Health

Would You Eat a Lab-Grown Hamburger? Pretty Soon, You Might Be Able to

Through cellular agriculture, scientists are discovering how to make meat, leather, milk, eggs and fur from cells. Intrigued? So are we

New Harvest's Erin Kim posing in her black shirt

When you hear the word “agriculture,” you might reach for some cute rubber boots and a spade. But it’s starting to look like the future of food may be found in a lab—not in the fields or a chicken coop. 

New Harvest, a New-York based nonprofit, is funding research into “cellular agriculture,” a new field in which scientists are discovering how to make meat, leather, milk, eggs and fur from cell cultures, rather than from animals. Yup, this means one day your hamburger, daily latte—or even your new leather handbag—may come from a lab (the first lab-grown burger was made in 2013).

Since global warming is a serious threat to our planet, sustainable food production is more important now than ever. Erin Kim, communications director of New Harvest, talked to FLARE ahead of her panel discussion about the future of food at Toronto’s EDIT festival this weekend, about how cellular agriculture could help save the planet, the difference between lab-made meat and what’s on the market now.

What got you interested in cellular agriculture, a.k.a. lab-made animal products?

The first time I heard about it I was disgusted, because my first encounter with it was through Margaret Atwood’s novel, Oryx and Crake. I remember reading it and being like, “Oh my god, I hope this never happens, I don’t want to live in this kind of world.” But then over the years, seeing the changes that were happening in the world and the advancements in biotech being applied to food production, I thought the best way to empower myself against that was to educate myself about it. And here I am, 10 years later, getting enthralled by it and working in the industry.

Can you explain what “cultured meat” is and how it differs from something on the market now like, Tofurkey? 

Cellular agriculture is where you’re producing food, or materials, or ingredients–whether that’s milk or meat or eggs or leather or something like spider silk or rhino horn–from cell cultures.When you’re trying to harvest meat from an animal, you have to grow an entire living organism that has bone and hair and skin and organs that people may not necessarily want for food. But through cellular agriculture, you can just grow directly the types of cells you’re looking for.

With a plant-based meat substitute, you’re essentially using plants that already exist and processing them in a way that makes them so the end product is like meat. People sometimes think that we’re trying to do a veggie burger, or we’re trying to do a beyond meat thing like Impossible Foods. But as cool as those things are, we’re working with animal cells.

Why do we need to invest in cellular agriculture? 

Research is probably the biggest need for this field—and industry—to really proceed, especially when you look at how little academic research there is. We thought our best contribution would be to get funding to the universities that are doing this research, in the hopes that it will lead to publications and more principal investigators realizing this is a subject that’s worthy of [pursuing].

In order to bring it from small-lab scale to large commercial scale, there’s a number of different scientific obstacles that have to be examined further. We currently are funding research on those various pieces of the puzzle, in the hope that it will come together and we will be able to answer, Is this going to be as ethical and sustainable and delicious as has been promised?

What motivates you to keep working in this field?

There’s a lot of people who work in this field who are interested in the benefits for animals. I started off being interested in the benefits for animal welfare, but over time, I became more interested in the human factors: the general ethics of food production—like how workers are treated in the food system—and the environmental impacts as well as the public health impacts

Why try to replicate animal products instead of just saying, “Don’t eat meat”?

I tried the whole vegan thing, I tried the vegetarian and pescetarian thing, and in order for me to succeed at that, I almost had to convince myself that I didn’t care what it tasted like. But then over time, I incorporated meat and other products back into my diet, and I had to admit to myself that there’s a reason why we’re looking for alternative ways of producing these things. It’s because they taste good and they do amazing things. The fact that you can do so much with cow milk, for example. You can make cheese, you can make yogurt and ice cream. There’s a lot of things those animal proteins can do that a plant protein maybe can somewhat convincingly mimic, but it’s really unlikely that it’s going to be able to hit on all those amazing things.

How soon will we be able to actually buy cultured meat products?

I do believe that cultured meat will be on the market in the near-ish future. I think it’s very possible that there will be something mostly plant-based, but supplemented by a smaller amount of cultured animals cells. I think that kind of product we might be able to expect in the future.

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