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Event Review: Alternative Proteins, Alternative Futures in San Francisco, August 26, 2014

Published September 3, 2014 | Updated June 16, 2021 |

Sherrie Tullsen-Chin headshot

Sherrie Tullsen-Chin; New Harvest Volunteer

Sherrie Tullsen-Chin is a long-term New Harvest volunteer; involved with the fundraising team and Google AdWords campaign. Sherrie lives in San Jose, California and attended the recent cultured meat panel in San Francisco, on August 26th, 2014. Dr. Mark Post and Ben Wurgaft were panelists, alongside members of the insect protein industry. Sherrie kindly wrote up her thoughts on the event in the blog post below to share the experience with those who could not attend!

 If people perceive that cultured meat removes understanding, control, and reassurance that our food is healthy and safe one step further from our control, we will likely face an uphill battle.

Last week, I was one of about 60 very lucky individuals to attend the forum: Alternative Proteins, Alternative Futures at the Dutch consulate in San Francisco. The event was jointly sponsored by the Consulate General of the Netherlands and Institute for the Future, headquartered in Palo Alto, California. The event consisted of a talk by Dr. Mark Post of Masstricht University, creator of the world’s first cultured beef burger, followed by a panel discussion with other innovators and entrepreneurs in the area of developing alternative, efficient, and sustainable sources of protein.

Panelists

Moderator


The evening began with hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and mingling. I ran into Ben Wurgaft (there to represent his work as a cultured meat ethnographer) as he had noticed my New Harvest shirt- which turned out to be a great conversation starter. We chatted for a bit and he said something about his interest in interviewing people like myself who are just ordinary people attracted to the cultured meat issue. At first this puzzled me. Why wouldn’t we want to interview people who aren’t yet aware or aren’t yet convinced of the urgency of bringing cultured meat to the masses? Isn’t understanding their thought processes more important? They are after all the ones we have to convince to eat it.

Then I realized we don’t just want to convince people to go along with cultured meat, we want them to become champions of it, even if only in their conversations with others. Cultured meat is partly about giving people back ownership and control over their food, and we want people to feel empowered by it, not just surrender in resignation. So starting by understanding what aspects of the message resonated and inspired people like myself to get involved is crucial to gaining more supporters.

My next encounter was with Josh Balk, co-founder of Hampton Creek, the company making the chicken egg obsolete. He (again) noticed my New Harvest shirt and started introducing himself. I quickly stopped him mid-introduction and informed him I knew exactly who he was! I told him my story of how I came to find out about New Harvest and contact our Executive Director, Isha Datar, for the first time, mentioned I was helping with fundraising, and he said he had just been on the phone earlier in the day with Isha, brainstorming ideas for fundraising. It struck me how connected the cultured meat world is at this point, and that is one of the things that I love about it. We hadn’t yet met, but we had an instant connection and shared commitment to New Harvest, cultured meat, and taking the animal out of animal products.

I also ran into Drew Wilson and Stephen Calnan, New Harvest community members, and co-founders of the group SF Vegan Tech, a group of vegans who meet to network and learn from each other with an eye toward supporting plant-based businesses, organizations, and activists with tech services. It was inspiring to hear of yet another way people are using technology to move the world toward less reliance on animal products, given the potential it has to hasten our progress towards this goal.


When it was nearing time to move on to Dr. Post’s talk, I grabbed some veggie samosas and a seat next to New Harvest community member Jeff Peng and his partner, Matthew. Dr. Post started off stating he was worried, given the nature of the audience before him, that he might share things in his talk that we already knew, but I for one learned a lot.

Some of the highlights of Mark’s talk:

