New Harvest’s Conference on Cellular Meat: Friday Morning (1)

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.

* * *

The third New Harvest conference, on cellular agriculture (hereafter cell-ag) convened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab on Friday July 20 and Saturday July 21, 2018. About 150 people were in attendance.

The conference took place in the context of a public meeting held on July 12 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to consider the following questions:

  • What considerations specific to animal cell culture technology would be appropriate to include in evaluation of food produced by this method of manufacture?
  • What kinds of variations in manufacturing methods would be relevant to safety for foods produced by animal cell culture technology?
  • What kinds of substances would be used in the manufacture of foods produced using animal cell culture technology and what considerations would be appropriate in evaluating the safety of these uses?
  • Are the hazards associated with production of foods using animal cell culture technology different from those associated with traditional food production/processing (such as, for example, insanitary conditions, improper temperature controls, or control of contaminants)? Is there a need for unique control measures to address the hazards associated with production of foods using animal cell culture technology?

Further context for the conference was supplied by a petition from the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association to the government, requesting that beef and meat labels not be allowed for products “not derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered.

After introductions by Isha Datar, the CEO, and Erin Kim, the communications director at New Harvest (a self-described non-profit “research institute accelerating breakthroughs in cell-ag”), Eric Schulze, a molecular and cellular biologist and vice-president of product and regulation at Memphis Meats, gave a presentation entitled “Food and Agricultural Innovation as Tradition.” Schulze averred that cell-ag was intended to add to existing food systems and that it was necessary for those working within the space to go forward carefully and deliberatively, working as collaboratively as possible. He noted that the costs of production (at this moment, of prototypes) were falling and that the next hurdles awaiting the cell-ag industry were scaling the product and making sure it was safe: two phases he thought wouldn’t take a long time. Schulze observed that, technical obstacles aside, the industry had considerable work ahead to educate the public about its products, which was why transparency and emphasis on safety were necessary. Understanding (whether among regulators or the public), he emphasized, wasn’t a given but needed to be built.

Schulze foresaw immense challenges ahead if these elements were ignored, especially for the regulation of the industry’s products by the FDA and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), both of which had strong claims to be the principle regulators of cell-ag. Schulze, who was himself a regulator at the FDA for six years, said that he believed that both agencies were currently open to considering cellular meat within existing regulatory structures, but that the process of considering the safety and labeling of cell-ag products was still at an early stage.

Schulze added that Memphis Meats’ position was that its process and putative products belonged within the current regulatory system and the regulations themselves, slotting next to conventional agricultural meat as a protein source. He urged respectful and open dialogue among stakeholders in cellular and traditional agricultures, and said it was vital to remain open to a plurality of views.

Schulze admitted that how to define cell-ag’s products remained an open question, but that it would ultimately be necessary to settle on a terminology that made clear to consumers that cell-ag companies took seriously matters of safety, transparency, and feeding people sustainably. Reflecting a concern that would be raised throughout the conference, Schulze urged those working within the cell-ag space not to think of themselves as Silicon Valley technologists developing the latest app or gadget; but as nourishers of billions of people. It was, therefore, imperative neither to expect nor to desire shortcuts to the market or to consumers’ hearts or minds. We—by which Schulze meant the various companies involved in cellular meat creation and production—were in it together. “We can’t break things,” he said.

In the question-and-answer session following the talk, Schulze was asked what he’d recommend people say in the public comments that the FDA had opened following the July 12 meeting. Schulze responded that it was important for all interested parties to take advantage of the comment period, which was open until September 25, and to address the questions asked by the government and offer opinions in line with their organization’s goals. He stressed again the need for the industry to work together, and to submit comments that oriented the industry in a particular direction.

Schulze’s opening talk was interestingly bifurcated: at once a passionate evocation of the potential of cellular agriculture and an admonition to the industry to be ready to assume the self-governance, market, and regulatory responsibilities of its counterparts in animal agriculture. Schulze’s studious efforts to resist the language of disruption or of “replacing” animal agriculture, and his emphasis on the cell-ag industry’s compatibility with existing food-production norms, reflected perhaps not only the reality that meat-industry representatives were in the room, and that more were paying more attention and scrutiny elsewhere, but more pointedly the FDA’s early and considerable scrutiny of cell-ag—perhaps earlier than his industry had expected, or, perhaps, were prepared for.

