Explained (2018) s02e08 Episode Script

The Future of Meat

Every ten seconds, humans kill roughly 24,000 animals for food.
That adds up to 75 billion each year.
And it's done with a speed and efficiency previously unimaginable.
While the global population has more than doubled in the last 50 years, the amount of meat we produce has more than quadrupled.
There are now approximately one billion pigs, one billion sheep, 1.
5 billion cows, and 23 billion chickens on the planet.
Raising this many animals is a marvel of modern technology, but it's reaching a breaking point.
The land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions involved in meat production are rapidly becoming unsustainable.
The way we eat meat will go down as a historical anomaly, one that began in the mid-20th century and can't continue for much more of the 21st.
But demand for meat isn't going away.
In fact, it's expected to hit 455 million tons by 2050.
So how will future generations satisfy their craving for meat? Probably food was one of the first uses to which animals were put.
It is free from disease and can be eaten without fear of contamination.
The skins are dropped to the fleshing machine.
The excessive consumption of meat is what makes it unsustainable for the planet.
What else they wanna do? Ban beef altogether? We're built to eat plants.
Animals are just a middle man.
Clean, safe, wholesome, and truthfully labeled.
It is a lovely pot roast.
It can be hard for meat eaters to describe what makes meat taste so good.
Like, it tastes satisfying.
Um, like, it makes me feel like, uh like I'm filled.
It's really juicy.
And it's yummy because it's just really juicy.
You can't compare it to anything, because it's not the same as anything.
The indescribable sensation we get from eating meat goes way back.
This is a 3.
4 million-year-old animal bone found in Ethiopia.
At the time, Australopithecus afarensis roamed the plains of Eastern Africa.
These early humans had large flat teeth adapted for a diet of fruits, seeds, and leaves.
But these cut marks are the earliest evidence of a new behavior: butchering.
Humans had started to eat meat.
Three of the great omnivores of the world are humans, rats, and cockroaches, because we're all over the place.
We can always find something to eat.
Meat is packed with calories, proteins, fats, minerals, and vitamins including vitamin B12, which is hard to find in nature outside of animal products.
It also contains a lot of iron, which is crucial to the health of our red blood cells.
And while plants have iron, most of it is a different kind that doesn't absorb well into the body.
The iron in meat is special, because it's bound with a compound called heme, and the only major source of heme iron is animal blood and muscle.
This influx of protein and nutrients may be why our bodies changed.
Smaller stomachs, shorter intestines, and bigger brains.
Some believe that hunting meat is what led our ancestors to first develop tools, complex language, and social structures.
Meat eating is arguably what made us human.
It is natural, I would say, for humans to like meat.
It's part of our biology.
I think humans have always wanted more meat than they could get.
But 10,000 years ago, something major happened.
We learned how to domesticate animals for food.
We bred wild oxen into cows, wild boars into pigs and red junglefowls into chickens.
It's one of the most important things in human history: the domestication of plants and animals.
It changed the world.
Farming led to human settlements.
Our population started to climb, and through selective breeding, we kept transforming animals to fit our desire for more meat.
And then, starting a century ago, modern science enabled us to transform these animals like never before.
Farm research has led to the control of disease, improvement of breeds, advancement of production.
And like big business, there's a serious effort to improve the product.
To understand what that looks like, consider the chicken.
Both of these are the same age, and this one has been on a diet which included an antibiotic.
You notice the difference in size.
It's much larger.
Whereas the smaller one here has been on just a normal diet.
You can see a chicken from 1957 compared to a chicken from 2005.
Huge chicken breasts, it's just this monster, and it's the exact same age as this chicken from 1957, which looks kind of like a pigeon.
Chickens today grow four to five times bigger thanks to growth-promoting antibiotics, vitamins, and selective breeding.
When you look at that chicken, you understand that it must be slaughtered at five weeks of age because the legs can no longer hold up the mass of its body.
We've kind of reached biological limits with what we can do with whole animals.
We're also reaching the limit of how many farm animals can fit on Earth.
If the whole world ate as much meat as these top meat-eating countries, every square foot of habitable land would have to be used to feed people.
And it still wouldn't be enough space.
