Lab-Grown "Clean Meat" is Almost Here. Will You Eat It?

Lab-grown, cultured meats, dairy, and leather will be hitting shelves soon. Paul Shapiro reports on the coming trend in his new book, Clean Meat.


Would you consume artificial frozen water produced by a machine? In 1805 this wasn’t a crazy question. Frederic Tudor wondered why people couldn’t enjoy cold beverages whenever they wanted. Within three decades he became known as the “Ice King,” with humble origins shipping eighty tons of Northeastern winter ice to Martinique in hopes that Caribbean residents would jump all over it. 

They didn’t. Frederic’s brother and partner, William, pulled out of the deal. Undeterred, Frederic tried again the following winter. By 1810 he was pulling a profit. In 1847 Tudor shipped 52,000 tons of ice to 28 US cities. He died in 1864 a rich man, which was good timing, as by the turn of the century everyone in America owned an icebox. 

Not that “artificial ice” was immediately glamorous. Critics labelled it “unnatural.” Slicing chunks of ice from lakes was the way to go, they said. Never mind the pollutants contained in the water. Machines, by contrast, freeze water that’s been boiled and purified, making it a safer choice. As Paul Shapiro, VP of Policy Engagement for the Humane Society of the United States, recently told me, 

Natural ice is actually less safe than artificial life because natural ice had pollutants; it had horse manure from the horses who were dragging the ice out of these lakes. So you ended up having a situation where people shifted over to artificial ice. One hundred plus years later we all have artificial ice makers in our homes. We call them freezers and we hardly think there’s anything unnatural about it at all.

Shapiro isn’t really concerned about ice. He compares this cold evolution to a more recent technological development in his forthcoming book, Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.

Cue the critics calling it “unnatural.” 

And critics are plentiful, which is odd given the strange chemistry passing for food on our supermarket shelves. American cabinets are filled with numerous products containing no actual food ingredients, yet because it arrives in a bright package marked “all natural” we don’t think twice about it. The consequences of this chemistry is known through the many metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, as well as psychological disorders like anxiety and depression, the modern American diet promotes.

Shapiro’s book is a wake-up call informing Americans that not only will lab-grown, cultured meat be healthier—unnecessary antibiotic usage on animals living in crowded, contaminated quarters has made the quality of much of our meat questionable at best—it will also tremendously reduce animal suffering. 

Perception is key. While Shapiro cites a 2014 Pew poll stating only 20 percent of Americans would try “clean meat”—which would account for $40 billion annually, no small change—he tells me about a more recent poll stating that number is now closer to two-thirds. Shapiro continues: 

Eighty percent of Americans believe that food containing DNA ought to be labeled by mandatory labeling laws. Of course you and I know that virtually everything we’ve ever eaten has DNA in it. But when people hear about the application of science to food they sometimes get a little bit nervous, though that nervousness does not usually translate into actual consumer behavior.

Which is true, given that from my home office window in Los Angeles I see crowded parking lots at McDonald’s and Jack in the Box, both of which contain numerous suspect ingredients consumers pay no attention to. If they actually saw where that meat was sourced they’d likely make better choices, but since those conditions are hidden we pretend they don’t exist. 

Shapiro’s book opens the veil behind emerging technologies that will soon be producing consumer-ready cultured meats, dairy products, and leather. Shapiro, a vegan since 1993, has even tasted burgers and foie gras created by these methods—in the name of science. The taste and, importantly, texture are there or close. Prices are dropping as more players enter the industry, whose companies are backed by a variety of billionaires, including Sergey Brin (who funded a $325,000 five-ounce burger patty produced from stem cells from a cow’s shoulder), Bill Gates, and Richard Branson, the latter two who have invested heavily in San Francisco-based Memphis Meats. 

Shapiro is well aware of current limitations. Expense is one, though that entry point is shifting as we approach a $10 burger. Choice is another. Ground meat has been the focus, but we’re much further away from a rib eye and loin chop. A big one is comfort. Food is as emotional to people as religion; ensuring this technology is safe and satisfying will take time. 

Most importantly to many is ethics. Humans kill an unsustainable number of animals every year, most of which are imprisoned for their entire lives while eating anything but a natural diet—and if their diet is unnatural, how do we think that affects the meat they provide us? While Shapiro is promoting a vegan agenda, he believes the real market for clean meat is carnivores looking to make better decisions about their diets and the planet. 

This movement relies on education, which includes understanding how we’ve arrived at where we are now. Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, an animal rights advocate and vegan activist, writes the foreword to Clean Meat. In his first book, Sapiens, Harari speculates that Homo sapiens drove Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other human species clear off the planet. Language and communication skills helped, but our thirst for violence was the motivating factor. That violence manifested in a craving for meat, especially once we understood how fire made the plentiful protein sources more nutritious, tastier, and easier to digest. 

It’s easy to romanticize over a peaceful human origins story. Yet it’s not true. We are the most destructive animal in the history of the planet. We’ve clawed and killed our way to the top. What the many inventors and investors featured in Clean Meat remind us of is that we’re not bound to history. We can be better. We can make ethical choices that not only sustain us but sustain the planet and its bountiful diversity. Lab-grown, cultured meat, dairy, and leather is an essential step in that direction. 

While we might not understand exactly where that step will lead, Shapiro believes clean meat offers a better foot forward than any we’re currently taking: 

We don’t know what some unintended consequences might be but it’s hard to imagine that there will be anything like the tremendous downsides to continuing to raise and slaughter tens of billions of animals for food globally.

One day clean meat will be seem as natural as freezer ice. The sooner, the better. 

--

Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."