CHAPTER 24 | Interview with ISHA DATAR of NEW HARVEST
by Nina Børke
31 is a nice number, despite its disadvantage of being relative to 365. Then there´s all the numbers that are relative to 100. For Sweden, I heard, it is 4, for Israel it is estimated to be 5, for Norway 1, for the United States 0.5. On a fortunate note, a whopping 350 percent increase in herbivores over the last ten years (UK) calls for celebration. But then again, when 100 out of 100 (and in a lot less than 100 years) is what you´re after ... who you gonna call?
Through the Skype window I see but a rather modest desk in a room that I know to be somewhere in New York. Then there´s motion blur and a smiley face framed by a fash bob crop pops into the frame, ready to give me the ins and outs of whatever on earth a post-animal bioeconomy is.
So this super approachable below-30 person starts shoveling complex matter my way between words like “stuff” and “awesome”, accompanied by hands that dance around for all kinds of emphasis. She is clearly unafraid to let her humorous goofy side out, she is humble, but she is also one of these people whose talents and commitment to direction forms a powerhouse capacity – in this case at the center of the innovation frontier solution that could change ... let´s keep to a sober wording and say “a lot”. Up there, in fact, in the very game-changing-trend lead ahead of the future´s most ambitious technologies if one is to take Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent, Alphabet, word for it. (Now Eric is a man who has spent his entire career predicting how technology can change the world, so lets assume he is onto something.)
Isha Datar is CEO of the non-for-profit research institute New Harvest and in that capacity recently described as the woman who is sciencing the shit out of lab-grown animal products. (1) Like any dear young thing, this nascent tech/science field is blessed and cursed with a trail of names. Its most anticipated product currently sports the terms “clean meat”, “in vitro meat”,“lab-meat”, “meat analogue”, “alt food”, “frankenmeat” and “cultured meat”. Still in the process, by the looks of it, of finding its brand story, cultured meat (the chosen term) is nevertheless the stuff that headlines are made of.
Now first, what is it? Cultured meat is just one of the products of this whole scientific endeavour called cellular agriculture. Cellular agriculture is the farming of agricultural products from cell cultures. Besides meat, any product derived from animals: egg, milk, leather and what have you. It is all both sensational and rather down to earth, at once a moonshot at what may have seemed science fiction until just recently, and at the same time not really an entirely new concept after all: Cellular agriculture is anchored in the artisan tradition of microbiology, in which the cultivation of cells through fermentation techniques accomplishes familiar products such as cheese, wine and beer. On cell level, it is the same organic story as ever, cells doing what cells do; fuelled by nutrients, they multiply. An enabling factor for all of the above is the application of a practice that has already been subject of scientific inquiry and prototyping in the realm of medical science for quite some time; so-called tissue engineering towards the concepts of “printing” or growing organ replacements.
What then, is the self-appointed mandate of New Harvest? Launched in 2004, its mission reads as follows: to build and establish the field of cellular agriculture through a strong foundation of accessible, public, fundamental research, upon which the post-animal bioeconomy can be built. New Harvest funds and coordinates catalytic research, brings together relevant fields in academia and runs public awareness campaigns, all with the aim of promoting a food system based on the practice of harvesting animal products from cell cultures, not animals, in order to feed a growing global population sustainably and affordably.(2)
Although a major milestone (especially in terms of publicity), the famous 2013 meatball by cellular agriculture pioneer Mark Post, wasn´t quite the premiere night of a new era, and the wondrous product is not ready to roll out into the mainstream on a red carpet just yet. A series of scientific, technical, cultural and legislative challenges still apply, not to mention funding. But, like with the very first computer or the very first airplane, wonky and backward and expensive; the pivotal breakthrough that is proof of the principle is already in place. The leap of vertical scientific discovery has been made, from hence on it is a matter of horisontal innovation; of engineering towards quantity, of reaching for that tipping point where the price/value ratio allows cultured meat to enter the market place.
And when it does, it doesn´t have to stop there: Ideas-leading-to-tech-innovation doesn´t necessarily consitute a fixed chronology. Says Isha: –Once the technology is in place, it will inspire new ideas and practices that are yet unimaginable to us. The culinary possibilities of harvesting animal food products from cell level up instead of the other way around are endless. Before the question of an obvious and frequently voiced objection comes up, she goes on to explain: The introduction of new food cultures does have far reaching consequences. Domesticating animals and using them for food and labour was one of the most transformative processes in all of human history. Then there was the whole business of using heat. And fermentation techniques. And microbiology. Lately though, innovation in food production has increasingly involved moving toward the application of chemical stuff. Animal agriculture is largely reliant on antibiotics. With cultured meat, there´s actually the opportunity to reorient towards a biological food culture. One that bypasses conventional risks, one that is safer than its conventional counterpart, one whose taste, texture and nutritional composition can be optimized. Cellular agriculture is about scientifically adapting to nature´s own rulebook, arguably more so than what is the case for the industrial reality of farming of today.
