Nothing compares to the sound of a steak hitting a hot cast-iron pan. The fragrant scent of caramelizing meat is the first to appear, followed by the smoke of charring fat. My mouth immediately begins to moisten in anticipation as juices spray. Then, remorse causes my stomach to tighten.
I avoid meat as a climate journalist. More than 14% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere, or almost as much as road, aircraft, and shipping combined, are attributed to the global cattle business.
Methane is a strong greenhouse gas that is 80 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the short term. Industrial cattle farming is one of the main generators of methane in the world. Deforestation is accelerated by the production of crops for the livestock business, increasing emissions. The World Resources Institute, an environmental research group, advises people of the Americas, Europe, and Oceania to restrict their intake of red meat to the equivalent of two burgers per week in order to remove our collective foot off the accelerator bringing us to inevitable climatic calamity.
It would be preferable to eat steak, according to Israeli firm Aleph Farms. It’s steak, a delicious cut of meat produced in a bioreactor using stem cells rather than cows or animal slaughter. The business welcomed me to test their trademark cut at its facility in Rehovot, some 30 minutes south of Tel Aviv, even though its “cultured meat,” the industry’s favored phrase, is not currently on the market because no cultivated meat product has received regulatory approval outside of Singapore. Didier Toubia, a co-founder of the business, made a promise to me there that I would get a taste of the future when a perfectly cooked steak wouldn’t come with a side of Amazonian rainforest biodiversity loss and methane emissions.
Aleph Farms begins with stem cells developed in a bioreactor containing nutrient-rich broth, just like many of the more than 100 farmed meat and fish businesses established over the previous ten years. Each business has its own secret technique for encouraging those cells to differentiate into proteins or lipids, which then continue to develop until they form clumps that resemble ground meat and can then be collected and used to make burgers, sausages, or breaded nuggets. Aleph Farms goes further than that. Instead, the business takes a few extra steps to produce a steak that is structured and has the flavor and texture of a filet mignon.
Toubia claims that while aiming for ground beef might be simpler, it wouldn’t have the same emotional impact as a great steak. “If we want to promote acceptance, we must emotionally connect with customers. One strategy to position our product to be more enticing is to start at the higher end. Toubia uses the parallel of Tesla, aiming for a premium service by paying attention to the details. “They weren’t the first to get the electric car perfect; they didn’t invent it.”
For enterprises that produce cultured meat, perfecting the steak is one of the most challenging engineering challenges. Aleph Farms unlocked the code by encouraging the growth of the meat, fat, and connective tissue cells along a plant-based, almost microscopic framework, allowing those cells to imitate the muscle fibers of traditionally farmed beef. The conjoined tissues are then developed for another four weeks in a nutrient broth, at which time the “steak” is about the size of a smartphone and prepared for grilling.
The business is also developing a second version that use a 3D bioprinter to merge structural fibers with fat cells to produce a thick, marbled steak—the “holy grail,” in Toubia’s words. He claims they have already produced a handful, but not enough for public tastings.
When it comes to the race to market, Aleph trails other alternative protein firms because it prefers steak over ground meat and focuses on beef rather than poultry, which is simpler to grow. Singapore is already a market for the chicken that GOOD Meat, a branch of the American food technology firm Eat Just, Inc., cultivates. At its elegant bistro-turned-laboratory, Israel’s SuperMeat offers invite-only tastings where guests nibble on crispy chicken burgers and hot dogs against a backdrop of bioreactors busily producing the next batch.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is anticipated to make a decision in the coming months about whether or not (and if so, how) domestically produced meats may be sold. Industry observers predict that approval is probable. It won’t be long after sales are legalized in the United States before other nations do the same, and businesses from all over the world will begin marketing meat products made from domesticated animals. This will certainly be the largest meat revolution since domesticating cattle. Aspiring for higher (ahem) stakes might impede Aleph’s progression toward the market, but Toubia shrugs off the opposition, certain that gradual advancement will ultimately prevail. “With new food categories, being the first to market is not always advantageous. Impact on the environment and taste in terms of customer approval are our top priorities.
He could have a point. In Aleph’s demonstration kitchen, my thin-cut steak hits the hot grill with an audible hiss after being brushed with butter and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. The in-house chef flips a portion the size of a credit card onto my plate as the aroma of seared meat wafts towards me. The interior of the disappointingly thin steak is just as tender and juicy as the center of a filet mignon; I’ll have to return another time for the thicker, 3D-printed version. The meat rips into strands that are more resembling those of a brisket as I cut into it, but without any of the dryness. I consume a bite. Pure meat flavor with a caramelized crust that transitions to a savory richness. Although my steak’s square shape and thin cut reveal its bioreactor origins, if I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. With my final bite, I admit Toubia was mistaken. It doesn’t taste futuristic. It has a steak flavor. without any shame.