Transcript: Ep. 3 - Is cell-based meat the future of food? | May 12, 2020

You're listening to
a TVO Podcast.

I'm Colin Ellis
and you're listening
to On Docs,
a podcast about documentaries
and the stories they tell.
Today I'm speaking
with Liz Marshall.
She's the director of films like
Midian Future
and The Ghost In Our Machine.
Her new film Meat The Future
looks at the pioneers
behind the growing
cellular agriculture industry,
or cell-based meat,
but don't call it lab meat.
As we'll soon discover,
labelling is very important.
Joining me via Skype from
California is Uma Valeti,
who along with his team,
has discovered
how to produce meat without
having to kill animals.
Lab-grown meat brings
to mind "Frankenfood",
playing with nature.
So, what we're
making, we're producing
is not fake meat,
it is authentic real meat.
How do you think it would
affect the food chain
in the long run?
By 2050, we know
that the demand for meat
is going to double,
the current meat production
are just not sustainable
to get us there
and the meat industry
knows that.
Knowing that this has never
been done
in the history before,
that's the part that
is incredibly motivating.
The story is yet to be told.
COLIN: The subject of
Meat The Future is Uma Valeti.
He's a cardiologist turned
and he's the co-founder of
Memphis Meats,
one of the companies making
cell-based meat.
Valeti and his team are based in
Berkley, California
and are part of a wave
of scientists and start-ups
who are growing food out
of animal tissue
and turning it into actual meat
with the same smell, taste,
and texture
of what you might find
at your local butcher shop.
And here's the kicker--
no animals are killed in
the making of this meat.
LIZ MARSHALL: And it was
because it's exactly what
I remember meat to taste like,
I'm not a meat-eater,
I don't eat meat,
I haven't eaten meat
for 30 years,
but I was fine to try that meat.
I have no ethical conflict
within myself.
COLIN: In our conversation,
Liz and I spoke about
this revolution
in food production,
the problems
with industrial farming
and how cellular agriculture
might be the key
to tackling global problems
from the climate crisis
to zoonotic diseases
like coronavirus.
Stay with us.
Ah, Liz, thank you so much
for joining me today.
LIZ: Hey! It's great to be here,
COLIN: So, I guess
the first question
has to be just how you chose
Uma Valeti
and Memphis Meats as a subject?
LIZ: Great question.
So, Meat The Future is not
a survey-style documentary
that jumps around from start-up
to start-up,
it focuses exclusively on
the birth
of the cultivated meat industry
through the story of
start-up company Memphis Meats
and specifically
or predominantly,
it's character-driven,
so it's largely focused on
the co-founder and CEO
of that company
and his name is Uma Valeti.
And he is a Mayo Clinic-trained
turned entrepreneur
and so for me as a story-teller,
it was essential
to find a compelling human
entry point to this big idea.
To this big concept
of cell-based meat
and by humanizing
the subject matter
through following
the human story,
I feel makes it more effective,
it makes it accessible,
it has an emotional core
to the story,
because really, I think this
film is largely about
introducing the world
or a very broad audience
to this new, big, huge idea
which could be
one of the biggest ideas
of this century
and Uma Valeti is
a very interesting person.
He was born and raised in India,
he immigrated to
the United States
where he became
a successful cardiologist
and now he's a leading figure
in this new industry
and the film really charts
the rise in prominence
of Memphis Meats, of Uma Valeti
as a visionary CEO
and in doing so,
it's like a microcosm
to represent the birth
of the industry worldwide.
COLIN: What's the philosophy
behind Memphis Meats
and Uma Valeti's
personal philosophy?
LIZ: Well, his personal
is to work with all
He's really a diplomat.
Sometimes I call him, sort of,
he's like an Obama figure
in a sense.
Because his approach,
his philosophy,
his style is to work
with everyone,
to try to move the needle
forward successfully,
effectively, and in a way
that is accessible
and pragmatic,
so he's also extremely pragmatic
and another aspect of
his philosophy, I would say,
is the way that he models
so within the company,
we were able to witness
the rise,
the acceleration, the growth
of this start-up company.
In 2016, when we started
the company was just a handful
of people.
They had a small seed funding
and it was during that phase of
their development,
whereas now, they're upwards
of 50 people
and they just recently announced
that they raised $161 million.
That's not in the film,
because that was just announced
in February of this year,
And we completed the film
in December 2019.
But it just goes to show you
that this company
continues to be a leader,
continues to move this forward.
COLIN: Who are some of
the people investing
in his company?
LIZ: Well, this was a real twist
and turn to the story in 2017,
so a year later after beginning
our documentary filming,
it was announced that
Memphis Meats
was able to attract investments
from two of the biggest meat
companies in the world.
