Uma Valeti is a cardiologist, entrepreneur, and CEO and co-founder of Memphis Meats, a company that produces cell-based meat: real meat grown directly from animal cells without the need to raise animals. He spoke in the 2019 session The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter World.
When I tell people that I left a compelling career in cardiology to start a company developing a way to grow meat directly from animal cells without raising animals, they are often surprised. After all, the connection between resuscitating people from cardiac arrest and resuscitating an increasingly burdened food system is not immediately apparent. The fact is, I left cardiology because I thought that starting my company, Memphis Meats, would allow me to have an even greater positive impact on the world. Let me explain.
Today, we are in the midst of a steady increase in global population, coupled with a dramatic increase in per capita meat consumption. With up to 10 billion people expected to populate our planet by 2050, meat demand is expected to roughly double. This is a largely positive trend because it means that citizens of emerging economies are for the first time able to afford high quality meat, poultry, and seafood. But it also poses major challenges for our global food system—namely, how are we going to feed 10 billion people by 2050?
The challenge is real. Society’s current meat production method — livestock — has a storied history of providing the world with delicious, high-quality and affordable meat products. But there is a ceiling for how much meat can be harvested from animals, and a cost to doing so—for our planet and its inhabitants.
Consider the following: today, we as a global society raise around 70 billion land animals for food each year, which requires about one-third of the world’s arable land and fresh water. There is simply not enough space on our increasingly crowded planet to fit an additional 70 billion animals by 2050. Put simply, we will not have enough resources to feed our hungry planet.
If we want a shot at meeting this doubling of demand for meat, we need to do what the food and agriculture industry has always done: embrace innovation to develop new production methods that can supplement existing methods. That’s where Memphis Meats comes in.
As I mentioned, we at Memphis Meats are developing a method to grow meat directly from animal cells, without the need to raise animals. Our process, in broad strokes, is as follows: we obtain a small number of animal cells from livestock animals. We feed those cells nutrients, just like what one feeds to animals—amino acids, water, oxygen, sugar, lipids, minerals—and we let the cells grow to form tissues. In essence, we re-create the conditions that naturally exist inside an animal’s body, but without the animal. Once the tissues have grown sufficiently, we harvest the meat and prepare it the same way you would conventionally-produced meat. We call this process “essential nutrition”, because we can focus on providing the cells precisely what they need and nothing more.
Importantly, our products are not vegan, plant-based or “fake meat.” They are real meat—real animal flesh—but produced outside the animal. As we like to say: our beef is beef, our chicken is chicken.
What are the advantages of this new method? At scale, we expect it to be far more resource efficient. We don’t need to produce parts of the animal that don’t translate into meat—horns, fur, or the energy that enables a cow to run around and birth calves—we just make delicious cuts of meat. And given the severe resource constraints on our planet, we believe our innovation can help feed the world. We also believe that our process can provide consumers with a choice that does not require them to compromise on the planet, animals or public health.
We’re not the only ones working on this challenge. When we first started Memphis Meats in 2015, there were no other companies producing cell-based meat (also known as “cultured meat”). Almost four years later there are roughly 40 companies across the globe. We’re honored to have launched the global cell-based meat industry, and excited to be at the vanguard of it.
In fact, we see ourselves not just as leaders of this emerging industry, but as shepherds of it. We had our media debut, which included a story in the Wall Street Journal and a viral video debuting the world’s first cell-based meatball, when we were less than six months old and had only four team members. Since then we’ve regularly updated the public as we have made progress on our product development, business development, regulatory pathway and our growing team. We’ve also been in regular communication with other stakeholders in the industry — including entrepreneurs interested in starting their own competing companies — from early on in order to help build a healthy industry ecosystem. For instance, last summer I had the pleasure of meeting with the Indian government as well as scientists, entrepreneurs and investors from Singapore to discuss, among other things, the prospect of government support for cell-based meat. I was delighted to see that a few months later, both countries joined a handful of other foreign governments in announcing federal funding for cell-based meat research.
We do not expect cell-based meat to completely replace livestock production. It will require multiple meat production methods to feed the 10 billion—including large scale animal agriculture, small scale subsistence methods and cell-based methods. As a result, we’ve been able to partner with many different stakeholders in food and adjacent fields who share this belief. Our investors include mission-driven individuals and institutions like Bill Gates, Richard Branson and New Crop Capital, top tier financial firms like DFJ and Atomico, and two of the largest meat companies in the world, Cargill and Tyson Foods. These meat companies recognize that there is a very compelling economic opportunity for the existing industry in cell-based meat. We have also partnered with major trade associations representing the conventional meat industry, like the North American Meat Institute, as well as non-profits advocating to reform our food system, like The Good Food Institute and New Harvest.
We call this eclectic group of supporters our “Big Tent” coalition. We believe that our mission of feeding the world can be a source of common ground around which people who might have different perspectives, life experiences and motivations can unite. With the collective energy of these diverse players, we can build a food system that works for everybody, and bring better nutrition to billions of people.
I left cardiology to grow meat from the cell up because I want to help care for all inhabitants on this planet. It remains to be seen what the food system of tomorrow looks like, but I’m feeling optimistic.
I’ll see you in 2050.