Every year, the world eats more meat than ever before. There is an increasing demand for animal protein and rising concerns about the serious, adverse environmental effects and impacts of the conventional meat industry.
Prof. Yaakov “Koby” Nahmias is a bioengineer and innovator, whose breakthroughs ranged from the first 3D printing of cells to the first commercial human-on-chip technology. He is the President & Founder of Future Meat, the Israeli company who recently raised an incredible $347million funding round to scale-up their pioneering cultivated meat technology which uses lines of animal cells that grow forever without the need for genetic modifications. Future Meat creates real meat free of animal slaughter, and with 80% less greenhouse emissions, 99% less land use, 96% less freshwater use and 100% of the nutritional value of conventional meat.
In this interview, I speak to Professor Yaakov Nahmias about the science and technology behind cultivated meats, the health, economic and environmental benefits and how Future Meat is transforming the global food system.
Q: What is the true cost of meat consumption?
[Yaakov Nahmias]: Meat is not anything new. It’s been with us, in farmed agriculture for over 20,000 years- and human beings on this planet have been eating meat for the past 2 million years; to give you some context, the invention of fire was about a million years ago. Meat has been a significant part of our culture, and a key protein source, for a very long time.
Turning to the cost of meat consumption.
If you are in a village and your butcher can take the chicken that you grew and, clean it, slaughter it, and you can eat it the same day – then that’s fine. Since the industrial revolution however, we can’t really grow our own food anymore – we are relying on factory farming.
We are growing feed just to ‘feed’ the animals that are eating it, not very efficient. Then we are diverting a massive amount of water to those same locations as well. We are consuming a lot more meat than ever before – it used to be special occasions, now it’s essentially every day, if not twice a day! Another problem is that – it can’t be cleaned the same way! You’re not killing one chicken at the time – you’re killing 10,000 at a time. We have got bacteria that are naturally occurring in animals suddenly contaminating the meat, anything from Salmonella to E-coli. Therefore you hear Gordon Ramsay [British TV Chef] yelling at people that don’t cook chicken all the way!
We got to the point where, we are not on our grandparents’ planet anymore. Meat has become less healthy for us – it’s too available. There are too many calories, too much saturated fat. Animals are no longer ‘free-rangy’, they are growing in very tight confined conditions.
We are exhausting the environment – here are some numbers – meat production is using 40 to 70% of arable land, 43% of the world’s freshwater supply and it’s also a major contribution to global carbon emissions – all of that is simply packed together.
Q: What are cultivated meats?
[Yaakov Nahmias]: Cultivated meats are where we grow animal cells, to give the aroma, flavour and sometimes even the texture of meat. When you’re looking at your steak, if you take a piece of meat, it’s usually a muscle – it has muscle cells that gives you the texture and the fibres and it has fat cells that gives you the aroma and the flavour of meat. All those cells are composed of DNA and protein and lipids.
If you’re trying to make a meat-alternative from plants, you’re taking protein from one source, taking soy protein from one source and taking coconut oil from another, and combining it together – and making something that has the right texture, kind of – but the problem is you are way off in the aroma and flavour – you can tell it’s not meat- my kids can tell it’s not meat !! I have 5 kids under 10 and they know …something is off! …and what is off is the complexity, right? – the cells that I described before in farmed muscle, in animal muscle, are not exactly one type of protein and there is not exactly one type of fatty acids there are…. the phospholipids on the membrane, the specific DNA and the specific proteins that we need.
Cultured meat, (sometimes called lab-grown, clean, or cultivated meat) is a way to produce that – without going to the animals themselves – essentially taking the cells, the muscle and the fat cells from the animal, growing them in a vat like we grow yeast, or we culture yoghurt, and then taking those same cells and making them into a hamburger or chicken breast or chicken nuggets. When you do that, you get not only the texture, but also the aroma and the flavour of meat – because you are getting the entire complexity.
Q: Why have we not been able to create cultivated meats, at scale, sooner?
[Yaakov Nahmias]: Six years ago, I got a phone call in Boston, an investor asked me what I thought about cultured meat? ..my answer was that it’s probably one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard in my life.! And the question is, why? It’s supposed to be obvious! When you take muscle cells, fat cells, or stem cells (that can become both muscle and fat), those cells don’t grow very well outside of the body – they stop.
