The Fate of Food by Amanda Little is one of the most eye-opening books we've read in years. An award-winning journalist and professor at Vanderbilt University, Little spent three years traveling across the United States—and all over the world—chasing after one question: How are we going to feed a growing population amid an also-growing climate crisis? Her research led her everywhere from GMO corn farms in Kenya to a monsoon cloud above Mumbai. In the excerpt below, she visits Memphis Meats, a Berkeley-based startup that just received $161 million in new funding, has been invested in by the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and is now planning its first pilot production facility. Unlike other meatless-meat competitors (think Beyond Meat and Impossible), Memphis Meats is actually meat. You just don't need to slaughter any animals in the process.
Cofounded in 2015 by Uma Valeti, an Indian-born cardiologist, and Nicholas Genovese, a stem cell biologist, Memphis Meats is the world’s first start-up to grow meat in a laboratory using tiny samples of muscle, fat, and connective tissues taken from living animals. “We are a meat, poultry, and seafood company that makes end products no different than conventional meat, while eliminating the need for animal slaughter,” Valeti tells me in a phone call before my visit. He adds that the cells that are grown, or “cultured,” in his laboratories are “alive,” even though they’re not attached to the animal. They’re so alive, in fact, that the mature muscle tissue he produces actually responds—as in flexes, or spasms—when stimulated.
The notion that a serving of cultured meat had once been flexing in a petri dish would send me running to the tofu section, I tell Valeti. But he goes on to outline the many benefits that might coax me right back: “Cultured meats are identical on a cellular level to animal meats and can be as or more nutritious and delicious,” he says. Moreover, the production process could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from meat production by more than three-quarters, while also cutting associated water use by up to 90 percent. Cultured meats could also eliminate the risk of bacterial contamination (gone would be the threat of E. coli and the helping of feces) and reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity (fats and cholesterol levels in these meats can be controlled). “We’re talking about changing the lives of billions of humans and trillions of animals,” Valeti tells me.
I first heard about Memphis Meats in early 2018 when Tyson Foods announced plans to invest in Valeti’s start-up. The investment sounded preposterous to me, coming as it was from a company that produces one of every five pounds of meat consumed in the United States. Annually, Tyson sells $15 billion worth of beef, $11 billion of chicken, $5 billion of pork, and $8 billion in prepared foods under a brand roster that includes Hillshire Farm, Jimmy Dean, and Ball Park Franks. About half of Tyson’s fresh and frozen meats are sold in fast-food restaurants, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and KFC. Why would an industrial meat company be backing the production of such an obscure, even Frankensteinian, product?
At the time, Tyson’s CEO, Tom Hayes, had vowed to transform his eighty-three-year-old business into “a modern food company.” He trumpeted the promise of “sustainable proteins” and “zero-carbon foods.” He made statements like “I took this job to revolutionize the global food system” and pledged “to raise the world’s expectations for the good we can do through food.” These promises sounded dubious coming from a man whose company processes about 1.8 billion animals a year and is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the whole of Ireland. Yet Hayes insisted that it’s precisely because of its scope that Tyson has the potential to make a global difference.
“We’re so big that the industry can’t change if we don’t lead,” Hayes told me.
Hayes was investing not just in lab meats but also in start-ups making plant-based proteins—most notably, Beyond Meat, which produces burgers, sausages, and nuggets made from soy and pea proteins, products that are now sold in more than twenty thousand grocery stores. The broader category of “alternative meat” products in the United States has been soaring in recent years. The Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods has raised more than $350 million to push its product— plant-based hamburger meat flavored with synthetic animal blood—into the mainstream. Recent Nielsen data shows that in a one-year period, retail sales of meat alternatives jumped 30 percent—many times the growth of meat sales and of retail food sales generally. Another study found that 70 percent of meat eaters are substituting nonanimal proteins at least once a week.
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?” said Hayes. He pointed to the ongoing disruption of the automobile industry by electric-car technology and of the tobacco industry by vape technology. He purported to welcome this kind of change. “We want to actively disrupt ourselves—we don’t want to be disrupted. We don’t want to be Kodak.”
Tyson Foods isn’t the only player in the conventional meat industry making unconventional investments. Cargill Meats, another one of the world’s biggest producers of beef and poultry, had invested in Memphis a few months before Tyson jumped in. Valeti’s company has also drawn tens of millions of dollars of investment from more predictable players: Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and the venture firms Atomico and DFJ, which focus on disruptive technologies. Cargill’s Sonya Roberts described Memphis Meats as developing simply “another way to harvest meat. For people who want a product from an animal welfare perspective, we want this to be there for them.”