And we're already packing most of those animals together as tightly as possible.
According to chicken industry lore, that's all thanks to this woman, Cecile Steele.
In 1923, she placed an order for 50 hatchling chickens.
But because of an accidental extra zero on the order form, she wound up with 500.
Steele decided to keep them.
So she stuffed them into sheds and tried to raise them all at once.
At the time, people didn't really eat chickens.
They just used them for eggs.
But because of that economy of scale, Steele was able to sell her chickens more cheaply.
The following year, she expanded from 1,000 to 10,000.
Want something special for Sunday dinner? Chicken, inspected and graded, is now thrifty every day.
Yes, in one generation, people of this country have doubled their consumption of poultry.
Factory farming exploded, and so did our appetite for chicken and every other kind of meat.
And we invented new ways to eat it.
The 1930s brought us Spam, meat in a can.
In the 1940s, hamburgers took off, made from slaughterhouse scraps.
And the 1980s saw the rise of the chicken nugget.
Eating animals no longer involved seeing anything that looked like an animal.
Animal agribusiness makes it easy for us to distance ourselves from the reality of who we're eating when we're eating animals.
Many people are uncomfortable eating meat that actually resembles the animal it once was.
Today, the majority of farm animals are grown out of sight in concentrated feeding lots like this one.
The only reason animals don't get sick from being packed so tightly together is that they're fed antibiotics.
But decades of news reports show that hasn't always worked.
An estimated two million Americans are affected by Salmonella poisoning annually.
It could happen again.
Another outbreak of deadly food poisoning from tainted meat.
Can't they buy cleaner meat? That would be the goal, but there's only so clean that you can make the meat.
I went to buy meat, and I was scared to buy it.
I even smelled the meat, and I thought the smell was not good.
And antibiotics don't work on viruses.
And sometimes, those viruses jump from factory farm animals to humans, like mad cow disease, and swine flu, and bird flu.
I think people need to wake up to the idea that animals take a very heavy toll on our lives in the environment.
We're about to have ten billion people living on a space that will require us to grow more food in the next 30 years than we've grown in all of human history.
While meat consumption is now steady in the wealthiest countries, it's exploding in emerging economies.
What's happening is that the 20 percent of the world that are high meat eaters are getting more and more concerned about the effect of their meat eating.
And the 80 percent of the world which is concerned with just getting enough good nutrition is um rising.
As countries get richer, and China and India are the most obvious examples, the middle classes tend to eat like we do.
Meals with meat.
They want lots of protein.
But meat is one of the least efficient ways to feed people.
Every 100 grams of plant protein fed to a cow ends up as just four grams of protein in the resulting beef.
For calories, it's even less.
So you have giant swathes of land in the Midwest, in Brazil, in China that's just devoted to feeding animals, and it would be nice if they could be devoted to feeding us.
The problem, of course, is that we like meat, and plants don't taste like meat.
But what if they could? Meat lovers love meat not because it comes from the cadaver of an animal, but in spite of the fact that it comes from the cadaver of an animal.
This is the Impossible Burger.
And this is the Beyond Burger.
They're both plant-based patties trying to compete with meat.
The key is very simple.
You have to create meat that is uncompromisingly delicious, delivers as much or better protein and iron and the other nutrients that people like from meat, performs in the kitchen, and is accessible and affordable.
And if you do those things, it's game over.
Since the 1980s, plant-based meat alternatives mostly used soybeans and wheat gluten to mimic meat.
And advertisements, like this one for Quorn, suggested it could replace meat in consumers' diets, but they never claimed they tasted the same as meat.
Quorn burgers are a tasty alternative to meat and very healthy.
And just like other burgers, you can eat them any way you want to.
Even the people selling those products weren't sure how to advertise the taste.
It looks like a turkey.
- It looks like a turkey - Will it taste like a turkey? It should taste a little like a turkey.
The psychological barrier is that most meat lovers expect any plant-based replacement for meat to suck as meat.
And that's still the biggest challenge for these companies, making something that tastes, smells, and feels like meat.
By far, the most important scientific question in the world right now: what makes meat delicious? It's a lot harder than you might think.
There's not, like, one beefy flavor aroma molecule.
