Facebook & Google financiers say animals are not the future of agribusiness
BROOKLYN, SAN FRANCISCO, HONG KONG––Some leading edge investors in agribusiness with long successful histories are betting big-time that the future of animal agriculture will no longer involve raising animals.
Li Ka-Shing, for example, the richest man in Asia, with net worth of $31.9 billion, in 2014 risked $10 million against the odds that a Brooklyn-based bio-culturing company called Modern Meadow might develop processes that could corner the markets for leather and pork chops.
Li Ka-Shing also bet $2 million on Muufri, a Silicon Valley bio-culturing company begun by two Hindu vegans who believe they can make milk and cheese without cows.
Invested early in plastics
Li Ka-Shing, 87, can afford to put his money down on long shots––but his entire 65-year career in business investing has involved gambling successfully that apparent long shots would pay off, from starting the plastics company Cheung Kong Industries in 1950 at age 22 to ensuing prescient investments in real estate, banking, construction, electronics, transportation, pharmacies, and supermarkets.
Most recently Li Ka-Shing scored big with an early investment in Facebook.
Often introduced to bio-culturing scientists by the nonprofit research company New Harvest, other high-stakes investors now have their chips down on products including “meat” hamburgers made without beef and “eggs” produced without chickens.
Founded in 2004 by several leading researchers and high-tech investors, New Harvest describes itself as “a networking firm to support the development of meat substitutes, with the long-term goal of delivering economically competitive alternatives to conventional meat production.”
New Harvest “provides a forum for sharing technical innovations,” says the company web site, but most significantly, it “funds applied research in food science.”
Attracts further investment
The New Harvest imprimateur in turn tends to attract further investment in the start-up ventures it endorses.
“Despite a projected use of funds under $58,000, by the end of 2014 New Harvest moved an additional $2,080,000 toward projects focused on cell-cultured meat and milk,” says the New Harvest web site.
These cell-cultured products are not “meat analog,” “milk substitute,” or “egg replacer” products made from soy beans, seitan, and other vegetable matter, but rather “real” flesh-and-blood animal products made from animal cells and tissue cultures, without any direct use of actual animals.
Willen van Eelen
Science fiction writers have postulated for decades that “test tube meat” could be grown without animals. Indonesian-born Dutch scientist Willen Frederik van Eelen, after surviving near starvation in Japanese prisoner of war camps during World War II, pursued the idea from the late 1950s until his death at age 91 on February 24, 2015.
“While most of his career was spent in medical and public health pursuits,” wrote Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft in a remembrance for the New Harvest web site, “van Eelen continued to think about the potential for meat to be industrially produced without the conventional raising and slaughter of animals. In the 1990s he entered into partnerships to create an in vitro meat process, and while the resulting laboratory work was unsuccessful, toward the end of the decade van Eelen did file several patents for cultured meat techniques in the Netherlands and the United States.
Backed by Google cofounder
“Beginning in 2000, van Eelen, then in his seventies, organized a consortium of Dutch researchers and helped them to obtain grant funding from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs,” Wurgaft continued, “with additional help from a consortium of food companies and universities. This led to four years of research, between 2005 and 2009, and while progress was never fast enough for van Eelen’s taste, it did produce not only very high-quality scientific work, but also the seeds of later projects, including Mark Post’s very well known work,” funded by Google cofounder Sergey Brin, to develop a cell-cultured hamburger.
The Maastricht burger
Post, a researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, in 2013 presented to selected media a burger grown in a lab from 20,000 strips of muscle tissue. A single burger produced using Post’s technique would have cost $325,000. But Post has now refined the process to produce cell-cultured burgers for less than $12 each, according to recent media reports––below the retail cost of a conventional hamburger at many upscale restaurants.
Reported Co.Exist, an online subsidiary of the magazine Fast Company, serving high tech business investors, “Post’s cultured meat creation process goes something like this: myosatellite cells, a kind of stem cell that repairs muscle tissue, are taken from a cow neck and put in containers along with fetal calf serum (the medium, which will eventually switch to a non-animal source). The cells are placed onto gel in a plastic dish, where the calf serum’s nutrients are reduced, triggering the cells to go into starvation mode and split into muscle cells. Those cells eventually merge into muscle fibers called myotubes and start synthesizing protein. The end product is a tissue strip, described by the New York Times as ‘something like a short pink rice noodle.’
20 to 30 years?
“It hardly sounds appetizing,” Co.Exist continued, “and according to those who tried the burger back when it was first announced, it still had a way to go in the flavor department. But it wasn’t terrible.”
Post has predicted that making his cell-cultured burger commercially viable will take another 20 to 30 years of experimentation.
“Among the hurdles still left to overcome: figuring out how to produce test-tube meat at scale, and coming up with a way to produce it that doesn’t use fetal calf serum,” said Co.Exist. “And of course there is the biggest hurdle of all: convincing people to eat lab-grown meat.”
But if Post’s research-and-development timetable is even proportionally correct, convincing people to eat lab-grown meat may become a non-issue in a world where many already wear shoes and belts made from lab-grown leather, drink lab-grown milk, and eat bakery goods made with lab-grown egg whites.
Gabor and Andras Forgacs, the father-and-son team who founded Modern Meadow in 2011, may be closest to claiming significant market share.
“Five years earlier they helped start Organovo, a firm that makes human tissues for pharmaceutical research and other medical applications, and was a commercial spinoff of Gabor’s pioneering work at the University of Missouri in ‘bioprinting,’ which he describes as ‘extending biological structures in three dimensions,’” wrote Jennifer Wong of the Wall Street Journal in May 2013.
