Afraid of high-tech food? Get over it

Too many Americans are squeamish about cultivated meat, alt-protein processed foods and GMOs, but we’ll need to get used to them to avert a climate catastrophe.
By Michael Grunwald

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A small slider burger with a toothpick flag that says impossible
(Robyn Peck/AFP/Getty Images)

Canary Media’s Eating the Earth column explores the connections between the food we eat and the climate we live in.

In November, after the Food and Drug Administration gave Upside Foods approval to grow meat from animal cells for human consumption, Jimmy Fallon shared the news during his Tonight Show monologue.

Wow, it’s completely safe!” Fallon marveled, before pausing for his obligatory pre-punchline beat. Disgusting, but safe.”

It was funny because — well, I’m not sure why it was supposed to be funny. Was the joke that chicken is gross unless it comes from the carcass of an animal bred to grow so breast-heavy it can barely stand and then pumped full of antibiotics in a barn crammed with thousands of other morbidly obese birds where it can fester in its own manure before it’s slaughtered?

Honestly, I don’t get it. I actually thought Upside CEO Uma Valeti’s dad-joke reply to Fallon on Twitter was marginally funnier: Are you chicken?”

Still, it was a revealing cultural moment. Fallon was pandering to a technophobia that, while prevalent throughout society, intensifies when it comes to food. Many people feel weird about eating innovation, as if Big Biotech is ramming science down their throats. They cringe at the concept of lab-grown meat,” as Fallon called it, even though Upside’s meat will be grown in steel tanks like the ones already used to brew beer, not in labs.

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There’s still a vague ick factor that I at least get, but we need to get over it if we want to stop eating the earth. Our food system is responsible for about a third of our climate problem, most of our biodiversity and deforestation problems, and a slew of other problems, from antibiotic-resistant superbugs to the mistreatment of billions of animals.

If all 8 billion of us were willing to subsist on whole grains and kale, we wouldn’t need to solve those problems with genetically modified crops or CRISPR-edited cows or cultivated meat brewed in fermentation tanks. But if we care about protecting the Amazon rainforest and poor families in Bangladesh’s low-lying floodplains, we’re going to have to make some changes — and our diets rarely seem to change. The average American eats 220 pounds of meat a year and doesn’t even like the insinuation that there’s anything wrong with that.

Cultivated meat is just one example of techno-innovation’s amazing potential to help fix our food and agriculture problems. Eat Just already sells cultivated chicken in limited amounts in Singapore; I got to try a sample, and it tasted like chicken, because it is chicken, only produced with lower emissions, no manure, no risk of avian flu and no suffering. Meat grown from cells still can’t compete on cost with meat grown inside animals, but Upside’s FDA approval is a big step toward showing American consumers that it’s no longer science fiction.

A small covered plate with two chicken nuggets plated with a dark sauce and flowers
Nuggets made from lab-grown chicken meat are displayed during a media presentation in Singapore. (Nicholas Yeo/AFP/Getty Images)

That helps explain why Upside has attracted investors including Bill Gates and Richard Branson as well as Cargill and Tyson Foods — and why our self-indulgent aversion to unnatural” food is so irrational and unsustainable.

Canary Media constantly reports on technologies that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels — wind turbines, electric vehicles, nuclear reactors, solar inverters, advanced batteries and more. Nobody whines that they’re unnatural. Nobody says we should go back to lighting our homes with whale oil or commuting on horses.

But when it comes to the challenge of feeding the world without frying the world, a challenge just as urgent as ditching fossil fuels, there’s a widespread sense that technology is part of the problem. In this view, we don’t need highly processed fake meat,” just less meat in our diets, and maybe local, grass-fed, regeneratively ranched meat for special occasions. We don’t need more efficient and eco-friendlier fertilizers, pesticides or genetically engineered seeds; we just need to nurture our soil and sequester more carbon by farming in harmony with nature.

These are pleasant pastoral fantasies, but they’re psychologically and mathematically incorrect ways to think about the problems with our food system.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals launched in the late 19th century to help carriage horses, calling for watering stations and shorter working hours for its equine friends. Other contemporary activists were complaining that the proliferation of horse manure was destroying urban environments and threatening public health. And at the time, millions of acres of American farmland were being used to grow oats for literal workhorses.

These problems were largely solved in the early 20th century — not by activists demanding less abuse or cleaner streets, but by Henry Ford, who didn’t care about horse welfare or horse manure but produced a horse-free form of transportation that consumers liked better.

