Episode 1: Brad Barbera
Cultured Meat or Clean Meat is changing the world in many different ways. Brad Barbera of the Good Food Institute, discusses how the clean meat revolution can change the world in terms of health, the environment, animal welfare, and feeding the global population. This podcast was published in March 2018.
Thanks for tuning in to the Cultured Meat and Future Food podcast. This show is intended for anyone interested in cultured meat and food technologies. I’m excited to have Brad Barbera from the Good Food Institute on this episode. Brad is currently involved at the Good Food Institute where he leads a team that recruits, encourages, and supports startup businesses in the clean meat market. He brings together business minds with technology minds to spark growth in the clean meat industry. Brad, I’d like to welcome you to the Cultured Meat and Future Food podcast.
Thank you, Alex. It’s great to be here.
Brad, can you tell us a little bit about the Good Food Institute?
Absolutely. The Good Food Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and we’re dedicated to creating a healthy, humane, and sustainable food supply. We put together a team of scientists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and lobbyists, and we’re focused on using markets and food innovation to transform our food system away from industrial animal agriculture and toward plant based and clean meat alternatives.
Can you tell us a little bit about your current role there?
I am the Director of Innovation and the role of our innovation function, as you said in the intro, is to recruit and support innovators and entrepreneurs, help them start plant-based and clean meat, egg, and dairy companies. We operate a little like an accelerator or an incubator for the plant based and clean meat market sectors. We help founders with things like communications, regulatory issues, business plans, connecting them with venture capitalists and just any other aspects necessary to succeed with their businesses. The GFI’s big objective is to mobilize markets and food innovation to transform the food system away from animal based products and we see that clean meat is one of the key technological paths that we believe will get us there.
We hear the term clean meat. Sometimes we hear cultured meat. I think in vitro meat. What is really the industry standard?
Well, we like to use the term “clean meat” and there’s a variety of reasons for that. One was we used to talk about cultured meat and then we were talking with scientists at the Institute of Food Technologists, and we found that cultured meat caused a lot of confusion for them. They related it to cultured foods like yogurt or sauerkraut or kimchi, and it kind of confused people thinking that it was like pickled meat of some sort. We also, when were talking with people in the seafood industry, there’s also the term “aqua culture” and that implies farm raised fish. So, there’s just a lot of confusion with it. So we were looking around at other terms and there’s a great parallel to clean energy, especially in the sense of something that is far more environmentally friendly than current animal-based agriculture. It’s also got some benefits that are clean in the sense of there are no biological pathogens in the production process. There’s no hormones or antibiotics in use. So it’s just the kind of thing that the clean really helped communicate what the product was without really causing any confusion about how it was made.
It has been quite a few years since Mark Post had introduced the, you know, the clean meat meatball it was or hamburger, but have you eaten clean meat or if not, is that something you would be interested in trying?
Oh, I am absolutely dying to try some and I have not yet had the opportunity. So I am looking forward to some visits, to be some of the organizations that are leading the way in clean meat and hoping I get to try some of these delicacies
From a business standpoint, how does the clean meat industry compare to other food businesses?
Well, food businesses in general are at a very mature stage of development. I mean the food businesses have been often around for decades or even centuries. And the, even though the, the system evolves, it’s a slow process. And a lot of the new products are only moderately differentiated from old products. The production, distribution, and consumption of these products are substantially similar to those that have come before. The margins tend to be thin. Return on investment in innovations tend to be low. So that’s kind of how the current food business is, but clean meat presents something that is very new and different and has the potential to transform the protein market. Since clean meat is produced in an entirely new way without involving animals with the lower resource inputs and lower waste than in existing animal agriculture, it presents a business opportunity of just tremendous proportion. It’s just at the beginning of the technological S-curve and I find it interesting that a lot of people call that the era of ferment when it’s, when they’re talking about innovation in general. And it just seems so apropos for this area in terms of how the product is actually produced. And I believe that we are just about at the inflection point where we will be transforming from slow technological growth and in that discovery or ferment phase, and really exploding into very rapid growth of technology in this area. And that provides just tremendous opportunity for those investing now in a clean meat businesses.