Schulze’s caution may had been influenced by revelations over the last two years of cavalier attitudes toward transparency and public trust from Silicon Valley companies—such as Twitter, Facebook, and Uber—and perceptions (at least) of their indifference to political niceties, sound governance, or the role of regulators. On the one hand, such caution might suggest the maturation of an industry beyond technical wizardry or promotional hype; on the other, it may not reflect the goals or impulses of many of those involved in the cell-ag space to dismantle current systems that favor environmentally destructive industries with considerable lobbying power in Washington.

The next talk was by Marcela Vilarino, a PhD candidate in the UC-Davis Department of Animal Science. Vilarino, whose PhD focuses on her development of “gene-edited livestock and embryonic stem cells to produce human organs/tissues by blastocyst complementation,” announced that her team had produced the first embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from cows. This process, which had been twenty years in the making (following the successful derivation of the first human ESCs in 1998), had taken so long because of the absence of suitable conditions for a medium in which these cells could grow. In her team’s case, the breakthrough had been achieved by taking embryos from slaughterhouses, and developing culture cells over three weeks using the medium of mouse cells in order to get a cell-line.

The essential challenges in developing cell technology, she (and others in this meeting) indicated was in assuring that a cell’s pluripotency—in other words, its ability to differentiate into multiple forms—was captured before it was lost as the organismic properties of that specific cell developed. A cell that was fully pluripotent (or totipotent) could develop three germ layers: the endoderm (the stomach, gastrointestinal tract, and lungs), the mesoderm (muscle, bone, blood, and the urogenital formations), or ectoderm (skin and the nervous tissues). Cells at totipotency, therefore, offered maximum flexibility in developing flesh, skin, and so on.

The applications, said Vilarino, of her team’s breakthrough were substantial. It would now be possible to speed up the time an embryonic cell line could be produced for cloning. In-vitro breeding could be conducted to derive specific genetic traits for animals, skipping over the necessity of using animals for genomic selection. A traditional breeding program for a cow, she observed, might take two to three years; employing this technology would mean the production of gametes in three to four months, allowing improved selection much more quickly. It would, in theory, be possible to derive any kinds of cells from embryonic stem cells in vitro: nerve, muscle, blood, and adipocytes (fatty tissue), without the need to use an animal.

The fundamental bottleneck to making cultured beef grow faster and cheaper, said Vilarino in the question-and-answer session, was the difficulty of getting exact and reliable media conditions, and the expense of that medium: the entire production of cells in terms of volume needed to be more efficient. Establishing stem cells from farmed animals was so difficult because of the conditions surrounding the culturation of cells—especially making sure that in their earliest stages they maintained pluripotency. Vilarino was asked when she thought it would be possible to derive embryonic stem cells from chicken or fish. She said that she didn’t know.

Clearly, the possibility of using embryonic stem cells within the cultured meat process (in addition to the regular replication of cells) represents a breakthrough . . . of sorts. What was still noticeable (and was rarely addressed throughout the remainder of the conference) was that so much of the science, let alone the production, of cellular meat was dependent on animal-based media: whether fetal bovine serum (FBS) or the use of embryos from slaughterhouses, or cell lines from mice, or, indeed, the very fact that such research is currently contained within the animal science departments of universities. The fact that this was not the subject of widespread discussion by presenters at the conference doesn’t mean that attendees weren’t aware of the paradox, or the discrepancy between the cost of developing the product in the lab and the challenges of scale and costs of production for retail.

Following Vilarino’s talk, William “Benjy” Mikel, the Chief Business Development Officer for John R. White & Co., a food development company, spoke about the “science of meat.” Mikel was a meat scientist and had worked for several decades within the extension services of universities attempting to ameliorate the “problems” (my quotes) associated with handling the flesh and byproducts of dead animals. Mikel reminded attendees that meat was a composite of nerves, fat tissue, blood vessels, and muscle; that muscle tissue itself could be striated or smooth; and that, furthermore, in addition to hide and flesh, the animal’s body delivered organs and “offal” that the meat industry had turned into added-value products. In fact, Mikel observed, the profit margins for the cattle industry were so slender that byproducts were the main reason that those involved in animal agriculture made any money at all.

