Vegan Documentarian Tells the Inside Story of the Lab-Grown Meat Industry

4 minute read

Liz Marshall’s latest release, Meat the Future, will be available for streaming April 5 on Apple TV, Amazon, and Google Play. The feature length-documentary charts the birth of a new technological innovation that grows meat from stem cells instead of animals, reducing the need for industrial agriculture and ending slaughter. She tells the story through Uma Valeti, a cardiologist-turned food entrepreneur who now heads one of the world’s leading cell-cultivated meat companies, Upside Foods (formerly called Memphis Meats). I spoke with the film director about her new documentary, the next steps, and what cell-cultivated chicken tastes like.

TIME: You are vegan. Why did you decide to do a story about cultivated meat?

Marshall: Back in 2016 I was actively seeking something that was very solution focused and character driven, also knowing that we don’t want doom and gloom stories. I was trying to find something that is actually viable, and that was underway, not just a utopian aspiration. I was introduced to Uma [Valeti] as he was in the Genesis phase—he was just moving into their first R&D facility —and we had a couple of conversations and we just clicked. I started filming just to see what would happen.

Growing food in vats is frequently a symbol of techno-corporate overreach in dystopian films and novels. Did you have any doubts or squeamishness going into this subject?

Of course. But then it became normalized for me. It really just made sense. I never make any claims that this is the silver bullet that will change the world. But I do hope that it transforms the food system. In the meantime, this film is a historic document. It’s the only film in the world that chronicles the birth of this industry, told through the eyes of a cardiologist who took this very risky career turn to become the CEO and founder of the world’s leading cultivated meat company.

What surprised you most over the course of filming?

At the time we started, the whole idea was extremely novel, marginal, and abstract. And I think it still is, though for many people there’s more and more interest. In 2017, the meat industry invested in Memphis Meats [now called Upside]. I didn’t imagine that things would accelerate so quickly. Just how quickly this is moving forward and becoming a piece of the conversation has been the greatest surprise. I think it’s because we all recognize the need for something like this.

Were you expecting to see cultivated meat on the shelves by the time you finished?

I thought it would be but then the pandemic hit, so maybe that plays a role. Still, worldwide this industry is expanding, despite and maybe because of the pandemic, because of the fear of zoonotic disease and because of the need for solutions to problems with our food system. I think it’s just a matter of time.

Read More: The Cow That Could Feed the Planet

Did you try it?

I tried it twice. The first time was early on in their first R&D facility. And then I tried it a couple years later. It was an experience because I don’t eat meat. I went vegetarian in 1989 and vegan when I made the Ghosts in Our Machine documentary [about animal farming] in 2012. It was a non-issue for me to try it. It was like going to the moon. It was part of my research. It was a fascinating experience.

And how did it taste?

I remember I said that it tastes like meat, and the team all laughed at me because they said it is meat. It wasn’t revelatory. It tasted like chicken. But it reminded me why humans like meat.

What do you wish you had captured more of?

I always want more access. Figuratively and literally, you want to be in the room. You want to be witnessing these monumental milestones and moments. I knew from the onset that there’s no way that we could film everything. I went into it with that understanding, but at the same time, you always want more.

What’s the next chapter for you?

My intention and hope is that this becomes an entry point to demystify the technology, that it becomes a platform for awareness building and education. If this industry gets off the ground, this will be an historic, exclusive story about the genesis phase of something that helped transform the paradigm. And if it doesn’t get off the ground, well, it’s still an important story to look back on.

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