The reputation of SXSW as a parade of hipsters, marketers, bands, and techies that descends upon Austin with free swag every March is partly true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. So the fact that this week they’re hosting SXSW Eco—where some of the smartest people in technology, business, and environmental activism get together to discuss big ideas about the future of the planet—may come as a surprise if you don’t follow the festival juggernaut closely.
But SXSW’s diversified interests means that some of the most fascinating conversations about the future happen in Texas—and sometimes, those conversations are about things that matter deeply to Texans of all stripes. Sometimes, those conversations are about meat.
Tuesday at SXSW Eco, Isha Datar of New Harvest—a non-profit organization that’s invested in the future of biotechnology in food—gave a keynote on what she described as the “post-animal bioeconomy.” In plain English, that means what food might look like when the meat we eat comes from a lab rather than an animal.
There’s an initial “ick” factor when discussing lab-grown meat, but Datar worked hard to counter that perception. For one, we have been making animal products without needing an actual animal for decades now. Insulin, which used to be made of pig and cattle pancreases, is now made without a live animal. Rennet, an enzyme used in cheese production, is engineered similarly. The phrase “biotechnology” altogether sounds more sinister and science-fiction than what it actually describes. Milk is pure food; turning milk into yogurt or cheese is the product of biotechnology, albeit biotech dating back centuries.
What Datar suggests probably sounds vastly different from your Margaret Atwood nightmares. Rather, it would be something she dubbed a “carnery” for meat, the same way a bakery is for bread or a brewery is for beer. It would be a controlled environment where someone who cares deeply about meat can, with the right equipment and process, cleanly and safely produce it from cell cultures without needing an actual animal. (Imagine, say, Aaron Franklin personally responsible for the production of his own brisket from the very beginning.)
There are several reasons to consider all of this. Setting aside the ethics of eating animals—a conversation that most people have made up their minds on—the environmental impact of meat production is indisputably harmful to the planet. One-third of all ice-free land on the planet is used for livestock production, between grazing and growing corn and soy to feed to animals. Eight percent of the global water supply is used for animal agriculture, and 18 percent of all greenhouse gases are the result of livestock production. Antibiotic resistance—a very serious public health threat—deepens because of the number of drugs given to animals as a preventative for sickness, without them even being sick.
It also has the potential to eliminate instability in the food supply. As Datar pointed out, the current avian flu outbreak—which resulted in the death of almost 50 million birds, a spike in egg prices, and undoubtedly some people who will be outraged at the price of turkey come Thanksgiving—is an unpredictable part of raising animals. Similar outbreaks are always a risk for any kind of livestock.
Right now, we don’t use a lot of the parts from the animals we produce. For example, a common poultry purchase are boneless, skinless, fat-trimmed chicken breasts. So why are we producing entire chickens when much of the animal is something we have no use for?
New Harvest—Datar’s organization—is a non-profit, which means they can share all of the data they’ve accumulated without worrying about proprietary information or trade secrets. They were involved with the first animal-free hamburger, and they’re working with companies that are developing milk and eggs without cows or chickens.
Right now, all of this is still developing. The burger, which was funded to the tune of $300,000 by Google co-founder Sergey Brin was decidedly not an animal alternative product or a veggie burger. It was meat—albeit with one big catch: That burger was made of pure muscle, with no fat or connective tissue. Datar admitted that she tasted the milk and it’s not very good (the eggs, meanwhile, seem fairly promising), but these are early days. The $300,000 price tag on a single burger is ridiculous, obviously, but it’s cheap when you consider what those costs actually entail—equipment, PhD-level biologists working on the project for years, etc. “How much did the first computer cost?” Datar asked to put things in perspective.
In other words, the processes of developing biotech, “post-animal” meat and animal products will improve a lot—and soon. The price to produce it will only go down as processes are optimized, machinery is developed specifically for these purposes, and the products are produced on scale. And as conventional meat prices go up as global demand increases, land gets more expensive, and unpredictable events like the avian flu destabilize supply, there’ll be a day when biotech meat, according to Datar, will be a big part of what we eat.
“We need to introduce diversity into our portfolio of meat products,” she explained, comparing it to the way we have a diverse array of energy sources. “Factory farming is the coal power of meat production.”
So how long will it be until this is something you’re actually getting served at McDonald’s or Chipotle? (Or making at home, in your own carnery machine?) “We’re probably ten years away from these products,” Datar said.
Datar doesn’t anticipate a huge amount of resistance from the beef and corn lobbies, either, suggesting that the product could come to market quickly once it’s effective and affordable. “Animal production is a big part of their problems,” she said. “All instability in the supply chain is from animals.” She explained that many ranchers she’s spoken to are excited about the idea of a more stable and consistent supply of meat.
All of this is certainly futuristic. The idea of eating a steak for dinner that started the morning as some cultured cells in your refrigerator is weird—but if there’s one thing that the meat-eaters among us have to admit, it’s that much of the eating that we do involves not thinking all that hard about where our food actually comes from. If we can snack on a hot dog without getting too grossed out by its origins, then we can probably do that with lab-grown brisket, too.