Mike Grunwald 00:08
So, hey from California, Tamar.
Tamar Haspel 00:10
Mike Grunwald 00:11
So, today we have a phenomenal guest. I’m so excited. But I thought I would tell a little story about a thing I did yesterday. I visited the company Just Foods, now almost a decade old. It was founded by a couple guys who wanted to save chickens, maybe save the world, and they started making plant-based eggs. They’ve been incredibly successful; they now control 99% of the plant-based egg market. But after doing this for a few years, they decided that’s not going to save the world. You know, egg-laying chickens, they’re a big problem, but we gotta do something about meat. And rather than do plant-based meat, like we’re seeing with Impossible and Beyond, they decided they were going to do cultivated meat. They were going to grow meat from actual animal cells in a lab, and then eventually in big fermentation tanks, like a brewery. A crazy idea. It’s never been done. And so yesterday, I was at Just Foods, and I got to eat some chicken.
Tamar Haspel 01:22
I’m so jealous.
Mike Grunwald 01:23
And not just— so I had been there a few years ago, and I got to eat a chicken nugget.
Tamar Haspel 01:28
Not so jealous about a chicken nugget.
Mike Grunwald 01:30
Which is cool. But, you know, you’ve seen a lot of these plant-based stuff and they’re, you know, they do the nuggets. I got to actually eat fried chicken and a chicken breast. And it was an incredible experience. It tasted like chicken because it WAS chicken. And this is something we’ve been talking about doing an episode about forever. So I’m very excited. Today we are actually going to be talking about, you know, they used to call it lab-grown meat, in vitro meat… clean meat, they called it for a while. Now we’re talking about cultivated meat, cell-cultured meat, and you can’t buy yet in the stores, but it’s, you know, awesome to save the world if it happens.
Tamar Haspel 02:16
That’s a big if. And we are going to talk about cell-based meat and all of the “ifs” involved with our friend Hank Green, who has been good enough to come and appear on Climavores. Hank explains things. He explains things with clarity, and with wit, and with verve. And he is one half of the Vlog Brothers, who you guys may know. And he also has his own epic YouTube channel which explains things from misinformation to sphincters. And I think he has singlehandedly raised the scientific literacy quotient of the American public all by himself. And in his spare time, he does things like write best-selling books, and he plays music, and basically exposes Mike and me for the slacker podcasters we are.
Mike Grunwald 03:12
So I do have to say, when I told my 14 year old son that we were going to have Hank Green on, he said, “THE Hank Green?” It’s the first time he’s ever thought I was cool. It’s incredible.
Tamar Haspel 03:24
Yeah, I didn’t make them cool, but you do. So he’s Hank Green. I’m Tamar Haspel.
Mike Grunwald 03:32
I’m Michael Grunwald, and this is Climavores, a show about eating on a changing planet
Tamar Haspel 03:46
This show is going to be a little bit different, because usually when we have people on, we ask them questions and they give us answers. But today, we’re hoping to have some answers to Hank’s questions, because we are all curious about cell-based meat. Hello, Hank!
Hank Green 04:05
Hello, thank you so much for this lovely introduction. I’ll just go ahead and put it on all of my websites and business cards. That felt really lovely. So, I have a problem, which is that I can’t not do things that I think are bad just because they’re bad. Whether that’s for my health or for the planet, there’s something like, it’s just like, you know, you are in the culture that you are in, and also I think that, like, to some extent I’m… I live in Montana, I live in a place where you absolutely can be vegetarian and vegan without much trouble. But I’m surrounded by people who are not interested in that lifestyle. And I recognize that they’re the… they eat a lot more meat than me, and they’re the ones that we really need to get, just like we need to get my neighbors who have big trucks into electric cars, or electric trucks. They drive a lot more than me, they burn a lot more gas than me. And so my Volt isn’t doing that much good. It’s not doing much more good than my Civic was doing, whereas their Ford F-250 would do a lot of good if it were an electric.
Tamar Haspel 05:11
My F-250 resembles that remark. In my defense, we tow boats. We don’t have a choice.
Hank Green 05:20
Exactly! It’s always been… I’m always afraid of the sort of Pollyannaish-ness of this. But my go-to in a world of a fair amount of doom has been, “Well, we’ve certainly changed things before.” We used to light our houses with whale oil, and coal is better than killing whales. Like, you can say that at least. And solar panels are better than coal. But something might be better than solar panels someday. It’s all an arrow, and we’re all trying to make a better world for ourselves and our children. And when it comes to meat, it just seems impossible to me that people in the future won’t look back on the way I eat and think it is disgusting. Because it is disgusting. Like, it’s really… like, it’s awful. It feels, in many ways, like the most primitive thing that we still do. And I’m sorry to the people who make meat for a living. But it does seem like a thing that in the future, we will say, “That was a weird way of doing things.” And I just wonder how fast we’re gonna get there. Like, is it— is my first cell-based chicken nugget a year away, is my first cell-based chicken breast 10 years away? Like, where are we? You were saying earlier that you weren’t jealous of chicken nuggets. Honestly, I’d rather a chicken nugget than a chicken breast most days. So it’s a good… a chicken nugget is one of the mankind’s greatest achievements. But I’d love to have one that didn’t involve a chicken.
Tamar Haspel 06:58
Sure. And I think so many people are in your camp. And some of the issues that you’ve touched on are things that we have talked about before, including… we did a whole big megillah on animal welfare. And, you know, I think that you’re certainly right in in many aspects, that people will look back on what we’re doing now and be revolted, disgusted. Now the question is, which aspects of it will revolt and disgust people? Because some people are revolted and disgusted by the idea of meat being grown in vats.
Hank Green 07:41
That’s funny. That doesn’t— like, I’m a chemist by training, once upon a time— that doesn’t bother me at all. Like, nothing about that bugs me.
