Imagine a world where farmers are microbiologists rather than cattle ranchers. Do I have your attention? Good. Enter Clean Meat. In his book, Humane Society activist Paul Shapiro gives you a front-row seat for the compelling story of the clean meat revolution and where it may be leading us.
Our species is facing a crisis. The human population has doubled since 1960, but our consumption of animal products has risen fivefold. In the United States alone, more than nine billion animals are raised and slaughtered for food annually. The human race has shown no sign of wishing to eat less meat, so it is unrealistic to think about eradicating meat from the human diet in the future. Finding a sustainable way of providing it is imperative. As the global population swells, just how are we going to feed billions more people on a planet already suffering from a shortage of natural resources?
For one group of scientists and entrepreneurs, the answer is simple: cellular agriculture.
According to Paul Shapiro in Clean Meat—How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the cellular agricultural revolution is underway. Scientists are discovering and working to develop new ways to create enough food for the world’s ever-growing, ever-hungry population. One such method? Clean meat.
Unfolding like a sci-fi thriller, Clean Meat chronicles the pioneers who are devoting their lives to creating and commercializing cleaner, safer, and more sustainable meat—real meat—without the animals. From the big-picture entrepreneurs, animal welfare activists, and environmental advocates to the ever-curious scientists and researchers, Shapiro details the quest for clean meat and other animal products and examines the debate around it.
The result is a fascinating look into a near future where food safety risks could be all but eliminated, environmental sustainability is greatly improved, and factory farms and slaughterhouses seem antiquated. By producing real meat from animal cells rather than animal slaughter, clean meat offers hopeful solutions to some of the worst problems we endure as a species.
Rest assured fellow omnivores, we can have our meat and eat it too.
The cultured meat process is fairly simple. In short, growing muscle requires taking the cells from skeletal muscles, isolating them, and affixing them to a scaffold that helps anchor them while they proliferate just as they would in an animal’s body. For the more science-curious individuals, Shapiro outlines the process at the cellular level as well.
The process typically requires four steps. First, scientists take a biopsy from animal muscle tissue, which contains myosatellite cells. These cells are the precursors to skeletal muscle cells—the kind comprising the meat we typically eat. The next step is to place them in a nutrient-rich medium that will feed the cells and allow them to divide and grow. Scientists then exercise the cells with electric currents so they become actual muscles and continue to gain mass. Lastly, the meat is harvested.
For perspective, Shapiro provides examples of the potential amount of meat that scientists could produce using this process. The figures are astronomical. For instance, assuming unlimited nutrients and room to grow, a single satellite cell from one single turkey could grow into enough muscle to manufacture over twenty trillion turkey nuggets.
While building animal products from the cell up sounds futuristic, it is anything but. Enter Mark Post, a Dutch physician who specializes in tissue engineering. Post used this process to create the world’s first cell-cultured hamburger, which was cooked and tasted in August 2013. Adding some levity to Post’s science-heavy narrative, Shapiro’s retelling of Post transporting the cultured beef patties from Maastricht to the official taste test in London is hilariously suspenseful.
An important milestone in cellular agriculture, Post proved that creating cultured meat was scientifically possible. From that point on, companies have been racing to bring the world’s first cultured animal products to the market.
After setting the scene for clean meat, Shapiro introduces a cast of start-ups hoping to disrupt and ultimately revolutionize the food industry with animal-free meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs. To name a few, Hampton Creek (now JUST, Inc.) is working on producing chicken, Finless Foods on seafood, Memphis Meats on beef, Perfect Day on dairy products, and Clara Foods on egg whites. Although each company is focusing on specific subsets of animal agriculture, the ultimate goal is to create a new system that renders the existing model obsolete.
Shapiro consistently touches on the advantages of clean meat over factory-farmed meat throughout the book, yet he refrains from preaching and does not attempt to foist the concept of cellular agriculture on skeptics. Rather, Shapiro is cautiously optimistic about the future of clean meat and aims to enlighten readers.
Simply put, clean meat is real meat. It’s just cleaner, safer, and more humane than the meat we eat today. Under the microscope, scientists found that the cultured myosatellite cells look identical to those from actual living animals. On the plate, the nutritional content is identical and, more importantly, clean meat lacks the intestinal pathogens found in factory-farmed meat.
The overall takeaway from Clean Meat is that cellular agriculture is a nascent industry with the potential to address many of the most pressing sustainability problems that we face as a species—from climate change and land conservation to global hunger and animal cruelty. While not everyone consumes animal products, the current conventional agriculture system ultimately affects everyone because it exacerbates those global ills. As such, clean meat and other cellular-agricultural products are something that omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike can get behind.
Dietary preferences aside, Clean Meat offers an exciting and eye-opening glimpse into the future of food and the pioneers who are working to reinvent the food system.
Lindsay Gaesser is a first-year AFE student at the Friedman School and has a J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law. In a career change inspired by Clean Meat, she hopes to help pave the way for the cellular agricultural revolution by promoting policies that bring clean meat and other cultured animal products to a commercial reality.