To figure out the recipe, food scientists heated up pieces of meat and collected air samples right above them as they cooked.
On the other end of that tube is a little funnel with someone's nose stuck in it.
And that person, for 45 minutes, is sitting there, sniffing.
You know, like What they're smelling are the components of what makes meat meaty.
The molecules that come out of it smell like maple syrup, burnt rubber, freshly struck match dirty diaper, mint, lilacs, sweat, sulfur But one of the major things that gives red meat its distinct flavor? It's that special compound found in animals: heme iron.
And in 2015, Impossible Foods patented a way to synthesize heme iron in a lab.
The result is a new generation of plant-based alternatives that taste, feel, and bleed like meat.
But while their ingredients look wholesome and they have zero cholesterol, they have around the same number of calories as an unseasoned beef patty, similar levels of saturated fat, and more than five times as much sodium.
These aren't health foods.
They're burgers.
And investors are betting big on them, from Bill Gates and Richard Branson to Jay-Z and Katy Perry, who even dressed up as an Impossible Burger for the Met Gala after-party.
In May 2019, Beyond Meat celebrated as it became the first meat alternative company to go public.
And by the end of that day, the stock price had jumped 163 percent, something that hadn't happened since the height of the dot com boom.
The plant-meat movement has the virtue that it's not asking you to make a compromise.
It's able to give you the same experience and you can serve your moral goals.
Now, that's a really good deal if you can do it.
So if this could be the meat the next generation is eating, do they like it? Do you like veggie burgers? They're okay.
Never had a veggie burger.
I don't like vegetables.
This one is munchy.
I kind of like it.
You like this one? I like this one.
It has a good taste.
My favorite would probably be this one.
That one tastes to me like beef.
I would have never really guessed that was a veggie burger because it tasted just like a real burger.
That does not taste like a hamburger.
What does it taste like? Carrots.
I'm so used to eating regular burgers that it's gonna be kind of hard to adjust to veggie burgers.
What if I told you that your favorite burger, the one in the middle, is made entirely of plants? Uh I would never eat this thing in my life again.
Changing behavior is hard.
A lot of people just aren't going to give up meat that easily.
We have been so deeply habituated to eating animal foods that for many people, we're not just going to simply lose that craving because we wake up and recognize that these foods are problematic.
So some companies are trying a different approach: making animal meat without killing the animal.
You're looking at chicken cells.
In a few weeks, they'll be breaded and fried into a nugget like this one.
But these cells aren't growing inside of a chicken.
Cultured meat isn't any different than conventional meat that we've been eating for tens of thousands of years.
Uh, it's made from an animal.
The only difference is you don't need to kill the animal.
The recipe is a pretty easy one.
It's meat.
Actually, the recipe's pretty hard.
There are four main components involved.
The first is a cell culture, a tiny tissue sample taken from the body of a live animal.
Then there's the scaffold.
That's the surface that the replicating muscle cells stick to.
To grow, the cells also need a growth medium, the soup that provides proteins, vitamins, sugars, and hormones to feed the cells as they grow and divide.
And finally, a bioreactor, the temperature-controlled environment that intakes fresh nutrients and outputs waste.
You can think of it like an artificial body for the meat to grow in.
In about nine weeks, this goes from a tiny group of cells to an edible chunk of meat.
Early research suggests that this process could use about half the energy of beef production, a tiny fraction of the land and water, and greatly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
But the key question: does it taste any good? In 2013, the world got to watch the first lab-grown meat taste test, televised on BBC.
They said it kind of tasted like meat.
There's quite some intense taste.
It's close to meat.
It's not that juicy.
And another big difference is that hamburger cost $330,000 to make, engineered by this guy, Dutch pharmacologist Mark Post.
Only six years later, Post's meat start-up, Mosameat, says it cut production costs by 99.
997 percent to just ten dollars a burger.
Right now, dozens of cell-based meat start-ups are racing to be the first ones to go to market from the Netherlands to Israel to Singapore, but none of them have perfected the recipe yet.
The first problem is sourcing the growth medium.
Right now, the liquid used is fetal bovine serum.
And that's a nicer way of saying blood taken from the heart of an unborn cow, immediately killing it.
