Uma Valeti makes a mean meatball. It’s perfectly round, sizzles when you fry it in a pan and tastes good. But unlike most meatballs, it was grown in a sterile brewery, not a cow.
Dr Valeti is a cardiologist who was working on regenerating heart muscles when he realised he could do the same for meat, which takes three weeks to be grown in a brewery similar to what’s used to produce beer. When the meatball first appeared a year ago, it costs US$18,000 for about 450 grams, Now it cost half that, and economies of scale will ultimately come into play.
“We want to make meat that is better and safer,” Valeti said during a fascinating panel discussion on plant-based protein at the South By South West (SXSW) conference in Texas, which finished last week. “We really want to transform an industry that is badly in need of it.”
About 80% of antibiotics in the United States are used on animals and it takes 23 calories of animal feed to make one calorie of meat, he says. The global market for pork and beef is $500bn, which goes up to more than a $1tn if you include chicken, he adds.
Not only is the meat industry filled with health risks (and therefore such heavy antibiotic use) but the inhumane treatment of cows, pigs and chickens in factory farming is an indictment of humanity’s cruelty to other creatures. Additionally, animal farming is a massive strain on the environment. “Greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5% of the global total, more than direct emissions from the transport sector,” a study by Chatham House found in 2014.
What’s more, its estimated that 8% of the planet’s water is consumed by farm animals.
Growing meat, as Memphis Meats does, means there are almost no bacteria in it, no unnecessary antibiotics, and the environmental drain is reduced.
More so warned Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute, “we are not going to feed 5.7bn people on meat”. If we want to feed the world and keep climate change and emissions under the 2% agreed at the Paris conference then alternatives need to be found, Friedrich told the SXSW audience.
Some of these are being discovered by Hampton Creek, which makes plant-based alternatives, including using yellow split peas to make an egg-free mayonnaise.
As a chef and winner of the US Iron Chef TV show, Ben Roche’s focus is not just the health benefits but the “full experience” of eating these new forms of food. “After years and years of serving food to people and watching their faces, this egg [alternative] better be better than an actual egg. Otherwise it’s just science food and no one wants that.”
“There are five new ingredients that we have discovered over the last year,” said Roche, who also spoke at TED. “We are well on our way”.
It may still be early days in this new food industry, but as Valeti says: “We feel that this is going to be very impactful. We’re on the cusp of a revolution”.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail