4.7 — Meat: Breaking a 2.5 Million Year Old Habit

The planet’s population is due to grow by two billion over the next few decades, and the environmental consequences of feeding all those people with a diet based around eating meat are significant. Follow the hunt for a new, possibly better source of protein on this episode of Trailblazers.
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Humans have loved meat since they first tasted it millions of years ago.

But as we’ve evolved from sustenance hunters to rampant meat consumers, the world has changed around us, and that has led to many rethinking our obsession with our favorite protein source.

Find out some of the leading alternatives on this episode of Trailblazers.

What you’ll hear in this episode:

● Winston Churchill’s big prediction (0:00)

● Mammoth: it’s what’s for dinner (2:34)

● Meat becomes unavailable to most and then very, very available to all (5:55)

● The inevitable pushback to meat begins (9:33)

● It turns out replacing beef isn’t “impossible” (10:47)

● The ideal meat substitute? Meat (17:48)

● The human love of meat has deep roots (25:42)

Guest List

  • Marta Zaraska is a journalist and the author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat.
  • Roger Horowitz is a food historian and the author of Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation.
  • Pat Brown is the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, a company that makes meat and dairy products from plants to address the environmental impact of animal farming.
  • Mark Post is the Chief Scientific Officer of Mosa Meat, a startup that aims to commercialize cultured meat.

“The most important scientific question in the world is, what makes meat delicious? Because if you can create foods that deliver that deliciousness with much more sustainable ingredients, you have solved the greatest threat that our planet has probably ever faced.”

— Pat Brown, Founder and CEO of Impossible Foods

Speaker 1: Things are going from bad to worse. Great mismanagement and weakness are causing unrest.

Walter Isaacson: 1931 was not a good year in the remarkable career of Winston Churchill. His conservative party had been defeated two years earlier and he had lost most of his American investments when the U.S. stock market crashed. So the future British prime minister recast himself as a writer. He wrote a couple of hefty historical tomes and accepted assignments from popular magazines. One of these commissions came from Strand Magazine, which asked him to write a speculative essay for the December 1931 edition on what the world might look like in 50 years.

Walter Isaacson: Churchill made dozens of predictions about robots and the triumph of man over nature, but perhaps his boldest prognostication was that by 1981 people would be eating synthetic meat grown entirely in a lab. “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to just eat the breast or the leg,” he wrote. He predicted these parts could be grown from animal cells. There would no longer be any need to slaughter animals to get meat, and those new foods would be practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

Walter Isaacson: Winston Churchill’s prediction seemed like science fiction in 1931, but not anymore. It took 30 years longer than he thought, but lab meat is now here and we’re on the cusp of a meatless meat revolution. I’m Walter Isaacson and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 3: Abundant protein-rich meat.

Speaker 4: Meat is a food that we all like especially when it’s tender and juicy and flavorful.

Speaker 3: Meat contributes to the wellbeing and strength of our people and our country.

Speaker 5: The meat we eat is good and pure.

Speaker 4: Delectable, sizzling steak.

Speaker 5: Backed by the assurance of Uncle Sam himself.

Walter Isaacson: Two and a half million years, that’s how long it’s been since humans have been eating meat from animals. And while today, scientists are warning that we have to stop eating meat in order to lessen the impact of climate change, historians tell us it was a different period of climate change that drove us to eat meat in the first place.

Walter Isaacson: Marta Zaraska is the author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat.

Marta Zaraska: So what happened two and a half million years ago is that the climate has changed. The savannah, where our ancestors lived at the time became drier and hotter and many plant foods that our ancestors were relying on became much less available, especially from January to April, which was the particularly dry season. So they couldn’t basically find the fruits and the leaves that they were eating habitually. On the other hand, what became more available and more abundant was meat because there were suddenly many more grazing animals. So with more grazing species, there were also more dead animal flying around basically. So there was meat lying around and so our ancestors tried and discovered it’s good. It’s highly caloric, full of fat, and they started eating it.

Walter Isaacson: Humans are not actually well-suited biologically to eat meat. Our jaws and teeth don’t have the strength to bite raw meat off an animal carcass. So these earliest mediators used primitive tools to cut the meat off the bones of dead animals. It would take hundreds of thousands of years more before we went from being scavengers, eating whatever meat we found lying on the ground, to becoming hunters with more sophisticated tools. And then many more thousands of years before meat was being cooked over an open fire. And all the while, the bodies and minds of those early humans were evolving into their modern form, something that many researchers believe never would have happened if they hadn’t been consuming meat.

