This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
"Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." In a 1931 essay titled "Fifty Years Hence," Winston Churchill predicted that future scientists would eventually grow meat in labs instead of farms. But as Gilonne D'Origny reminds me "timing is everything." It's taken the field more than 80 years, but time has come. She is the chief development officer at New Harvest, a New York-based NGO working to accelerate "breakthroughs in animal products made without animals."
IRENE PEDRUELO: Your plan is to produce animal products without animals.
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: Yes. We start from the premise that humans love meat. It's an evolutionary thing. It's probably one of the factors that have allowed us to migrate the distances that we did and populate the whole planet. We're wired to like animal proteins and there are reward systems put in our bodies to respond positively to their stimuli. Yes it would be fantastic if everybody ate less meat, but there are many more ex-vegetarians than there are vegetarians. Meat consumption in India is increasing even though India is a country with a large population of people who are vegetarian.
IRENE PEDRUELO: New Harvest was founded in 2004 with one goal: creating a post-animal bio economy. What does that mean?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: The mission of New Harvest is to kick-start a bio-economy of animal products made without animals. Our vision is a world where we do the least harm when we are harvesting these animal products.
IRENE PEDRUELO: What is the problem you see in the current "animal economy"?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: There are three main problems with the status quo. The first one is environmental: 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, 30 percent of the world's fresh water resources go towards livestock, and 70 percent of the [agricultural] land on earth today is used for livestock affecting this land's biodiversity and fertility.
The second problem with the way that we produce animal products today is public health: a), zoonotic viruses or diseases are typically transmitted from a wild animal like a bat, for instance, or a monkey or a rat to a chicken. b), 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the world today go to animals, in a preventive method—which is completely useless unless you've got some kind of infection. This breeds the antibiotic resistance. And c), food contamination: When you get food poisoning, unless the food is rotten, it will be because there is fecal matter in it, from an animal most likely.
Then the third problem is the food security aspect, which is a derivative of all of these other things that we just talked about. If there's a bird flu outbreak, the price of chicken goes up, the price of eggs goes up, and that affects people's access to animal proteins.
IRENE PEDRUELO: New Harvest is an incubator, a convener; what is its mission, really?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: We have three main activities. One of them is that we award grants to academic researchers. The second one is that we have New Harvest labs where we start new companies or support existing ones. Companies, start-ups, teams, or concepts that are already created come to us and seek support. It can be money; it can be our network; it can be the use of some facilities in labs we have agreements with. Or it could be that a company comes out of one of our ideas. Muufri, for instance, which is the company that makes milk in a lab, came out of our labs; same thing with Clara Foods, which grows egg whites in a lab. The third thing that we do is convene and inform stakeholders.
IRENE PEDRUELO: So the funding goes at least partly to support scientists and start-ups focused on producing cultured or "in vitro" animal products. Is money the main obstacle to achieving what you called the "post-animal bio economy"?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: The basic technology we are working with is cell cultures and tissue engineering. We are using this technology that has been developed in medical science for food applications. The medical field started doing tissue engineering for people whose skin was burned, and there's quite a lot of money that's put into this field for medical purposes. But when you get an academic grant from places like the Welcome Trust or the National Science Foundation (NSF), it's very tightly controlled and there's no way for a researcher to say: "I'm going to take a little bit of this money that's dedicated to creating heart valves for babies, for instance, and see if I can make a steak in the corner of my lab." As a scientist you risk your reputation, so it really doesn't happen. Our goal when it comes to grants is to give sufficient amount of money for scientists or anybody, really, to get the necessary data that allows them to go and seek further money. They're called catalytic grants. We don't want to be putting the big bucks in, because in order to stimulate this economy—to kick-start it—we need to bring in more investors. So far nobody has been putting money into this field except for "angels" like Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) who funded the burger, and us.
