As guests streamed into Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the renovated brick and timber building matched a recurring theme at the 2017 New Harvest Conference: progress that respects history. Beginning at the registration desk, guests were reminded of this inspiring theme— instead of a throw-away badge, the hosts opted for a reusable ribbon. While getting coffee, they were greeted with an exhibition of researchers, startups, and biohackers eager to share their latest progress. Conversation flourished as experts, entrepreneurs, journalists, students, and a mishmash of professionals and enthusiasts exchanged ideas and made new friends.
The first presentations came directly from New Harvest, which funds research by several fellows on the various building blocks of cultured meat. The subjects included cell lines, scaffolds, medium, and bioreactors. While followers of New Harvest and cultured meat were likely familiar with some of the material, the opportunity to listen to the fellows themselves about their latest progress was electrifying.
The audience also heard presentations from New Harvest’s Research Director and a principal investigator to a fellow, Dr. Marianne Ellis. What was striking about each presentation was how deftly the speakers could connect to guests entirely unfamiliar with cultured meat. Additionally, the sli.do used for questions allowed guests to submit anonymous questions in case you felt shy. Some questions requested more technical details, some about where additional funding should be spent, and others focused more on the excitement — had researchers tried tasting the meat they had grown? What meat were attendees most excited for? (The clear winner: bacon!)
The audience adjourned for a vegan lunch — provided with recyclable cutlery and compostable paper products. While there were tables for eating, the feel was more of a party where guests could walk around and mingle with each other. Some chose to network in the garden just outside, others spent more time speaking with exhibitors — a few of which had samples of their own food products. The flow between the talks on stage and the exhibition booths, plus the several breaks throughout the two days of the conference provided ample opportunity to have meaningful conversations while also meeting plenty of people.
The next block of presentations focused more on the relationship between meat and society, first with a look at history. Dr. Ben Wurgaft journeyed through the evolution of meat from its origins in hunting through husbandry techniques to grow more, and tastier meat, to the current effort towards growing meat without animals. Oron Catts followed this reflection with a presentation on his work with tissue engineering that challenges how we think about meat and several other tissues when they come from “nobody” (as in, no animal).
After a break, the conference continued with a panel of farmers and cultured meat producers, discussing challenges like achieving the flavor of traditional meat, and how to reconcile how cultured meat appears poised to disrupt traditional meat. The tissue engineers expressed optimism about their ability to achieve the flavor, while the farmers felt optimism towards smaller farm operations persisting beyond the advent of cultured meat. The panel prompted questions from the audience about GMO use, intellectual property rights, and the relationship between people and animals in the future.
The final presentation of the day stunned much of the audience. After hearing from researchers and entrepreneurs about their progress toward creating a cultured meat product using specialized equipment, Dr. Yuki Hanyu took the stage to share how he managed to culture meat using inexpensive equipment and household items — at one point explaining how he used a culture medium based from a sports drink! He then went on to share how he has taught high school students to grow their own cultures, and his plans to continue teaching even younger students. While the quantity of meat produced with these methods is relatively low, Dr. Hanyu is working toward an open-source community of culture scientists. He has shared his methods online so anyone can try it. His rationale was that by including more people in cultured meat we can broaden the conversation about the best way to make it. The first day wrapped-up with extra networking, fueled with drinks and vegan snacks.
The second morning of the conference focused on the practicality of putting cultured meat on the market, considering challenges of taste, regulation, and communication. It started with Jesse Wolff, who had a vial of roast chicken fragrance for every guest. With his instruction, the aroma of the exhibition hall was transformed into a banquet hall. His presentation was a reminder that texture and flavor must be kept in mind as choices are made developing cultured meat. Vince Sewalt and Isha Datar followed with a conversation on regulation. Cultured meat is a tricky thing, since FDA regulates food products, but USDA regulates farm animals, and therefore meat, while fish remains with the FDA. Isha and the audience picked through Vince’s mind about what is GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe”, how that might work for cultured meat, and the best precedent to set for future progress.
The audience enjoyed a break to speak with more exhibitors, and perhaps for some Soylent to satisfy any hunger brought on by the roast chicken experience. They returned to a presentation by Jack Bobo about how to communicate science in the market. He helped the audience through examples of good communication, examples of communication failure, and called attention to the many ways cultured meat is currently described, encouraging to focus less on the why and more about building trust from consumers.
The final presentation of the morning combined visionary Mike Lee with food product expert Mary Haderlein. To help imagine what cultured meat in the future could look like, Mike and his team designed a speculative Chinese takeout restaurant in the year 2038. They created a menu where a customer would have a choice between traditional and cultured meats for classic dishes. Even more, the specials on the menu allowed the audience to envision a cost difference between traditional specialties and the cultured variety, like bird’s nest soup — or how about shark fin? Mary explained the steps ahead to put cultured meat on the market, exploring with the audience ways to ease its emergence — perhaps in collaboration with a chef.
After lunch, the final afternoon moved away from cultured meat and toward a mix of developments in cellular agriculture. Algae farmer Rebecca White explained the benefits and potential of algae like spirulina as a food product, and the audience explored its potential for use in cultured meat, which was identified as a potential medium on the previous day. The topic drew some extra attention for some of the exhibitors who were focused on algae food products and cultivation. Lauri Reuter shared his experience culturing fruit cells from different plants, prospecting on the potential of culture techniques to access flavors that are expensive or otherwise inaccessible for commercial use.
Finally, Kevin Chen presented the use of fermentation to produce medicinal cannabinoids, explaining how the production capability of fermentation can vastly outproduce current growing methods. He had no samples to offer, but you couldn’t blame the audience for asking! The conference closed with an impromptu open-mic for anyone attending to introduce themselves and any cellular agriculture-related initiatives they were involved with. The speakers ranged from startups announcing recruitment and new products, to a representative of an agriculture coop, to a writer focused on bringing conversations about cultured meat to more people.
New Harvest 2017 was an invigorating experience. It brought together luminaries in the field and like-minds from all over the world, and in combination with the initiative to make changes, it’s nearly impossible to walk away without optimism toward the challenges ahead.
Jason Weiss is an engineer focused on how to do things better. During New Harvest 2017 he served as a volunteer, with a hand in setup, presentations, and break-down. He came to New Harvest through researching a speech on meat alternatives.