Today, we exploit animals for food, not transportation — an estimated 70 billion around the world every year. They make an even bigger mess, through greenhouse gases as well as manure, plus health risks that include antibiotic resistance, zoonotic pandemics and heart disease. And farmers now devote billions, not millions, of acres to feeding them — more than two-thirds of all agricultural land, or one-third of all land, period.

Happy Veganuary! Unfortunately, the vegan movement has consistently failed to persuade us to eat less meat. The world is currently on track to increase meat and dairy consumption by more than 50 percent by 2050, which would turn even more of the earth into an animal farm and put our Paris climate goals out of reach. We’re not very good at changing our habits, which means we need to change our food, which means we need modern Henry Fords to develop animal-free forms of consumption that consumers like, if not better, then just as much.

That’s why there’s now a race to produce affordable and delicious dairy-free dairy and meatless meat. So far, the most popular alternative proteins have been plant-based meats. Instead of laundering 9 calories of plants through a chicken or 30 calories of plants through a steer to make 1 calorie of meat, companies including Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are bioengineering plants directly into meat. In 2019, when Beyond had the biggest IPO in a decade and Burger King started selling Impossible Whoppers, it looked like they might have cracked the code.

But a backlash has begun. Plant-based meat sales have plateaued. Beyond’s stock is down 95 percent from its peak. The new narrative is that fake meat is overly processed, and consumers prefer the simplicity of real meat, even though Americans already eat processed foods by the truckload.

While many processed foods are certainly unhealthy, there’s no evidence that plant-based meats are unhealthier than their animal counterparts, and there’s nothing inherently unhealthy about the extrusion process that rearranges plant molecules into meat formations with heat and pressure. As my Climavores podcast co-host Tamar Haspel says, food processing is a tool, like a hammer; you can use it to fix your neighbor’s roof or kill your neighbor’s dog.

Consumers might be even more suspicious of alternatives brewed in industrial vats — either directly from animal cells, directly from fungi or by genetically engineering microbes to produce meat or dairy proteins, a process called precision fermentation.” It all sounds spooky and futuristic, except most cheeses already contain a protein called rennet made with precision fermentation. Drugmakers also use precision fermentation to make insulin. Rennet used to be obtained naturally” from the intestines of a slaughtered calf, and insulin from the pancreas of a pig, but the modern way is better, cheaper and more humane.

I recently visited a bunch of alt-protein companies in the Bay Area, and I got to try a bunch of excellent products and prototypes, including a plant-based mango-passionfruit ice cream from Eclipse Foods, fungi-based turkey slices from the Better Meat Company, salmon sushi produced from fish cells at Wildtype, cream cheese featuring dairy protein expressed by Perfect Days genetically engineered yeast, and butter derived from pongamia, the high-yielding super-tree I’ve pushed as a fix to global hunger and global warming.

I tasted some less excellent stuff, too — the skin on Just’s otherwise terrific fried chicken has the mouthfeel of a potato chip — but the point is that none of these foods tasted like technology. They tasted like food, in many cases exactly like the animal food they’re designed to replace.

A white man with brown hair wearing a blue shirt and khaki pants stands next to a table with food items on it
Just CEO Josh Tetrick shows some of the raw ingredients used to feed the cultured cells his company used to make alt-protein food products. (Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)

The San Francisco startup Mission Barns is using animal cells to grow animal fat — which is easier to cultivate than muscle, and a big part of what makes meat meaty — and then blending it with plants into hybrid products. Its bacon still has a cardboard texture, but its pork meatball tastes and feels like a pork meatball. CEO Eitan Fischer expects regulatory approval for that meatball this year, and he’s confident that once it’s cost-competitive, consumers will buy it.

People are used to the old traditional ways, but they care most about taste and price,” says Fischer, who used to run Just’s cultivated meat program. This is more natural than pumping a pig full of antibiotics. Yes, it’s technology, but so are growth hormones and pesticides and a lot of things used in agriculture.”

We’re not going to become a vegan species, so if we want to feed a growing population without clearcutting the Amazon, we’ll need to find less land-intensive ways to satisfy our meat cravings. We’ll have to follow the advice of Buckminster Fuller that I saw at the Better Meat Company, displayed right below a wall-mounted harpoon: To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Thanks to innovation, we no longer use harpoons, or whales, to light our homes. Someday we might not use factory farms, or livestock, to eat meat.