Marta Zaraska: And the reason for that is that meat for our ancestors was a very high quality food, loaded with calories because of fat, but also full of minerals and vitamins. And because meat was such a high quality food, it could power our brains. Human brains are very energy inefficient. So they only weight about 2% of our body weight are our brains, but they take up to 25% of our resting energy. And to power such a brain, you need a lot of energy. And before our ancestors started eating meat, they had very big guts. Because to digest low quality foods with lots of fiber in it, for example, leaves or grass, you really need a really big gut. But when we started eating meat, the food was much denser in calories so the gut would shrink. This freed energetic resources that were used for the growing brain. This is why some scientists say that meat made us human.

Walter Isaacson: By the Middle Ages, meat had become a very popular food, but it was a luxury enjoyed mostly by the rich and powerful.

Walter Isaacson: Think about the story of Robin Hood. What crime was he being accused of? He allegedly killed a deer in the king’s forest, presumably so he could share the bounty with the common folk. Their diet was still largely made up of plant protein because they were denied access to the land where they might be able to hunt game. But all that changed when the common folk began to make their way to the new world. Roger Horowitz is the author of Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology and Transformation.

Roger Horowitz: The early British colonists, the ordinary people came over, not the speculators. They were people down on their luck. They were looking for a new start. For various reasons, life in England had not worked out for them and they were looking to do better. So they are aspiring people and they come over here and the forests are full of wild game and the king doesn’t own them, which is all sorts of opportunities to eat meat and they love it. And the opportunity to forage if the forest, the opportunity to kill wild animals and eat them, amazing. Amazing to have this opportunity in America.

Walter Isaacson: Meat may not have been a primary driver of settlement in the colonial period. Nor when later on when large numbers of European immigrants came to our shores, but it was part of the attraction.

Roger Horowitz: In the 19th century when you have immigrants coming over like the Irish, the Germans, early 19th century, the availability of meat gets commented on in the letters that they write home. The Irish, especially, the idea they can come to New York City in the 1840s, 1850s after starving in Ireland and they can eat beef three times a day is astounding. They write back and people don’t believe them. They say this can’t be true. “No, it’s true. We can do that.” So this is with an immigrant population, a laboring population, coming at a later point that you see this being referenced, but it becomes part of the immigrant experience that they are able to have access to meat.

Walter Isaacson: By the beginning of the 19th century, residents of New York City were eating about 150 pounds of meat per person each year.

Walter Isaacson: In the 1930s and 40s, meat consumption dipped, not for lack of want, but for lack of access. First, because of the great depression. And then during World War II when it became the subject of government rationing. But when the good times returned after the war ended, so too did Americans appetite for meat. Roger Horowitz.

Roger Horowitz: They’re not able to get meat because they can’t. They don’t have the money or it’s being scarce and all that. They haven’t done it because they’ve decided or because they’ve learned or been taught something different. They just can’t get it. It’s a frustrated desire. And so why would that go away? Why would that happen that you couldn’t get it? Especially when all the nutritional establishment and all everybody who’s talking to the kids in schools and home economics and everything like that is saying, “Well, you really should have more meat because it’s good for you.” So there’s no pushback. There’s no opposition to that idea that you should have more meat when you have the resources to do so.

Walter Isaacson: Today, the U.S. processes more than a hundred billion pounds of meat and poultry every year. The industry employs more than half a million people and accounts for over a trillion dollars of economic output. That’s more than 5% of the U.S. GDP. So taking on that industry by asking Americans to eat less meat would not be something for the faint of heart. But by the end of the century, several brave souls had stepped forward and were advocating precisely that. The first front line in the battle against meat was over the health effects of excessive meat consumption. As a result, since the mid 1970s many Americans cut back on that consumption of red meat and began eating more chicken, which was seen as leaner and safer. But by around the turn of the century, a second front opened that posed a fundamental challenge to meat’s primacy in the American diet. It drew on research that linked animal-based diet to climate change, environmental degradation, and the collapse of biodiversity.

Pat Brown: My name is Pat Brown. I’m the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods.

Walter Isaacson: In 2009, Pat Brown was a 55-year-old biochemist at Stanford University when he decided that his new mission in life would be to find a way to stop people from relying on animals for their meat.

Pat Brown: At the time, I was a professor in the medical school and I had a sabbatical and I was asking myself what’s the most important problem that I can help solve in the world? But I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that the use of animals as a food technology, it’s one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. It’s by far the biggest user of fresh water in the world, by far the biggest polluter of water in the world. And probably even more significant than all of that, it occupies more than 45% of the entire land surface of Earth. So an area larger than North America, South America, Europe and Australia combined is actively being used right now raising animals for food. And largely because of that huge land footprint, it is by far the biggest driver of what is now a catastrophic collapse in global biodiversity. And it’s almost entirely due to habitat destruction and degradation by animal agriculture on land and over fishing in the ocean. So what it comes down to is the most destructive technology on earth is the use of animals to produce food.