Tamar Haspel 07:50
And Mike and I are kind of techno optimists, and it doesn’t bug us. But it does bug a lot of people. And I want to get to that at the very end. Because there is this disconnect between technology and food that Mike and I run up against all the time, and I’m sure you do too, because sometimes you wade into these things. But let’s start, maybe, with where we are with cell-based meat and what the prognosis is. And since Mike is, as we speak, in California, that makes him the expert on this podcast.
Mike Grunwald 08:28
Well, what’s funny is I’m actually podcasting from the Better Meat Company, which is a company that was founded by a guy named Paul Shapiro, who is, I should say, an avid Climavores listener. So, thanks, Paul. But he’s also the author of Clean Meat. He wrote an entire book about cell-based cultivated meat. And his company is not a cell-based or cultivated meat company. He started a fermentation company, which I think does say something, and Paul’s in a hurry to save the world, right? Agriculture, animal agriculture has taken over a third of it, and he wants to get rid of it fast, and he doesn’t think that cell-based is necessarily the way to do it. And then, to do a little bit of history, the first cell-based burger was unveiled in 2013 by a Dutch scientist, and it was funded by one of the cofounders of Google. It cost $300,000 to make a five ounce burger. A million dollars a pound is not really the prices you’re looking for in the supermarket. But it was a real burger. It was a slaughter-free burger, and it was meat. It wasn’t fake meat. It was actually made from animal cells. Today, nine years later, Just is actually selling some nuggets, some chicken breasts in Singapore, which is the only country that….
Hank Green 09:59
I was Googling, I was ready! I was gonna buy it!
Tamar Haspel 10:01
Buy the plane ticket first, and you can.
Mike Grunwald 10:04
The US has now approved Upside Foods, which is another California company, to start. They’re not ready to sell, but they’ve got their first regulatory approval. But Singapore, starting in 2020, is the only place where you can actually get some of this. But it’s still a huge loss leader. All Josh would tell me is that it’s still considerably north of $100 a pound. Better than a million dollars a pound in a decade, but obviously nowhere close to where it needs to get.
Hank Green 10:34
Well, I have to say, if you follow that graph down, it’s great. If that’s a linear graph, it’s free tomorrow.
Mike Grunwald 10:43
I think it’s like— it’s like with broadband, though, right? The last mile. It’s kind of the…
Hank Green 10:48
Tamar Haspel 10:49
I was gonna say it’s asymptotic, and I’m guessing 50 bucks is about as low as we’re gonna get.
Hank Green 10:55
Mmm, I don’t know, we’ll figure it out. There’s always a knowledge curve. And the question— I mean, I have so many questions. You continue.
Tamar Haspel 11:06
Alright, so let’s start at the top. Hank, what kind of questions you got?
Hank Green 11:09
Well, I think that that’s a big one. So, when you’re talking about a normal piece of technology, your lowest price is going to be the cost of materials. So if you can build the biggest, most efficient battery-powered plant in the world, these Giga factories where they’re making lithium ion batteries, you’re not going to get cheaper than the cost of the lithium that goes into them and the cobalt that goes into them, etc. The thing that goes into cell-based meat, from what I can tell, is… what? Sugar? What are you feeding the cells? Like, it’s not expensive stuff to feed cells.
Tamar Haspel 11:42
It’s— so, the growth medium is a combination of some sugars, glucose. But the things that are more expensive and harder to source are the amino acids, and you need those for growth. But going back to what you said about assuming, you know, you have all these economies of scale, and you get closer and closer to the price of the actual ingredients as the cost of the product that you’re making. One of the things that’s interesting about this, and prevents it from being an easy, scalable win, is that bioreactors are really hard to scale. In fact, there was a guy who did a whole analysis of this. He was hired—
Hank Green 11:54
Those are the fermentation tanks, the place where the cells live.
Mike Grunwald 12:33
Yeah, exactly. That’s where— the factories.
Tamar Haspel 12:36
And so this guy whose job it is to understand and write about the potential of scalability of technology… and he wrote this whole report, and it came out a couple of years ago and made a big splash, and one of the things that he said is that the price of doing this goes down as you scale up to a certain point, and then it plateaus. But then it starts to… the price starts to go up again. So if I said that wrong, let me say it right. It goes down as you scale up for a little while, and then it starts to go up as you scale up, because we’re basically in unknown territory as far as… the big issue here is the size of the reactor, and size does apparently matter. This is what I’ve been told.
Hank Green 13:26
It makes sense to me that there are reasons why the size matters. And I mean, to get the skeeziest possible when we’re talking about food and technology is, like, what point are you genetically engineering the meat cells to operate well within the systems for creating cell-based meat? And I don’t know if that’s happening yet. It’s one thing to say, let’s make cell-based meat. It’s another thing to be like, “And it’s genetically modified.” And people are like, “Look, I don’t know if you heard, but we’re environmentalists. Like, there’s only so much I’m gonna deal with, can you just get me some tofu please? Like, we’ve solved this problem well enough for me.” And what that sounds like to me is a step— like, the thing about these knowledge journeys is that they are always filled with these things that you hit, and you’re like, “We don’t want to solve this problem.” But then if there’s a reason to solve the problem, you kind of start to figure out ways to solve it. And when you have $100-per-pound meat, and you can go to a restaurant, and you can pay $100 for a burger— and maybe Just is losing money on that— but they’re getting to a place where there’s an incentive to try and solve these problems and get that price down a little bit. And then you start to have a lot of reason to hire smart people to solve hard problems.
Tamar Haspel 14:53
And you just put your finger on the whole issue here. It’s all about, to what extent do we trust that people are going to be able to solve these problems that we don’t have solutions to right now?
