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Cultivated Meat Trumps the Real Thing, With A Caveat
By Aryn Baker
Senior Correspondent

In a blind tasting in Israel, meat grown from stem cells tasted just like chicken, but without the fat that makes chicken actually taste good.

Renowned Israeli gastronome Michal Ansky knows her food. She’s a professional taster and a Master Chef judge. So when she was invited to the world’s first public blind taste test pitting lab-grown, or cultivated, chicken up against a conventionally raised product, she jumped at the chance. It was a historic opportunity, but she was also confident that she would be able to tell the difference.

Surrounded by cameras and perched at a restaurant bar with two other judges—an Israeli restaurateur and a food journalist—she sniffed the two samples, labelled A and B, placed in front of her.

Courtesy of SuperMeat

A team of lawyers looked on, tasked with making sure that the tasting truly was blind. Even the chef who sauteed the meat in sunflower oil—no salt, no seasonings—didn’t know which was which. Sample A was slightly darker than B, but otherwise both looked, and smelled, the same. Ansky tasted from bowl A, then B, then A again, and furrowed her brow in concentration. They were both bland, she complained, lacking the fat that gives chicken breasts flavor. Both samples had been finely ground, so it was impossible to decide on mouth feel, but she would bet her money and her reputation that sample A was the real thing. It had a richer, more “chickeny” taste.

The tasting was hosted by the Tel Aviv-based meat tech start-up SuperMeat at its in-house restaurant, The Chicken. Behind the restaurant bar a vast window looked into the working laboratory where the company’s cultivated meat samples had been grown from stem-cells, fed on a broth of nutrients in large, stainless-steel bioreactors. The gleaming silver tanks stood no more than 20 meters away from the judges’ forks—hyper local at its most narrow definition.

Only a few journalists and a couple of curious onlookers attended the tasting, but it marks a seismic shift in the world of food technology. Ever since 2013, when the first lab-grown hamburger was presented to the public with a $330,000 price tag, alternative meat companies have been inching closer to a product that is just as tasty and nearly as affordable as the real thing. GOOD Meat, the cultivated-meat division of California-based food-technology company Eat Just Inc., is already selling deep fried lab-cultivated chicken nuggets to restaurant diners in Singapore, and several more companies are promising that their cell-cultivated fish, steaks and even mouse (for cat treats) will be on supermarket shelves in the United States by the end of the year, pending regulatory approval.

But for all the start-up sizzle, one question remains: would consumers be able to tell the difference, and if they could, would they still bite? SuperMeat decided to put their product to the test without the breading, deep-frying and sauces that are usually used to mask a lack of flavor or texture. (A video of the tasting can be seen here). None of the judges found either meat to be particularly delicious on its own, but then again, no one is going to rave about the flavor of a skinned, unseasoned chicken breast either. “There is a difference,” said one judge, the Israeli restaurateur and chef Yair Yosefi. “But I wouldn’t be sure which one is the [conventional] chicken. B, maybe.” Ansky disagreed. Sample B had less flavor, so that had to be the one grown in a sterile lab. She was so convinced of her decision that when SuperMeat founder Ido Savir announced that it was in fact A that was cultivated, she corrected him. “No,” she said. “A is the real chicken.”

No, Savir responded with a grin. Sample A “was grown on the other side of the window there, just a few days ago.”

Ansky’s jaw dropped. “I was wrong,” she marvelled in front of the cameras, “and I am the expert.”

A day later I spoke to Ansky on the phone about the tasting. “It’s one of the only times in my life that I’m really happy that I was wrong,” she told me. “In my heart I was saying Hallelujah. Because it’s about time.” Ansky likes meat. She serves chicken to her family almost every day. But she also knows that meat is unsustainable in the way it is currently produced. Meat and dairy production accounts for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Industrial animal agriculture processes pollute both air and water supplies, while emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A new study, published last week in Nature Food, shows that high-income countries could cut their agricultural emissions by almost two-thirds by moving away from animal-based foods. Doing so could free up an area of land larger than the entire European Union. If this area were allowed to revert to its natural state, it would capture around 100 billion metric tons of carbon—equal to 14 years of global agricultural emissions—by the end of the century. While the report doesn’t address lab-raised meat products directly, they are a meat alternative that could help reduce factory farming.

“It doesn’t stop at chicken,” says Ansky. Food tech start-ups are looking into cell-cultivated eggs and dairy products as well. “It’s as important as finding a cure for cancer because the thing that causes global warming and puts our lives at risk on this planet is the food industry. When we change the production, when we go from factory farming and from bloody slaughterhouse floors to fluorescent lights in laboratories, we will really be having an impact.”