Are there any laws or regulations that are slowing things down?
Not at this point, but there are a lot of concerns that there could be some resistance or it’s just a process that we are going to have to go through to figure out how these products are going to be regulated. And that’s one of the areas that the Good Food Institute is participating in. We work with lawmakers to try to help them develop some very rational, reasonable, and level playing field regulations in this space.
What are some of the biggest challenges or, really, risks for bringing this type of new food technology to the market?
Well, certainly one is technological. Additional research and development is really needed to be able to tackle the engineering challenges needed to increase scale and decrease costs. This is a great opportunity for some of the best and brightest in cellular biology and biochemical engineering, but those people with those talents may not be aware that these opportunities even exist. And that’s part of GFI’s role is to go out and help build that awareness and actively recruit people into this space. A second challenge would be communication in the marketplace, as we already touched on how you refer to this product is even a question. And our research has suggested that clean meat is a great way to communicate it, but there’s still a good deal of research that needs to be done in terms of communicating the advantages that clean meat has over animal slaughter meat. And that’s what one of the things that a GFI staff is also doing is research in that communication and marketing area.
Is there a hub for clean meat technology? I know that there’s been a lot of research, for example, being done in the Netherlands. There’s a lot of startups that are popping up in Silicon Valley. Is there a central hub for this type of tech?
Certainly Silicon Valley is one of those hubs, but we are seeing a lot of interests all over the world. So, it’s not just in the US but as you mentioned, the Netherlands with Mosa Meats; there’s Super Meats in Israel. And we are actively out in all sorts of international communities with folks in India and Brazil and Israel. Working on Asian countries as well to get into this space and contribute their intellectual energies as well. So while there isn’t one central hub, there is definitely a network of a variety of hubs around the world that are working together and coordinating on this effort.
For the startup founders that are interested in this type of clean meat technology, what is really the best way to get started and do you think that they need to have a scientific background?
Well, certainly we would advocate, especially in our innovation department. Give us a call at the Good Food Institute and we would love to try to help give you some direct support in getting your organization started and in answer to your second question, yes, absolutely. We think there is a need for technical expertise in this area because the technology is such a critical component to building a business. With that said, we like to see founding partners that have both that technological capability and the entrepreneurial business capability to get companies started, get them growing, collect the venture capital, and invest it in the right way so that the company can grow and prosper.
With most tech startups, it’s really easy to get set up. Most of the time, all you need is a computer in some sort of server, right? But when we’re talking about clean meat, there’s a lot more that’s involved. For example, a lab and different types of equipment. Do you think that this deters entrepreneurs from clean meat startups,
We have seen that there are a number of entrepreneurs that have found ways to share lab space and invest appropriately so that they can have the equipment that they need to start off at a bench scale, a very small scale products, and then work on getting the venture capital after they’ve proven their concept. Get the venture capital required to increase the capacity and start the scale up process from bench to a pilot level scale, and then eventually onto production scale, and especially in the area of clean meat. That’s where we see the greatest need is really in that commercial scale up process.
When would you predict that we could affordably be able to purchase this clean meat in the supermarket? And I think Mark Post was recently quoted that I think it was like “maybe $11 hamburger.” So, you know, is that really the price range we’re looking at to be in the supermarket? Or when do you think it’ll actually be on store shelves?
Well, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my innovation career, it’s not to make definitive prognostications of the future. So, I won’t bend down to a specific date or time range. But what I will say is that you mentioned Mark Post and another expert from Memphis Meats, Dr. Uma Valeti. They both said that commercial production will be available in roughly five years or less and we’ll be cost competitive with meat in roughly 10 years. So Dr. Post recently said that if by 2020 or so, he believes that his product will be available in high end restaurants. So, that’s how we see this initially getting into the marketplace. It will be at a higher price point, but will it be able to get out into the commercial space and have people start experiencing this product? The trick, of course, is then to get the costs down to parody with current animal slaughter meat products and the speed with which clean meat is actually going to be able to reach the marketplace is going to be basically dependent on the funding that is available to do the research and development needed to increase scale and decrease costs.