The reason why Mikel was glad to be at the conference, he said, was because of currently irresolvable problems associated with killing cows for food. Meat, he observed, consisted of 75 percent water, 18 percent protein, three percent fat, and 3.5 percent other minerals. When rigor mortis set in to the cow’s body, he continued, it was hard for the meat to retain moisture, which led to undesirable loss of flavor, a hardening of the texture, and discoloration. The meat industry had dealt with this problem by adding phosphates and salt—along with pigmentation—to create a meat product that was juicy, tender, and (to the consumer’s eye) looked like what cow’s meat should look like. Indeed, Mikel counted it as progress that more and more non–animal based items (such as water, salt, sodium phosphate, modified food starch, soy protein isolate, carrageenan, gums, seasonings, and flavorings) had been added through the process of marination to make meat last longer, look more attractive, and taste better.

Mikel felt that biotechnology in general, and cell-ag scientists in particular, could develop items to generate more “opportunities” and “product enhancements”—especially around processed meats, which, he noted, constituted three-quarters of the market of all meat products. He urged scientists at the conference to work with their colleagues in meat science to understand one another’s work, and turn low-quality products into higher value items.

In the question-and-answer session following his talk, Mikel was asked what criteria he, as a meat scientist, would consider optimal for Memphis Meats’ products. Mikel said that he’d be concerned about its pH value, its water-binding capacity, its protein make-up, and how it compared with conventionally produced meat products. He was also asked whether he thought that cell-ag products should be called meat. Mikel knew the question was loaded and announced he wouldn’t touch that issue. However, he continued, definitions within the meat industry weren’t fixed and had, indeed, changed over the years. He was asked whether he was concerned about the growth factors and hormones that were being added as food ingredients in cell-based cultured meat. His response was similarly diplomatic and noncommittal. Any time anyone looked at ingredient technology, he said, it was necessary to evaluate those technologies and ingredients.

Finally, Mikel was asked whether he agreed that “happier” animals (the quote marks were the questioner’s) produced better food products. The questioner was undoubtedly referring to the stress hormones produced by animals at the point of slaughter that are said to taint the meat. Interestingly, Mikel chose to answer the question by observing that in his experience every animal he had seen was “pretty happy,” and that he believed in humane slaughter. He then informed the audience that he believed God had allowed Man to be His steward and to use what was available for his own use. He didn’t know whether a happy animal produced better-tasting meat, although he admitted that stress might lead to an “uncharacteristic product.” He had, he concluded, seen many pigs smile at him in the course of his work, and he’d enjoyed eating every one of them. The audience laughed.

Mikel’s presentation was at once curious and supple. Echoing the calls of Eric Schulze, Mikel emphasized that cellular meat and conventional meat scientists were in the same business—of delivering a safe, reliable, and desirable animal product to consumers. To that end, therefore, it was logical that the skills of each should be placed at the other’s disposal to enhance their products; indeed, given the multitude of items produced by the animal, it should be possible to add value to a range of processed foods.

There was a studied politesse (as well as cooptation) in the means by which Mikel flattened the ethical landscape within which science was operating into one of product development as opposed to no longer harming animals and ending the negative effects of animal agriculture on the environment, land use, and climate change. In Mikel’s answer to the final question presented to him, it was striking he didn’t respond scientifically, but immediately raised the issue of welfare and contextualized it with a dominionist framework. Finally, he dismissed the entire subject with a joke about happy animals apparently wanting to become meat.

To me, Mikel’s performance revealed some essential narrative strands that threaded the entire conference and weave through thinking about the future of meat. The first strand is a useful (if perhaps obvious) reminder that scientific inquiry and industrial activity don’t take place in an ethical vacuum, but are rather buttressed and framed by preconceptions about the “proper” relationship one has with what or who you’re studying and/or exploiting. Mikel’s dominionist response was a useful reminder that, although Eric Schulze and others may wish to tamp expressions of ideological fervor within the cell-ag community in order to smoothe regulatory feathers and not alienate powerful lobbies such as the Cattlemen’s Association, conventional animal agriculture is not a neutral ideological space, but is driven by convictions about the appropriate use (and control) of nature, animals, land rights, and, it may be extrapolated, the manifest destiny inherent in the spread of cattle-ranching throughout the continental United States.

