• Allan Dyen-Shapiro

Brave New Whopper (or Big Mac)

In Margaret Atwood's dystopian science fiction novel Oryx and Crake, in a moment meant to spark revulsion, the protagonist chows down on "ChickieNobs," artificially cultured chicken. Well, it's here.

Artificial meat grown from cultured animal cells has been in the works for a long time. What's new is the opening of a production plant that claims it can make 5000 burgers per day.

Had you asked me a decade ago, I would have predicted, based on my experience with culture of animal cells, that it would have been an economic and environmental disaster. Indeed, the first cultured burger, produced in 2013, cost $300,000.

The problem with these proof-of-concept experiments was that they relied on tissue culture techniques used in medical biotech. In standard growth of animal cells, ten percent of the medium in which they grow is fetal bovine serum. Slaughter a pregnant cow, collect blood from the fetus, and spin out the cells. That's expensive, not thrilling to those who would purchase artificial meat for humanitarian reasons, and not environmentally friendly, as you still have to raise a very large number of cows to get this serum.

Moreover, growth in this medium uses a lot of disposable plastic. Anytime liquid is transferred, you throw out the pipette used to do the transferring. Otherwise, you will get bacterial and fungal contamination of the culture. Once you scale up, the possibilities for contamination are increased, necessitating inclusion of fungicides and antibiotics in the culture media.

So, expensive chemicals, including the same antibiotics used in human medicine, nearly guaranteeing that antibiotic resistance would become an even bigger problem than it already is; expensive plastic, generating lots and lots of waste, none of which can be recycled because it was used with biologicals; and expensive fetal bovine serum that by itself would shoot the environmental and humanitarian rationales for going with artificial meat.

Not promising, I'd thought.

However, serum-free media has been developed, with the recipes published by many different groups of researchers. Most of the competing groups also claim (as yet not providing proof) that their processes now generate minimal waste and operate without fungicides or antibiotics.

One of my objections from a decade ago remains. The process is energy-intensive. If you are going to generate the electricity needed to make this meat from burning fossil fuels, it has been reported to be worse than conventional agriculture from a climate standpoint. Anything worse for the climate than factory farming of beef is a nonstarter.

The company with the pilot plant, Future Meat Technology of Rehovot, Israel, has an answer. They can do small-scale, distributed production, so it is easier to match with renewable energy. You want your five thousand burgers per day, you can put enough solar panels (or wind turbines) to power the plant. The company's founder thinks the plants can operate with net-zero carbon emissions.

You want five million burgers per day, it would still be less land usage than conventional agriculture and probably less water usage (although those numbers are fuzzy because of how to count production of growth factors produced via recombinant DNA technology). Israel may not be big enough to buy five million burgers per day, but this company is now building plants in the United States.

I'm close to sold on this technology as economically feasible and environmentally sustainable, but the foodies will be up in arms. "You couldn't possibly make all the cuts of beef we now have through conventional agriculture," they will say.

Well, when I make tacos, I've been getting soy-based crumbles and spicing the hell out of them with turmeric, chili powder, cumin, garlic, and onions. It tastes as good as ground beef does in my hands, so I stopped using beef in my tacos a long time ago.

And chicken breast can be nearly tasteless. In the early weeks of the pandemic, a local restaurant began selling $1.99 per pound chicken breast with curbside, contactless pickup. We went for it. I made the mistake of trying to grill it. Stringy, watery, and awful. However, when I cut it into cubes and made a curry out of it—delicious. Covered the cubes in Korean barbecue sauce and baked it—yummy. Most chicken breast sold in the US is already crap, and if you're going to cover the taste with a sauce—I just dined on chicken tikka masala tonight—no biggie.

And I'll bet one could culture a pretty good pulled pork, too. Though I can't say for sure because I haven't tasted it, I'll likely be satisfied with artificial hamburger or steak. They don't look that complicated.

The ghost of my maternal grandfather turns to me at this point in the argument and asks how I'm going to make a good Jewish corned beef sandwich out of that stuff from the factory. Let alone some nice, fatty pastrami. I'd tell him about the lox with pastrami spicing I got at Three Sisters Deli the last time I was in New York City, and we'd probably get some salmon from Costco and play around with the smoker that's out on my patio. I think that would distract him for a little while, but he'd still want to go back to the local deli. In Cleveland, not in Fort Myers—Miami, LA, and Montreal are the only cities outside of the Midwest or Northeast where I've found decent delicatessens.

Can ghosts live part of the year in Cleveland and part of the year in Florida? Hell, snowbirds do it, and many of them are only a few years from deceased.

And what of my friends from Texas? You think they're going to give up their barbecue? Smoked beef, thinly sliced, served with a spicy sauce? Hell, even the local chain does a pretty good job of that. And the delicious burnt ends I like from the brewpub downtown? Seriously, it's not like you have to go to Houston or Dallas. I'm talking about Fort Myers, whose downtown's claim to fame is that the 1985 George Romero zombie film was shot here because when humans were making their last stand against the zombies, it had to be in the quietest and most boring of all places in the US. And our burnt ends are delicious! (Parenthetically, I totally miss Zombiecon—8000 or so people dressed as zombies and wandering the downtown pretending to be them. One murder sent the insurance on the festival sky high, and that was the end of it. But I digress.)

And we haven't even begun talking about barbecued pork ribs. My mouth waters with thoughts of Oakland, Memphis, and Kansas City.

You see what I just did there? Food is culture. Food is regional pride. Food is memory, and in the US, a lot of that food is meat. Can stuff grown in a bioreactor really take its place?

It doesn't have to. Sustainably produced hamburgers, steaks, taco meat, chicken breast, pulled pork, and a few other things could be enough to displace eighty percent or so of the meat consumption in the US. The environmental benefits would be huge.

So, bring on this brave new world that has such meatballs in't.

I'll be hanging out on Alvarado Street at Prospero's Chicken Stand.

(Kudos to anyone who managed to follow my allusions to Shakespeare's The Tempest and Warren Zevon's Carmelita.)

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