On August 5, 2013, Dutch scientist Mark Post presented to the world the first lab-grown burger ever created. The event took place in London, the burger was cooked by chef Richard McGeown, and only Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald – two food critics – could taste it. Hanni Ruetzler said that it tasted like meat, “just not as juicy.”
The burger cost a devilish €250,000 to produce. Five years later – last July – Dutch startup Mosa Meat – whose Chief Scientific Officer is Professor Post – announced its aim to start commercializing lab-grown burgers in three years. It will not be a $1 McBreak but an expensive delicatessen for high-end restaurants. Yet, it will be possible to buy it.
This article tells the story of the quest to create lab-grown meat and of the country that is spearheading this revolution. And no – plot twist – it’s not the Netherlands. Rather, the Netherlands is certainly a country that is playing a major role in making this innovation a reality but there’s another nation, even smaller (its size is exactly half of the Netherlands actually), where cultured meat is being pioneered. That nation is Israel.
Before we delve into the reasons that put the Promised Land on the map in such a peculiar field, we better address the question of what clean meat is and why it’s a product that could potentially revolutionize the lives of billions of beings on this planet.
The potential of clean meat
In a nutshell, “clean meat” (we’ll see in a bit how the use of this term is intensively debated) is meat grown from in-vitro animals’ cell culture instead of from slaughtered animals. There are different procedures to grow it that also depend on the kind of meat being produced (at the moment, the main efforts are focusing on beef, chicken, and pork).
Mosa Meat harvests muscle tissue from a living cow with a biopsy. The muscle cells are then dissected, divided, and cultured (from one muscle cell, its possible to obtain up to one trillion of them). Afterward, the cells merge in a so-called myotube that is used to create muscle tissue. But, as I said, the process varies and the race is on to find the best way to cheaply produce clean meat.
Symbolically, this race started in 1931 when Winston Churchill famously suggested: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
The British Nobel prize for Literature also foresaw that we would obtain the first samples of such meat in just 50 years. Alas, we missed the mark because, as it can be seen from this handy timeline of the history of clean meat, the field started to truly develop only in the twenty-first century when technological innovations and political, social, and environmental necessities gave it a boost.
Indeed, if clean meat would replace intensive farming as an industry standard, the benefits for the environment would be immense. As consumers, we would also have “cleaner” meat, meaning a product that doesn’t have the antibiotic residues and bacterial contamination that come with slaughtered meat. Moreover, cheap quality meat could also represent an asset in the fight against hunger. We would also save the lives of over 56 billion animals annually. Yes, that’s the number of farmed animals that are killed every year by humans.
Clean meat sounds then like a silver bullet that could relieve humanity of some of its most pressing challenges. This is why it has become one of the favorite themes of the Effective Altruism movement, the philosophy that “uses evidence and analysis to take actions that help others as much as possible.” And with “others”, they mean animals too, of course.
Clean meat is appealing to them since it may be a highly effective way to tackle one of the issues that rank the highest in their cause-priority list: factory farming. Moreover, the Effective Altruism movement is particularly popular in the tech and startup worlds, and with all its emphasis on efficiency and impact it’s not difficult to understand why.
That’s the other aspect which makes the clean meat revolution so appealing for so many bright minds. Were this to take place, it wouldn’t just be a way to reduce the suffering of millions of beings. It would also be a gigantic business opportunity. In this regard, it’s no coincidence that American seed accelerator Y Combinator – the launchpad of companies like AirBnB and Reddit - indicated clean meat as one of the nine ideas they’d like to fund in the coming year.
In other words, clean meat is poised to become the clean energy of food. To make this idea work, we should start consistently sticking it to this name: “clean meat”. If only it were that simple.
A war of words
Over the years, clean meat has been defined in myriad ways. Obviously, in the beginning – when the media was still not interested in this field – the preferred choice was usually clunky scientific terminology. “Tissue-engineered meat” or, at best, “in-vitro meat” were among the most popular options.
