As people become more aware of the devastating environmental cost of animal agriculture, there’s been a veritable explosion in the number of plant-based alternatives hitting the shelves, with some promising vegan “meat” that’s virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. One company named Upside Foods is ready and waiting to serve up an even more authentic experience: real meat, but with none of the agriculture.
On Thursday, November 4, the company opened a vast facility in Emeryville, California – 16,154 square meters (53,000 square feet) of renewably-powered vats and tubes going by the name of the Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center, or “EPIC”. It’s been billed as the first of its kind, and the company says it’s ready to start producing 22,680 kilograms (50,000 pounds) of cultured meat for commercial scale – just as soon as it’s legal in the US.
“Our meat production method is inspired by nature’s basic principles: start with one cell and give it the proper nutrients to allow it to grow and multiply,” reads the website of Upside Foods, a so-called “cultured meat” company – the term “lab-grown meat”, as you may know it, is verboten in the industry – headquartered in Berkley, California. Adding to those “basic principles”, however, is the company’s CEO Uma Valeti’s history as a cardiologist: he was inspired to start Upside, he told The Economist, by “the idea of injecting stem cells into the human heart” to help it heal after a heart attack.
“We’re committed to completely detaching our production process from animal slaughter,” the company says. “Our aim is to bring animal component-free products to market as soon as we can.”
“The focus in the last five years for the industry has been really to show that the science works,” Valeti told Fast Company. “The next phase is all about how [to] bring products out of the lab into industrial scale.”
That science is something you can see for yourself – the facility, unable to actually sell the meat until the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA give regulatory approval, will be open for tours and product testing from January. Visitors to EPIC’s main room will find it lined with huge tanks called bioreactors, where cells harvested from live animals are bathed in a concoction of nutrients that will, science willing, grow them to a size suitable for a meal.
“We feed the cell a range of nutrients (amino acids, sugars, trace minerals, and vitamins) normally found in food and compositionally similar to what develops organically in animal body, just in a different format,” explains the website of Upside Foods. The initial cells themselves are obtained via “a variety of methods,” the site says, including “biopsies from living animals, eggs, fishing, and recently slaughtered animals who were already a part of the food system.”
“We also expect that our cells will be capable of indefinitely self-renewing, so that we won’t need to return to the animal for subsequent samples,” the company adds.
Upside Foods is not shy about the eco-friendly credentials of lab-grown meat over its traditional alternative: at scale, the website notes, “cell-cultured meat may require up to 90% less land and water, and emit up to 90% fewer greenhouse gases.” Research tends to agree: the benefits of cultured meat are “enormous,” found one analysis from April 2021; another from 2019 noted that switching to lab-grown meat could see “[greenhouse gas] emissions … fall by 78-96%, land use by 99%, water consumption by 82-96% and energy consumption by 7-45% compared to those from the conventional farming depending upon the type of meat.”
And it gets better: not only could the new meat reduce carbon emissions, but it could potentially even reverse them: “instead of using larger land for the necessary agricultural crops required for livestock farming,” proposes the 2019 paper, “large areas could be released and redeveloped or used for other purposes such as carbon capture.”
However, the… ahem… upsides to Upside’s meat aren’t limited to environmental concerns. We’ve all had to get familiar with the concept of zoonotic diseases in the past couple of years – pathogens that can transfer from animals to humans – and epidemiologists have warned that increasing livestock production increases the likelihood of new diseases emerging. Meanwhile, the ever-present use of antibiotics in the farming industry has hastened the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, creating a crisis that threatens to reverse decades of medical progress.
With cultured meat, those problems are removed, as is the issues of animal cruelty and human cruelty – workers in the meat and poultry industry lost body parts or needed hospital treatment every other day between 2015 and 2018.
Unfortunately for those wanting a taste of the future, there’s currently only one place in the world you can eat cultured meat: Singapore. Assuming Upside gets regulatory approval, it’s set to be the first meat on the menu of fancy San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn since 2018.
After that – well, Valeti sees the landscape of meat production changing very rapidly. Within five to ten years, he told Fast Company, cultured meat may well be as cheap, or cheaper, than farm-grown.
“What’s happened in the last five years, is unlike anything that’s ever happened in the food industry,” Valeti said. “There’s nearly 100 companies across the world, in nearly every meat-producing and meat-consuming country, trying to do cultivated meat”
“That type of acceleration has never happened in food, especially for a completely new space.”