IRENE PEDRUELO: Tissue engineering is the process by which you grow cells in a lab "applying the principles of engineering and life sciences toward the development of biological substitutes that restore, maintain, or improve [biological tissue] function or a whole organ." Let's take meat for instance. How much more efficient is "engineering" meet in a lab than in a farm?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: Cells are the smallest unit of life and by nature they reproduce. Muscles are made of cells, and that's what meat is. To produce a steak your energy input output ratio is 40:1 (and that's land, water, labor, time), [whereas] cultured meat is 2:1. This figure is only speculative because we need to predict what production of cultured meat will be at scale (for example, it could be more efficient if the source of energy is renewable). Hanna Tuomisto [did] the environmental impact assessment comparison between different kinds of meats that are grown in an animal instead of in-vitro.
IRENE PEDRUELO: Is the technology you are using aimed at dismantling the current meat industry?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: Instead of using horses and carriages, we're developing an internal combustion engine to replace the horses and carriages. We're going for that.
IRENE PEDRUELO: Two years ago, Google Sergey Brin explained the reasons behind his decision to give €250,000 to a project being developed at Maastricht University to produce the world's first synthetic hamburger. Indeed, he ended up cooking and eating it at a press conference in London. What Brin was eating was ground, cultured meat—easier, according to scientists, to produce than a steak, which still no one has been able to produce in a lab. What are we promising when talking about cultured meat or meat in-vitro?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: One of the research projects that we just funded at King's College is focused on precisely how you make cultured meat thick; how you make a scaffold. When you make a scaffold, which is the equivalent of a vascular system—veins, like we have—then you can feed the cells in three dimensions. And that's transformative. That's when you go from the equivalent of processed meat, ground meat, into meat that's holding together because the cells have had the capacity to grow long fibers along this three-dimensional system, like a vascular system.
IRENE PEDRUELO: So the problem that is preventing us from eating an "in-vitro steak" is scalability?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: It's an engineering problem not a discovery problem. We know it's feasible. We know that this is possible but the question is: How are we going to do it? How are we going to do it in a way that's scalable?
IRENE PEDRUELO: To be an alternative to meat, cultured meat will need to mimic all the physicalities of meat: from texture to taste to smell. What stage is research at in achieving this goal?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: Right now the cells have the same constitution; we will see when we do the 3D if it really is like a steak. Eventually what we hope and anticipate is that it will be really close to the meat that we know today. Probably more tender. It will be more like tenderloin, rather than a more fibrous thing. But just like before we made cheese we didn't know all the possibilities of milk when you put bacteria in it, the possibilities with cultured meat are immense. We just know a very limited variety of meats in the end. There are possibilities we haven't imagined yet. Modern Meadow for instance, produces a steak chip. They're not selling it, but some people have reported that in the media. We could be culturing meat that doesn't have any saturated fats. We are at the dawn of something big and have not yet come into the stage where we can really see what it can look like.
IRENE PEDRUELO: Usually things created in labs trigger reluctance or, worse, rejection from the general public. How are you planning to overcome that?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: It will be through them being superior products, and very intelligent education about the products. When you talk about cultured meats to people there is this "ick factor" but they are not thinking in comparison. They are thinking in absolute terms not relative to what it is we eat today. And what we eat today is highly processed. Even a steak, when you consider it, is from an animal that's been fed with corn and soy mostly (unless it's been grass-fed), and that already is highly exposed to all sorts of toxins.
IRENE PEDRUELO: How are you going to overcome the war on language? Cultured meat is seen as an "artificial product" coming out directly from a lab, whereas I think it is fair to say that a non-organic steak is not seen as "artificial" by most consumers.
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: Right now it's coming out of the lab because we need to advance the research. When it's at scale, we will no longer be in labs but most likely in a brewery-type setting, at least for the milk and the egg whites. It will actually be quite beautiful, with copper vats. Milk was just milk until we put bacteria or yeast inside it to create all these yogurts and cheeses. That was more than 6,000 years ago. The cultured meat era will be just like having cheese. It'll be a new way of consuming animal proteins, leather, wool, and silk. Humans just don't like "new" but eventually we get accustomed to things. The possibilities are limitless.