“Modern Meadow’s output is based in part on this work,” Wang explained. “The process involves using 3-D printing to deposit clumps of cells into patterns of tissue. The particles fuse post-printing, similar to cell development in embryos. Unlike Organovo’s final products, which must be kept alive, Modern Meadow’s postmortem animal tissues are simpler to build and faster to market.”
As of the end of May 2013, Modern Meadow had received $2 million in capital investment, a pittance compared with the income potential for anyone who can grab even a small part of the $60 billion per year global leather trade.
Li-Kaching plunked down his $10 million on Modern Meadow about one year later.
Clara Foods, self-billed as “the company making real eggs without hens,” is among from most promising of several start-ups encouraged and facilitated by New Harvest.
Clara Foods originated on October 20, 2014, according to a blog timeline presented by New Harvest executive director Isha Datar, when Datar sent an e-mail to acquaintance David Anchel, whom she knew as “a cell biologist who had been keen to take animals out of the food system.”
Datar and Anchel soon connected with Arturo Elizondo, another researcher who “introduced himself by saying he had just written a paper on food security in China, and that the conclusion was that the Chinese government should be funding research into cultured meat.”
Over the next several months Datar, Anchel, and Elizondo discussed ways and means of making cell-cultured eggs.
“Creating a chicken’s oviduct in vitro came up,” Datar recounted, “but didn’t make the cut. Eggs, particularly egg whites, could be made much more directly in yeast culture.”
After deciding on a method to pursue, Datar, Anchel, and Elizondo went looking for investment capital.
Within a matter of months, Clara Foods attracted $1.75 million.
New Harvest has also backed Muufri, a Silicon Valley start-up working to genetically engineer yeast to produce milk and cheese.
Muufri founders Perumal Gandhi, Isha Datar and Ryan Pandya “say that milk is actually a relatively simple chemical structure to fake. Muufri is a compound of six proteins and eight fatty acids,” reported Heather Hansman for Modern Farmer in December 2014. “To make it, they add chemically synthesized cow DNA to yeast cells, then harvest the cultures the yeast grows. (It’s kind of like a sourdough starter.) From there, they added things like calcium and potassium and emulsify the mixture into milk. They tinkered with the ratios to create something that tastes and feels like cow’s milk, but left out lactose, using a different sugar instead to make it drinkable for the lactose intolerant. They liken it to making beer or penicillin.”
Already, wrote Linda Qiu for National Geographic in October 2014, “Muufri “has engineered a more healthful, unsaturated fat that retains the distinct flavor of dairy. Reproducing that flavor is a prime goal for Gandhi and Pandya, who were not always vegan,” though they are now, “who say they miss the taste of cheese, butter, and ice cream.”
Muufri “hopes to perfect its concoction by next spring and to deliver it to store shelves as early as 2017,” Gandhi told Qiu.
“A carton of Muufri is projected to cost twice as much as a carton of cow’s milk, at least initially,” Qiu said.
The Modern Agriculture Foundation
While Gandhi and Pandya are scientists who have become animal advocates, Animal Liberation Israel founder Koby Barak, also a former board member of Anonymous for Animal Rights, is a longtime activist who has “moved to become active in the cultured meat field,” Barak wrote to ANIMALS 24-7 in August 2014.
Beginning in March 2014, “In the last few months my colleagues and I founded a new non-profit organization for the promotion of cultured meat, The Modern Agriculture Foundation,” Barak said. “We are now trying to fulfill our grand vision, which is opening a center for cultured meat research, with chicken or fish meat being highly preferable, in order to make cultured meat a commercial product as soon as possible. ”
Barak’s first announced goal is “creation of a chicken breast from embryonic stem cells,” he said. A feasibility study focused on producing cultured chicken meat started in January 2015.
“Single most important invention”
“Commercially viable cultured meat will be the single most important invention of this century,” predicted Maneka Gandhi, no relation to Perumal Gandhi, in a 2012 guest column for The Hindu.
As founder in 1992 of People for Animals, the first national animal rights organization in India, and as a multi-time member of the Indian national cabinet during a 32-year political career, Maneka Gandhi may be the most widely recognized animal advocate ever––and is also among the most widely recognized human rights advocates, including in her present capacity as Minister for Women & Child Development.
In both capacities, improving nutrition while reducing both animal and human suffering has long been among her primary concerns.
“Thousands of products”
“Today there are thousands of products on the market for people who like the taste and texture of animal flesh but want to avoid animal suffering,” Maneka Gandhi continued. “Chinese Buddhist monks have long made vegetarian bean curd products that get as close as any person should want to the texture of meat, without eating the real thing. In Rajasthan I have tasted a dish made of wheat that tastes exactly like meat and was invented 200 years ago by Rajasthani women who wanted their husbands to be vegetarian.”
“Make the earth happier”
Nonetheless, Maneka Gandhi observed, “Meat consumption is rising in countries such as China and India. The future of the planet depends upon the development of effective meat substitutes. Without effective meat substitutes there will be more animal cruelty, more depletion of resources and an increase in diseases such as avian flu. Cultured meat has the added advantage of requiring far less energy and space to grow.
“Cultured meat will be the single most important invention since electricity,” Maneka Gandhi emphasized. “It will save resources like land and water, it will remove suffering, it will allow the forest to grow back and the Earth to cool again, and it will stop the use of pesticides and antibiotics on animals and through them to us. It will make the earth a happier place.”