Are products like Soylent and in-vitro meat the future of food?
First, the puzzling news. In January 2012, the USDA proposed the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection” rule, slated to take effect in October 2014. The HACCP-based plan would decrease the number of USDA inspectors overseeing poultry slaughter assembly lines, allow the lines to run faster, and turn over the majority of inspection duties to company employees, essentially privatizing the inspection process. The remaining USDA inspectors would focus on laboratory testing for pathogens.
In a 2013 report, “The High Cost of Chicken,” Consumer Reports stated: “We recently tested 316 samples of raw chicken breasts bought from stores across the country, and found salmonella on 10.8 percent of samples. We also found campylobacter, another pathogen, on 43 percent. …97 percent of the breasts we tested harbored bacteria that could make you sick.”
The USDA claims it’s trying to update a system that has been in place since the Eisenhower administration. Food safety advocates are concerned about increased contamination. The public is understandably skeptical: Food recalls and breakouts of food-borne illnesses are common in the news. Bowing to pressure, the USDA tightened some of the rules in a final draft in July but to no avail. Food & Water Watch filed a suit in September to block the implementation of the USDA’s New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS).
Our increasing distrust of American food production systems is fertile ground for both innovation and hucksterism—the latter seemingly the case of Soylent, a meal replacement beverage touting itself as “the future of food” and a solution to world hunger.
Two years ago, 25-year-old software developer Rob Rhinehart decided that feeding himself required too much time, effort, and money. Menu decisions, grocery shopping, cooking, and especially dishwashing were old-fashioned drudgeries unsuited to modern times. Rhinehart decided to approach the pesky biological mandate of nutrition as an engineering problem.
Following RDA guidelines, he reduced a standard diet to a recipe of essential components: vitamins, minerals, amino acids, protein, carbohydrates, and fats. He purchased most of his ingredients as processed powders from Amazon; canola and fish oils from the supermarket supplied the fats. Rhinehart set to tinkering and eventually produced a beige slurry with a bland, oatmeal-like taste. “Looks like semen,” wrote a Gawker reviewer in 2013. His own guinea pig, Rhinehart downed his concoction and kicked off a 90-day trial of his formula. His plan was to give up solid food completely.
“I promised that if I was still healthy after three months of Soylent, I would launch a Kickstarter campaign to bring it to the world,” Rhinehart wrote in a February 2013 blogpost, “How I Stopped Eating Food.” He named his product after a food wafer made of soy and lentils distributed to a starving populace in Harry Harrison’s dystopian novel, Make Room, Make Room (1966). The book inspired the 1973 sci-fi movie Soylent Green, where the wafers were made of human flesh.
The name tantalized Reinhart’s target demographic: irony-loving, zombie-esteeming, millennial tech professionals who abhor dishwashing and distraction from the computer screen. Rhinehart’s sales pitch set the hook: “It’s all about efficiency, it’s about cost and convenience. I don’t have to cook, I don’t have to clean dishes,” he told Gawker in 2013. Then he reeled them in: “Soylent is 90 percent of my diet. I feel like the six million dollar man,” he wrote on his blog, Mostly Harmless. “My physique has noticeably improved, my skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker, and my dandruff gone.” Geeks, gamers, hipsters, dieters, and preppers rushed to order the brave new smoothie.
Rhinehart posted his recipe online and invited feedback from early adopters, declaring Soylent “the world’s first open-source recipe” (a claim easily refuted by Googling “homemade pizza recipe”). Online forums buzzed with gleeful tales of room-clearing farts by Soylent users; health care professionals protested the lack of long-term testing and a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition; scientists accused Rhinehart of epistemic arrogance and making it up as he went along.
The uproar provoked a media storm. Rhinehart talked to the New York Times, Forbes, NPR, Vice, Time, The New Yorker and countless websites, dismissing his detractors as “reactionaries” and dropping incendiary statements. In 2013, he told Grub Street: “Nutrition is unfortunately a field where everyone thinks they’re an expert. I am not, and I don’t need to be.” He fanned the flames in a Motherboard interview: “A lot of people see food as this essential, sacred, unchanging thing. I don’t think that’s really based in evidence” (excluding teeth, cranial muscles, and digestive systems, of course).