However, it quickly became evident that if the tissue-engineered meat producers wanted to have a shot at popularizing their product, they needed to change its name. Otherwise, the media would have came up with names of their own, as they actually did, starting to call this weird, new futuristic food “lab-grown”, “synthetic”, or, at worst, “frankenmeat”. (My utopian favorite term would undoubtedly be the retro-steampunk “Churchillian meat.”)
To fix the situation, the Good Food Institute – an American non-profit organisation that promotes plant-based and clean meat –researched terms more likely to elicit a positive reaction in potential buyers and now encourages the use of the term “clean meat”.
I also have a feeling that “clean meat” is an optimal way to express what this new product will be about: a sustainable version of traditional meat. Obviously, defining something as “clean” implies that the opposite is “dirty” which is not a particularly enthralling perspective for traditional meat producers that are fighting against the use of this expression.
For this story, I interviewed several entrepreneurs and scientists active in this field. The general consensus was that, at the moment, “clean meat” is the best option available. “But probably each country will have its own expression because ‘clean meat’ doesn’t translate equally well in all languages,” remarked Didier Toubia, CEO of Israeli clean steaks startup Aleph Farms.
The debate around the possible names of clean meat may sound trivial to a layman but at stake is the possibility to have a public debate in which this new product is less likely to be framed as an aberration created by some mad scientist rather than a much-needed sustainable innovation.
“Words are the most powerful tool of the human arsenal,” the Jewish tradition suggests in this regard. “Words have power, holiness, and even a life of their own,” cautions Rabbi Lazer Gurkow. The fact that Jewish teachings give such importance to the power of language is coincidental but it offers itself as a serendipitous bridge to the idea that is the core of this article: the Israeli tech ecosystem as a particularly fertile ground for the cultivation of clean meat.
In this sense, it’s difficult not to think that, in the Jewish context, the expression “clean meat” echoes the divine warnings about clean and unclean animals contained in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
The promised land for clean meat
In Israel, there are four promising startups working to create the meat of the future: Aleph Farms, SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, and BioFood Systems. Interestingly, they focus on four different products. Aleph Farms’ aim is to grow nothing less than a whole steak; SuperMeat wants to bring its customers lab-grown chicken, FM Technologies is developing a “distributive manufacturing” model that would allow small businesses (and ideally even individual consumers) to produce small quantities of clean meat, and BioFood Systems wants to produce beef products using bovine embryonic stem cells.
While SuperMeat’s attempt sounds like the most realistic and FM Technologies’ as potentially the most revolutionary, Aleph Farms promises to bring to your table the Holy Grill of clean meat: a perfect replica of the juicy chunk of meat you put on the BBQ.
Clean meat startups usually focus on growing processed meat (e.g. hamburgers) rather than entire cuts (e.g. a t-bone steak) because it’s quite complicated to recreate their labyrinthine structure of blood vessels. For this reason, as soon as I heard about Aleph Farms’ challenge to hit the market with a fully lab-grown steak, I reached out to its CEO and co-founder Didier Toubia. A biologist and food-engineer by education, Didier Toubia worked for many years in the field of medical innovation before switching to the clean meat space.
“In my career, I always looked for ways to combine business and worthy causes,” he told me via phone, “I’m doing this also for the next generation. I’m a father of two children and I want to leave them a healthier and cleaner world.”.
It’s easy to imagine that Toubia’s medical background influenced his approach to clean meat sphere, conceived by him not “just as a mass of muscle cells but as a tissue with a precise structure.” Indeed, to develop its lab-grown steak, Aleph Farms acquired from the Israel Institute of Technology the rights for the use of a patented tissue, originally developed for medical applications.
“This is the first competitive advantage of the Israeli clean meat ecosystem,” highlighted Mr. Toubia, “As a country, we have a noteworthy pedigree in science and technology studies, especially in stem cells research. And this way we can leverage the know-how of the many good universities that are based here.”
I then asked him about others competitive advantages of Israeli firms in the clean meat field. He states, “in Israel, there’s the world’s largest per capita population of vegans, around five percent of the population. The average consumer is usually keen on exploring meat alternatives. This is also due to the fact that animal welfare is held in high regard by the Jewish tradition.”
