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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
SCOTT: Hey there, SHORT WAVErs. Aaron Scott here. So as we start to tie on the aprons and gear up for this national holiday focused mostly on delicious food, we're going to take a look today at a mainstay of the American diet - meat.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Americans eat a lot of meat, more than 228 pounds per person per year on average.
SCOTT: Allison Aubrey, NPR health correspondent, bringing us the facts. Hi there, Allison.
AUBREY: Hi, Aaron. Good to be here.
SCOTT: Good to have you. So you've been reporting on some new ideas in meat production. Tell us about it.
AUBREY: Well, at a time when there's a lot of focus on climate change, there's also a lot of focus on food. And that's because an estimated one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, many directly from animal agriculture, their food, their pastureland, their gases. So now there's growing interest in a very new way to produce meat without slaughtering animals.
SCOTT: So you're not talking here about making plants taste like meat, which is to say, like, the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burgers. You're actually talking about animal meat but without the animals.
AUBREY: That's right. And I talked to the founder of a company that's a leading startup in this space. His name is Dr. Uma Valeti, and he is a cardiologist. And more than 15 years ago, he had this kind of eureka moment when he realized that it could be possible to extract cells from animals and grow meat directly from those cells.
SCOTT: Huh. And he's not a food scientist. He's a cardiologist. What got him thinking about growing meat in a lab?
AUBREY: Well, he got the idea when he was working at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and he was working with heart attack patients.
UMA VALETI: We were working on stem cells. We were taking stem cells from patients who had a very large heart attack. We would isolate the types of cells that will grow into heart muscle, and I would reinject them into the patient's heart again.
AUBREY: You know, he figured if it was possible to use cells to help grow muscle in the human heart, it would also be possible to use animal cells to grow meat.
VALETI: Once it got into my head, it was nearly impossible to get it out.
AUBREY: Now, there were two big motivations for him. He grew up eating meat. But during medical school, he worked at a campus dining hall, and he was sent to a slaughterhouse. And he recalls the smell and the scene of the production line.
VALETI: These were hundreds of chickens in minutes. They were literally moving past, like, at blazing speed. And they would be hanging upside down with blood dripping everywhere. That was an image that was, like - it just stayed in my head.
SCOTT: Wow. Sounds like the making of a vegetarian.
AUBREY: Well, he did stop eating meat for a long time. And he was also learning more about the environmental footprint of meat. For instance, cattle create a lot of methane emissions. There's also land use, water use, energy use. In fact, U.N. scientists have concluded that it will be nearly impossible to meet climate goals if agriculture does not change.
SCOTT: So today on the show, real meat without the animals, how meat grown in a lab could be one way to tackle climate change. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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SCOTT: So, Allison, this heart doctor, Uma Valeti - does he just, like, quit his job as a doctor and risk it all to become - what? - like, a meatrepreneur?
AUBREY: (Laughter) Like a meat entrepreneur? Is that what you're asking?
SCOTT: Uh-huh. That's what I'm asking. Meat entrepreneur.
AUBREY: (Laughter). Yes. That's exactly what he did. He swapped medicine for meat. He started fundraising. He hired a bunch of scientists to really dig in and help him figure out how to do this. In 2015, he co-founded the company. It's called Upside Foods. They're based in the San Francisco area. And he says at first, there were just a ton of skeptics.
VALETI: Everybody thought this was just science fiction.
AUBREY: But a decade later, he's actually producing the meat. The company is valued at over a billion dollars. And investors include some big meat companies, including Tyson and Cargill.
SCOTT: Wow. So this is very real. I mean, this is under way. There's like an animal-free meat factory operating somewhere?
AUBREY: Yeah. The company has recently opened its production facility in Emeryville, Calif. it's a 70,000-square-foot space. And Uma took me on a tour.
VALETI: We're now walking through the FDA-regulated side of the production facility.
AUBREY: It is open and cavernous with big glass walls. And we enter this room that's filled with these huge, shiny, stainless steel tanks.
Looks a little bit like a brewery.
VALETI: Yeah. But I think the big change is it's all glass walls.
AUBREY: Nothing to hide here.
AUBREY: It's in here where all the cells are growing into meat.
SCOTT: Wow. Tanks full of meat. What does it actually look like inside? I mean, is it just this, like, giant mass of muscle? Or is it set up in some sort of different way?
AUBREY: So when the process starts out, there's a lot of liquid. The feed is liquid. And early on, the cells are kind of bathed in liquid as they begin to multiply, proliferate.
AUBREY: And they basically grow into muscle, into animal tissue. ***
AUBREY: ** I mean, keep in mind that, you know, a chicken breast is mostly muscle. And when the meat comes out, it can be molded into the shapes that will seem more familiar to us, say, a nugget or a tenderloin.
SCOTT: I'm guessing there's a lot of proprietary information here, but were you able to learn more about how they actually grow this meat?
