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In a soaring room beneath the seats of Memorial Stadium at the University of California, Berkeley, students are up on their feet. Half the class is poised like gesturing statues while the others wander among their frozen peers to the strains of New Age music. The instructor tells everyone to imagine themselves in a garden of Rodin sculptures. They soon switch roles. The 30 or so students are taking part in a relaxation and focus exercise before delivering their research—research they hope will lead to a radical shift in our food choices, habits, and culture.
Today’s five-hour session is part of UC Berkeley’s Alt. Meat Lab, a one-of-a-kind program aimed at helping participants design, create, and bring to market “the next generation of foods.” It brings together entrepreneurs and researchers from various faculties that share a vital sense of mission. Established in 2017 as a part of the university’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, the Alt. Meat Lab offers a course and a competition to serve as incubators for generating fresh ideas for reducing food’s impact on the environment and improving human health through plant-based meat and dairy substitutes. In short, it asks participants to challenge the status quo and ultimately change the world.
Two by two, the students stand below the words Innovation Collider stenciled high on the wall. They present their findings into why people choose to eat meat and fish and how that might be altered. They are urged to look past the obvious, to think deeper about how people relate their food choices to taste, schedules, lifestyle, health, memories, and feelings. Beyond a small percentage of people who avoid meat or fish for religious or ethical reasons, most of us eat it when given the chance. These foods have been a part of the human diet for millennia, but the modern, medicated animal-agriculture industry—where the vast majority of us get our meat and dairy—only came of age within living memory. A growing number of researchers, entrepreneurs, and angel investors see a paradigm ripe for disruption—and an opportunity to eclipse the goals of many environmental campaigns.
By now you’ve noticed that plant-based burgers are a thing. We’re not talking an upgrade to the veggie burger, which has been around since 1982. Today’s plant-based burgers are designed to cook, taste, and “bleed” like real beef. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are just the largest and most visible brands of this emergent food phenomenon.
After having first tackled perhaps the most iconic, quintessentially American food, Impossible Foods—and others—have vowed to take on other varieties of meat, including seafood. This is an even bigger challenge on two fronts: price and replicating the nutritional profile and subtle flavor of fish. Should they succeed, could alt (alternative) fish help make the world more food secure and save marine environments?
Low carb. Keto. Macrobiotic. There’s far more at stake than dreaming up and then capitalizing on the next culinary fad. The market for alt-meat and -fish products, estimated at less than US $14-billion in 2019, is predicted to grow as high as $140-billion by 2029. But for many Alt. Meat Lab participants and food-tech start-ups, it’s about more than money—they want a new food system.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), raising animals for meat, eggs, and milk generates 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—roughly on par with the global transportation sector. And while meat, farmed seafood, eggs, and dairy provide just 18 percent of calories and only 37 percent of the protein we eat, producing it consumes a whopping 83 percent of farmland. These are the findings of the most comprehensive study done on the subject, published in the journal Science in 2018. Take out meat and dairy production, the authors say, and the global need for farmland could be reduced by an area equivalent to the United States, China, the European Union, and Australia combined—and still feed the world. When this is added to the industry’s record of deforestation, overuse of pharmaceuticals, and the unnecessary suffering of animals, there’s a strong case for cutting out the cow, pig, or chicken between us and the plants. The study’s lead author, Joseph Poore, declares that avoiding meat and dairy products is “the single biggest way” individuals can reduce their overall environmental impact on the planet.
Some consumers are listening; others are simply open to trying something new. Either way, the uptake of alt burgers has been swift—the Impossible Burger, for example, debuted in 2016 and is now carried by over two-dozen restaurant chains and over 2,000 grocery stores across North America.
But the case for alt fish is less obvious. Industrial fishing of wild marine stocks is different. Depending on species, it’s less carbon intensive than producing lamb, pork, or beef. Wild fish are nutritious, don’t take up land, and don’t have to be fed. Why not just eat more wild fish? Because there are fewer fish in the sea.