Fortunately, we are seeing investors recognizing the promise of these businesses and putting their money into them. We’ve seen visionaries like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. We’ve seen a former CEO of General Electric, Jack Wells, and his wife, Susie, are investing in this area. A venture capital firm, DFJ, is investing in this area and they were some of the early investors in some really big companies like Skype and Twitter. So, there’s definitely a lot of individual investment going in this area and perhaps maybe even more exciting is that the meat industry is also seeing that clean meat is the future. So, Tyson Foods, the largest meat company in America, has invested in Memphis Meats, as has Cargill, the largest private company in the US. PHW Group is Germany’s largest producer of chicken and they’ve invested in the Israeli startup Superman. So, the meat industry itself is starting to invest in this and we applaud that. We are thinking that who knows how to market and distribute meat better than the meat industry itself. And so with their investment in this area and the investment of other VCs, we really think that S-curve, it’s going to help accelerate that technological growth and get these products to market in the not terribly distant future.
We hear a lot about really cultured or clean beef and sometimes chicken as well. What’s, you know, if beef is first in line, chicken is second in line, you know, what’s next? Or is the focus being on fish or does that not really matter?
Well, the interesting thing is that beef may be first to market, but possibly not. We’ve seen some clean duck produced and duck has the capability of being a very high end product that could fit into those high end restaurants that we talked about being probably the first place that you’ll see clean meat get out into the marketplace, but there are people definitely working on clean fish or clean seafood in general. So, there are lots of different organizations approaching this from many different ways. And we think that all of them have a good potential to grow and potentially be successful in this marketplace.
Once the clean meat does become mainstream, who do you think will be the main consumers? Will it be a comparison against organic beef, for example, or is it something that you think everyone will be switching over to?
Well, I think that once the trifecta of taste, price, and convenience are achieved, the general population will be the main consumer of meat. And here’s some data that I think kind of supports the logic of that. Currently, roughly 96% of Americans eat fast food. 80% of them are eating fast food once a week. Now, I don’t think there’s anybody out there who does this that doesn’t know that fast food is not exactly the healthiest. It’s not exactly the best for the environment and yet people are eating it because it’s cheap, convenient, and it tastes good. So, these are the three primary drivers of almost all food purchases. Now, the result of that trifecta, as I call it, is that even though in recent surveys, you’d see 47% of people say they want to ban slaughterhouses and I think it was also 47% support banning factory farming of animals in general. And 55% said that they were wanting to eat fewer animal based foods and close to 70% said that they were uncomfortable with the way animals are used in food industry. You go out and do these surveys and people will tell you all of these things are on their minds, and yet in 2018, the per capita consumption of meat is at an all time high. So, how do you justify those two things? It really gets down to that taste price and convenience thing. And then once you get clean meat and plant-based meats into that arena where they are equal in taste, they’re equal in price, they’re equally available, and people are aware of them. The mainstream consumer is going to have no reason to look at alternatives. It’s going to be become the default choice that clean meat and plant based meat are really the direction they want to go. So, we see this as kind of an inevitable direction where it will be the dominating player in the general market. It’s just going to take time to get to that point where taste, price, and convenience are all achieved.
Do you imagine a future where we might even see fast food chains like McDonald’s or Burger King serving exclusively cultured meat?
In the distant future, I can absolutely imagine that. And, you know, Richard Branson has a quote, which I won’t try to remember verbatim, but it’s basically that in 30 years there will be no need for animal slaughter to feed the world’s population. We tend to agree. We think that as the future unfolds this is just going to be an absolute necessity. In 30 years time, we’re going to add another one third to the human population and it will be approaching close to 10 billion people. And the demand for protein per person is also increasing over time. So, the current animal agriculture system is simply not going to be able to keep up with that kind of demand. So, the alternative development is really inevitable if we’re going to feed that such a growing population. And we think once those alternatives are available and they meet that trifecta of taste, price, and convenience, it will just become the default choice for most consumers, including at fast food restaurants.