Hank Green 15:03
Right. Right, which we don’t really know. And sometimes these technologies hit a problem that they cannot overcome. It totally happens.
Mike Grunwald 15:10
No, that’s fair. But I guess my starting point for some of this is that, you know, I’ve got this thing in my pocket that has all human knowledge. And that I can, you know, call and video anybody all over the world and take a picture. I mean, people didn’t think they were gonna have that 20 years ago, and you would have sounded like a crazy person if you said that we would. So, I mean, humans, like… meat is a really good example of some things that we’re bad at, right? We’ve overrun the planet, we’ve deforested, we’ve lost a third of our forests and three quarters of our wetlands basically to grow our food. That’s bad, but we’re kind of good at recognizing it and doing something about it, compared to other species. We’re capable of these incredible technologies. So I do— when people say, “Oh, that’s impossible,” part of what they’re saying is, that’s impossible with the stuff we’ve got now. And that is true, but if you start from the premise that this is a really big problem that we’ve got to solve, that the food system is a third of our carbon emissions, and it’s most of our biodiversity problem, and it’s got to get better. And most of the problem is meat. And that we’ve been— our ancestors started eating meat 2 million years ago, and we really do seem to have a taste for this animal flesh. It’s kind of what, you know, that’s when our brains started to get big and our stomachs started to get small. Right? Because we needed to figure out how to find our prey, and we didn’t need to digest so much of the vegetables that we had been eating. This is an important problem that we’ve got to solve. And so, even, like, Josh Tetrick will tell you, it’s really hard. We’re not there yet. And he’s only 70% sure that we’re going to get there. But I think the people who say that they’re 100% sure that we’re not going to get there… to take the bioreactor example that Tamar mentioned, it is true that I saw a 3500 liter bioreactor yesterday. It was pretty big. It was maybe 12, 15 feet tall. They need to go to 200,000. That’s going to be 70 feet tall. It’s gotta get much more sterile. That’s going to be very expensive. But they say it doesn’t need to be as sterile as a biopharma reactor, where you’re making stuff that you’re injecting into people.
Hank Green 17:42
I was just gonna bring that up. I take a medicine that’s made in one of those bioreactors. I get it injected into my veins every two months. That is a medicine that is churned out by cells. I don’t know what kind of cells, but they’re— I think they’re mammalian. And then they have to, like— and then the process of washing out all the parts that aren’t the medicine that I get is extraordinarily complicated, very expensive. It’s a super expensive drug.
Mike Grunwald 18:08
If it’s insulin, remember, they used to use hundreds of pig pancreases to get a tiny little bit of insulin. So, you know, they found a better way that saves a lot of pigs.
Tamar Haspel 18:22
And saves a lot of human lives as well.
Mike Grunwald 18:24
Yeah, and so I start from the premise that, like, let’s not say that’s impossible. Let’s figure out what the obstacles are, and the bioreactors are one of them. No question. The media is another one, even though it’s basically just animal feed.
Tamar Haspel 18:39
Wait, before you go to the media, can I go back to the cells for a second? Because there’s a really wonky part of this that’s super interesting, and I think that we should put it out there, because it’s also sort of the crux of one of the problems with scaling up. And that is that we have all of these— just like you mentioned— all of these products, and vaccines are one, insulin is another, drugs are another— that are made using this process where cells are put in a tank, and then they do something, and they basically poop stuff out. And that’s not the word that scientists use, but that’s what they do. They don’t have buttholes, but they do excrete it. They don’t have sphincters. But they’re basically pooping stuff out. And we can do these amazing things. You mentioned genetic modification; we can do these amazing things with yeasts, and we can modify them to poop out almost anything, and it’s crazy. But there’s a fundamental difference between doing that, where what you’re harvesting is the poop, and doing meat, where what you’re harvesting is the cells themselves.
Hank Green 19:52
And you have to get them onto a matrix, you have to get them to organize themselves in a way that is meat-like. Like, no one wants a bunch of water with animal cells in it.
Mike Grunwald 20:01
And in fairness, that is… so what Tamar is saying is absolutely right, that it’s certainly easier to do this fermentation that expresses the kind of precision fermentation. But for instance, here at the Better Meat Company, they are not— they are using fungi. And to make fungi, they are just doing the cells. Now, it happens to be… fungi divide so much faster than animal cells, that it’s way easier and way more economical right now. But again, it suggests that certainly the problem isn’t just that they’re using cells rather than expressing proteins with the cells. I mean, it’s doable. It’s just not doable at a reasonable cost today,
Hank Green 20:45
Well, this brings up a thing like, if you can make a fungus make a thing that is chicken breast-like, which I don’t know if that’s impossible, then you don’t— then you never have the incentive to actually continue down the development path of cell-based meat. So if there is really a product— and I’ve had a couple of fungus-based… I don’t remember what company it was, but I had some fungus-based cream cheese, and I was like, “This is the best cream cheese I’ve ever had.” But it’s—
Mike Grunwald 21:19
Nature’s Find, probably?
Hank Green 21:20
Yeah, that’s what it was!
Mike Grunwald 21:20
It’s really good. And they’re making that from the, you know, they’re using the extremophiles and the hotsprings under Yellowstone National Park.
Hank Green 21:29
And that stuff grows. Yeah, fungus grows really fast. It’s much simpler. Fungus does fungus stuff, whereas the cells in meat are much more… they’re finicky, and they also want to be part of a multicellular organism because they are, in a different way than fungus, even though fungus is also multicellular, of course.
Tamar Haspel 21:50
And they grow slowly, and that’s the thing about it, is that if you’re trying to grow mammalian cells in a bioreactor, you can’t use any of the contaminant inhibitors that you can use if you’re growing a fungus, or if you’re growing yeasts that are pooping something valuable.