Quick talk…
…with Pamela C. Ronald, founding director of the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, at the University of California, Davis.

As of Jan. 1, a new U.S. Department of Agriculture rule requires food manufacturers to label products that are bioengineered, genetically modified or derived from bioengineering. This replaces a voluntary scheme that saw some manufacturers label their foods non-GMO as a marketing gimmick, even on products, like oranges and orange juice, where genetic modification does not exist. I spoke with plant pathologist and geneticist Pamela C. Ronald about the new labelling rule.

 

What do these new labelling laws mean for you, as a geneticist?

There’s a lot of these voluntary labels saying, ‘No GMOs,’ but they are not anchored to any kind of science. Most of the crops that have been developed using genetic engineering are going to be labelled now so that might be useful for consumers that like to look for these kinds of things. What I hope as a scientist is that people will try to understand why farmers are planting Bt crops [crops genetically engineered to be resistant to certain insect pests] for example. Corn farmers that plant Bt crops are spraying 10 times less insecticide, so it’s very good for the farmers, the farm worker, the environment and the native biodiversity. I think most people agree that that’s just a win win for everybody.

 

Have you seen a change in the way people think about genetic modification or biotechnology recently?

People are realizing that whether or not a crop is genetically improved is the least of our problems in this day and age. At this point we all have biotechnology shots [like the COVID-19 vaccines] in our arms. So there’s a visceral understanding of how biotechnology can help humans resist disease and also help plants resist disease. If you have a loved one who can have more years of a healthy life because of biotechnology, that absolutely does change how we feel about genetics. I think it opens the door toward some understanding of why farmers are so interested in these [genetically modified] crops.

 

How important is genetic modification and bioengineering for climate change adaptation?

It’s absolutely important. We need to produce food that’s more resilient to climate change, and also grow crops that have fewer greenhouse gas emissions. We really need all tools that are available to us, whether they are technological advances or new farming practices. And absolutely, genetics will remain one of the most important approaches to having crops thrive in a time of a changing climate.

 

Can you give an example from your own work?

Most rice varieties grow well in standing water, but if they’re completely covered for more than three days, they will die. And this is a huge problem for 70 million rice farmers that live in zones that are prone to flooding, especially in Southeast Asia. We were able to isolate a gene from an ancient variety of rice that confers very robust flood tolerance—up to two weeks of flooding—so it’s been really fabulous. The breeders at the International Rice Research Institute have introduced this gene into rice varieties grown by 10 million farmers. And it’s really been very successful, so farmers are able to grow their rice whereas in the past they might have lost their entire crop to flooding.

A New Data Point
Climate change will remap the Winter Olympics

A new study published by an international team of researchers led by the University of Waterloo finds that if global greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly reduced, only one of the 21 cities that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics would be able to do so again by the end of the century.

Even if the Paris Climate Agreement emission targets aiming for 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels are achieved, only eight would be considered reliable hosts. “The world of winter sport is changing as climate change accelerates, and the international athletes and coaches we surveyed are witnessing the impacts at competition and training locations, including the Olympics,” said Daniel Scott, a professor of geography and environmental management at Waterloo.

Read More »
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Where There is Smoke, There is Not Enough Water

Indian climate expert Mridula Ramesh traces Delhi’s toxic air pollution back to colonial India’s chronic water mismanagement in a compelling historical analysis for the BBC.

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Local Ingenuity

In Pakistan’s mountainous border regions, locals have started growing artificial glaciers as a hedge against climate-change induced drought. During winter, they pump water from swollen rivers through a sprinkler system. As water droplets hit ice they freeze in layers. A 50-foot  “ice stupa” can be created in a couple of weeks, according to the Daily Pakistan, and can store more than a quarter of a million gallons of water until summer, when the melting ice can be used to irrigate crops in the absence of rain.

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Sorry, You Can’t Have Fries With That

McDonald’s restaurants in Japan are the latest victims of the supply chain crisis as weather disruptions combine with an unexpected potato fungus and shipping delays to result in the rationing of fast-food fries, reports Quartz. While climate change can’t be directly blamed for the Japanese fry shortage, it is likely a taste of things to come as extreme weather impacts shipping routes and increasing heat and moisture risks an influx of disease in agricultural regions.

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47 Across: Mea Culpa

The New York Times put out a correction last week, after a crossword clue outraged environmentally conscious readers. E&E News’s Thomas Frank has the lowdown on how the original clue for 47 across—“clean coal”—was shortened from “Dubious term for a greener energy source,” to simply “a greener energy source.”

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Thank You For Reading

This edition was written by Aryn Baker, and edited by Elijah Wolfson. We welcome any feedback at climate@time.com.

 
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