With the current technology, we won’t be replacing a porterhouse or a ribeye steak, right? We’re only focusing on ground meat, I believe. Do you see that you will be able to expand that technology to having a full steak in the future?
I’ll talk about three different phases. One would be, yes. Currently, like those initial products, I know they’re looking at things like burgers and meatballs that are grounded and formed, but there are technologies available that we believe over time and, you know, with investment in the research and development, you will be able to have products that are essentially the equivalent of existing animal products. But then I would say that third phase could be that you could make products, I’ll call it like designer meat, and you could arrange it so that it has a combination of flavors and textures that are even better than existing meats. That’s the promise that this kind of technology would hold.
Designer made. I really liked the sound of that. So, you know, there are many benefits in terms of health, environmental, and avoiding slaughter. What are the current criticisms against this clean meat industry?
Well, certainly one is cost and some people like to point out that the first clean meat hamburger costs $300,000. And then they scoff at the possibility that, you know, such a high cost could possibly be brought down to earth, but just as with other products that are dependent on cutting edge technology, the price of clean meat has already dropped by several orders of magnitude in just a few years since Dr. Post made that first burger. So, people need to remember things like, well, a great example is Apple. Apple put over 2.5 billion dollars into research and development to produce the first iPhone. Now, nobody looked at that and scoffed and said, well, you’ll never be able to make a successful product and look at the impact that it has had over its 10 years of existence. So, we think that this is very much in that same arena where we are at that beginning of that S-curve. And as the technology accelerates in improvement, those costs are going to come way down. Another key criticism that we hear is people are concerned that it isn’t “natural”. And if you could see me, you’d see that I’m putting up air quotes around the term natural cause that’s a term that I find personally kind of frustrating. So, clean meat is grown in basically the equivalent of a brewery or a parallel to a brewery sort of process. It’s very safe, clean, and efficient. And you contrast that with modern factory style animal agriculture. And it’s just something that people don’t think about when they’re buying their current meats that the current animal agriculture system is about as far from quote “natural”, as it could be. Chickens have been unnaturally bred so that they now grow six to seven times as quickly as they would naturally. Similarly, cows now give more than 10 times the milk output that they would have had naturally. Turkeys are now so top heavy that they can’t even breed naturally. A standard farm involves putting in like 50,000 birds into a feces filled building and then you pump them full of antibiotics and a stat that just absolutely floored me when I first heard it is that 80% of antibiotics used in the United States don’t go towards treating human illness. They go into animal feeds, 80%. Now, and that’s contributing potentially to antibiotic resistance. It’s just about as unnatural and industry as you can imagine, but it’s just, that’s not in somebody’s mind when they go to the grocery store every day and they see it every day and they’re just kind of comfortable with it. With when it comes to clean meat, allowing cells to grow and reproduce is about as natural as, I mean, it’s just what cells do when they have a food and energy available. I mean, you could argue that growing crops in a greenhouse is unnatural. You could argue that farming animals is unnatural. But it’s just, it’s more efficient than hunting. So, this is just kind of the next phase, the next step in the evolution of the food industry. It’s clean, safe, and vastly more efficient and better than raising animals on farms. And we believe that as we learn how to communicate that message effectively to consumers it will not be an issue that they hold long term, but it is a challenge that we hear in the short term.
A lot of people that are in the industry, they’re either vegetarian or vegan for many of the reasons you just described. Have you seen a particular direction in terms of the people working on this or does it have anything to do with veganism or vegetarianism?
