On the very first page of The End of Animal Farming, author Jacy Reese makes it clear that the book is not about why animal farming is bad. There have been plenty of books chronicling the damage caused by factory farms, but his book is about how to solve animal farming itself.
Technology will be a big part of the answer, says Reese, an animal rights activist and research director at the Sentience Institute. Scientific advances have already brought us the plant-based Impossible Burger and the first lab-grown burger, but we have a ways to go before we can permanently switch to cultured meat.
The Verge spoke to Reese about technological advancements, why companies like Tyson are investing in alternative meat, and why we shouldn’t expect to switch to cultured meat by next year.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The push to end animal farming has been happening for a very long time. What’s happening now that you believe will lead to the end of animal farming? Is it primarily about new technology?
Tech will be the cornerstone, but a lot of the progress comes from social change and activism. For example, Prop 12 just passed in California, which establishes minimum space requirements for farm animals. This type of legislation is playing an important role in making us care about farm animals and factory farming.
However, when a historian looks back at the biggest cornerstones of change in the movement, I think it might be the advent of the first sophisticated plant-based foods, like burgers made out of plants, or that, a while from now, we might have cultured meat, which is real meat with animal cells and without animal slaughter. These will be powerful for helping people align with their values and put that into action and behavior.
Starting with plant-based foods, what’s new and possible that wasn’t when we started making replacements like Tofurky?
One factor is that it’s easier now to find a diversity of plant ingredients that can get you the exact culinary attribute you’re looking for. The company Just, formerly known as Hampton Creek, has a new product that’s very similar to scrambled eggs, and it’s so convincing because they found a mung bean that coagulates to become the texture of scrambled eggs for breakfast. People working on data science are applying some pretty basic stuff to this field. And it’s possible now to have a plant library and really catalog these thousands of plant species and figure out which ones work in various contexts.
The second component is being able to use healing, cooling, and pressure to create something analogous to muscle fibers. The main piece of technology is an extruder — a big, long tube where you put in plant protein and water, and you really stretch and pull these plant ingredients to create something that has the bite and sinewy nature of meat. You combine that with the plants, and you can get taste, texture, mouthfeel.
Now, let’s talk about cultured meat. You write in the book that we’re going to need key technologies to develop before that becomes widespread. Can you explain those?
The first component is the cell. When you’re building any sort of issue, you need to have a building block of individual cells, and you get these from a sample of living cells from an animal. You can get that with Q-tip of saliva. Then, you want to take those cells and train the cells to be grown into the type of cells you want, which in this case would be muscle and fat cells for meat.
The second step is scaffolding. You need to create something that gives structure to meat cells and can create something like a T-bone steak. This is a part of technology that’s not going to come to fruition for a long time because the priority is not to create a T-bone steak, but easier products like ground beef that won’t need as much structure.
Third, you need something to feed those cells. At the most basic level, that’s energy — so sugar that can be from sugar beets or cane or whatever makes sense for the local environment. You need nutrients and then you need growth factor, and that’s the hard part. Growth factor is unique compounds that aren’t readily available in the food system commercially.
There are different approaches for how to tackle this. You could potentially get them from plant ingredients. You could make them using recombinant processes, the same way we use yeast to produce heme or synthetic insulin for diabetics.
The last one is bioreactors, or the big tanks that the process happens inside of. These could look like beer breweries, and, in fact, a brewery or some sort of fermentation factory is most similar at large scale to what cultured meat would look like. There’s a lot of mechanical engineering that happens here: recycling nutrients from each bath to increase efficiency and sustainability, for example. Because you can grow muscle and fat separately in cultured meat, you could have fat from fish — which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and is healthier — and combine that with chicken or beef meat. I’m sure scientists will do all sorts of weird things, though in the near-term, the priority is just getting cultured meat the way people eat it.
From a strictly technological perspective, what are some of the things holding us back?
There’s a lot of IP and privacy when it comes to what are seen as the major roadblocks. But fundamentally, the issue is that, currently, tissue engineering happens in medicine or in science research, and it doesn’t happen for large-scale food production. If you want to grow a human organ, you’d do that at quite a small scale, you’d be willing to spend a ton of money, you’d need to be very precise. But meat is a very different process. You want things to be at the scale of food science but have the technological sophistication of biomedical operations.
Even with the plant-based meat, the big issue is that people do this in labs at a small scale, but really, scaling up is a completely different problem.
What about from a policy perspective? Won’t meat and dairy companies fight the development of cultured meat? There are already fights about what to call it.
Well, there’s a meat industry, and then there’s the animal agriculture industry. Companies that we identify as meat processors, like Tyson Foods, are branding and distributing and marketing. They’re not married to the idea of using animals to do that.
Increasingly, these companies identify as protein companies, allowing you to not really have to fight or reinvent or replace the existing protein industry. There are actually investments from big meat companies like Tyson and Cargo. I think that vegans or food activists have thought we’d have to build an entirely new protein industry but more and more of these companies are getting excited.
But I do think we’re going to have to change animal agriculture. I think we’re going to eventually get rid of that, and that means you’re going to butt heads and fight.
One thing I wanted to ask about is food allergies. To really end animal farming, the replacements have to be friendly to people with dietary restrictions. Is that something the industry has thought about?
Yes. When we’re building these new plant-based products or cultured meat, we need there to be diversity. There are different culinary preferences and restrictions and immune disorders. We don’t need just one Impossible Burger. We need to take different approaches.
Impossible Burger has an ingredient that comes from recombinant organisms that is artificial that might put some people off. It’s good that we have the Impossible Burger and then Beyond Meat is taking a different approach without that ingredient for people who might be averse. We need a lot of choices for people who have restrictions.
There’s also a food-labeling issue. In the recent discussion about whether lab-grown meat should be called “meat,” one concern is that if you call it “lab-grown protein” or something, people with food allergies won’t realize it is, at the molecular level, the same product and will eat it and get hurt.
You’re obviously excited about cultured meat, but as with any new technology, there’s a lot of hype. Where is the hype in this industry?
Timeline. Anyone who thinks we’ll have mass-market adoption within a decade, or even two decades, is probably too optimistic. It’s easy to get one product in one store in one weekend, sold at a loss, but that’s not the same time.