Then she starts listing some mindblowing possibilities and backs it all up with a favourite example: –Who looked at milk and dreamed of making it firm and smelly with bubbles in it? Some innovation just happens because of the interplay between shifts in premises, wild ideas and art by accident. And because the baseline is an entirely new one.
The far fetched-sounding possibilities outlined by Isha are actually not all that far away from scenarios imagined by dutch eating designer Marije Vogelzang at the Food/Non Food department at Design Academy Eindhoven. Example: An inherent challenge of cultivating meat is tissue engineering. Cells need some sort of scaffolding structure to build threedimensional volume. As if commissioned to blue sky think it over, in a paralell universe, Marije presented the project “Plant bones” during Paris Design Week 2015, an imagined scenario where future archaeologists have found a collection of botanical life bearing a meat-like structure and skeleton. A scenario which pretty much corresponds with ideas entertained by Isha and the New Harvest roster. Thus, at the intersection of tech and art, the prospects of the post animal bioeconomy inspires playful thinking, nevertheless it all answers to a creative brief driven by necessity:
–The great thing about animal agriculture, says Isha, is that it is offensive in so many different ways.
Most have, by now, come across numbers or some statistic like this: By the year 2050, we’ll need to feed 9.7 billion humans on the planet. A global standardization of the meat consumption of developed countries would require the capacity of planet earth several times over: The emerging prosperity of developing countries are predicted to cause an overall doubling of the demand for meat by that same looming 2050. And that´s just demand. The other offences, concerning disease transmission, antibiotic resistance, environmental impact and that whole abysmal anomaly of factory farming are additional push factors. The beauty of the problem lies in the fact that it has a solution that comes with a whole range of side-effects that solve other problems. Also: what quantity-wise looks like a logistical challenge desperately looking for magic, could turn out to be a catalyst for a seismic moral shift: The behavioral fact of meat eating is an obstacle of unbiased moral reasoning that cultured meat could greatly reduce. Where ethical arguments struggle uphill, technology could come in to save the day.(3)
Tech or tech. There are different roads to the future, at least two main avenues being explored at the moment. Besides cellular agriculture, there´s the plant-engineering way of doing things: Impossible Foods, established in 2011, is a company that have based their approach on identifying components in plants that, when deconstructed and reassembled in the right way, will perform as meat in terms of flavour, texture and scent to the extent that it should fool any chef or meat-lover in a blind test. Example: The secret ingredient to beef is the blood molecule hemoglobin, which – similar, as it turns out, to a whole range of essential bits and bobs– does not feature exclusively in animals; it can also be found it plants. Hemoglobin actually resides in small red marbles attached to the soy plant root. Making these kinds of connections involves looking into the particular properties of a whole lot of plants, and Impossible Foods biochemist Allen Henderson aptly characterizes what he is doing as protein speed dating. (3)
There may be some element of competition – in terms of the race to turn corners, the biases towards the different approaches, disagreement over which will be the more efficient and most certainly also measures of individual ambition, but at the heart of this emerging new market sector something else is at work, something extraordinary: The open source collaborative structure of the New Harvest roster in particular and the various research institutes, startups and companies in general constitute a multi-frontier multi-disciplinary joint effort testament to altruism. As stated by Bruce Friedrich of New Crop Capital and The Good Food Institute: –There´s the recognition that right now, a new market altogether is being created by collective effort, and rising tides lift all boats.
At some point, big capital will make a move on this trillion dollar industry in the making. In his 2016 book, The Humane Economy, CEO of Humane Society (US) Wayne Pacelle argues that a transition towards a general ethical foundation for business is the next logical development already in motion, motivated by growing consumer awareness on one side and technological innovation on the other: –When there´s a big new idea, there´s first recoil and maybe a reverberation, followed by an adjustment or a correction, and then, if it works, broad acceptance – and later, we wonder how we ever managed to do things the old way. (4)
In the meantime, though, a combination of philantropy, tech geek hubris, young startup savviness and a fair amount of optimism is doing the footwork. –New Harvest has long been inspired by the words of American architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller when he stated that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” says Isha.
If ever there was a chance to quantify hope, this whole thing comes pretty darn close: consequences for billions of humans and other animals could very well hinge on this prelude to the post-animal bioeconomy, being composed, as we speak, by a mere handful of dedicated individuals. And with that hope; a historical opportunity to put your money where your mouth is.*
1) Richardson, N. (2016) Meet The Woman Sciencing The S&%t Out Of Lab-Grown Animal Products, fastcompany.com
2) Orheim, A., Mannino, A., Baumann, T. and Caviola, L. (2016). Cultured Meat: A pragmatic solution to the problems posed by industrial animal farming. Policy paper by Sentience Politics (1): 1-14.
3) Jacobsen, R. (2016) The Biography of a Plant-Based Burger, Pacific Standard
4) Pacelle, W. (2016) The Humane Economy