There are certainly many people motivated that way. We see that addressing the animal agriculture system addresses four main issues and global issues and potentially world changing issues. One is certainly animal welfare and we have consistently seen an increase in people’s concern expressed in surveys about animal agriculture and just animal welfare in general. So, that’s one and that tends to be one that will drive a lot of people towards a vegan lifestyle. We do see other people coming into this space for other reasons though. One is the environment and there’s a report called livestock’s long shadow that the UN put out a few years ago and they estimated that the animal agriculture around the world produces 40% more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportation combined. That’s every train, every car, every truck, every boat, every airplane, which is just a, that’s a staggering amount that it’s 40% more than all of those. So, and that’s just the climate change impact. It doesn’t get into some of the local factors such as the ruining groundwater runoff and things of that nature. So, that’s another key motivator. Others are driven by human health concerns. As I mentioned with the antibiotics, there’s a big concern that the current animal agriculture system is helping to drive forward that antibiotic resistance development of key pathogens and, you know, potentially re-exposing mankind to diseases that we thought were long gone. And then there’s also the nutritional component to it. So, there are concerns that animal sourced meats may have some deleterious effects to human health that plant based diets and potentially clean meat diets would not have. So, let’s see, health, environment, animal welfare, and I mentioned earlier the growing population and the ability to feed 10 billion people when we already, when we’re only at 7 billion and we already have roughly a billion around the world suffering from hunger and malnutrition, you know, how are we going to feed a population? That’s going to add another 3 billion to that. These are critically important challenges that I think all of mankind is facing. And it’s amazing that approaching this the clean meat space and plant based meat is allowing us to address all four of those major issues all at once.
From a business standpoint, do you think that emerging markets are a better target or, for example, the US and Europe?
We think that all targets are important and as I mentioned, we already have, GFI has managing directors in Brazil and Israel and India. So, we are addressing some of those markets already and actively seeking to address others. We think that, we see that, there is a growing demand for meats in the developing markets. And so developing clean meat and plant based meat is a great way to address those needs before they get an addiction to factory farm animals. But then there also is a big demand in the wealthier countries and because clean meat especially will probably come in from a higher cost standpoint and be driven down as technology improves and volumes increase, then we’ll, so those will, it’ll probably be introduced in a Western world area and then from there expand to the rest of the globe,
What are the next steps in the clean meat industry?
Well, as we’ve discussed, we’ve got already proof of concept for clean meats in a variety of areas. We’ve talked about beef and duck and chicken. So, that proof of concept has already been achieved. It’s really about investing in the technology to be able to scale up production and reduce costs to make this something that is mass market affordable. Yeah, I’ve seen some calculations from some of our best scientists and the potential for that cost reduction is very good. We believe that the, you know, the business model of clean meat and the assumptions that go into building that business model are in fact sound. And since we’re getting to that technological inflection point where the rate of technology improvement is about to accelerate rapidly, it’s really an exciting time to be in this industry. And that in terms of the next step, it’s really investing in that scale up and cost reduction area.
We have a question from one of our listeners, Uri from Chicago asks, how do everyday people partake in the industry?
Well, there are a variety of ways. One would be to visit the GFI website and learn more about how clean meat works and it may spark some ideas in what you might be able to do. If you are involved at all in investments, encouraging people to look at investing in this space would certainly be helpful. Then, just educating yourself and educating those around you about clean meat and trying to take away that fear factor that some may have about a lab grown sort of thing. And just learn that the advantages to it are just enormous and that its potential impact and benefit is just tremendous.
You can learn more about the Good Food Institute at GFI.org. Brad, is there anything else our listeners should be looking out for within the clean meat industry?
Well, if you are an entrepreneur or a technologist who is interested in this space, please give me a call directly. That would be the first thing I would suggest. And like I said, in the answer to the listener’s question, please just educate yourself in this area and learn more. Feel free to you know, find me and ask us questions. We’d be happy to try to provide great answers for you,
Brad, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your story on the Cultured Meat and Future Food podcast.
Alex, it has been a real pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity.
This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to seeing you on our next episode.
Transcription by Amanda Leung, Tufts University