Food for Thought #1 – The world of lab-grown meat, with Ira van Eelen

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Food for Thought #1 – The world of lab-grown meat, with Ira van Eelen

For this ‘Food for Thought’ series I’ll first be taking a plunge into the river IJ in Amsterdam together with Ira, and then into the often unbelievable and complicated world of food. In the coming articles I’ll be sharing the highlights of the lessons from these conversations with Ira, such as “Who decides what’s on your plate?”, “Kind tech, bad tech?” and my personal favourite: “There’ll be elephants in the room, so learn to speak elephant!”

For anyone who doesn’t know Ira van Eelen, she’s a passionate and genuinely engaged individual. A self-willed houseboat-dweller, thinker and public speaker. She’s the daughter of the ‘Godfather of lab-grown meat’, Willem van Eelen, advisory committee member of Just (one of the fastest-growing American food startups), originator of Toothcamp and co-founder of Kind Earth Tech. In short, a force to be reckoned with.

I heard Ira speaking during the ‘Hungry City’ series of events in Amsterdam’s Pakhuis de Zwijger cultural centre, and I was struck not only by her sharp criticism, but also by the respectful way in which she allowed both supporters and opponents to participate in the discussion: a smart strategy, because without dialogue you won’t bring anyone along with you. Ira has experienced this at first hand with her lab-grown meat lobby, but with her inexhaustible energy she’s nevertheless succeeded in putting it on the political agenda.

In this article we’ll first explore the concept of ‘better meat’, and to be able to do that we’ll first be delving into the principles of lab-grown meat.

What is lab-grown meat?

Many of us can probably remember the newspaper headline ‘€200,000 Hamburger’. The article was about a lab-grown meat hamburger. With new technologies and the growing interest in meat substitutes, lab-grown meat has gained a lot of momentum. Various companies are getting into lab-grown meat, and in principle the technology is the same wherever it’s applied: you take stem cells from a living animal and place them in a culture medium of sugars, amino acids and fats, in which they multiply and form muscle fibres.

You can carry out this process on a large scale with a much lower environmental impact than in conventional meat production. Producing meat in a lab uses 45% less energy, 95% less water and 99% less agricultural land. The expectation is that with the right PR and an attractive retail price lab-grown meat can soon move from the realms of science fiction to become a serious contender as the leading alternative for meat.

Why is meat playing any role at all in the transformation to a sustainable society?

In an ideal world the answer to this is very simple: meat would play no role at all! Because in an ideal world everyone would choose for the most healthy, sustainable and ethical diet. But a 100% vegetarian lifestyle is still a turn-off for many people. It’s a message that’s hard to put across.

The good news is that we’re all learning more about the downsides of meat and the benefits of plant nutrition. Falsehoods and dogmas are being corrected by inspiring books and documentaries. But according to critics there’s one thing in which plant-based meat substitutes still fail to measure up, and that’s the taste of real meat. This umami stimulates salivation and enhances sweet and salty favours. This makes meat incredibly popular, and the predictions are that worldwide consumption will continue to rise in the coming decade. In prosperous countries we can see a slight rise, but in emerging economies like India and Brazil there’s a marked increase in meat consumption.

That’s why according to many experts lab-grown meat – also known as cultured meat or clean meat – is the ideal solution. It’s a future with meat, but without the problems inextricably linked with it: animal suffering, environmental degradation and CO2 emissions.

In view of the immense popularity of meat it’s a good idea to clarify what’s meant by ‘better’ meat, in order to be able to influence the dialogue and answer any questions as positively as possible.

What is better meat?

It’s meat with the same nutritional value and without the bad fats.
It’s meat without animal suffering.
It’s sustainable meat, with an extremely low environmental impact.
It’s meat with the greatest possible food safety.

In short, we can eat real meat that doesn’t originate from a dead animal. Whereas in the current meat industry a whole animal is bred for its meat, with lab-grown meat only cells are cultivated for their meat. So lab-grown meat is an evolution, not a revolution.

Want to know more about lab-grown meat? Then read the book Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro.

See you next time!

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We live in an exiting time, is something you don’t hear very often. The story of how mankind is butchering its own planet is dominating the news. So you can call it a misplaced sense of optimism. But I believe the velocity of this destruction can be turned around. Because deep down, people are good. And as good citizens we want to do the right thing. I hope to inspire by bringing possibilities of a sustainable future a little bit closer.

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