Hank Green 21:50
So it has to be more sterile.
Tamar Haspel 22:11
Right. So the fungus or the yeasts are going to be able to out-compete the contaminants, both because they grow so fast, and because you can use inhibitors, growth inhibitors. But if you use growth inhibitors when you’re trying to get the cells, then inhibits the growth of the cells, and then where does that leave you? And so the sterility issue really comes to the forefront. And it sounds so petty. It’s like, no, you can’t keep a big bioreactor sterile. But the guy who wrote this report basically said, “You can have a big plant, or you can have a clean plant. But you can’t have a big clean plant.” And it’s this huge issue. But, like Mike said, and like you said, too, you know, here’s a problem that people are working on. And Mike and I have gone back and forth about this. We’ve talked about it a lot. And my position on it is that eventually I think it will happen, but it’s going to take a long time, and I do not have confidence that these problems are going to be solved in the next decade, or even two. But then I feel like I’m the guy from the 1920s who wanted to close the patent office because everything had been invented. And so it’s all a question of how much faith we have in people to solve these problems, because we don’t have the solutions.
Hank Green 23:29
Well, I also think that it’s a question of making sure that we’re trying to solve the problem in as many ways as possible, because we don’t know which one the solution is going to be.
Mike Grunwald 23:39
That’s right. But certainly some of the— obviously, there are smart people— Bill Gates, Richard Branson— these people are putting, you know, there’s been billions of dollars investment in these companies, from, obviously, at least some reasonably serious people think that… including Cargill, Tyson, companies that think that this is not insane. And the fact that I am eating chicken shows that this is doable. The question is, what’s going to be the price? What’s going to be their price, and what’s going to be the price of meat? Those are questions we don’t entirely know. But, I guess part of what’s behind this is this notion that, like— I think the Impossible Burger is great. They’re really getting the Impossible Sausage at Starbucks. I think some of these fungi companies are doing a really great job. But there’s this idea that there’s something magic about meat, right? Something that we can’t quite explain, that when you bite into it, or when you cook it, the aromas… that it triggers something in us that just enough humans are not going to settle for any substitute for animal flesh. And of course, who knows? These guys might, you know, they can make Hank burgers. It may turn out that they can make woolly mammoth burgers that might be more delicious, right? The cow is a very mature technology, while this stuff… who knows what they can come up with? You can see why there is excitement, particularly when the problems are so big, and the Upside, which is, of course, the name of the company that’s farthest along, the upside is so enormous.
Hank Green 24:20
The thing is— I think the important thing to notice is that a really nice steak is very different from the vast majority of the beef we eat, which happens at fast food restaurants. I think that the joy that my reward receptors bring me when I hit a McDouble probably might not be that hard to replicate, actually. But the cow is such a mature technology that we’re not going to get the price of a McDouble any lower than it already is. But just like when suddenly solar power became cheaper than— you know, when it was being produced— than fossil fuel power; I think there’s every opportunity for cell-based meat to be cheaper. It might not be better, but it might be cheaper. And I think that McDonald’s has a lot of incentive to have a 99 cent hamburger. And that’s kind of impossible right now, but it might become possible in the future again.
Mike Grunwald 25:17
Right. We haven’t discussed this sort of, like— I mean, when you approach the problem, it’s like, huh, we want to make meat, we’re going to use the animal cells, we’re going to try to do it without the animal. Now, the animal has obviously a lot of advantages, and it’s been doing really great. And they’ve made a really nice business out of it. Downsides: one, it’s taken over the world, it’s becoming an animal farm, but then two is that it’s burping, it’s farting, but three, remember, when you’re feeding that animal, you have to— you’re growing its hooves, you’re growing its respiratory system, you’re keeping it alive, it’s pooping, and then that that creates a problem. There’s all kinds of things, when instead it’s like, well, Winston Churchill said this in the 1930s. He was, I guess, a part time futurist. And he said, in 50 years hence, it’s impossible to think that we won’t be growing the breast and the wing outside of the chicken. And it was a little premature. But you can see that this idea that like, wow, what we’re doing is incredibly inefficient, we’re feeding 40 calories worth of plants to a cow to get one calorie worth of beef. This is kind of— when you talk about the theoretical possibilities, you can see why this is attractive.
Tamar Haspel 27:42
But the point you bring up, the difference between the steak and the burger, is important, I think for a couple of reasons. First, that you’re totally right, that you can do a persuasive burger experience with meat that does not… when you don’t have the capability to make a steak. But of course, if the goal here is to try and reduce animal suffering and lessen the impact that climate has, from the beef people’s perspective, the thing that drives beef demand is the demand for those whole-muscle cuts. And so, if you can’t reproduce the whole-muscle cuts, but you can reproduce the burger, then you gotta ask, okay, well, what happens? Does the herd shrink if there’s still the same demand for whole muscle cuts? Do we just export the ground beef, which is a byproduct basically? Does it get cheaper overseas? Do we hook people in other countries on cheap burgers? It’s hard to see how that all ripples through, but the difference between whole-muscle and burger is an important distinction here.
Mike Grunwald 28:51
But that’s the use case, right? That’s the argument for cell-based, is that plant-based… you’ve already seen the Impossible Whopper is a Whopper right? And the Impossible nuggets are nuggets. Like, those homogenous, you know the ground cuts.
Hank Green 29:06
It was already a meat sponge, now it’s just a non-meat sponge.