Right after my discussion with Didier Toubia, I bumped into a video on the Youtube channel of SuperMeat, the Tel Aviv-based startup that aims to develop cultured chicken meat.
In the video, several rabbis discuss why we should consider clean meat “kosher”. In particular, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner argues that the essential issue is whether “we should rule according to the process” or “according to the result.” Quite convincingly, he claims that we should just look at the process (after all, that’s what the whole concept of kosher is about) and therefore conclude that lab-grown meat is clearly “parve”, neutral.
Intrigued by this video, I reached out to Shir Friedman, SuperMeat’s VP of marketing. “Certainly, there are also cultural reasons behind Israel’s interest in clean meat. Veganism for ethical reasons is a quite popular choice here,” she told me.
Also Shaked Regev agrees on this point. He’s working for The Modern Agriculture Foundation, an Israeli accelerator devoted to the research and promotion of cellular agriculture and he's also a PhD student in Computational and Mathematical Engineering at the University of Stanford.
“I started to be interested in clean meat around 2011, when I found out about Mark Post’ attempt to create the first burger in Maastricht,” Shaked Regev told me. “We were a tight-knit community of animal rights activists and we soon spotted the potential of clean meat, we realized that it could make intensive farming obsolete. For us, this was not just a side interest; in many cases – myself included – it influenced what we decided to study at university.”
As for other contributing factors, Shaked Regev points to the usual suspects: “the world-class know-how in the field of stem-cell and tissue-culture research and the right mix of governmental support of technology and innovation.”
The reference to the governmental support brought up in my mind that this wealth of innovation is happening within a highly controversial political backdrop.
I wasn’t sure whether I should have mentioned it here. Obviously, the work in the clean meat field of these scientists, entrepreneurs, and academics has nothing to do with governmental policies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, two considerations prevailed in my judgment.
On the one hand, technological innovation doesn’t spawn out of thin air; it’s always entrenched into the social and political fabric. Therefore, it’s relevant to keep the bigger picture in mind (i.e. the socio-economic context) every time we discuss it, not to wield it as a rhetorical weapon but just for the sake of a more complete story. On the other hand, it’s also somewhat hopeful to observe that the site of the “world’s most intractable conflict” is also one where a most pressing human challenge is being fruitfully tackled. If solved, the clean meat challenge could make the whole world a much better – clean, peaceful, livable – place.
Beyond clean meat
But what happens if clean meat turns out to be an impractical solution? Maybe the tech will never scale, the price tag will never drop substantially, and this high-tech food will remain at best a gastronomic extravaganza, a sort of new molecular cuisine.
All of this may well be true. History proliferates of examples of much-hyped technologies that never really took hold. After all, we’re still waiting to see the Virtual Reality boom happen.
Yet even the possible failure of clean meat is in itself a stride in the right direction, part of the greater debate to fix urgent problems of global hunger, animal welfare, and climate change. If clean meat is not the silver bullet that we’re hoping for, it just means that we’ll have to try different strategies. “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” famously stated Deng Xiaoping.
Developments in the field of plant-based meat, for example, may render superfluous our quest to grow real muscle tissues in a lab. For the layman, plant-based meat consists of vegan products that mimic the flavor, shape, and structure of real meat. One of the best examples is the Impossible Burger, a vegan burger that “bleeds”. (Israel is also at the forefront of this field with larger corporations like Soglowek investing big money in the sector.)
Or maybe we could all just switch to a vegetarian lifestyle that doesn’t need meat, be it clean or plant-based. Maybe, the future of meat is that there is no future for meat.
Beyond this array of possible solutions, one thing is doubtless: we need to end intensive animal farming.
This article was originally published on Forbes
Header image credit: Mosa Meat
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December is the time of year when mailboxes, both physical and virtual, start to fill with requests for donations from charitable organizations of all kinds.
Often, people would like to contribute but are overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of requests they receive.
"Will the organization make good use of my hard-earned money? How can I know if they have been involved in scandals? Are their interventions actually effective?" are some of the questions we all want to ask before we make our Christmas donations.
As you might know, here at Kinder World we're all about effective giving. That's why we picked 11 outstanding charitable organizations that we thoroughly vetted and determined to be worthy of your cash.