IRENE PEDRUELO: In technology and biotech the question of what is natural and what artificial is a big one. The boundaries between the two are becoming blurrier every day. Would you consider cultured meat as being something natural?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: It's natural by definition because it's not synthetic. You're culturing cells and that is just a natural biological process. We're creating the conditions for this to happen, but we're not synthesizing cells or creating new cells. So in that respect, it's natural. The process to create it is not natural because it's natural when it is done in an organism, in a body of an animal.
IRENE PEDRUELO: Global population is set to hit 9.7 billion by 2050. We will need to feed 9.7 billion mouths, and in this context, thinking about new and resource-efficient ways of producing food seems highly relevant.
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: We are coming to the carrying capacity of our planet. We have to decide if we want to continue our consumption patterns as they are and if we want to use animals and animal products the way we do. We're probably not talking about any food that you or I will be eating; but it is a very interesting proposition to a food manufacturer. McDonald's, General Mills, and Unilever all produce animal products like mayonnaise, yogurt, burgers, precooked dinner meals, etc. The biggest headache—it's called the "pain point"—in their supply chain is the animal. It's not the recipe, it's not their employees; it's the animal because every animal is a whole organism. It has an input and an output, and the output is waste and any food that is exposed to this waste can be contaminated and you are at risk of bringing that to consumers. If there's a listeria contamination in one Yoplait yogurt that's from a batch of say 10,000 yogurts, you take away all those yogurts. This is a very costly exercise. Also, these manufacturers are dependent on commodities and their prices. When there was a bird flu outbreak in the Midwest, in the spring and summer of 2015, it sent the price of eggs up 125 percent. A large food conglomerate, for instance, had to change its recipe so they didn't need eggs.
IRENE PEDRUELO: Many refer to the food industry as a "foodopoly" where a few players control a very high percentage of the sales. They can exert enormous influence on food prices and I'm afraid this could make it difficult for cultured meat producers to be able to compete from a price standpoint.
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: It depends on the amount of money that is invested today in the production of cultured meat. Once we solve the engineering problem, which is contingent on the amount of money put up front and invested in research and development, we will determine the speed with which we can be able to scale. Then my guess is that the price can come down quite rapidly. We'd need less space, less energy, less water, and less time. The value of the proposition for a food manufacturer, who is considering using these products (cultured egg whites, cultured milk, etc.) as an ingredient, is very appealing.
IRENE PEDRUELO: This technology seems to have the potential to turn the food industry upside down. How do you envision the market that will spring up around it?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: I hope there will be many players. Competition is good and encourages better products, and we're already seeing competition developing. Just in the last month [October], two companies were created. One is making cultured sausage and the other, founded by a leading engineer for food applications, is making cultured meat. So it's happening and there are many companies out there already.
IRENE PEDRUELO: In a previous conversation we had, you referred to the food and cultured meat research industry, as "the next .com." Are people in the tech industry excited about the future of food?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: This perception stems from many observations. One of them is who is funding us and who wants to invest in food research and tech, as well as media interest on the topic. We mainly get funded by animal rights activists and techno-optimists. For instance, Techno optimists like Peter Thiel, creator of PayPal, who has invested in Modern Meadow, which is making leather in cell cultures. One of the members on our board, Scott Banister, was one of the first board members for PayPal and his story is very similar to many other people's stories who are supportive of us: "I love meat, I want to keep on eating it, it makes me feel good, and I like the taste of it, but I hate that it's hurting an animal, and I hate the system it comes from, the supply chain. So, I need to figure out a way to satisfy my natural human desire for consuming animal products without the harm that it causes."
