Addressing an assembly of secondary-school students in his hometown of Vijayawada, India, Uma Valeti, co-founder and CEO of US-based Memphis Meats (now Upside Foods), recounts when he first conceived of harvesting meat without animals. He was a young boy attending a birthday party. As the other children played in front of the house, he wandered to the backyard where he found older family members slaughtering chickens for the afternoon’s feast. It was a moment of striking clarity about the death required for meat, one that shaped the course of his life. This story, documented in Canadian director Liz Marshall’s film Meat the Future (2022) about Valeti and Co’s high-stakes endeavor to bring lab-grown meat to the US market, emphasizes an underplayed aspect of this fledgling industry: that animal welfare motivates its leading figures as much as any other concern.

In general, popular media frames “clean meat” (the industry’s preferred term) as an imminent technology for mitigating conventional meat production’s significant contributions to anthropogenic climate change (Rogers 2022). Meanwhile, scholarly treatments of lab-grown meat, such as Benjamin Wurgaft’s Meat Planet (2019), explore the promethean discourse surrounding the uncertain science. From pioneering Dutch eccentric Willem van Eelen in the 1990s to tireless Valeti, scholars examine how the science of lab-grown meat relates to venture capital’s role in financing research, which as of 2022 still has no other revenue stream. Marshall’s film neither challenges her subject’s perspective nor contests the industry’s claim to be leading a world-historical scientific revolution. Yet, by focusing on their shared commitment to animal rights (consistent with her past filmmaking), she nevertheless captures a fascinating paradox—why proponents of ethical veganism have become utterly fixated with replicating animal flesh, cell-for-living-cell.

Meat the Future (2022) documents Memphis Meats’ journey from Midwestern start-up to Silicon Valley darling. Having raised $400 million (USD) in its latest round of financing, its backers include tech titans and conventional meat processors. Today, the company is headquartered in Emeryville, California, which includes a 53,000-square-foot production facility where it carries out growth-media preparation, bioprocessing, harvesting, and food formulation. The film briefly introduces the technical process of growing animal tissues in human-controlled conditions and the enormous difficulties performing this at a scale required for mass distribution. As Marshall shows, bringing the animal to life is not only the responsibility of biologists working in laboratories but relies equally on company chefs and marketing managers to treat the harvested tissue as a culinary object. The film shifts from documenting to participating in this aspect by repeatedly presenting vivid slow-motion close-ups of lab-grown meat sautéing in pans before being sliced, garnished, and handed to expectant tasters. Considering the incredible costs of producing the first cell-cultured hamburger in 2013—approximately $500,000 (USD)—Meat the Future features a cornucopia of visual content that suggests an equivalence has been reached between lab grown and conventional meat, from its inherent textural properties to the way it looks while being cooked, plated, and discussed by those trying these products. If there is doubt or disappointment among the tasters shown, Marshall does not let on. Instead, the film suggests and appears to accept that the project’s success is vital for animal rights. Valeti and industry partners rehearse the idea that recreating the essence of life itself—growth—is the surest way to convince meat-hungry people to stop eating animals.

During a gathering of major figures in lab-grown meat featured in the documentary, Josh Tetrick, CEO of Just Inc., a plant-based egg producer and himself a committed vegan, explains that he “couldn’t imagine a world where McDonalds would replace all its hamburgers with a plant-based meat.” Biological equivalence is accepted as the prerequisite for those interested in diverting consumers away from eating conventional meat. Marshall finds this idea at work in industry conversations around production scale and state regulation. For example, while covering the opening round of FDA hearings on cultured meat labeling, she documents how the industry’s supporters blend technical justifications with appeals to ending animal cruelty. Besides productive enterprises, groups like the Animal Wellness Action, Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Good Food Institute—the “vegan food lobby”—can be found speaking in support of lab-grown meat. According to Good Food founder and CEO Bruce Friedrich, interviewed earlier in the film, “It is just true that the vast majority of people are not going to incorporate ethical considerations into their dietary choices. So, let’s take ethics off the table. And let’s just create products that people want to buy because they are delicious, they are reasonably priced, and they are everywhere.” As Marshall’s film demonstrates, lab-grown meat’s unprecedented potential to recreate the aesthetics of meat stands to relieve animal advocates of having to appeal to individuals’ ethics to dramatically alter their consumption habits. Instead, it builds their ethical vision into the food system from the ground up, irrespective of any commitment n the part of the public.

Marshall does not wrestle much with the merits of solving such political questions through technological means. But she does show that this future, for all its supposed benefits, remains highly uncertain. In its concluding frames, the film shows Valeti and team inching toward success in Memphis Meat’s new facility. While the future looks bright in sunny California, Valeti reveals they have yet to find a suitable replacement for fetal bovine serum, the vital nutrient soup harvested in slaughterhouses from cow fetuses that induces tissue cells to agglomerate in meat-like ways. Doing so is the final step toward ultimately separating meat-making from sentient animals, one that matters as much to the industry’s financial backers as to the animal rights activists who have staked their moral position on its success.

Joel Dickau, University of Toronto
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How ‘Lab Grown’ Meat Could Help the Planet and Our Health
June 6, 2022
Benjamin Aldes
Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food
University of California Press