Despite the continued, persistent illusion of abundance reflected on fast-food menus and in all-you-can-eat buffets, approximately 90 percent of the world’s fisheries were already at or beyond their biological limits in 2015, according to FAO. Over the past 50 years, many species, including cod, sharks, and bluefin tuna, have been exploited to the point of collapse. Bottom trawling damages sensitive seafloor environments that can take centuries to heal. Ghost gear—abandoned fishing nets, lines, pots, and traps—is the biggest source of plastics pollution in the ocean and can go on killing marine life indefinitely. Adding to the problem is by-catch, which, the World Wildlife Fund reports, kills millions of non-target fish every day.
Aquaculture, often touted as a solution to these problems, already accounts for nearly half of all fish consumed but comes with its own well-documented environmental and ethical concerns—from parasites to pollution—particularly the farming of marine species. And even with a projected annual growth rate of 4.5 percent, it can’t keep up with demand as it’s practiced today.
Whatever the problems associated with industrial fishing and animal agriculture, one fact remains: the world’s population is growing. It’s forecast to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050. How on Earth will we feed them?
Back at UC Berkeley, the Alt. Meat Lab students have moved from collecting data to designing prototypes for the competition at the end of the semester. The challenge is to create healthy meat and fish alternatives that satisfy consumer taste and sustainability expectations at a price people can afford. With environmental pressures piling up, the time has come to get creative and take risks.
In 2017, the competition was the tightly focused “Plant-based Seafood Collider.” Kimberlie Le and Joshua Nixon (Team Dory) took home the top prize for creating a convincing salmon burger that had the taste, texture, and omega-3s consumers crave. But Team Dory didn’t go the plant-based route. They chose fungi—in particular koji—which has been used for centuries to make foods and beverages like soy sauce, miso, and sake.
A naturally occurring, high-protein mold, koji grows on cooked rice and other foods. Team Dory chose it because it has a texture that replicates the fibrous nature of meat, has a natural meaty (umami) flavor, and matches the nutritional profile of meat better than vegetables do. In terms of water and land use, koji can be produced sustainably through an inexpensive fermentation process akin to brewing craft beer. And, with the addition of algae and a few plant-based ingredients, Le explains, they were able to replicate the flavor and nutritional value of salmon. Through the exposure of the competition, their winning prototype attracted an initial capital investment of $4.5-million.
“It was very encouraging, for sure,” Le says of winning the competition. Soon after, she left UC Berkeley to devote herself to building her business full-time. Like so many others in the program today, Le, who is 24, says she’s motivated not only by an entrepreneurial spirit, but by a higher sense of purpose. “The environmental component is by far the thing that drives me the most,” she says. Once a competitive snowboarder, she laments the loss of snow and ski resorts as a result of the climate crisis. She also loves to scuba dive and see marine life. “It’s a shame,” she says, “that my children most likely won’t be able to see coral reefs.”
Le and Nixon went on to found Prime Roots, which has been making prototypes of other koji-based alt seafood, including tuna, lobster, shrimp, and crab, at their production facility in Berkeley. They even produced alt bacon. Prime Roots launched its first product online in early 2020—and quickly sold out.
Prime Roots is one of a small but growing list of companies already offering alt-fish products, including Good Catch’s plant-based tuna, Ocean Hugger’s Ahimi (a plant-based alternative to raw tuna), and Loma Linda’s plant-based Tuno. But while many entrepreneurs and Alt. Meat Lab students are looking beyond the marine environment to produce alt fish, seeking inspiration from plants and fungi, others are looking to hack the fish themselves.
Just over the Bay Bridge in San Francisco is the MISTA Optimization Center. A kind of food lab, MISTA consists of a test kitchen, offices, and a wide-open meeting space presided over by bright-orange block capitals proclaiming THE FUTURE OF FOOD. Aryé Elfenbein and Justin Kolbeck work here, and at their nearby production facility, on a prototype for a new kind of fish product. Not a plant- or fungi-based salmon alternative, but flesh-like slabs of salmon cells replicated in a lab from a wild progenitor fish. Their company, Wild Type, is at the forefront of a food-tech experiment known as cellular agriculture. It has a deceptively simple goal—“to create the cleanest, most sustainable fish and meat on the planet.”
Elfenbein comes across as both easygoing and highly focused. He has a PhD in molecular biology from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and was completing his medical residency when he hit upon an idea. While traveling in northern Australia in 2015, he passed through landscapes that had once been rainforest but had since been razed for animal agriculture. It was just a few years after Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka proved that human stem cells could be made from ordinary skin cells—a discovery that earned him a Nobel Prize.
