Animal Rights

Moby: I Asked One of the World's Leading Animal Advocates Why He's Betting Big on Food Technology to End Animal Cruelty

Clean, plant-based meat has the potential to completely wipe out factory farming.

Photo Credit: Uncensored Interview/Flickr

I am first and foremost an animal rights activist, and secondly, a musician. I've been a vegan for 30 years now. In addition to running Little Pine—a vegan restaurant in L.A where 100 percent of the proceeds go to animal rights organizations—I also wrote a book about factory farming called Gristle, and started the world’s first all-vegan music festival, Circle V (our second event goes down this November in L.A.)

As a believer in using delicious food to help others go vegan, I interviewed Nathan Runkle, founder and president of Mercy For Animals, the world’s largest farmed animal protection organization. A longtime animal advocate, he’s now using some of his time and energy to advance food technology in order to create better plant-based foods and cultured meat, also called clean meat. We discussed his favorite plant-based companies, and the rising number of vegans in the U.S. 

Nathan Runkle runs the world's largest farmed animal protection organization (credit: Travis Chantar)

Moby: You’ve been an animal protection advocate for nearly 20 years, conducting undercover investigations and campaigning to reform corporate food policies. What led you to begin exploring food technology as a tool to prevent cruelty to farmed animals?

Nathan Runkle: The farmed animal protection movement has made, and will continue to make, enormous legal, political and cultural strides for animals, but over the next couple of decades, clean meat has the potential to completely wipe out factory farming and prevent the suffering of billions of animals each year.

To speed up the development of clean meat, and better plant-based foods, Mercy For Animals helped launch two entities: The Good Food Institute, which works closely with scientists, startups, culinary experts and other food industry stakeholders to advance the sector; and New Crop Capital, a venture capital firm that invests exclusively in clean and plant-based startups.

M: What is clean meat?

NR: Clean meat is produced by taking a small sample of animal cells and growing them in cell culture, eliminating the need for slaughter and factory farming. These cells are placed inside bioreactors that resemble the fermenters (which are also bioreactors, of course) used in beer breweries, where they are given a mixture of nutrients to grow into a full-fledged hamburger, chicken tender or meatball.

The result is meat that is "clean"—it contains no antibiotics, growth hormones, E. coli, salmonella, or waste contamination—all of which come standard in conventional meat production.

The term “clean meat” is also a nod to “clean energy,” since producing meat in bioreactors will require far fewer resources and cause far less pollution than producing conventional animal agriculture.

M: What companies and projects are you most excited about in the plant-based/clean meat sector?

NR: A number of companies are salivating at the chance to commercialize clean meat. One of the most promising of these clean-meat startups is Memphis Meats, which launched in 2015 and early the next year debuted the world’s first meatball grown outside of an animal. Fortune magazine called this development the “Hottest Tech in Silicon Valley.” Keep in mind that the magazine didn’t say the hottest “food” tech: Clean meat is generating more excitement than any other transformative technology coming out of Silicon Valley today. Memphis Meats plans to bring its clean meat to market by 2019 and is rapidly reducing the cost of production to make these products widely accessible.

I’m not the only one who’s excited; Bill Gates, Richard Branson and even Cargill (the third largest U.S. meat processor) recently invested in Memphis Meats.

Hampton Creek, the first and only food startup “unicorn” (a startup valued at a billion dollars or more) is getting into the clean meat game and aims to have product on the market by late 2018. Hampton Creek is already in talks with 10 global meat processors interested in licensing their technology, which could bring clean meat into restaurants and households around the world faster than we ever imagined possible.

Miyoko’s Kitchen makes amazing cheese from cashews, and Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are leading the pack when it comes to meaty plant-based burgers. There are a number of other innovative companies making clean dairy and eggs, and delicious plant-based foods. (Check out my top seven.)

M: Are consumers ready to switch to plant-based diets? And if so, what are the driving forces behind that move?

NR: Whether it’s to prevent cruelty to farmed animals, protect the environment or improve one’s health, more and more Americans are moving toward vegan eating. In fact, a recent report found that 6 percent of Americans now identify as vegan, a 600 percent increase over the past three years. Thankfully, it’s never been easier to eat plant-based; delicious and healthy vegan meats and milks are available at nearly all major grocery chains, and popular restaurants like Chipotle and Pret a Manger offer hearty vegan dishes. Eating at fast-food chains is easy, too.

Even some of the world’s largest food companies, such as Nestlé and Unilever, are encouraging their customers to eat more plant-based meals.

M: What do you see as obstacles to bringing plant-based foods andcleanmeat products to market, and what are some of the potential solutions?

NR: The meat industry ranks 12th out of 13 industries polled for consumer trust, and for good reason. Factory farmers have pushed ag-gag bills in dozens of states, which make it a crime to videotape inside their facilities. Factory farmers have been exposed countless times in undercover investigations revealing systemic and malicious animal abuse. And factory farms are breeding grounds for disease, and leading contributors to climate change.

Conversely, clean meat will not only mitigate food safety risk and environmental harm, but producers are already transparent, inviting journalists into their offices and explaining how it’s made. I believe that when consumers have the choice between meat that comes suffering animals inside filthy factory farms, versus safer meat that requires no slaughter, uses significantly fewer natural resources, and comes from a clean, sterile environment, they’ll choose clean meat every time.

One of the plant-based food industry’s greatest challenges right now is that there’s simply too much demand. Most plant-based food companies are young and don’t yet have the infrastructure to deliver their products to all the restaurants and grocers that want them. But this will be fixed as startups secure more funding and can then scale up production.

Moby is an American DJ, record producer, musician, photographer and animal rights activist. He is the author of Gristle: From Factory Farms to Food Safety (Thinking Twice About the Meat We Eat) (The New Press, 2010).

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World