As controversy grew, so did revenue. Alexis Ohanian, a founder of Reddit and an investor in Soylent, described it as “the most brilliant marketing strategy ever.” In little more than a year, Soylent garnered $3.5 million in crowdfunding and venture capital. When the FDA approved Soylent as a food product in July 2014, NPR reported: “The company says new orders are rolling in to the tune of $10,000 a day.” As of the October release of Soylent 1.1, a version bump addressing flatulence issues, orders were backlogged for months.
So why all the fuss over a smoothie? Meal replacement drinks are nothing new. They’ve been used by military, the space program, and the medical industry for at least 60 years—think baby formula—and products like Carnation Instant Breakfast (1964), Ensure and Jevity have been marketed for decades.
Soylent’s impact seems like a generational knee-jerk, a symbolic shunning of our ailing food production systems and our bombastic, wasteful food culture. Whatever Rhinehart’s claims, at this moment Soylent is primarily food for thought.
Soylent marks a unique shift in the food perceptions of an influential demographic: 20- to 35-year-old tech professionals, predominantly male, typically associated with artisan pizza, organic kale, and sushi. Why would so many members of a privileged and sophisticated group even consider swapping a multiverse of tastes for an insipid, transhumanist smoothie? Is it the culinary analog of punk rock, a stripping-down of bloated mores and systems? Salmonella blues? Decision fatigue? Merely another fad? Or, as Rhinehart doggedly asserts, the future of food? Time, the ultimate arbiter of prophets and profits, will tell.
But enough about mundane cash cows. The past five years have seen significant advancements in the development of a truly futuristic food with real potential to alleviate world hunger, improve the environment and end animal cruelty: in-vitro meat (IVM).
The world’s first lab-grown burger, four years in the making, was served up at an August 2013 press conference in London. Only two people tasted the five-ounce patty, both deeming it dry, but with taste and texture better than expected. Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, the scientist leading the burger project, was thrilled with the response: “This is proof of concept,” he said in a TED talk. Post’s burger, composed of billions of lab-cultured muscle cells produced at a cost of $330,000, was underwritten by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
Much like Soylent, Post’s concept is nothing new. In the early 1930s, French scientist Alexis Carrel announced that he had kept chicken tissue alive for 20 years, prompting Winston Churchill to write in 1932, “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.” Churchill’s prophecy was slow to materialize. Animal cells were cultivated almost exclusively by the medical industry for vaccines and insulin until 2008, when the animal rights group PETA offered a $1 million dollar prize for getting in-vitro chicken on the market by 2014.
“There is no future in conventional food production. The future is in in-vitro meat,” said Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s president and co-founder.
To date, IVM research is focused primarily on beef. According to a 2013 report by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), “Livestock are the source of 33 percent of the protein in human diets. They utilize 30 percent of the global land area, and they are responsible for about 12 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” One-third of the crops grown world-wide are devoted to livestock feed and the global demand for meat is projected to grow by 60 percent in 40 years.
“At the global level, if all meat would be lab-grown, the greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 80 percent, and the water use by 90 percent,” noted Hanna Tuomisto, who researches the environmental impacts of lab-grown meat at the European Commission Joint Research Centre.
The implications are tremendous. The environmental stresses of factory farming, the insane cruelty of feedlots and slaughterhouses, the dangers of antibiotics and growth hormones, deforestation and habitat destruction, greenhouse gases, contamination risks—all eliminated. And when the IVM process is perfected, it won’t be limited to beef. With a single stem cell, scientists can grow any meat—fish, fowl, reptile and aardvark.
With so much at stake, IVM research currently has no problems with funding. Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based company using 3-D printers to print layers of tissue from cultured animal cells, is funded in part by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal. Sergey Brin continues to foot Post’s burger project in the Netherlands, with hopes of a market-viable burger in a few years.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing IVM development is overcoming the public’s “yuck” factor. Helen Breewood, a scientist on Post’s team, addresses that challenge: “A lot of people consider lab-grown meat repulsive at first. But if they consider what goes into producing normal meat in a slaughterhouse, I think they would also find that repulsive.”
Tom King is a freelance writer based in Lawrence, Kansas.