So, Cargill first and then Tyson
came several months later.
And also,
billionaire influencers like
Richard Branson and Bill Gates
and everyone talks about these
but there's also many other
from around the globe
that are mission-driven
or they just see it as
a really good business decision,
Because they believe
in the company,
they believe in the vision of
the company
and they're able to sort of have
that foresight
and to see, "Okay, we need
sustainable solutions,
we need to be forward-thinking
and so let's get behind
this big idea."
COLIN: And so, basically,
the company takes animal cells
out of chickens and out of cows
and out of pigs
and they turn it into meat.
Is that basically it?
LIZ: (Chuckling) In a nutshell.
I mean, it's important to try
and break this down
into simple terms,
because we're not scientists,
you know, we're not
food technologists,
but essentially,
this is a new food science
and it's--
the foundations of it
rests on the
medical science
so the ability to regenerate
heart muscle
to save human lives.
That's actually what piqued
enormous interest for Uma
when he was practicing
as a cardiologist
and he really, you know,
he'd already understood
the concept of what was then
called cultured meat
or clean meat,
but he was able to take
that leap
or take that passion risk
to start Memphis Meats in 2015,
because he understood
the medical applications
behind this innovation behind
the science
and apply it to food technology.
When you say it's
"authentic meat",
I just beg to differ
with you maybe.
Just correct me if I'm wrong,
you are engineering it,
it's not completely natural
if you will.
So, we take cells
from whether it's a cow, a pig,
or a chicken,
then we provide them
with rich nutrients.
These cells grow and become
meat tissue,
so that's the process of making
the meat and--
Okay, okay, but I want you
to explain
what's happening here.
I mean, you're basically
cloning meat, right?
Is that what you're doing?
So, we are not
cloning anything.
We are growing these cells,
so these cells are growing
and becoming muscle tissue.
Look. We are pioneers
in this area.
We are starting this on
the commercial side.
But it's so funny, like,
you have to change your
thinking and your vocabulary
to even discuss the subject.
It's just such an odd,
new concept.
LIZ: So, it's a process
of various steps
that takes a few weeks as
opposed to years
to produce meat.
COLIN: And it looks and tastes
just like real meat,
basically, right?
LIZ: That is a huge part of the
by Memphis Meats
and other companies
and researchers in this field
is to master the taste,
texture, and aroma
and the experience of what meat
is for meat-eaters.
See all the fibres
and see the browning
of the skin
as you pull apart, you know,
meat's hard to pull apart,
because it's got those features
and those proteins
and the elasticity
which is--
That is meat.
That is duck meat.
It's delicious.
LIZ: And I was able to try it
COLIN: I was just going to ask
how was it?
LIZ: Yeah, well, I'm sort of
privileged to be
one of the very, very few people
in the whole world
that has witnessed something in
that tactile way.
Not only through the lens
of a camera,
but my own palate,
my own experience of trying it
and it was mind-boggling
because it's exactly what
I remember meat to taste like.
I'm not a meat-eater,
I don't eat meat,
I haven't eaten meat
for 30 years,
but I was fine to try that meat.
I have no ethical conflict
within myself to try it.
COLIN: I noticed that labelling
is really important
in this film.
I think Uma and Memphis Meats,
they kind object to terms
like lab meat
and just I guess I wonder why
that's such a concern for them.
LIZ: I think there's two answers
to that.
One is that it's misleading to
call it lab meat,
because the lab facility is,
of course,
part of their research
and development phase,
but when they are able
to produce this and scale-up
which is exactly the stage that
they're at now.
That's a production facility,
that's not a lab,
so a lot of foods actually
originate in a lab.
That's something I learned along
the way.
So, their research and
development happens in a lab,
but the production of this will
happen in a production facility,
so they don't like that term for
that reason.
The other reason that this
industry does not like that term
is that it...
it's very distancing.
They want this language,
the nomenclature,
to capture the essence of what
this is
which is that this is food,
it's not a lab experiment.
You know?
So, I think for those
two reasons,
they don't like the language of
"lab-grown meat".
COLIN: I guess it might also
turn off people
from eating it if they thought
it was grown in a lab.
LIZ: I would assume so. Yes.
COLIN: How far back does this
idea go?
LIZ: Well, Winston Churchill
in 1931.
He wrote an article
and predicted this,
which is remarkable
and since then there is
a whole history
of innovation associated
with getting this
to where it is today.
So, there's lots of pioneers
along the way.
The history of it is actually
quite fascinating.
In 1932, Winston Churchill,
he wrote an article called
"50 Years Hence."
