Nothing draws attention to a new food technology like announcing an investment from billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Such is the case with Memphis Meats, a San Leandro, California-based company that creates what is commonly referred to as “post-livestock” meat. This handle represents a new frontier in which meat, and now poultry, is created in a lab environment by harvesting stem cells from animals.
Gates, Branson, and ag powerhouse Cargill added $17 million to Memphis Meats’ coffers, which now totals more than $22 million raised. The money will likely be used to refine the complex process of transforming animal muscle cells into food as well as addressing the challenge of bringing the cost down from $18,000 a pound. The benefits, as company CEO points out, cut across many issues—some far beyond food supply-- facing society.
“The world loves to eat meat, and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions,” said Memphis Meats co-founder and CEO Uma Valeti in a press release. “Meat demand is growing rapidly around the world. We want the world to keep eating what it loves. However, the way conventional meat is produced today creates challenges for the environment, animal welfare and human health.”
Among those working in the lab-grown meat space, Memphis Meats has been the most visible. The company has been quick to use video to speak to its goals as well as showcase taste tests. After much research, they are able to showcase the result which greatly resembles meat and has a satisfactory taste.
Even though Memphis Meats, and its competitors—Mosa Meat, Super Meats and Impossible Foods—are at least a few years from affordable commercialization of their products, there is a lot of discussion around the goals and impact of lab-grown animal proteins. The issues include impact on climate change, whether this new breed of protein is vegan (it does little to harm animals) and how/if/when this new food technology will make its way down the food chain to aid those in food deserts and undeveloped countries.
Impact on climate change has been a hot topic and often is a catalyst for those concerned with the environment to make the switch from carnivore to vegetarian or vegan. Reports claim that raising livestock is responsible for 51% of gas emissions in the atmosphere. Would reducing methane in the air bring those who cut meat out of their diets back to a beefier mealtime?
Which takes us to many startups approaching the meat supply issue by creating a viable substitute using plant-based protein. Tried-and-true healthy food companies such as Amy’s Kitchen, Boca and Dr. Praeger have introduced “burgers” that offer an alternative to beef, but offer a very “unmeat” experience. Beyond Meat, a non-soy, non-GMO plant-based burger that comes close to a true hamburger experience in look, feel and taste with the use of pea protein.
Based in El Segundo, Calif., Beyond Meat’s plant-based products are carried by a number of grocery stores with the company sharing one thing in common with Memphis Meats—Bill Gates is a major investor.
Claiming an even more real meat-like experience is startup Impossible Foods’ burger. Along with plant-based products such as coconut oil and potatoes, Impossible include heme, an ingredient found in plants that can be fermented with the result giving the burger a bloody look which yields a taste that pleases many carnivores. Impossible’s burgers are making their way into retail stores as well as on to the menu of some burger chains.
Forecasting the success of the varying approaches to alterative meat products must identify a tipping point at which consumers put down their Big Macs and vote with the wallets to try something new to satisfy their burger cravings. An interesting study indicates if such a change were to take place, it could take up to a decade to materialize, powered by today’s millennials.
Dissident, a social trend forecasting firm in the UK found that millennials do not find it socially responsible to eat meat to excess without consideration of the impact on our environment. The report also found more than 25% of those 18-24 years of age will have a diet that is nearly meat-free by 2025. The question remains, who in the food tech space has the capital and patience to wait until the market demand catches up with innovation.