“The inside story of how a startup with $850 million in funding ended up being sued for more than $100m. Eighteen months ago, Eat Just was embarking on one of the most ambitious projects in cultivated meat. Now it is battling multiple lawsuits, and former employees allege that’s just the start of its problem.” -Matt Reynolds
Here’s some unsolicited advice: Eat less meat.
At WIRED I report on the impact our diets have on the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions, water use, deforestation—all of those bad things. A lot of the time I run into the same conclusion: Compared to other sources of protein, meat—and especially beef—has an outsized impact on all of those things. So, like I said, eat less meat.
But hold on a sec. What if you could eat meat without the environmental hang-ups? Well, that’s where things get interesting. The last half-decade has seen an explosion in startups trying to brew real animal cells in bioreactors—a field called cultivated (or, less kindly, ‘lab-grown’) meat.
Cultivated meat companies are really racing ahead of late. So far they’ve raised close to three billion dollars in venture capital, and this year, for the first time ever in the US, two companies were cleared to sell cultivated meat to consumers. Several firms are working on giant factories to brew their cells.
But when venture capital and lofty, world-changing, promises intersect, things can start to go awry. In this collection you’ll find some stories about the cultivated meat industry’s growing pains, and what the future of our food system might look like. After some juicy entrees and a carb-heavy main, I’ve included a couple of palate cleansers at the end—so grab some cutlery, pop on a napkin and let’s dig in.
Image by GMVozd / Getty Images
MR: “Are you sensing a theme here? Billion-dollar cultivated-meat startup Upside Foods wants you to think the breakthrough chicken fillets it sells are made in a futuristic factory. The reality? They’re brewed in two-litre plastic bottles.”
MR: “The first two articles might have you thinking I’m a plant-based meat hater. I’m not, not by a long shot. In this piece, I wrote about how Silicon Valley hubris and investors hankering after software-startup levels of return might have set the alternative protein industry up to fail. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
MR: “I’m continuing the carb-loaded interlude with an exploration of ultra-processed foods (UPF)—a new way of thinking about nutrition that has spawned books, documentaries, a never-ending stream of internet commentary and some frankly bonkers YouTube videos. In this piece I look at the science of UPFs, how little we know about how these foods really impact our health, and whether they’re just a re-packaging of old-school dietary advice.”
MR: “One of the big problems facing the cultivated meat industry is the sheer cost of growing cells outside of an animal's body. A way around that is to replace those cells with… plants. Yup. I spoke to cultivated firms experimenting with burgers and meatballs with as little as five percent animal cells in an effort to drastically reduce costs while keeping the meatiness of, uh, meat.”
MR: “Released in 2021, this article from Joe Fassler sent a shockwave through the cultivated meat industry. He revealed how a detailed analysis commissioned by Open Philanthropy found that the economics of the industry would likely never add up. The numbers might have changed—and are still endlessly debated—but this article set out the contours that constrain the viability of the cultivated meat industry to this day.”
MR: “This neat thread from Björn Jóhann, a journalist at non-profit Sentient Media, looks at how meat consumption is changing in the US. He points out that while beef consumption has dipped, chicken is still growing in popularity. Switching to smaller animals—and eating more of them as a result—means more animals being slaughtered.”
MR: “On to the dessert course. I could have picked almost any episode from the fantastic Gastropod podcast, but in this one hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley describe how this otherworldly spice, grown on a far-flung island archipelago, played a weirdly pivotal role in world history. Now go listen to their entire back catalogue.”
MR: “It’s getting pretty chilly here in the UK, which means it’s the perfect time for a fortifying bowl of tarka dal. The key is to select really flavourful tomatoes and cook them down for a while to release all that umami goodness. If it’s not burning, you’re good. It doesn’t hurt to add an extra clove or two of garlic and I like to add a sprinkle of msg for some extra depth. Beef? Who needs it!”
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Matt Reynolds is a senior writer at WIRED. He covers climate investigations, food, and also some weird science stuff.