Walter Isaacson: So Pat Brown set out to replace animal-based meat with something that consumers would still be attracted to without the environmental consequences.

Pat Brown: So how do you solve the problem? You have to reframe it. And the problem is not that people are consuming these foods, it’s that we’re making them the wrong way, that we’re using this technology, this prehistoric technology, that’s incredibly inefficient, resource-inefficient and destructive on a global scale, namely animals to turn plants into meat and dairy products and fish. We’ve got this embedded assumption that the only way you can make meat is by feeding an animal and then cutting it into pieces. But in fact, from a consumer standpoint, the value proposition of meat has nothing to do with how it’s made. It’s just that it is delicious in a particular way. It is a dense source of protein and iron and micronutrients. It’s convenient, affordable, familiar. So we have to figure out a better technology, a better way of producing these foods that the world is going to continue to love vastly more sustainably. And for this to work, we have to make foods that outperform for the consumer in all the ways that matter for the consumer.

Walter Isaacson: Pat Brown was convinced that meat substitutes derived from plants rather than animals could appeal to most meat eaters, but only if he could find the answer to one critical question.

Pat Brown: The most important scientific question in the world is, what makes meat delicious? Because if you can answer that question and understand well enough that you can create foods that deliver that deliciousness with much more sustainable ingredients, you have solved the greatest threat that our planet has probably ever faced.

Walter Isaacson: Pat Brown started Impossible Foods in California in 2011 and gathered a group of scientists to try to solve the deliciousness riddle.

Pat Brown: One of the things that is apparent when you think about meat flavor, particularly when you’re thinking about what happens when you cook meat, is that you have this dramatic transformation of the flavor profile and you have, in the process, this explosion of flavor and aroma that’s unlike anything you get from cooking a plant. To me that suggested that there was a catalyst that produces hundreds of novel molecules that weren’t present in the product beforehand.

Walter Isaacson: Impossible’s scientists decided to focus on a molecule called heme which is found in the muscles of cows. They believe heme is primarily responsible for giving beef it’s yeasty, bloody, savory flavor. By augmenting it in plants, they could create a product that looked and tasted like meat. By 2016, Brown was ready to bring his Impossible Burger to the market. Its main ingredients were wheat, potato proteins and oil from coconuts and sunflowers. He has since replaced the wheat with soy which is lower in fat and cheaper to use. He boasts that his burger requires 87% less water than a beef burger, uses 96% less land, and generates 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And it performs well in blind taste tests with meat eaters. The company has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from investors like Bill Gates and it is valued at about $2 billion. It’s burgers are available in over 17,000 restaurants including Burger King and White Castle.

Walter Isaacson: Impossible isn’t the only plant-based burger in the market. Its biggest competitor is Beyond Meat, another California company that is already selling its products in grocery stores, something that is still a year or two away for Impossible. Pat Brown says he welcomes anyone who shares his mission. When he started Impossible Foods eight years ago, he said his goal was to completely replace animals in the food chain by 2035. He thinks he’s on track to do that, but can he really take on the trillion dollar industry?

Pat Brown: I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think the answer was yes, I absolutely do. There’s been many, many, many instances in history where a very well-entrenched, seemingly ubiquitous and formidable industry has been replaced in a matter of decades or even less by fundamentally better technology that does a better job of delivering what consumers value. And in a way, it doesn’t matter how big and formidable and politically powerful you are. If someone is doing a better job of satisfying consumers, you’re of luck.

Walter Isaacson: The scope and scale of Pat Brown’s ambition is nothing short of staggering. Convincing Americans to give up animal-based meat in favor of meat derived from plants will be hard enough, but meat consumption is going up around the world as global income levels rise. In the early 1980s, the average person in China ate about 30 pounds of meat a year, but today, China’s rising middle-class consumes an average of nearly 140 pounds. And not everyone is convinced that offering a plant-based alternative will ultimately get billions of meat eaters to change their habits. They argue that the only thing that can replace meat is meat.

Mark Post: I’m Mark Post. I am chief scientific officer of Mosa Meat, a startup that aims to commercialize cultured meat.

Walter Isaacson: Remember the prediction that Winston Churchill made back in 1931 that meat could be grown in a lab? You might say that Mark Post is a man who’s taken up that challenge. Post was a professor in the medical school at a university in the Netherlands in 2006 when he was asked to help out with a study that was being funded by the Dutch government. The idea was to place muscle cells in a nutrient rich serum and encourage those cells to grow into muscle like fibers. There were many medical applications for this work, but the Dutch researchers were looking beyond medicine. They believe that if you could turn animal STEM cells into muscle fibers, you can actually grow synthetic meat in the lab. It could be the best of both worlds. Real meat that doesn’t require a real animal.