If you want to know more about how we vet organizations, please have a look at the dedicated page.
As you will see, under each organization there's the possibility to donate to them thanks to our freshly minted donation widget. If you also want to know more about our donation tools, have a look here.
The first Favela Painting project took place in 2005 when artists Haas & Hahn (Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn) painted a large mural with local community members in Rio de Janeiro.
The local and global impact of this project inspired them to continue creating large-scale community art projects across the world.
Strongminds empowers impoverished African women by treating depression at scale and enables these women and their families to lead more healthy, productive, and satisfying lives.
Depression is the most prevalent mental illness in the developing world. In Africa, it’s devastating: 66 million women are suffering. The great majority have no medical services to turn to for help.
Cool Earth is an organisation that works alongside rainforest communities to halt deforestation and climate change.
Of them, Sir David Attenborough said: "Helping Cool Earth to halt tropical deforestation makes a real difference. Perhaps the biggest difference we will make in our whole lives.”
Sightsavers works on preventing sight loss and avoidable blindness in some of the poorest parts of the world by treating conditions such as cataracts and fighting other debilitating eye diseases.
In 2017 alone, the organisation has supported more than 316.000 cataracts operations.
Steun Emma is a children’s hospital in Amsterdam. They have a renowned neonatology department that provides premature babies and their parents with care and comfort in this most difficult time along with high-quality scientific research.
They are now on a mission to improve their facilities to make the lives of parents and babies easier and the hospital’s research even more extensive to help as many people as they can.
Simavi is an organisation tackling water, sanitation and health challenges to stop preventable diseases, reduce mortality rates and boost social and economic development.
Guided by the principle that "health is the first step out of poverty", they are working to guarantee basic health to everyone.
NSGK is a Dutch organization that helps children and youngsters with disabilities to get rid of obstacles.
They want to make society more accessible for disabled children, strengthening their self-confidence and contribute to positive imaging so that children with and without disabilities can play, learn, play sports, live and grow up not apart but together.
Human Rights Watch is an international organisation that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.
Founded in 1978, it publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in some 90 countries each year.
Dutch branch of Proveg International, it's an organization whose aim is to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50 percent by the year 2040.
In particular, Proveg inspires and motivates people to live a plant-based lifestyle by raising awareness about the importance of doing so. They support everyone who is interested in changing their eating habits by providing practical information about how they can transition to animal-free alternatives.
After their child Max died at 8 months old from a viral infection, Joke and Steven Le Poole decided they wanted to save as many children as possible around the world and created the Max Foundation.
With their MAX-WASH approach, they aim to prevent child mortality in the most effective and efficient way.
Amref Flying Doctors is an international organisation focused on health in Africa.
In October, we wrote about their effective intervention against female genital mutilations (FGM) in Sub-Saharan Africa. This intervention, called Alternative Rites of Passage, aims to replace FGM with humane rites of passage.
Most of the household products that we use for cleaning — from our bodies to last night's dishes — are 80 percent water. Which means most of the packaging for cleaning products is used to contain water which most of us have on tap at our homes.
It also means that when all those cleaning products are transported from the factory to under our kitchen sinks, we're carrying around 80 percent water.
All the additional packaging and transportation means more pollution and more carbon emissions aka more poison for the planet.
There are, of course, alternatives to your run-of-the-mill cleaning products. You can purchase sustainable detergents, dish soap, and even a spray to clean your dog's little accidents. But these products usually focus on using natural ingredients instead of the amount of water the product contains or its packaging and transportation.
Another alternative is to make your own. Which arguably is the greenest option you have. There are many recipes online for any product you can imagine. You can make your own fabric softener, silver cleaner, deodorant, and even sunscreen.
And that's the issue with making your own. It's a bit of a gamble when it comes to how effective your cleaner will be and, in the end, it's not very sustainable if you need to use four times the amount of a regular cleaner.
Dutch designer Mirjam de Bruijn has come up with a solution to these dilemmas. Her project 'Twenty' proposes the non-water ingredients in cleaning products to be concentrated and sold as powder, bar or liquid capsule.