And we said, "We shall escape
the absurdity
of growing a whole chicken in
order to eat the breast or wing
by growing these parts
under a suitable medium.
So, "50 Years Hence",
so he was a little bit off
in his timing,
but as Uma Valeti says in one
of the final scenes of the film,
he quotes this.
He remembers this quote.
We shall escape
the absurdity
of growing a whole chicken in
order to eat the breast
or wing by growing these parts
under a suitable medium.
That's exactly what we all did.
And Memphis Meats has always
said that they anticipate
being on the market, you know,
by 2021
or 2022 and I think
they're on track.
COLIN: Yeah, because I think in
the film,
I think it's about $1,000
per pound or something
to produce that at the time
I guess you were filming.
LIZ: Yeah, and it's
significantly less now
and that price point, per pound,
continues to go down,
so that's one benchmark
that we follow in the film.
There's a few exciting
proprietary moments
that we were able to capture
and unveil,
so it'll be exciting
to actually,
during our release,
our broadcast premiere,
the world will learn what
the current cost
of production per pound is now
for Memphis Meats.
COLIN: Oh, can't wait
to see that.
What's wrong with the current
way we produce meat?
LIZ: Well, the current way that
we produce meat
presents all kinds of issues,
and I see this topic being
the perfect centrepiece
or point of convergence bringing
together major world issues.
Themes like
the climate emergency,
so climate change issues.
Bringing together issues of,
you know,
the moral issue
of animal cruelty.
The issue of health pandemics
and human health,
antibiotic resistance,
zoonotic disease like COVID-19
and also food sustainability
is a major issue,
so to give you a sense--
Animal agriculture takes up
roughly 45%
of the global ice-free
surface area
and I'm being precise about that
and indicators suggests
that meat consumption
is expected to double by 2050
due to rising economies,
population growth.
Research also indicates that
meat consumption could be halved
in high-income countries by 2030
as the result
of advocacy
and major systemic change.
So, these are indicators,
but I'll give you
a really fascinating,
I think this is quite an awesome
piece of research
and I'll just underscore that
there's no data
that currently exists about
the environmental benefits
of cell-based meat production,
because it does not exist
at scale yet.
It's in its research
and development phase,
so based on peer-reviewed
compared to conventional beef,
cell-based beef is estimated
at scale to reduce land use
by more than 95%,
climate change emissions
by 74%-87%,
and nutrient pollution,
which is basically water,
by 94%.
And there's all kinds
of other issues too.
COLIN: You mentioned COVID
and I wonder if that's sort
of a game-changer
for the cellular agriculture
going forward.
LIZ: Meat The Future focuses
in terms of
its social underpinnings
or the moral underpinnings,
it focuses on climate change,
the climate change issue,
it focuses on animal use
and abuse,
but there's also
the health component
which we can talk a lot about
through interviews
and through our impact campaign,
our online presence,
and educational materials
that will accompany this film
as it gets out into the world.
And so,
from a health perspective,
we know that zoonotic disease,
otherwise, know as zoonosis,
are caused by germs that spread
between animals and people.
So, everyone's talking about
wet markets,
but industrial farming
where animals are confined,
they're slaughtered,
these risks are enormous.
This growing meat from cells
the breading confinement
and slaughter of animals
and so that limits the risk
to public health.
COLIN: How does
the beef industry,
poultry industry,
how do they feel about
cell-based meat?
LIZ: Well, this is an aspect of
the story
that I love so much,
because there's nuance.
This is not a David
and Goliath story.
Meaning it's not good guys
versus bad guys.
It's not disrupters against
a villain.
It's not that kind
of story paradigm.
What we're looking at here
and what we followed over time
is an understanding
that everyone needs
to work together to move
this forward.
So, and that goes back
to your question
about Uma
and what his philosophy
and what his approach is.
And that truly represents
who he is
in terms of--
building a big tent,
bringing as many stakeholders
together as possible
to find solutions
and moving things forward,
so Memphis Meats has
the meat industry,
it has mission-driven investors,
so it's an eclectic,
diverse pool of investors
that are behind this.
COLIN: And are consumer groups
also onboard?
LIZ: I think it's a combination
and I think that's evolving.
I think that's an aspect of
the story
that will continue to unfold.
We were excited to be able
to witness firsthand
and document the historic USDA,
FDA public meeting where,
in Washington DC,
people from all walks of--
all parts of society,
including ranchers and farmers
across the Midwest
including representatives
from the cell-based
meat companies
in America
and including consumer groups,
came together and could get up
to the microphone
and offer, you know,
up to three minutes
of voicing concern,
voicing research,
voicing questions.