Cultivated meats therefore didn’t make any sort of sense. At the time, some of the scientists were talking about having a village pig called ‘pokey’ that you’d take a biopsy from it every day.
Now, imagine that you get them to grow, let’s say you do make them immortal, and they start growing forever – they usually are not very efficient – you can get very low density of output –if you have a 1000 litre tank, you will get 20 kilogrammes. It’s not a lot. That means you need to have this massive facility. We’re trying to replace an ecosystem that has $1.2 trillion in revenues – it’s not coming from 20 kilograms.
There’s a problem with the engineering not only the biology… when your cells grow, they produce massive amount of ammonia – waste products. It’s just like yeast make alcohol... when yeast stops growing, you have a nice glass of wine. The problem is that you put cells in the same vat and ask them to grow and they’re producing ammonia, you’re going to have a nice glass of urine! We must solve all of that!!
We have to essentially go back to the drawing board and from basic principles ask what type of cells can we take that would immortalise and grow extremely efficiently? We chose fibroblasts because they are the most efficient cells that we know, and they can spontaneously immortalise. They double every 24 hours. Stem cells don’t double. They grow as single cell suspension so they can reach densities that are 10 or 13 times higher than everybody else’s. When you have a 1000 litre tank, you’re not making 20 kilogrammes – you’re making closer to 300 kilogrammes – that’s a big difference. Suddenly, the factories need to be well, 10 times smaller!
The last thing is that we also developed a technology that allows us to continuously remove ammonia in a process called rejuvenation, essentially, recycling technology – that will actively remove the waste products and allow the cells to grow to ever higher densities for a very long period. Without these fundamental innovations in biology and chemistry, and in engineering, none of this would have been possible.
Q: What are the human health benefits of cultured meat?
[Yaakov Nahmias]: I have kids! I care about what they eat.
When it comes to the question of whether cultivated meats can benefit human health? The most important word here is can. Cultured meat can be very helpful. You can design them in such a way that they will have wonderful health benefits for the entire population. This is where exactly where we’re going, but it doesn’t have to, other producers might do something else. When we’re thinking about nutrition, you need to have a certain ‘amount’ of proteins – protein is very important in our diet and it’s very easy to match the amount of protein from animal meat to cell-based meat. It’s straightforward, even plant-based meats are doing well.
The thing that they can’t really do is reduce the amount of saturated fats. Saturated fat is probably the biggest health concern we have in the West in the 21st Century. There are millions of adults that are moving that are walking around with cardiovascular problems and those cardiovascular problems are driven primarily by saturated fat and to a lesser degree cholesterol as well. Plant based meat can remove cholesterol, but they are still relying on coconut oil to give them the sizzle, coconut oil and palm oil is the only fat in the plant kingdom that is solid at room temperature – so if you want your burger to go (makes sizzling sound) on a frying pan! That’s what you need to use!
The problem is that it’s saturated fat, that means it’s just as bad for you is as animal fat. Now, because we are our fat is contained inside cells, then the membranes prevented from leaking out. So, the fat that we’re using is solid at room temperature, even when it’s smaller, saturated fat – think fats as healthy as olive oil in Europe. Omega three fatty acids. We can design a chicken breast that has the same amount of Omega three as a salmon.
Q: What is the investment case for cultured meats?
[Yaakov Nahmias]: If this wasn’t a huge opportunity, I wouldn’t waste my time- most of our investors wouldn’t. If we were producing luxury meat that is only aimed at Michelin Star restaurants. The number of people that can afford to eating Michelin star restaurants is relatively few, you’re not going to make an impact on the climate, you’re not going make an impact on the future of our kids. This is not what we’re interested in.
We’re interested in a fundamental change. Different investors are doing it for different reasons. You know, my reasons, because I stated them already twice in this interview, I have five kids, all of them under the age of 10. And what’s worse, my wife is vegetarian – so unless I do something, we’re going to be eating tofu for the rest of our lives!
Q: How do we tackle the resistance to cultured meats?