A second strand, however, complicates this “reading.” As Vilarino presented her work on bovine ESC research, it didn’t seem obvious to me at all that her work occupied an entirely different conceptual space from conventional animal agriculture’s manipulation of the reproductive processes of non-human animals. Indeed, as an advocate for the end of the exploitation of animals for their flesh, milk, and skin, I found myself constantly suspending my judgment over the efficacy, practice, and motivations of scientists working within the cellular-agriculture space—making the utilitarian calculation that the ultimate development of cellular meat, leather, and so on is worth both the utilization of animal- and/or slaughterhouse-derived sera, embryos, and media (such as rats and mice), and the belief system that buttresses it.

As I listened to the talk, I realized I might be naïve in assuming that the end result of that research would be the elimination of animal production and slaughter, and that the end result might be, in fact, the integration of cellular science into animal production. By essentially declaring that his work and those of the cell-ag scientists was the same, Mikel was both de-moralizing and dominionizing the work of cell-ag scientists—in order to include both in the broader animal agriculture industry and thus remove any need to replace it. Ironically, Eric Schulze was in effect asking for the same thing, even though it’s very hard to believe that, at this moment, both parties don’t see one another as threats to their very existence.

In listening to the laughter that followed Mikel’s joke at the expense of pigs, I wondered whether some (many?) cellular scientists might, in an effort to demonstrate their ideological disinterestedness, argue that their technology’s application—if it led to, say, longer-lasting meat—would be as ethically valid a commercialization of their science as, for instance, making the slender margins for raising cattle even thinner. It was thought-provoking to hear Mikel not only admit to, but make a virtue of, the fact that meat by itself was unappetizing and that its flavor, texture, and durability were functions of the non-meat enhancements provided by scientists such as himself. In aligning his process with cell-ag scientists, was Mikel in essence forewarning cell ag that it could no more claim to be a more “natural” or “cleaner” process than conventional animal agriculture—precisely because they were both in the business of the technological enhancement of the look, feel, and taste of animal flesh?

New Harvest’s Conference on Cellular Meat: Saturday Afternoon (4)

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.

* * *

The final panel in the afternoon, which was also moderated by Isha Datar, concerned itself with the issue that was shadowing the entire conference: that of regulation.

The opening talk was given by Deepti Kulkani, formerly a lawyer at the FDA and now, like Kathi Cover, at Sidley Austin. Kulkani’s aim was to address the key regulatory questions facing cell ag and what could be answered now and how. She explained how both the FDA and USDA worked. The FDA, she said, was tasked with regulating food and ingredients and determining the safety of ingredients, including those in meat, poultry, and biotechnology. The USDA, on the other hand, was responsible for meat and poultry and their products. It regulated establishments that slaughtered or processed meat and poultry and determined the accuracy of labeling and the suitability of ingredients. In regards to new ingredients in meat and poultry, the FDA, said Kulkani, had authority over “food additives” and whether they were GRAS. (Indeed, two days after the conference ended, the FDA generally recognized as safe the “heme” GMO additive that Impossible Foods had added to its burger to give it its “bloody” taste and texture.)

Kulkani then described what might be regulated and how. She mentioned that the government would be concerned with the safety of substances used in manufacturing cellular meat before it came to market: such as animal cells, the growth medium, and the scaffold. Obviously, the agency would be interested in ensuring that the finished product was safe; and it would want a clear sense of the identity and history of safe use and common knowledge of safety, as well as the margin of exposure.

Kulkani then stated that regarding the manufacturing process, the government would want to know whether the process had changed the ingredient, whether there were controls set up to control for or prevent unique hazards, levels of purity, or toxicity—a process known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). The government would also be concerned about the labeling of the product or elements of that product, and they’d wish to inspect the facility.