AUBREY: Well, they have spent a long time figuring out which mix of cells that they've extracted from the animal or biopsy from the animal are best for growing the meat. They've also had to figure out how much to feed them and exactly what to feed them. I mean, keep in mind all cells, whether they're in an animal or proliferating in a tank, need a few basic things to grow. They need amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. They need fats. They need carbohydrates. And Uma actually during the tour showed me how they feed the cells.
VALETI: What we're looking at on the left-hand side is where we make the feed.
AUBREY: This is where you're putting your amino acids, your fats, your sugars right into these tanks.
VALETI: Yeah. So we only give the cells what they need. So there is no excess nutrients that are given and wasted.
AUBREY: And his team continues to tinker with the alchemy to get it just right.
SCOTT: Yeah, I can only imagine how complicated it is because, I mean, our bodies are intricate webs. And there are blood vessels that are delivering nutrients and oxygen to the cells in our muscles. So how are they doing this without a circulatory system?
AUBREY: Right. So in an animal's body, the blood is that kind of transport system. But here the cells are awash in these nutrients, these liquid nutrients that are being piped in to the tank. So the feed they use here is similar to the blood in that it carries oxygen and nutrients. And that's really key to the growth of these cells.
VALETI: It's kind of substituting the performance of what blood would do in an animal.
AUBREY: And it takes just 2 to 4 weeks to go from cells to meat that's ready to be harvested. And these tanks - they're growing into chicken.
SCOTT: Wow. Chicken from scratch in less than a month. But, Allison, key question - what does it taste like?
AUBREY: I actually did get to taste it, and I got to talk to Daniel Davila. He's the senior food scientist for product development at Upside Foods. He prepared us a dish.
DANIEL DAVILA: It's our chicken fillet, which is going to be served with a white wine butter sauce.
AUBREY: He pan seared the chicken fillet.
DAVILA: You get this kind of really nice Maillard browning that you see there.
AUBREY: I'm really starting to get that sense of meat is being cooked.
DAVILA: (Laughter). Yeah.
AUBREY: Then he plates the dish.
DAVILA: All right. Please enjoy.
AUBREY: It really is delicious. I'm not sure if I'm tasting the butter wine sauce or if I'm tasting the Upside chicken.
DAVILA: Allison, this (laughter) is really kind of blowing my mind.
AUBREY: It is mind-bending. I get that. Yeah.
SCOTT: Yeah. I can't wait to taste some of this myself. But at the same point, it really does seem like this is a lot of effort and money to recreate something that nature has already perfected through millions of years of evolution. Why are they going to all this trouble instead of, you know, trying to curb how much meat we eat or some other solution to meat's impact on the climate?
AUBREY: You know, I think the companies that have been forging ahead on this see that the global demand for animal protein is growing. Yet at the same time, there's also a recognition that the environmental footprint of meat, at least in terms of the way it's being produced now at the scale it's being produced just may not be sustainable. Scientists are particularly focused on the carbon footprint of beef. Trees are cut down to create pasture to graze cattle. So a lot of land is needed to grow the grain to feed the animals. And scientists have basically concluded that it's going to be nearly impossible to meet the world's climate change goals without changing agriculture.
SCOTT: Alison, you're saying that Meatless Monday is just not going to cut it.
AUBREY: Not according to many scientists.
SCOTT: So, Allison, when when do the rest of us get to try this meat?
AUBREY: Well, you know, this really depends on what regulators do next. Upside Foods has just cleared a really key hurdle recently. The Food and Drug Administration gave Upside Foods a safety nod. They reviewed more than a hundred pages of documentation where the company made its case that cultivated meat is safe to eat. And the FDA basically said it has no further questions, which is the clearest signal the agency has given yet. Upside is the first company to get to this stage, and there are many more startups in this space. The FDA says it will review each company's submissions separately. And before Upside Foods can start selling, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has to weigh in on labeling and inspections.
SCOTT: So it is moving along. Yet I can also kind of imagine that a lot of people are going to respond to this lab-grown meat with a very strong ick. Is there any sense about whether people want to eat this cultivated meat?
AUBREY: I think that's a good question. There is some consumer research showing that among younger people, nearly 90% of Gen Zs said they'd be at least somewhat open to trying cultivated meat.
SCOTT: Oh, wow.
AUBREY: Among boomers, it was a little bit lower, about 74%. But, you know, until these products are actually available, it's going to be hard to know how much demand there is.
SCOTT: Well, Allison Aubrey, as soon as you are able to throw a dinner party serving cultivated meat, I hope I can get a seat at the table. Thanks so much for bringing this to us.
AUBREY: Happy to do it. Thank you.
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SCOTT: A quick reminder before we go, if you've been listening to SHORT WAVE, even just for a little bit, we would love your thoughts on the show. Please take a minute to let us know what you think at npr.org/shortwavesurvey. Or click the link in the episode notes. Do it now. We'll love you forever.
This episode was produced by Devan Schwartz, edited by Gabriel Spitzer and fact-checked by Brit Hanson. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Beth Donovan is our senior director. And Anya Grundman is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Aaron Scott. Thanks, as always, for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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