Mike Grunwald 29:11
The head of the… one of the top people at Rebellious Food, which makes nuggets, she once told me, she was like, “Oh, the nugget’s just a vehicle for sauce.” Right? And it’s not that cell based… the argument against plant-based is that it’s going to be really hard to turn plants into those whole-muscle cuts. But if you can figure out how to do cell-based meat at cost, you can make burgers, you can make foie gras just about as easily as you can make a burger, right? You can make soup and sushi, which is actually, you know, the fish are not as… fish cells are not as cheap to have them replicate as fungal cells, but they’re not as hard as animal cells. You can make a sushi, which is obviously a really high-end product, just as easily as you can make a tilapia. So I do think that’s why people are excited about this stuff. Not because they want to commit to a 20-year science project. But you just pushed the challenge out that much farther, because we all know that the burger and the nuggets, those are the things that cell-based meat is going to be able to do well before it can do the steak or the whole muscle. And now if we’re saying, “Well, this is really valuable because it can do the steak and whole muscle…” Not to the extent— there’s not as much delta for cell-based meat, the sort of difficulty of doing the whole muscle versus the ground beef as there is for plant meat.
Hank Green 30:37
Here’s another thing, though: I think that a steak is a psychological idea. Like, a steak is an idea. It’s also food, but it’s mostly an idea. I live in Montana, where the idea of… people who have been raised around cattle, they have that as part of their heritage, as part of their world, but even if you’re not, it’s part of your heritage. You watch Yellowstone, you know? This is part of America. And so there’s a lot of people who eat steak because of the idea of steak. And so even if you can make a steak, that’s hard to get over. So I think that… so here’s— economists, and people who understand the meat industry, tell me if I’m wrong— but I think that if you take the ground beef out of the equation, if you say, that product is a lot cheaper now, you can’t sell that for as high a price, either because you have to export it and sell it, or because people aren’t buying it as much, so you have to compete with the price of something else, the price of the steak goes up. And when the price of something goes up, the demand does go down. Now, I think people will still eat steaks, but I think that they will eat them as an event. And so the more that we can incentivize whole-muscle cuts, the better. So I do see, sort of, heading in that direction, but I think it’s important to note that even if you can make a perfect steak out of cells, they’re going to be… for a long time, people who want to be a part of the legacy of cattle, and who feel that— like, what we want is for that to be a niche product, we’re gonna make it go away. But we want it to be a niche product that you get sometimes.
Mike Grunwald 30:38
I mean, certainly to some extent, I guess we’re arguing about, at the margins, how much, but I think, you know, ranching is already a really tough business. Running a slaughterhouse, you know, cartel, that seems to be a really good business. And if you have carbon markets that are paying people to rewild ranches, and that’s paying better than ranching, I’m not sure how tied they’re going to be to their…
Hank Green 32:25
I don’t think that the ranchers necessarily will be, but I think that, yeah, I think that they’re… and what you would have, then, is you have $150 steak, and people would eat $150 steaks, but they just wouldn’t… you wouldn’t go buy one and make one every night. Like, it’s wild to me. It’s wild to me that I can make a steak for dinner every night. I guess I would never think to do it. But you can absolutely do it. They’re not that expensive.
Tamar Haspel 33:12
You can do it.
Mike Grunwald 33:12
No, it’s true. And I think there’s… these guys who are trying to do this, they’re starting from the idea that if we can match the taste and the price, then maybe not everybody is going to eat it, but that’s going to change the world. And I will say what was really shocking, particularly the fried chicken that I ate at Just— the mouthfeel felt like chicken. I will say the chicken breast wasn’t quite there, it was actually kind of a cool mouthfeel, but it was like a little more… it didn’t have that kind of bounce, and the kind of stick in your teeth, that kind of chew. It was a little more, kind of, soft and custardy. But there’s something that goes off in our brain when you eat meat that’s real meat, I think. And this is why I’m doing a show called Climavores and I still eat chicken and pork. Because there’s something about that that just seems hardwired in us that we really like it, and these guys feel like the only way to really replicate that is by actually growing meat. You know? Because it is meat. It’s funny, the fried chicken,. I was sort of like, is this a breast or thigh? It was kind of like, huh? It’s just— it’s this!
Tamar Haspel 34:36
It’s the breast AND the thigh.
Hank Green 34:37
So when it comes to chicken… like, so, one of the things I’ve heard is that chicken, in terms of climate, isn’t actually that big of a concern. Chicken’s a pretty efficient way to make protein. Beef super is not. In a lot of ways, beef is kind of the worst thing to do. Is there a very clear… like, can we calculate the very clear benefit of lab-based versus not? Versus, like, a chicken?
Tamar Haspel 35:02
To some extent, we certainly can. But we don’t… well, on the one end, on the animal end, we can quantify what the impact is. And you’re totally right, that chicken and pork come in at basically 1/10 of the climate impact of cattle. So cell-based meat is only going to be a climate win it replaces beef.
Mike Grunwald 35:26
Although, remember, it’s still five times… like, chicken and pork are still five times the climate impact of beans or lentils.
Tamar Haspel 35:32
Right, right. So let’s put that in perspective.
Mike Grunwald 35:35
If it wasn’t that beef was so unbelievably horrible, we’d say that chicken and pork is a pretty big problem too. Not to mention all the manure and the mess that they make.
Tamar Haspel 35:35
Given what we know, and given what people are projecting about the cell-based technology, the estimates I’ve seen have been that, okay, if it gets super efficient, we can get a calorie of edible meat out for every three or four calories we put in. Now, that’s better than chicken, which is probably six or seven. But, of course, that doesn’t count all the energy that goes into building these things, maintaining them, the energy that goes into the system. So I think we can say, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that it will be better than beef, but that’s only because beef is so outrageously bad. And my bet is that, from a climate point of view, it won’t be better than pork or chicken. But of course, then there are the animal welfare issues that play into that as well.