Kulkani noted that it was not yet self-evident that the FDA would be the ultimate agency making judgments on cell-ag’s processes and products. That the FDA had opened such hearings suggested that it certainly believed it had a role to play, but the USDA, she added, was beginning to throw its weight about by claiming that the FDA was overreaching its jurisdiction. This, she added, might simply be intra-agency chest-beating. As far as she was aware, the agencies had begun communicating with one another, which might indicate that the agencies might collaborate or divide the process under their various jurisdictions. Kulkani added that it was indicative that the FDA acknowledged in its preamble to the meeting of July 12 that although its primary concern was the safety of cell ag, how it might be labeled was also an area of interest.

As for what might happen next, Kulkani advised people to continue to make comments; that there would be a meeting before the FDA Science Board; and ultimately there would be a USDA/FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) decision on the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association petition (or on naming of the product more generally). However this process continued, Kulkani concluded, it was likely that political interest would continue as would potentially federal legislation on cell ag.

Next up was Larisa Rudenko, who, like Kulkani, had formerly worked at the FDA. Rudenko’s role in the conversation was to layout the conceptual landscape from regulation to product delivery. Echoing the writer John Gardner, Rudenko noted that when it came to biotechnology, the story of innovation was either perceived as “a journey” or “a stranger comes to town”: in the former, the innovator is subject to whims of a peripatetic trek until he or she arrives at the destination; in the latter, the innovator is either perceived to be a threat to the status quo and ultimately ejected, or after initial resistance, through persistence or because she or he brings something new and valuable to the status quo, the innovator changes the nature of that place for the better, or is him- or herself incorporated into the status quo.

Last but not least was Ronald Stotish, CEO at Aquabounty, and who had been a member of the team that had “produced” the AquAdvantage Salmon, the first FDA-approved genetically modified food animal. Stotish described the long and tortuous process from the creation of the fish in 1989 to the FDA approval in 2015, the first commercial sale of the fish in Canada in 2017, and the company’s current inability to bring the fish to market in the United States.

Whether it was wise (commercially or otherwise) to produce a GMO salmon was not the reason that Stotish was addressing the conference. His purpose was to provide a case study on the problems of bringing an innovative, scientifically engineered animal-based foodstuff to regulators and thence to market. Stotish could barely contain his contempt for, animus toward, and mystification about the environmental NGOs (such as Food & Water Watch) whom, he felt, had mischaracterized the data around the salmon, had disregarded the science, had engaged in scaremongering; and had failed to engage in good faith with industry—all (so he said) in order to generate donations to their organizations.

The lessons Stotish wished to communicate from his attenuated experience to attendees who might find themselves on a similar trajectory was to be an optimist, engage early and often with those who might oppose you, and to communicate what you’re doing and why. It was vital, he said, to conduct the best science you could but not to assume it would insulate you from attack. He urged the conference to resist assuming the regulatory process was free of politics (it most emphatically wasn’t), but instead to interact politically and to develop coalitions with like-minded organizations. He added that innovators should be prepared for delays, media attacks, and setbacks, but to believe in the product and to persevere.

In the conversation following the presentations, Isha Datar asked the panel what they felt would be the worst-case scenario for cellular meat. For Rudenko, the biggest danger was that a manufacturer moved too fast, broke things, and brought a product to market without any regulatory oversight and with a safety problem. She recommended that the audience read two books: Innovation and Its Enemies by Calestous Juma and Sheila Jassanoff’s The Ethics of Invention. These two books, she said, bracketed the two viewpoints on emerging technologies that she’d mentioned in her talk. Larisa admitted that the regulatory process could also prove fraught because it was difficult to provide expertise in something that hadn’t been around before.

Datar asked the panel how concerned the USDA and traditional animal agriculture industry should be about the role of the FDA. Kulkani replied that there was a long history of the FDA and USDA working together on issues, but that there was clearly a basis of concern in the USDA’s robust criticism of FDA “overreach,” especially on a political level.