“Before that, we had to rely on embryos for stem cell sourcing,” Elfenbein recalls. “And so I think both of these experiences together made me wonder, do we need animals to create meat? Could we use this regenerative technology to essentially create the same true meat outside the animal?”
Elfenbein finished his training in internal medicine, and then cardiology. He was studying heart regeneration methodologies at the time, “and, you know, taking human stem cells and creating beating heart muscle tissue.” He found himself again wondering if the same revolutionary process could be used to produce food. He mentioned the idea to his friend Justin Kolbeck. Together, they began to consider the possibilities of bringing this technology to market.
“I started from a point of skepticism, as many people do, because it seems like a bit of an outlandish idea,” Kolbeck explains. A graduate of the Yale School of Management, Connecticut, he speaks of what sounds like science fiction with a no-nonsense, practical approach. The first conversations he and Elfenbein had about the concept revolved around an open question: how might this scale? Is it actually possible to use this technology to create food at or below the cost of conventional wild salmon?
Simply put, cellular agriculture involves growing muscle and fat cells in a bioreactor, a machine that supports the natural growth process. At Wild Type, this is accomplished by feeding the cells an animal-free growth medium that includes salts, sugars, fats, and basic amino acids. The results, served at a special tasting event at Olympia Oyster Bar in Portland, Oregon, resemble naturally occurring salmon flesh in taste and texture. Elfenbein and Kolbeck claim it has the same nutritional components as wild salmon because it is grown directly from the cells of wild fish. It was served in the form of sushi rolls, tartare on rice puffs, ceviche verde soup, and hors d’oeuvres atop tortilla chips.
When it came time to decide which species of fish cells to grow, the choice was clear. Salmon is the second-most consumed seafood in the United States after shrimp. It’s nutritious, is prepared in many different ways, and when it comes to price, goes for a premium compared with shrimp, ground beef, or chicken. And, since Wild Type is based on the west coast, where salmon is deeply rooted in the culture, they felt right choosing their “home-range fish.”
Beyond wild-caught or farm-raised fish, they see their role in growing cellular salmon as a third way of putting fish on the table.
“I don’t think people like meat because it comes from a dead animal,” Kolbeck says, referring to animal flesh in general, including fish. “People like meat because it tastes good. It reminds them of happy memories they had when they were younger. And if you can deliver that same experience in a way that allows people to cast their dollars in a vote for the planet, or for their own health and wellness, they’ll do it. That’s the bet we’re making with this company.”
But the method is pricey. The sample of salmon cells served up in Portland cost $200 per sushi roll (six pieces). While significant strides have been made, there’s still a long way to go in achieving price parity with wild salmon, which retails for as little as $22 per kilogram. Wild Type is not alone in this pursuit. Other California-based food-tech start-ups are working to bring cellular fish to market, including BlueNalu (San Diego) and Finless Foods (Emeryville).
“Time is of the essence,” Kolbeck says, mindful of both the market competition and the pressures facing wild fish stocks. “We need to get these products to market as quickly as possible … but we want to be humble about it, [because] nobody has ever brought this to scale before.”
In addition to investing their time and resources into Wild Type, Elfenbein and Kolbeck have also served as mentors at the Alt. Meat Lab. Kolbeck says UC Berkeley has always been on “the bleeding edge” of social change and the Alt. Meat Lab is continuing that tradition. Reimagining what we eat and how we produce it, he says, has the power to change both our society and the environment. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, that process is accelerating.
Back at UC Berkeley, Ricardo San Martin feels the rush to a technological solution, but suspects the answers might be far simpler and already close at hand. Research director of the Alt. Meat Lab, he has a background in chemical engineering and holds a PhD in biotechnology. For over 30 years, he worked to develop plant extracts, some of which are used in alt meat today. Four years ago, he was asked to form the Alt. Meat Lab. Today, he’s off to meet the winners of last semester’s competition. Those two students will soon be leaving to develop their winning alt-chicken product at Nestlé labs in Switzerland.
San Martin is an engaging and gracious man with seemingly boundless energy. As we march across campus, where students of his generation once demonstrated in support of the free speech and civil rights movements, we pass a group of students now calling for a Green New Deal.