[Yaakov Nahmias]: Let’s start with the consumers – people are waiting for cultured meat products. The consumer research that we carried out shows that about 30% of the American public are vying to try to buy cultured meat products, when you go to India and China it’s 60%. This is massive. I mean, can you imagine there is not a single cultured meat product on the market and 30% of the populations are telling you, they’re your early adopters. iPhone was never like that, and you still had lines, you know, going around the block, when you think about the challenge of in the next decade, is just to meet that demand. It’s a supply side problem – meet that demand, because it’s massive.
There’s also a great metaphor from the world of automotive technology. The main naysayers against cars were probably the drivers of carriages in the streets of New York. At some point, the Model T factory was open. And suddenly you’re looking around, you’re looking at the friend that is driving a car and you’re saying, wait a second – he doesn’t need a barn to house your horse. You don’t need to pay somebody to pick up the horse manure on the streets of New York – your wheels are a lot better. so why am I still driving a cart? And then, boom! no more carriages in New York – just a few in Central Park.
Without doubt, there’s going to be massive resistance, the Cattlemen Association has been very vocal about the entire meat alternatives market, and I understand where they’re coming from, I really do. But at some point, they’ll need to understand that look, when they get a new herd of cattle, they have a massive amount of risk, they have to grow the cows for 10 months before they can sell it for meat.
They have to predict what beef prices are going to be next year. And if something goes wrong, they lost the entire herd. On the other hand, if they move to a cultured meat facility, then every batch is two to four weeks. If something goes wrong, you lost two days. On the same facility, you can grow chicken, beef, pork, lamb, and switch between them. Feel free to make chicken and then right before Labour Day…boom! Pump up the burgers.
From a producer standpoint, yes there is resistance. But once you see it working, why would you not want it in? It’s probably the best bet you’re going have in keeping your kids working on the farm after you.
Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from leading a fast-growing scaleup?
[Yaakov Nahmias]: I’m an engineer at the end of the day. I’m always trying to solve a real world problems and provide an effective solution for somebody. That was, that is always my goal. When you do that, then investors would see your value, if you have a clear vision of what you’re trying to solve, and you get feedback from the market that this is indeed a serious problem, then investors will see the value.
Once they do, the biggest challenge is to surround yourself with incredibly dedicated individuals for this scope. At future technologies, we created an amazing team. I’m closing the office at half past midnight, but sometimes I’m not the last one out!
People are here 24/7. We have WhatsApp communications that are occurring into the weekend. People are talking about science and pushing this, and we have biologists and chemists and engineers and food scientists all working together in an incredibly interdisciplinary environment. Part of the excitement about this is what makes this company incredibly successful.
Q: What is unique about the Israeli ecosystem that contributed to your success as a business?
[Yaakov Nahmias]: I always compare Harvard, which is the Institute I attended and Hebrew University here in Israel. When you’re a professor in Harvard, the people that come to your lab are amazing. They are brilliant – its Harvard! But – very, very little experience in life. They went to college when they were 18. They finish when they’re 21. They started their masters and finish their masters in a year and a half, and now they come to you for a PhD in their 20. They didn’t work a single day because they took student loans from the government and their experience is relatively limited – they’re incredibly intelligent, very talented, but their experience is limited and therefore their creativity is limited as well. Because creativity is coming from mixing and matching things that you learned in life. The contrast is Israel’s is very stark contrast. You finish high school at 18 – you know, you go to serve in the army. You learn secondary and dietary skills, you learn command, you’ll learn electronics, you learn computer science, you learn mechanics.
My students, you know, I have some students that were paramedics in the army, they learn medicine, and then they finished it 21. They go to college, they don’t have student loans, they have to work. So that paramedic in the army, went and studied biology, but he is working as a computer programmer outside to make sure to make ends meet. By the time they’re in their PhD, they come to my lab, they’re in their early 30s. They have three – four years’ experience in industry, or two, three years’ experience in the army – At least, you know, a degree and some innovation in the background already. They are incredibly creative, they’re the peak of their creativity. The same is true for the companies that hire them – our people are really at the peak of creativity, and they come from an incredibly diverse background, I think that this diversity is what makes Israel incredibly unique.