The Race to Bring Meat Alternatives to Scale

Uma Valeti makes a lot of promises, but one weighs heavier on his mind than others. He’s only got a few years to make good on the pledge he recently made to his daughter. That on the day she graduates high school, he’ll throw a party for her and her friends where they can chow down on chicken that’s been battered, fried, and grown in a vat.

The cardiologist-cum-CEO of Memphis Meats is on a mission to make slaughter-free meat that’s as craveable and affordable as the real thing. His company, backed by investors like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill, and Tyson, is competing with a pack of other well-funded startups all trying to reach the same goal. Valeti thinks Memphis can get there first.

“There are always going to be people raising animals and eating animals,” says Valeti, who spoke onstage with legendary San Francisco chef Traci De Jardins and WIRED writer Adam Rogers on Friday at the WIRED25 conference in San Francisco. “But as more and more people want meat that checks a bunch of other boxes, for the first time in the history of humanity we’re putting that option on the table.”

Valeti might be a heart doctor, but he doesn’t want you to eat lab-grown meat for your health. He wants you to do it for the health of the planet. The meat industry is a ghastly enterprise. A single living, feeling, methane-farting cow can consume up to 11,000 gallons of water a year. In the US, animal agriculture is responsible for around 4 percent of greenhouse gases; globally, livestock contributes up to 15 percent of such planet-melting emissions. Then there’s the water-polluting fecal run-off, the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and the conscience-curdling animal murder. Not to mention the fact that elsewhere in the world demands for meat are on the rise, threatening to double today’s annual meat production by 2050. In August, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change released an alarming report that urged a radical rethinking of how humans produce food if there’s to be any hope of reversing climate change.

But the promise of lab-grown meat to actually replace livestock is still far off. No one, including Memphis, has a fully operational facility brewing up in-vitro animal flesh at commercial scale just yet. Valeti says his company is building a pilot plant to produce the cultured beef, chicken, and duck they’ve already demonstrated in the lab. He hopes to one day launch legions of similar plants around the world, close to urban centers so as to cut down on transportation emissions. But until then, the lack of a market footprint means there isn’t much data quantifying how lab-grown meat actually stacks up against factory farming, sustainability-wise.

That’s where companies like Impossible Foods, which makes plant-based meat replacements, are already starting to pave the way. Des Jardins, a long-time consultant for the company, was the first chef on the West Coast to debut the bleeding, Maillard reaction-forming, meatless Impossible Burger back in 2016. Back then, the biggest question was whether it was possible to make something tasty enough that people would choose it over the real thing. “As a chef, I’m always thinking about flavor and texture,” she says. “If it doesn’t taste delicious nobody’s going to want it. And with the Impossible Burger I think we’ve hit the nail on the head.”

The fast-food giants think so too. In August, Burger King debuted the Impossible Whopper at its 7,200 US locations. The national rollout is the biggest validation yet for an emerging industry that hopes to challenge the $860-billion American meat business. It’s also a serious test of Impossible Foods’ production facility, located near the Oakland Airport, just a BART ride away from Memphis Meats in Berkeley.