat and corn, thus reducing the need for feed crops. The audience broke into applause.

The third speaker was ethicist and technologist Patrick Hopkins, who examined how the media and audiences responded to cellular meat’s arrival in public consciousness. Hopkins talked about how Mark Post’s public presentation and the tasting of the cellular meat hamburger in London in 2013 had been viewed by the media. Journalistic reactions, he said, had mainly been about the novelty, weirdness, and sci-fi aspect of the meat, supplemented with observations on its taste and cost and questions as to why someone would develop the product in the first place (with the observation that it was mainly for lowered environmental impact). Hopkins was struck by the fact that virtually all media turned to vegetarians for comment; meat producers weren’t approached at all. It was, said Hopkins, as if they didn’t exist.

Hopkins expressed skepticism about relying on the media to market the product successfully. He noted that sixty percent of people who signaled that they were vegetarians in a survey had, when the question was reframed as “When was the last time you ate meat?”, admitted to eating meat within the previous forty-eight hours. Behavior, said Hopkins, was a much truer reflection of market penetration than identity.

Hopkins then contrasted reporting on the 2013 hamburger-tasting with coverage of the recently concluded meeting at the FDA. He noted that most mainstream outlets hadn’t covered the meeting at all (the only one that did was ABC), and that the media that did made no mention of vegetarians. Instead, they concentrated exclusively on potential conflicts or otherwise between convention meat and cell-ag producers. One of the major issues, he observed, in the coverage was regarding what the appropriate naming might be—for both products: “pasture-raised,” “traditional”?

Hopkins observed that when people were given an opportunity to express their feelings about meat, they did so in sharply contrasting ways. Negative reactions typically revolved around disgust, which was he suggested, perhaps a latent primate response to food contamination. Most of us, he added, respond much more strongly to rotten meat than we do to rotten vegetables; likewise, we express more disgust at animal–animal and animal–vegetable hybridization than we do for vegetable–vegetable hybridization.

Our innate sense of categorization, appropriateness, and an aversion to contamination, Hopkins continued, should be considered in thinking about the market acceptance of cellular meat. To that end, he said, defining the emotion around the product would be essential. Would consumers feel that the food was coming to them in the “right” way? Clean meat, he added, was supposed (perhaps unintentionally) to be the counter for “disgust” (because of how its “cleanness” of production in contrast with intensive animal agriculture), but there was no guarantee that the purchasers’ emotions would respond to this aspect of their disgust and not their disgust at a hybrid product. Data and information could affect how acceptance of a product might grow within a market, he said, but they had only a limited effect—unlike emotion.

The moderator, Isha Datar, asked the panel whom they thought was missing from the overall discussion at New Harvest. Creelman observed that there needed to be more people from the agriculture industry. Bobo reflected on the question of how people with different philosophical perspectives could work together. For him, it made sense for individuals to pursue their own projects and make their products better than the competition’s, rather than spending time trying to undermine them. Hopkins disagreed with Bobo’s characterization of wizards and prophets, arguing that when consumers wanted something they didn’t stop to reflect on how it might affect their perceptions of a larger society or movement. Creelman and Bobo, however, thought that storytelling mattered. What, Creelman asked, was the story-telling approach within cell ag? Bobo reiterated the importance of making the story of the process and product the framework for both facets of the industry.

Datar asked the panel what common terminology for cell ag would sit well in the marketplace. Here, Creelman said that he found the phrase clean meat inflammatory. Hopkins opined that there was likely to be strong pull for either side (conventional or cell ag) to go for the term with the most emotional impact. This might have short- or even medium-term advantages, he said, but that over time the emotional impact associated with the term would loosen and become commonplace. He cautioned that an emotional impact was not necessarily confined to an obvious word, and that there were sometimes emotional reactions to something unobvious or non-contextual. However, he suggested avoiding unnecessary confrontations and emotions by using terms with the least direct emotional impact. His choice as a descriptor at the moment, he said, was cultured meat; clean and lab were too emotional.

Bobo said that he was fine with cell-based or craft meat. The latter, he observed, was valuable in that it connected the food with a place as well as processes that reduced anxieties about too much technology, over-mechanization, or mad scientists being involved. He used the analogy of Bourbon as an example: it denoted place as well as quality. Datar reflected that, as a scientist, she found cell-based problematic, since that included just about every kind of food.

Hopkins added that, as someone who’d grown up in the rural South, he’d been intimately familiar with the everyday cruelties of life for animals. In his experience, he continued, the people who had a romanticized view of nature—of the idyllic farm and humans and animals in harmony—lived in the city, and that it was folks such as these who were most concerned about food. To the extent, therefore, that attitudinal surveys weren’t very good descriptors of people’s behavior, it was wise of cell-ag companies to stay away from ethics and morals in defining their product. Concentrating on the five percent who might care about it seemed self-evidently a bad business decision.

In terms of terminology, Creelman and Hopkins both thought that cellular agriculture was the most neutral and most “un-emotional,” as well as most accurate, although Bobo said that (where appropriate) he liked plant-based and cell-based, too.