IRENE PEDRUELO: You're saying there's an assumption that it's ingrained in humans to like meat? Are we actually biologically designed to like meat?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: This is not an area I specialize in, but I have read from several sources that when we started to domesticate animals is when we started writing history. Therefore, there is very likely a biological propensity for us to want and like animal products. There are some vitamins you cannot get from sources other than meat, for example, vitamin B12 for mental development.
IRENE PEDRUELO: In the last few years, crickets have become a popular source of protein not only in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, but also in the so-called "Western world." Although still not mainstream, there's an increasing push for bug-heavy diets to substitute our current meat-heavy diets.
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: I don't know that there's a huge market for crickets, but there's certainly a lot of companies being created that believe there's a huge market for crickets. Eating crickets is not post-animal bio-economy; it's still looking at the same dialectic of growing an animal in a domesticated setting in order to eat it. Eventually that will also face the very same issue we're experiencing with livestock, but it will be specific to crickets. Animals are a vector of diseases. Our mission at New Harvest is to kick-start the post-animal bio-economy, sourcing the proteins and other consumables we typically get from an animal from farm cell cultures instead.
IRENE PEDRUELO: Does this technology pose a threat to organic farming?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: At a conference organized by Modern Meadow recently called "Biofabricate" there was a similar question from the audience. Andras Forgacs [CEO at Modern Meadow] said, "Who in this room wants to be a farmer? Raise your hand," and nobody raised their hand: no dairy farmers, no chicken farmers, nobody. John Oliver did a great story on chicken, and what he describes is exactly true: if you're a farmer, you're screwed. There's no money and you get crushed from all sides. You're screwed from the side of the ingredients, the pesticides, the rain, tools, and machinery. And then Andras asked a second question, "Who, in here, would like to be a biologist?, or who would like to be producing products in cell cultures?," and perhaps a third of the young people in the room raised their hands.
IRENE PEDRUELO: Let's do a thought experiment. It's 2070: Have we completely transformed the current food supply chain?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: By 2070, if things go the way I hope they go, factory farming and the way we treat animals today will be over. But I don't know if we'll still be around in 2070. Climate change is so incredibly dangerous and catastrophic that I don't know if humanity will survive at the level that we are right now. We are greedy, we're selfish, and in the end what really matters is that we are the center of our own universe. We continue our lifestyles because they're comfortable, and we're accustomed to them, and change is not something we like. We prefer the devil we know than the angel we don't; it's just human nature. Animal production is cruel, polluting, and dangerous for public health, and it poses a high risk to food security. Yes. But the biggest problem though is population. (This is just my personal opinion.) There is no more space for all of us.
IRENE PEDRUELO: The primatologist Jane Goodall has also talked about the climate problem in similar terms. The "population problem," is, however, highly controversial and not often discussed in public.
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: There are a lot of great ideas that had the wrong timing. There's a very interesting historical moment in the '70s when Lester Brown came up with his article on the population bomb. He got a lot of opposition and heat on that from techno-optimists who thought markets would solve the problem of the Earth coming to carrying capacity. All that Lester Brown had wrong was the timing, but timing is the hardest thing to have right. In the 1930s we had telephones with videos on them but nobody wanted them, the timing was wrong. Look at Leonardo Da Vinci's drawings . . . timing.
IRENE PEDRUELO: Assuming climate change doesn't kill us all in the next century, will biologists be the new farmers?
GILONNE D'ORIGNY: Yes, where children today learn computer science in school, they will be learning basic biology and will know how to do this stuff.
Policy Innovations' Seven Quick Questions
Where do you see yourself in 20 years? In peace.
What are the three main attributes of an innovator? Courage, skills, and curiosity.
What other obsessions do you have, in addition to cultured meat? TV series.
What do you do in your free time? Be in nature and see friends.
I'm afraid of . . . Climate change.
Life is about . . . Connecting.
What would you tell your younger self if you had to start over again? Don't worry about what other people think of you.