Cell-based meat companies are working toward a plant-based replacement, but experts aren't sure when or even if that could happen.
Another problem is structure.
So, ground meat is that hamburger, that ground chicken nugget, and the structured meat is that steak and that nice, fatty piece of bluefin tuna.
The ground stuff is a lot easier.
The structured stuff is a lot harder.
That requires delivering nutrients to cells at the center of the meat like blood vessels do in an animal's body.
Researchers are experimenting with different techniques to do that, like using the vein structure of a spinach leaf, but experts think we're at least a decade away from pulling off something that resembles a big juicy steak.
And then there's the yuck factor.
In a 2016 survey, many Americans said they weren't interested in regularly eating meat grown in a lab.
And some people won't even try it.
So you still like the idea of a piece of meat grown in a lab? No, it It almost makes me vomit.
Why not try a new experience? No, no, no.
- If I paid you 200 euros? - No, not if you paid me.
- 1,000 euros? - No, no.
It doesn't sound appealing anyway, man-made test-tube burger.
A lot of people find the idea of cell-based meat disgusting, but a lot of people find different meats disgusting too.
Disgust is very cultural.
It's not innate.
Every culture has selected some animal things to eat.
There are a lot of cultural differences in what's disgusting.
In many languages, the names used to describe different meats can make eating those animals easier.
Language can bring us closer to or disconnect us from a reality.
When we look at the language that we use around meat, for example, it's very interesting.
We camouflage the actual source of the meat.
So we don't say cow.
We say we're eating beef.
And we don't say we're eating pig.
We're eating pork.
When you start thinking about a pig when you eat a pork chop, you're on the way to being a vegetarian.
And cell-based meat might just have a naming problem.
Lab-grown, test-tube, and in vitro don't sound especially appetizing.
That's why these companies have been fighting for names like cultured, clean, or cell-based meat.
But some people are fighting back.
In 2018, Missouri became the first state in the US to ban food products from being sold under the name meat unless they came from a slaughtered animal, punishable by up to a year in prison.
That same year, the European Union proposed banning meat alternatives from advertising themselves with words like steak, sausage, or burger.
And many people who do the work of raising farm animals feel passionately that cell-based meat isn't the same thing.
Consumers, when I travel, tell me all the time that when they purchase product at the grocery store, they think of what we're doing as families, on the land, taking care of the land, taking care of those cattle every day.
They don't think about um somebody putting a group of cells together and growing a new product.
That's not beef.
But today, most of our food isn't going straight from the land to the table.
In fact, much of what we eat started in a lab.
Like anything yogurt, cereal Gatorade applesauce.
All that stuff for commercial use started off in a lab.
But where something starts isn't where it ends.
It's not gonna be made in a lab.
It's gonna be made in a manufacturing facility.
And the animals we eat have been engineered over millennia through selective breeding, artificial insemination, growth hormones, 24-hour climate-controlled warehouses, fortified feed, and drugs.
In the US, more than 70 percent of all antibiotics sold each year now go to farm animals.
Now, people think of corn or beef as natural.
They're not natural, of course.
They're highly domesticated products.
An enormous amount of human processing is going in there.
Technology enabled us to eat animals the way we do today, and new technology might be the only thing that can help us satisfy our craving for meat in the future.
The reason why we're here today is because animal products are so awesome.
But they change the surface of our Earth.
It's creating epidemic viruses.
It's threatening how useful our antibiotics are.
What's going to change the market is what always changes the market: money and a product that people like.
This is just the story of technology, and I know people don't like to think of food as technology, but it is.
The idea of meat is a lot more emotionally fraught than the idea of a smartphone.
Right? Meat is more than just a taste of the animal.
Right? Meat is identity, it is culture, it is the stories we tell ourselves.
For decades, we've dreamed of a future when we could have meat without animals.
No head no wings.
It's all meat! Oh! We no longer enslave animals for food purposes.
You've seen something as fresh and tasty as meat, but inorganically materialized, out of patterns used by our transporters.
Back in 1932, even Winston Churchill predicted "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.
" Just think about the modern world.
How we've conquered problems in water purification.
We have satellites.
Why can't we do this? And the answer is we probably can.