Mike Grunwald 36:49
First of all, I think it’s still going to be a little— I mean, we’re in a hypothetical world, so we’ll see how this stuff goes— but chickens and pork, from a climate perspective, are still pretty bad. And the reason they’re not way worse is because of the chicken technology we have today, which is so grotesque, where we grow these things in six weeks, and they’re eating all day long, and they’re so fat that their legs break, and they’re so breast heavy, they top topple over.
Tamar Haspel 37:22
Hank, have you ever come face to face with a broiler chicken? I just want to ask him this.
Hank Green 37:27
Like a living broiler chicken?
Tamar Haspel 37:29
Yeah. Have you ever interacted with them?
Hank Green 37:31
No, I’ve only ever interacted with more heritage breeds.
Tamar Haspel 37:35
Yeah, no, it’s not pretty.
Mike Grunwald 37:37
So it’s not clear that there is a real movement to try to reduce some of the horrible ways these are treated, which is… I think we’d all agree is kind of good. But that’s going to make the chicken technology a little bit less efficient, and the the competition a little bit fairer. And it’s the same on price, right? The more climate policy changes, the more these other antiquated meat technologies have to pay for their economic externalities, and particularly their environmental externalities, the better the economic and environmental case is going to be for the alternatives.
Hank Green 38:15
Right. And I think that there’s also, like— there just feels like there’s more movement. We’ve been optimizing chicken efficiency for thousands of years, and we’ve been trying to optimize cell based meat efficiency for…
Tamar Haspel 38:29
Seven seconds. Yeah.
Hank Green 38:30
For 10. So the… well, I think it also does depend on whether or not a mass market cell-based product would also be genetically modified. Because I think that there’s lots of efficiencies that you might get if you start using some of the power that we have to control biology now that we didn’t have even five years ago.
Mike Grunwald 38:54
I talked to the head of the lab at Just. And he was like, they don’t even want to talk about it, because some people are freaked out enough about…
Hank Green 39:02
Because they think that that’s what this means. They think it’s the same thing. Like, how could you do cell based meat without genetic modification? But right now, they want to be like, “No, we’re not doing that.”
Mike Grunwald 39:12
But he told me it’s not the focus of their work, but they’re looking at it. They’re keeping their options open. And yeah, it’s since…
Hank Green 39:18
If Tyson’s interested in it, you know Tyson’s not going to have any problem with genetic modification.
Mike Grunwald 39:23
We’ve sort of mentioned three problems, right? One is the bioreactors. One is the media. And then there’s the sort of cultural problem of, “Are people going to eat this stuff?” But then, Tamar sort of alluded to this idea of cell density. We’ve got to get this stuff to grow really fast, and be able to be in a really crowded fermenter. And that’s something that… we do know that that’s something that genetic modification seems to be kind of helpful with, but nobody wants to say it out loud.
Tamar Haspel 39:56
Here’s the question, then. And Hank, you started off early in the show talking about genetic modification, and the possibility that that could make this whole thing work better. But we’re at this sort of crossroads with food where lots and lots of people are trying to bring technological solutions to bear on this problem of climate. But eaters are used to people bringing technological solutions to the problem of how to get people to buy and eat more food. And so we have associated processing and technology with crap, because that’s what it’s been used to make. And so I understand why people balk at this idea of applying technology to problems. But here, they’re using technology completely different. Pat Brown, as you know, Mike was talking to me earlier, he really does want to save the world. He’s not in it to sell people more food that’s bad for them. He wants to accomplish something good. But is this “I want my food to be natural” sentiment, which makes a lot of sense in a lot of contexts, is that going to be a huge barrier to acceptance of this, whether or not it’s genetically modified? And Hank, you hear from all kinds of people. What’s your sense?
Hank Green 41:17
Oh, yeah, I think so. I think specifically, because the people who can pay more are more worried. So there’s always been a class component to, you know, like white bread, you hear the words and like, it means something. White bread America means something, and you know what it means, and we don’t maybe want to interface with it. And I’ve seen parents judge other parents for feeding their children McDonald’s in ways that make me very uncomfortable, and it seemed very classist to me. And at the same time, I don’t want to stuff my child full of McDonald’s. I know what’s up. In order to sell someone a more expensive product, you have to promise them various values. And so you can’t come in and say, “This is better because it’s delicious, it’s healthy, and no animals died.” You can do that, but if you also tap into some previous… the reality that processing does make food less healthy, it does make you eat more of it, there’s well-established research about that. You can’t really be in that space at first. And so it has to start out a luxury product. And luxury products have to have everything including the halo. So that’s tricky. And I think that when you end up in a mass market world, then people are not going to care as long as it’s healthy, as long as it’s not dangerous. They’re not going to care about how the product was made, or sort of the more, you know, every halo that you can sort of ascribe to it. And this is, actually, I think a thing to reckon with. As we look at how to make cell based meats in different, more efficient ways, there’s lots of ways to tweak it to make it more efficient and work on the knowledge curve. You also are going to want to market it. And there’s various ways to market food. One of them is that it’s healthy, and one of them is that it’s delicious. And so what’s the world where the companies making the cell-based meat are more focused on how good it tastes? And is there is there a world where you cross that line, just like you could cross the price line, you cross the deliciousness line, and cell based meat actually tastes better? But you know how to make things taste better. It’s to make them worse for you, and things that taste better, you eat more of, and that’s worse for you. So you have these meals like we have at McDonald’s where we’re getting 1500 calories at a go, and because there’s glucose in the bun, and it’s just delicious. Everything is perfectly designed for me to eat this bite, drink this Coke, eat this bite, drink this Coke, and it’s just a dopamine fest.
Tamar Haspel 44:10
In perpetuity. That’s the way they like it.
Hank Green 44:14
I think, like, that’s not what anybody is thinking about yet, but I think there’s a reality where cell-based meat could be tastier. But just in and of itself being tastier makes it worse for you, just like Oreos would be… you would eat fewer of them if they didn’t taste as good.