Basically, putting their voice
on the record
about the regulatory framework
for this industry,
so labelling is a concern
and a big area of focus
and we capture that aspect
of the story in the film
and then, of course, consumers,
so you asked about
consumer groups.
Consumers want more information,
so that ties into labelling,
so what does labelling
mean exactly?
Well, there's nomenclature,
which is how we refer
to this industry
or how we talk about it, right?
But then there's actually
what will be on the packages,
you know?
And so that's a storyline
that we were able to follow
and it's nuanced
and it's complicated
and you don't want
to weigh it down
in too many details
for an audience,
but I feel there's enough
information there
to really show that people
are trying to work together
to move this forward
and that there is
rapid progression.
It's moving quickly.
These agencies have not--
they've come together,
so the USDA
and the FDA decided to work
together on this,
which is pretty amazing
and they've also
said publically,
and we captured it for the film,
that they want America to be
first to market.
So, it'll happen
and it is happening.
The regulatory clarity
is not 100% defined yet,
but they're working
with the companies
to innovate a new system,
a new way of ensuring safety
and fair labelling.
COLIN: I eat plant-based foods
not all the time,
but I'm starting to eat more
of them
and something I've heard
a few nutritionists say
is that they're not necessarily
healthier for you
and sometimes they're
pretty heavily processed
and I wonder if cell-based meat
has a similar issue
or if those concerns have been
raised at all.
LIZ: I think the concerns have
been raised,
but you'll see in the film,
one of the last scenes,
Uma's at the breakfast table
eating pancakes with his wife
and they're looking
at some mock-ups,
labelling mock-ups
for their Memphis Meats product
and they read the ingredients
out loud
and there's like four
ingredients or something.
I can't remember exactly,
but very minimal amount
of ingredients,
so it's simple.
Whereas I think with a lot
of processed foods,
there are lots of ingredients.
You see that with a lot
of different food
in supermarkets.
COLIN: The other thing
with plant-based foods,
and this is just my opinion,
(Chuckling) the taste isn't
as good.
Again subjective, but--
It's just something
I've picked up on
whenever I've bought plant-based
bacon or burgers.
There's just something off about
the texture
and it's just not quite as good
as a burger,
but I'm actually kind of--
I'd like to try this food,
because to me, I mean,
I don't like eating animals
for ethical reasons
and I've only kind of gotten
to that frame of mind
in the last few years
and something like this
is very intriguing to me,
but I guess I just sort of
wonder about
the health effects of it.
LIZ: Right, right, right.
I think this is--
I don't know all the answers
to that,
but health and cleanliness
of production
is a huge priority.
I mean, Uma is a cardiologist.
They're very, very focused on
creating a product
that is healthy.
That's good for you.
COLIN: And job losses
or job creation?
Is that something that's also
of concern
or that's been raised?
LIZ: You know,
that's interesting.
I thought that that would
be raised
by the Cattlemen's Association
that I was able to conduct,
but they were clear that
they don't feel threatened
in terms of job security by
the birth of this industry.
And in fact, there doesn't seem
to be a problem
with competition, you know?
I think it's part of
the American ethos,
the free market.
Everyone is welcome.
I think the real point
of contention
is with the labelling issue
and that's clearly--
They have their voice in
the film
and that's a clear, sort of,
editorial point
along the way in the film
as everyone's trying
to navigate
the regulatory story,
but also the nomenclature.
What do we refer to this as?
So, when we first started
it was called "cultured meat"
and then it was referred to as
"clean meat"
and "clean meat" went viral,
because it's a nod
to clean energy
and consumers really like
that terminology.
That really makes sense,
but then it continued to evolve
to cell-based meat
and that was the work
of Memphis Meats
to establish that kind
of language,
because it's non-threatening
and it's more pragmatic
and factual
as opposed to referring to it as
"clean meat" which--
implies that all other meat
is dirty,
so now the latest
in this evolution
is the term "cultivated meat".
And that's not part
of the documentary,
but that's part of
the unfolding story
and how it's now referred
to by a lot of people
is that it's "cultivated meat".
COLIN: I'm looking forward
to seeing this
"cultivated meat".
I look forward to seeing
its journey
and congratulations on the film,
I really enjoyed it,
and thank you so much
for joining me today.
LIZ: Awesome! Thanks so much.
Thanks for the great questions.
COLIN: Oh, my pleasure.
LIZ: Yeah, take care.
COLIN: And that's the podcast.
Meat The Future is available on
and will be part of the Hot Docs
Online Festival
starting May 28.
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Watch: Ep. 3 - Is cell-based meat the future of food?