  • The publicized cooking and tasting of the world’s first cultured beef burger last August in London had two purposes: to prove it was possible, and to begin to sensitize the public to the upcoming crisis in meat consumption.
  • Cultured meat needs to ultimately meet three main criteria: it needs to be efficient, sustainable, and as close to the meat we’re familiar with as possible.
  • It hadn’t occurred to me that cultured meat production may someday have it’s own sustainability issues as the population continues to soar and that it’s important to anticipate this trajectory now.
  • The argument for why the protein source to replace conventional meat has to come from animal cells as opposed to plants if we want to eventually wean the human population off eating muscle tissue from actual animals is compelling. There seems to be something in meat that people crave. It may well be that there is a drive within humans to seek and eat meat almost as strong as the drive to procreate.
  • The progress that’s already being made in overcoming some of the hurdles to developing cultured meat that meets the necessary criteria is really encouraging.
  • In terms of sustainability (a term Dr. Post used to refer to having the necessary inputs and components in sufficient quantities over the long term), the fetal calf serum currently used to nourish the cells, is an issue. We need a replacement because we won’t have sufficient quantities once the global herd size is greatly reduced, and because it is a stumbling block to making cultured meat truly animal-free. The serum issue has already been solved for other types of cells with “serum replacers”, and Dr. Post was confident they would have a solution for muscle cells by the end of the year.
  • The gel the cells are originally seated in while they organize themselves into their donut like shape is also animal-derived, and coming up with an animal-free substitute is more challenging than with the serum. Dr. Post’s team is working with a Swiss academic group to develop an alternative by placing cells in various randomly chosen combinations of animal-free ingredients. He thinks it will be about two years until they are able to hone in on the right combination.
  • The first cultured beef burger had beet juice and saffron added to it for color. Myoglobin is what gives beef it’s red color (not blood), and while beef muscle cells grown in culture do produce myoglobin, it’s not in sufficient quantities to create the desired color. Dr. Post’s team has discovered, though not in time for the London tasting, that if you place the cells in low oxygen conditions for a while, they start to develop myoglobin to a much higher extent.
  • Aside from color, lack of fat was the other glaring deficiency of the London burger. There aren’t a lot of medical applications for fat tissue, so the science isn’t as advanced, and the techniques that do exist aren’t compatible with food production, so Dr. Post’s team is challenged with redesigning the way we produce fat tissue.

The take home message I came away with after hearing this part of Dr. Post’s presentation is that the technical challenges on the road to cultured meat being efficient, sustainable, and recognizable to people as, well, just meat, are actually not that daunting.


This is where the conversation really got interesting, and the audience started to participate. There were a couple marketing experts in the audience and both raised interesting questions such as how much to appeal to logic vs. emotion, and how much to rely on simple, fun marketing messages vs. more serious and informative ones.

As Dr. Post reminded us as he closed, the real challenge is getting the world ready to buy and try cultured meat. Food is a very emotional issue for most people, and we are all sensitized to the idea that in so many ways food production and choices have been taken out of our control. If people perceive that cultured meat removes understanding, control, and reassurance that our food is healthy and safe one step further from our control, we will likely face an uphill battle.

If, however, we can convince people that the real path towards continued loss of control and transparency is the one we’re currently on…

And to imagine that, contrary to cultured meat being “unnatural”, maybe the most natural thing in the world is to let cows go back to being cows…

And that cells from cows allowed to live natural lives, regardless of whether those cells grow into muscle inside or outside the cow, are actually more natural than muscle cells cut out of a cut-up animal who lived a very unnatural life…

We may find that we can turn those claims of cultured meat being “unnatural” on their head. The real key is in the messaging. Before we know it, cultured meat will be here, ready for mass production, and we’ll need to know how to market it. The time to start figuring out how to do that is now.


Collectively we have so much to offer to this very urgent cause.

After the panel discussion and structured part of the evening drew to a close, people again began having conversations about the many questions and ideas that came up, and wanting to commemorate this important evening, I suggested a group photo. Mark walked away at that moment, but several of the rest of us took a few photos together. I hoped that this would be only one of many opportunities for people from such diverse backgrounds and areas of interest as animal rights, food security, international relations, technology, marketing, etc. to get together and collaborate. Collectively we have so much to offer to this very urgent cause.

When Mark came back he began chatting with Patrick D’haeseleer, a panelist there to talk about his work on the Real Vegan Cheese project, and I inserted myself into the conversation to raise the issue of how cultured meat will affect farmers and ask what they thought about it. In other situations I might have felt intimidated to approach a world-famous researcher that way, but like I hope it will do for others, cultured meat has inspired, empowered, and emboldened me. Our world needs nothing short of this from us if we are to change our destiny. Anyway, my reward was finally getting my photo with Dr. Post, which I’m sure I’ll look back at fondly when the day comes that cultured meat is called simply “meat”, because it’s the only kind that people would ever dream of eating.