He is concerned that many of today’s alt-meat and -fish products are highly processed and sees this concern reflected in his students and the marketplace. For example, the calorie and fat content of the new alt-meat burgers is roughly on par with conventional hamburgers. “I think we’re seeing the first generation of these foods,” he says, “where the main drive has been to take the animal out of the equation, but not necessarily fulfill better nutritional needs or make really healthier foods.”
“You’re better off with lentils and rice,” San Martin says. But most people don’t want that—they want convenience foods like burgers and pizza. “So we must do something to make those foods healthier.”
The goal, San Martin says, is to create delicious convenience foods that transcend cultures and socio-economic classes. Producing expensive alt-meat and -fish products for rich urbanites is not the point. The solutions must be egalitarian.
When it comes to cellular agriculture, he is skeptical that it can ever produce cells in volumes that could be useful for food. When the process is scaled up in bioreactors, he explains, the crowded cells overheat and die. Those food-tech start-ups, he claims, are either unaware of the science or deluding themselves and investors. While it’s possible that some new, secret, proprietary technology exists to address this fundamental challenge, he has yet to see proof. That’s why plant- and fungi-based solutions remain the focus at the Alt. Meat Lab.
“I don’t have the answer,” San Martin says, “but the students may. These kids are super smart. They’re motivated. And they want to do good.”
These are early days. Time will tell if alt-meat and -fish products capture enough market share to significantly reduce our overall impact on the environment, he says, but creating them is an intriguing, promising, and necessary pursuit. There’s no single answer to the various environmental crises affecting the atmosphere, land, and sea. When it comes to divining the future, he says, “look to my students, not me. When I’m feeling depressed, I just come here and work with them. And I feel relieved.”
What’s needed most, San Martin says, is a cultural shift—one that requires deep thinking and soul searching. “I think the answers … will come more from visionaries, philosophers.”
Henrik Lagerlund is an affable man who loves to eat and drink. He also thinks deeply about our relationship with food. A professor of the history of philosophy at Stockholm University, Sweden, Lagerlund has taught a course on the philosophy of food for over a decade and has published widely. He pioneered research into the ethics of food during the Middle Ages, a time when society was governed by the virtue of fasting and the vice of gluttony—one of the seven deadly sins.
Today, as Lagerlund explains via Skype, our appetites have led to an existential crisis posed by both a rising population and an increasingly despoiled environment. “Things will only improve,” Lagerlund says, “if more of us start to seriously think about food, develop a better understanding of the food system, and change our behavior accordingly.” He likes what he hears about the research and development of alt meat and fish, and says these products (both plant-based and cellular) are being created on far more solid ethical ground than the food produced through animal agriculture or industrial fishing.
But change won’t come easily, Lagerlund says. Western cultures can trace the roots of our relationship with animals to the Bible’s Old Testament, which grants humans dominion over every being that creeps upon Earth. Although this view has shifted over time, it’s one that’s still deeply entrenched. It underpins the widely held and recently debunked belief that fish cannot feel pain, or that wild fish are simply there for the taking.
He proposes committing to “an examined life in relation to our daily food choices.” This can mean saying no to foods that might be traditional or convenient but are unsustainable or contribute to injustice. It’s often difficult in our globalized food system to adhere to our chosen values, Lagerlund says. But we owe it to ourselves and our children to make the effort.
“Moral philosophers often say that culture is not an argument,” Lagerlund explains. And so it is with the ethics of food. Just because an individual, family, or culture has done something for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way or the right way to do things. When we attempt to broaden our value system, we’re often surprised by how it changes our habits and choices, he says. And in the long run, it might also make us happier.
Given the variety of sustainable, plant-based foods available to most of us in the West, and the growing availability of alternatives to meat and fish, is it ethical to continue eating animal products?
The meat industry is not sustainable, Lagerlund says. Nor is industrial fishing. “That in itself is enough of an argument to say, no, we should not eat meat or fish. But the question is obviously not so black and white.”
“I don’t want to tell people what to do. I want people to become more rational and more reflective. … Ask yourself what kind of person you want to be and what kind of world you want to live in.”
This is one way, he says, philosophy can change the world.