The cultivated meat industry has made incredible technological progress since 2013, when a Dutch scientist unveiled the first cultivated burger, a 5-ounce experimental patty that cost a cool $330,000 to produce. Innovative companies like Upside and Just have driven down those costs by more than 99.9 percent in just a decade. But they’re still a long way from $4-a-pound ground beef, and many skeptics believe that despite their impressive trajectory, they’ll never get there.

One of the skeptics is Joshua March, which is a bit odd, because he runs a cultivated meat company, SCiFi Foods. He simply doesn’t think bovine cells grow well enough in bioreactors to outcompete cattle. He’s using the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to reengineer the cells so that they will grow well in bioreactors, a tweak he believes can cut his costs another thousandfold. He knows it’s yet another big ask of consumers who already might be weirded out by meat grown in tanks, but he thinks he can get the price of a hybrid burger down to a dollar.

For a dollar, we think consumers will accept the double-weird of cultivated plus CRISPR,” he says. If you do the Venn diagram, there’s not much crossover between people willing to eat lab-grown meat and people afraid of GMOs.”

But there are definitely a lot of people afraid of GMOs. Even before genetically modified organisms hit the market in the 1990s, opponents were trashing them as dangerous and disgusting Frankenfoods. They’re now banned in Europe, even though there’s no evidence they’re harmful to human health, and American brands constantly brag about being non-GMO,” even oranges, sea salt and other products with no GMO alternatives. It’s just pandering to technophobia.

That’s a shame, because to feed the world by 2050, farmers will have to grow much more food while using much less land and emitting much fewer greenhouse gases. That’s going to require all kinds of new technologies, and many of the most promising would exploit the ongoing revolution in genetic engineering.

At the University of California, Davis, I watched a cow named Elle endure the first-ever implantation of a CRISPR-edited embryo that had been spliced to ensure her offspring would all be male and therefore more efficient for beef production. At the University of Illinois, I saw scientists reengineering tobacco and potato plants to photosynthesize more efficiently, experiments that could one day super-size crop yields and free up farmland for reforestation.

Meanwhile, molecular farming” startups such as Mozza Foods and Nobell Foods are trying to engineer soybeans to grow dairy proteins, while Oliver Peoples, a synthetic biology pioneer from MIT who now runs Yield10 Bioscience, is modifying a crop called camelina to produce a higher-yielding seed oil that can grow in winter fields that would otherwise lie fallow.

Even after genetic tweaks saved Hawaiian papayas from a deadly virus, even now that golden rice” altered to address Vitamin A deficiencies is saving lives in the developing world, GMO” are still scarlet letters for much of the nutrition community. But even though corporations have often exaggerated the benefits of bioengineering in the past, CRISPR and other mind-blowing genetic advances have undeniable potential to turbocharge agriculture in the future.

GMO critics tend to focus on uncertainty and unintended consequences, and it’s impossible to be certain about every outcome of technological change. But it is certain that our current agricultural trajectory is warming the climate and driving mass extinctions. To feed the world by 2050 and still meet the Paris Agreement targets, farmers will need to grow 50 percent more calories with 75 percent fewer emissions.

That will require a second Green Revolution, this time without all the nasty environmental consequences, this time relying more on biology than toxic chemistry. It will require innovations like seaweed-based feed additives that reduce the methane in cattle burps, high-efficiency, low-impact microbial fertilizers that help crops fix their own nitrogen, and biopesticides that use the mRNA technology behind the Covid vaccine to constipate potato beetles to death.

Ew, I know. Still, deal with it. The Fallon standard, disgusting but safe, ought to be good enough for food that can help save the earth.

We live in an extraordinary age where we hold just about all the knowledge that humanity has acquired in pocket-sized devices that can also take videos and make phone calls and beep when we can’t remember where we left them. But for some reason, we freak out when it comes to technology in our food, even though it’s obvious that we need to transform our food system to sustain our civilization, even though the crap we shove down our pieholes every day is already killing us.

It would be nice if we as a species were capable of sticking to diets that were better for our health and for our planet, but since we’ve consistently demonstrated that we’re not, the least we can do is stop kvetching about innovations that can help us. Instead of freaking out about food and agricultural technology, we should be embracing it and subsidizing it and encouraging it in every way we can. It’s a tool, like a hammer, and we have the power to use it to fix rather than kill.

Michael Grunwald is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist who was a staff writer for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Time magazine and Politico Magazine. He is writing a book about the race to feed the world without frying the world.