Documentary ‘Meat the Future’ shows us the possible future of meat

The emerging ‘cultured meat’ industry promises a product that will be better for the environment, for animals and for us

By Chris Dart

The burger of tomorrow will probably look not unlike the burger of today, but if Dr. Uma Valeti has anything to say about it, the story behind that burger will be radically different. Valeti is a cardiologist-turned-entrepreneur, and the CEO and co-founder of Memphis Meats, a leader in the emerging cultured meat industry. “Cultured meat,” “cultivated meat,” “clean meat” and “cell-based meat” are some of the terms used to describe meat grown in a lab from cell cultures, as opposed to coming from a slaughtered animal.

Valeti’s first exposure to the truth behind meat production was while attending a friend’s birthday party in his native India as a child. In the front of the house, there was a party with food and music. When he wandered to the back of the house, he saw chickens being slaughtered for dinner.

“That was very hard for me,” Valeti says in the film. He thought about “how as humans, we were incredibly capable of having a lot of joy, fun, generosity, and on the other side, there was the stark reality of ending life.” By the time he was in high school, Valeti would dream about “meat growing on trees” as an alternative to killing animals.

Valeti is the main subject of Meat the Future, a documentary about the quest to change the face of meat — by making meat that never had a face.

“I started thinking … if I practice cardiology for another 30 years, I would probably save two or three thousand lives. But there is very little, in the form of any idea, that even comes close to the level of impact of what this could [have], [in terms of its] impact on billions of humans’ lives and trillions of animal lives,” says Valeti.

Here are four things to know about cultured meat.

Cultured meat could help meet future demand in a sustainable way

“More people are eating meat today than yesterday, and more people, unfortunately, will eat meat tomorrow than today,” says Josh Tetrick, the co-founder and CEO of at Just, who is also featured in the film.

As incomes and populations rise in the developing world, so will the demand for meat. In fact, demand is expected to double by 2050. But right now, animal agriculture already takes up roughly 45 per cent of Earth’s surface area. The ecological costs of meeting future demand through conventional meat production, many argue, are simply too high.

One of the goals of clean meat is to have a smaller environmental footprint — to make meat production use less land and water than it does today, and have none of the associated methane production. According to statistics from The Good Food Institute, a Washington think-tank working on the issue, once production is possible on a similar scale, the environmental benefits would be staggering. Compared to conventional beef, cell-based beef would reduce land use by 95 per cent, climate change emissions by 74 to 87 per cent, and nutrient pollution (a type of water pollution) by 94 per cent.

Don’t call it ‘fake meat’ or ‘lab-grown meat’

The aim of Memphis Meats is to create meat that is indistinguishable from meat from an animal. If you are allergic to crab from a crab, you will almost certainly be allergic to crab from Memphis Meats.

Chef Morgan Rease shows how it compares to the real thing.

“The only process we’re changing is one step,” Valeti says in the film. “Instead of these cells growing in an animal, we’re growing them outside the animal. The meat is still the same meat, and we’re harvesting it.”

Clean meat’s opponents — some who work in the conventional meat industry — have been attempting to brand the company’s products as either “fake” or “lab-grown,” something that the company says is inaccurate.

“As with many familiar and currently marketed food products, the early development of our products happens in food labs,” Memphis Meats’ vice president of product and regulations, Eric Schulze, says in the documentary. “But the products that we bring to consumers will be produced in food production facilities, not labs.”

It not only promises to be better for the environment but better for our health

“On the question of safety, innovation in the meat industry is urgently needed,” Elizabeth Holtz, campaigns manager at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, says in the film. “Conventional methods rely on the intensive confinement [of animals] in unsanitary and inhumane facilities. These unnatural conditions require extensive use of antibiotics to address diseases that proliferate among the crowded, stressed animals, contributing to the spread of drug-resistant superbugs.”

Since cultured meat is grown in a sterile environment, there is less chance for pathogens to sneak in. This decreases the need for antibiotics, as well as the risk of products containing illness-causing bacteria such as salmonella and listeria

Liz Specht, director of science and technology at The Good Food Institute, says that “clean” production methods also do not present the same concerns about zootonic disease (infections that jump from animals to humans) as conventional meat production, which could make some future pandemics less likely. 

It will still be a while before cultured meat is in your grocery store

If it tastes like meat and it’s better for the planet, why aren’t cultured meat products in every store on the continent right now? Memphis Meats, and the other startups in the cell-based meat industry around the globe, are tackling several challenges as they race to get to market — namely scaling up production and bringing the cost of production down to be on par with conventional meat.

Innovation has been rapid in the last few years, as chronicled in Meat the Future. In 2016, a pound of beef from Memphis Meats reportedly cost $18,000 US. By February of 2018, it cost roughly $1,700, and the cost per pound has since dropped considerably.

“We had a couple extra zeros next to that [$1,700 price] when we started,” says Valeti in the film. “Maybe three zeros.”

Watch Meat the Future.

Available on CBC Gem

Meat the Future

documentary Channel