Mike Grunwald 44:34
I talked to some of these scientists at Just, and the food guys, they’re chefs. And it’s really like, they’re kind of turning the knobs constantly. When my chicken wasn’t bouncy enough, and I asked him about that, and he’s like, “Yeah, I’ve been pushing the scientists guys to put in more fat.” But then the nutrition people don’t want that. But they’re fine-tuning a technology. And, as we’ve discussed, it’s like, there’s no reason to think that the technology can’t get better. And generally, things that get tastier get less nutritious, but who knows what they’re going to be able to fortify this stuff with. And, you know, people want protein, they can make it with protein.
Hank Green 45:18
It gets worse when it’s better! That’s the thing about food! I eat more of it when it tastes good!
Tamar Haspel 45:23
So Hank, you have to convince Mike of this, because I have tried and failed. Because when we were talking about plant-based meats versus real meats, Mike is convinced that they can make it both taste better and be better for you. And I’m kind of convinced that, no, they can’t. But again, that makes me the patent office guy in 1920.
Hank Green 45:47
Well, this is the thing. You can totally have those things be different things, if they aren’t the same thing. And I think that they might be the same thing. I think that it might be the case. And like, I’m just going off of… I don’t think that processed food is worse for you because it has more sodium or because it has more fat, I think that processed food is worse for you because you eat more. I think that potato chips are worse for you than potatoes, not because of the vegetable oil, but because they taste better. And so you have to interface with that. And so in order to make something tastes better, and be better for you, you have to make people somehow want to eat less of it. And so the idea that it’s all a balance of nutrients thing, there is something to that, that you want to make sure that you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals. But I think an underappreciated— and this proves out in the research— an underappreciated part of what makes something unhealthy is that it tricks you into eating a lot of it by tasting good, and you want to buy more of it. And there’s an economic incentive for the company to make the best Cool Ranch Dorito, and there’s an incentive to you to eat the best Cool Ranch Doritos, because it’s very good.
Tamar Haspel 47:01
Hank, I am totally torn between wishing that you had arrived at these conclusions by reading my columns, but being delighted that somebody really smart has come to the same conclusion that I have by looking at the evidence.
Mike Grunwald 47:15
I will just say that these would be great problems to have.
Hank Green 47:19
I agree with you.
Mike Grunwald 47:20
Like, “What are we going to do? This stuff is too tasty! Everybody wants it!” I think, Hank, you raised a really good question about this idea. And Tamar, you mentioned it too, this question about biotechnology and, like, are people going to be comfortable with it? You know, I think on a policy level, I worry about it, too. Right now, there’s a conference going on in Montreal about biodiversity. And I’m sorry, this is a no brainer. They’re talking trophy hunting this and climate change that. We know why there’s a biodiversity problem, it’s because we turned half the planet into agriculture, and we’ve taken away their homes. And yet there’s… of their 24 action items, there’s one about biotechnology, and you know what the action item is? “We’re going to manage the risks.” It’ a problem to be defended against, not an opportunity for fixing these problems. And I do think, at the policy level, and probably even at the consumer level as well, there is going to have to be a change. And I agree, it’s hard. But again, is it impossible? I mean, you know, gay marriage seemed crazy a few years ago, too.
Hank Green 48:27
A different kind of technology.
Tamar Haspel 48:30
Right, cell phones and gay marriage… I just can’t go there with those analogies.
Mike Grunwald 48:34
Things change is all I’m saying.
Hank Green 48:36
I can get there with the cell phone analogy, for sure. Especially when it comes to biodiversity, and it comes to animal welfare, and it comes to the climate. I think all of those things are well served by cell-based meat, but I think that big transitions like this… really, the thing that makes them happen is when the product is better. And what does a better food product look like? If you’re the kind of high class buyer that goes to Whole Foods and, you know… that’s about halos. It’s about, like, “Make me feel good about my purchase.” But then when it moves beyond there, it becomes like the Hummer EV, where it’s like, “I will buy an EV as long as it could totally kill a pedestrian.” And I think that there’s probably going to be an analogy there where people end up eating more cell based meat because they like it more, and it’s cheaper. And it really has to be both of those things. And I think that… my sense, having talked to you and read a little bit about this, is that there’s a “there” there. That that might be five— it’s not going to be 5— it might be 10 years, it might be 50 years, but, in terms of human health, the good news is that there will probably be other tools with which to handle that. And another thing is that the biggest concerns about human health aren’t really about food, they’re about access to health. And they’re about having the space in your life to be a healthy person, they’re about having the money to be a healthier person, they’re about having access to health care. And so, I think that it’s maybe a little iffy to talk about this from a “if we make more delicious meat, will people be less healthy?” When in reality, we see a really tight correlation between wealth inequality and health inequality. Those things are really closely related.
Tamar Haspel 50:35
Would you come on and do a whole episode about this? Because it’s a fascinating topic. And I think that there are some misconceptions out there in the world about it. But I think the basic… I think what I’m taking away from some of the things you just said is, I think this fundamental truth about climate-saving food, it’s not going to save the climate, unless it’s really bad for us.
Mike Grunwald 51:03
Well, unless people like it.
Tamar Haspel 51:05
But that’s the whole point, that when it’s something that people like, they eat a lot of it, and that’s the only way the climate is going to be saved. So it’s like we have to pick. It’s us or the planet.
Mike Grunwald 51:16
I come back to these hundreds of millions of people in the Bangladeshi floodplain, who are kind of like, “Are you really worried about whether cell-based meat is…?”