What sets De Bruijn's idea apart from solid shampoo bars and, well, soap is the idea that the customer would buy the concentrated cleaning agent and add water to it at home.
De Bruijn's sleek design is still in the concept stage but the change it suggests is promising. It takes very little effort, from the customer, but means a great deal when it comes to reducing the unnecessary carbon emissions caused by packaging and transporting water.
In the Global West, we're privileged to have safe water at our disposal but one in ten people in the world don't have access to running water and two out of five have to use contaminated water resources.
The lack of clean water leads to diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio, which results in over 1000 deaths a day. Simavi is a non-profit organisation tackling water, sanitation and health challenges to stop preventable diseases, reduce mortality rates and boost social and economic development. You can support them by donating below.
Moderation is the last thing on people’s minds at Christmas. Shopping, travelling and eating reach peak levels – putting pressure on our planet. Even Santa poses a problem. If you don’t believe in flying reindeers, that sleigh must be rocket-fuelled to reach the supersonic speeds needed to travel around the world to visit hundreds of millions of children in just one night using conventional engineering.
The example goes to show just how many presents we buy and send each Christmas – creating problems with packaging and transport. And as the population increases, so does the pile of presents. To get round this, presents have got smaller and virtual gifts such as an experience day have risen in popularity.
This has an added benefit of reducing packaging and transport problems. But virtual presents have a carbon footprint too. Electronic downloads still have an impact, as data has to be stored and transferred, using energy. So everything we buy has some impact, even through the electronic process of buying.
So how can we have a greener, more sustainable but generous Christmas? Here are five gold circular things!
The amount of food wasted at Christmas has a massive carbon (and water) footprint. Using less and storing excess in a winter wonderland – your freezer – is a great way to avoid waste. If leftover food doesn’t go in the freezer, cooked turkey and vegetables will keep for up to three days in the fridge.
However, not producing excess in the first place is the best way to avoid waste. Portion size is a big part of this and so is cooking things you actually like. Just because something is traditional does not make it compulsory. For instance, sprouts can be very controversial – so, if you don’t like them, skip them. You could also try an alternative to the traditional meat option, such as a nut roast. Vegetarian and vegan choices at the Christmas dinner table can massively cut the impact of your Christmas.
Lower the impact of gifts through choices of paper and packaging. A lot of seasonal wrapping is non-recyclable as it is coated in plastic. This is concerning as plastic tends to spread everywhere – it has even been detected at the North Pole. A better approach would be to use wrapping paper made entirely out of paper. Gift bags are another great option – they can be reused and therefore help cut a massive amount of waste.
You can give twice if you buy your presents second hand from charity shops – supporting worthwhile projects while also reducing consumption. You can also buy locally produced goods and support your local economy. Buying second hand potentially halves the carbon footprint.
A typical T-shirt alone has a footprint of around 8.77kg of carbon dioxide and 2700 litres of water. If 1% of the 55.6m people in England alone bought just one second-hand T-shirt instead of a new one, they would be saving around 4.9m tonnes of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of driving 1,049 passenger cars for a year, and a whopping 1.5 billion litres of water.
Christmas decorations and fashion are basically the same every year. So celebrate your Christmas collection and reuse it, over and over again. It is a tragedy that only one in four Christmas jumpers are ever reused. According to the Carbon Trust, an artificial tree needs to be used around 10 times to have an equivalent footprint as its real counterpart.
There are few holidays that are so focused on being caring, helpful and generous as Christmas. So celebrate this and try to avoid buying unnecessary stuff that people don’t want anyway. Donations and acts of kindness really lighten the load on that sleigh. A colleague once bought me a toilet for a family in Sierra Leone. No wrapping, no plastic: the best present ever – and Santa didn’t have to lift a finger!
➡️Another gift idea to make your Christmas more sustainable might be to donate to Cool Earth, a high-impact organization that we thoroughly vetted.
Cool Earth is not only an offset scheme. It provides grant funding to rainforest communities, supporting community work in rainforest protection and ensures their voice is heard in agreements about the future of the rainforests.
You too can help to save our planet. A more liveable Earth is just a click away 👇