Mark Post: Now, I thought it was a great idea and I was already involved in tissue engineering for medical purposes and the more I learned about the problems with meat production in the next 35 years, the more enthusiastic I became about this entire project, not only scientifically but also for its societal impact.

Walter Isaacson: There were scientific hurdles that still had to be overcome, but the main obstacle was money. They would need lots of it to scale up and produce cell-based meat for commercial mass consumption. It didn’t help when, in 2009, the Dutch government withdrew its funding for the project.

Mark Post: And basically the language that the government used, “We don’t see any commercial interest from companies in this,” kind of triggered me. I said, “Well, this is such a great idea. We need to be able to get this across the general population. So let’s make a sausage from a pig, present it to the press while the pig is honking around on the stage.”

Mark Post: And so that was kind of the image was for me, was a very unusual kind of thought because I just basically was a biomedical scientist, but I was so frustrated. I was, “We’ll show them.” We needed quite a bit of money to do that that wasn’t really lying around. So we had to wait until we got that money. And then kind of out of the blue, that was a year and a half or two years later, the office of Sergey Brin approached me and said, “We want to talk to you about this project that you’re doing and can we come over?”

Walter Isaacson: Sergey Brin is one of the cofounders of Google. But while Mark Post had, of course, heard of Google, he had never heard of Sergey Brin. So when Brin’s representative came calling, Post had no idea who he was dealing with. Post told his visitor about his idea of creating a cell-based sausage and holding a press conference with a pig on the stage.

Mark Post: And a representative of Sergey Brin said, “Oh yeah, we will support that. How much money do you need.” And [inaudible 00:21:49] said, “Oh, a couple of million would be fine.” In the end, we got the money that we needed to make that event happen.

Walter Isaacson: So suddenly Mark Post had all the money he needed to make his cell meat prototype and the money came with only one string attached. Sergey Brin wanted a hamburger on the stage, not a sausage.

Mark Post: Well that that was basically a, not a request, but the demand from Sergey Brin. If you’re going to do this, it has to be a hamburger, not a sausage. It’s an American thing. And that was actually quite fortunate I think because the environmental impact of beef is actually a lot higher than that of pork.

Walter Isaacson: And so on August 5th, 2013, the first cell burger was ready to be unveiled at a press conference in London. The event was carried live around the world and included a taste test via food critic.

Mark Post: Well, of course a very gratifying moment that you, because you have been living up to this for two or three years and to finally make that happen was a big thing. So I was pretty happy throughout. It was also a little bit nerve-wracking because we had no idea how the tasters basically would respond to it. If they would spit it out and say, “Yuck, this is nothing like we expected,” or if they would be at least somewhat to positive about it. We had no idea. So that was nerve-wracking. But all in all, the whole event went pretty well. And I wasn’t even noticeably nervous, but somebody told me I was tapping my fingers continuously on a desk. So apparently I was.

Walter Isaacson: The world’s first cellular burger got good reviews from the food critic. But most of the press coverage focused on cost, not taste. The price tag on that burger was $330,000. So Mark Post needed to find a way to drive down cost significantly or his cell burger would remain an interesting science experiment with no commercial potential and more importantly, no potential to solve the environmental challenges caused by animal-based meat production.

Mark Post: So one of the things that makes cell culture extremely expensive is real factors, proteins that stimulate cells to grow and they cost a million Euro per gram. And fortunately, you need only very, very small amounts, but still, if you start to grow at large scale, this is cost prohibitive. But I learned pretty quickly that in the feed industry in a completely different industry, not the biomedical part, but the feed industry, people are making similar proteins with similar technology for five-year-old program or four-year-old program. I thought, well, if we can do that, then that price of the cell culture drops tremendously. And then we started to look at more components of this feed for cells and we realized that if you source this differently and you make it a little bit of a different composition, you can actually make this a very cheap type of technology.

Walter Isaacson: In 2015, Mark Post started his own company called Mosa Meat to continue his quest to develop affordable cellular meat at a commercial scale. Today, he says the price of a cell burger is down to about $15 to $18. Still too expensive to sell in grocery stores, but he hopes to be able to increase meat production to the point where he can offer it in some higher end restaurants within a couple of years.

Walter Isaacson: Post and Brown are two of the trailblazers who are trying to address the enormous environmental challenges we are facing by leading what could be a historic transformation in our eating habits, indeed, the biggest dietary revolution since humans first started eating meat 2.5 million years ago.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more on any of the guests on today’s show, you can head to our website at Delltechnologies.com/trailblazers.

Walter Isaacson: Thanks for listening.