Fielding a question from the audience, Datar then asked whether the cell-ag industry should hire lawyers and lobbyists. After the titters had died down, Rudenko recommended inviting regulators to industry meetings. “Regulators are people,” she announced: they would welcome learning more about the subject they were going to regulate. With respect to politics, Rudenko continued, fearlessly mixing her metaphors, it was important to take the temperature of the landscape. Kulkani urged the industry to use the processes the agencies were making available to make the best possible case to them.

The final talk was by Nadia Berenstein, a food historian and cultural critic, who through the lens of the history of (oleo)margarine, showed how perceptions around the product (and its comparison with the more “natural” butter) altered from its inception in the late nineteenth century as an untested product, technological breakthrough, and threat to the honest dairymaid churning her butter. Berenstein reminded the audience (as if it needed reminding) that it was necessary to supply people with the cultural and social context within which to eat the food.

The conference ended with one-minute pitches from various organizations that were present, including: New Age Meats; 3-D Heals (bioprinting and lab-grown solutions); the Good Food Institute’s Good Food Conference; Higher Steaks; a cultured meat podcast; (a website on clean meat); New Culture (a company promoting clean dairy cultures in New Zealand; George Zeng (a producer of mushrooms, known as Loop foods); the New Omnivore (which would begin a discussion group in the Fall).

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What to make of a conference that had so many themes running through it—some of them contradictory? Many of the presenters (and not a few of the audience) were clearly driven by evidence-based convictions that traditional animal agriculture presented profound, even existential crises for food security, human wellness, environmental protection, climate-change mitigation, and animal welfare. Yet these same individuals were being urged by former regulators, fellow entrepreneurs, and their colleagues in cell ag to “play nice” with that same industry, the representatives of whom (as far as this correspondent can recall) refused to admit that their business needed to change at all, except in as much as cell ag might “improve” its products and thus, one assumes, allow for even more production of more efficient animals, more value-added processed meats, and better profit margins for beleaguered farmers.

The youthful scientists were likewise urged to make sure the safety of their products was backed up with solid data, to be transparent, to resist the siren song of systemic “disruption” in favor of incremental change, and not to be the company that ruined it for everyone else by bringing a product to market too soon. Yet nobody, as far as I can remember, asked why it was that current agribusiness was not held to account for its colossal waste of natural resources (not to say of the product itself), its poor safety levels regarding disease and meat recalls, its lack of transparency, and its manifest cruelty toward animals.

Beyond this, the presenters urged the scientists, entrepreneurs, and audience to attend closely to the construction of the narrative they wished to tell consumers and regulators about their industry and its products but to be leery of telling a story that contrasted too sharply with the prevailing story of America feeding the world—a narrative that remained unquestioned as the unimpeachable base narrative of American and global prosperity.

Ironically, the skewing of perspectives at this conference may have been a consequence (however unintentional) of not featuring plant-based companies and their ongoing inroads into the meat and dairy markets. Presenting cellular meat within the context of alternatives to conventional animal-based agriculture may have provided a focus for attendees. As it was, we were reminded that everyone in the space was in the business, in some way, of either growing animal flesh or supplementing it in some way. This may have made sense strategically—smoothing the pathway to regulation by not unnecessarily antagonizing the meat industry, its lobbyists, and vested interests in government. However, it may also have provided an opening for that same industry to coopt those seeking an early return on their investment to literally incorporate their technology within the bodies of animals destined for slaughter.

In fact, at the end of this conference, it wasn’t at all clear to me that the end of this process was a dramatic reduction in the number of farmed animals destined for slaughter, or, for that matter, a redefinition of the meaning of “meat.” Was this a diversion, a game-changer, or merely another option? Could this meeting be, in effect, a parallel to a motor carriage convention in 1895, where multiple start-ups and technologists were attempting to master a technology with huge potential and bring their various inventions to the market, all the time awaiting the scaling-up, economies of scale, and market penetration that Henry Ford would achieve with the Model T? And where should we place the emphasis: on the product itself or on the process? On the regulatory framework or the story? Did customers really care how their meat was prepared as long as it was cheap, readily available, and tasty? Would technology be a boon or a curse?

None of these questions were any clearer to me at the end of the conference than they were at the beginning. I await the Good Food Institute’s conference in September with interest.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.