Hank Green 51:23
Well, but it does feel to me like it isn’t just a food problem. I think that it is a economic problem. I think that we need to interface with health, not by limiting what people can eat, not by controlling what people can eat, not by deciding what’s healthy for people, but by looking at what actually leads to healthy outcomes, which is a more equal society. And I’m not saying that it’s easy to get to either. If there’s a problem harder than cell-based meat, it’s equality.
Mike Grunwald 51:53
Well, and there’s going to be some cultural questions that you’ve gotten at, and hopefully, I think… this stuff obviously couldn’t be more fringe right now, right? It’s like, 12 rich people in Singapore have eaten this stuff, plus me. But I would bet— and we talked about, like, we were sort of making bets, Tamar and I, before this, like, when is this stuff gonna go mainstream? In a few years, you’re gonna start to see… you’re not going to get a cell-based burger, even at Whole Foods. But you’ll start to see there are companies like Mission Barns that are not making— they’re just making cell-based fat. And you’ll see that in a plant-based burger. And the hope is that, as this becomes normalized, it’s sort of like, “Oh, okay, well, that’s kind of real meat. Oh, that’s kind of not so gross. Oh, it tastes good,” and people aren’t keeling over, that you can start to move the needle, hopefully far enough to start having these real questions that Hank is raising about inequality and who gets access to it, and is it going to be good for us in the long run?
Tamar Haspel 53:07
Should we all look into our crystal balls and see what we think the future of cell-based meat is? You first, Hank.
Hank Green 53:15
Oh, gosh. Well, look, I think that I’m going to be eating cell-based nuggets by 2030. And I think I’m gonna love them. But already, I’m eating fungus-based nuggets, and they’re pretty good. But I think that the point at which meat becomes quite niche… I don’t know, I could see that by the end of the 2030s. And I very much hope to.
Mike Grunwald 53:47
How about you, Tamar?
Tamar Haspel 53:49
So, I would love to see this sector succeed. And one of the things that really bothers me is that there’s so many people rooting against it, because they don’t like the ickiness of it. And I’m totally rooting for it, but I’m afraid I am not as optimistic. And I don’t think there are going to be mainstream affordable nuggets by 2030. There might be by 2040. I think it’s going to take a couple of decades for this technology to improve to the point where we have those available to most people out in the world. Now, I think Mike’s point about these hybrid products with some plant-based, some fungus-based, some cell-based, those we could see. But as far as this technology as it stands, I think we’re at least a couple decades away.
Mike Grunwald 54:49
Yeah, I mean, I think this is… it is ultimately, as Hank keeps saying, it’s a technological problem, right? We talked about how the ASPCA was founded in the late 19th century to get better treatment of carriage horses, and they wanted shorter working hours for the horses and more watering stations. And then Henry Ford solved the problem, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass about horses. And so I do think it’s not going to be, you know, Veganuary, or meatless Mondays.
Tamar Haspel 55:20
Is that how you pronounce it?
Hank Green 55:25
It’s called “Vejanuary.”
Tamar Haspel 55:28
Mike Grunwald 55:29
Is it “jif” or “gif?” I don’t know. So I think this is the hope, this and plant-based and fungus-based. And I do think by 2030, you will start to see the needle move on this stuff. Not— I mean, look, right now even plant based is less than 1%. So it’s still just a rounding error. And it’s crazy to think that this stuff isn’t— cell-based, in particular, is not going to be 10% in 2030. But I think you will start to see it, not just in one restaurant in Singapore, and certainly the blended products I think are going to be a thing. And yeah, ultimately, I think this is where we’re going. I mean, we’re going towards a different meat system, whereas Hank said actual animal flesh is just going to be a rarefied delicacy. By 2050, I think that has to happen. And we’re going to need the leapfrog technologies as billions of people in the developing world escape poverty, and the first thing you do when you start having more money is you start eating more meat. We’d better come up with alternative solutions, or else we’re really screwed.
Tamar Haspel 56:44
Alright, so I say we book a Climavores eight years from now, 2030. We try and convince Hank to come back.
Hank Green 56:51
And I’ll just be eating my nuggets.
Tamar Haspel 56:52
And we’ll see who was closest.
Mike Grunwald 56:57
I mean, we’re so lucky to have had Hank on this. I mean, it’s like, you picked the perfect topic with the perfect guest. We’re really lucky to have you grace our humble little show.
Hank Green 57:08
I just want to keep learning more about it. It’s so cool. And hats off to all the people who are feeding you fake meat, Mike.
Tamar Haspel 57:18
Thanks so much for coming, Hank. It’s been great to have you on the show.
Hank Green 57:21
Yeah, it’s been a great conversation.
Tamar Haspel 57:24
So that was super fun, but I’m not sure I’m enthusiastic about having guests who are funnier than we are.
Mike Grunwald 57:30
And about 14 times better than us at the microphone. He’s just amazing. I think we should have him every week. We can change the show to “Climavores with Hank Green.”
Tamar Haspel 57:40
All right. I’m in.
Mike Grunwald 57:43
I mean, can we get Hank in? He doesn’t have anything better to do, does he?
Tamar Haspel 57:55
Climavores is a production of Postscript Media, and we’re planning some mailbag episodes to address your questions, so we want to know what they are. Give us a call at 508-377-3449 or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The show is hosted by me, Tamar Haspel…
Mike Grunwald 58:16
And me, Michael Grunwald.
Tamar Haspel 58:18
Executive producers are Scott Clavenna and Steven Lacy, senior editor is Anne Bailey. Cecily Mesa Martinez is the managing producer and Devin op. YJ is the Associate Producer. Engineering by Sean Marquand and Greg Ville from
Mike Grunwald 58:32
Post Script Media is supported by Prelude Ventures, a venture capital firm, focused on climate solutions across energy, food, agriculture, transportation, logistics and advanced materials. If you like what you hear, if you want Hank Green on every week, I think the best way to do it is to spread the word!