Paul Shapiro
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Less than 200 years ago, this is how most Americans lit our homes. For centuries, harpoons like this one were hurled into the backs of thousands of whales, turning the blue oceans red as these magnificent beasts were butchered. The primary problem for these whales was that their bodies contained vast quantities of oil, perfect for burning in lamps and spawning a massive global whaling empire. And no nation was as obsessed with whaling as America. New Bedford, MA, became known as "The city that lights the world," and there were enormous fortunes to be made from whaling the seas. Across the globe, these types of harpoons became synonymous with lighting our homes. The whalers were so ruthlessly efficient that they inflicted a serious toll on whale populations around the world, leading many within their industry to worry about the sustainability of their endeavors. There were even early environmentalists who pleaded in 19th-century newspapers to "Save the whales!" Well, today, the United States, including New Bedford, still has a large number of boats used solely to seek out and shoot whales. Though now, the shooting is done with cameras. And about the only place you're likely to even find a harpoon like this one is in a museum. Today, we are a leader not in whale killing, but in whale watching. So, how did an industry so powerful fall from such great heights to total irrelevance? Turns out that right about the same time that Abraham Lincoln was saving the Union, Abraham Gesner was saving the whales. Was Gesner a crusading environmentalist? No. He was a Canadian geologist who had patented and was just in the process of commercializing kerosene, offering a cleaner, more efficient way to light our homes. In fact, kerosene was such a superior alternative to whale oil that within 30 years of Gesner's patenting of it, it had decimated America's whaling fleet, shrinking it by 95 percent, rendering harpoons like this one mere relics of a bygone era. What lessons might this story offer us today? Turns out, quite a few. Today, one of our great sustainability problems is, yet again, related to our exploitation of animals. Though this time around, the problem isn't that we have too few whales; rather, we've created too many chickens, pigs, and cows. You see, raising animals for food is at the heart of so many of our environmental ills that plague our world today. The United Nations reports that animal agriculture contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than all of our cars, trucks, boats, and planes combined. It's also a leading cause of rainforest destruction, air, water, and soil degradation; and on top of all that, it's just a grossly inefficient way to produce our food. To put the problem in perspective, imagine walking down the poultry aisle of your local supermarket. Now envision one chicken you're thinking about buying, and right next to it, there's a one-gallon plastic jug of water. Unscrew that jug, and dump the entire gallon out onto the floor. And now, do that a thousand more times. That's about how much water it takes to bring one single chicken from shell to shelf, vastly more than it takes to produce similar amounts of plant-based protein. In other words, you would save more water by skipping a single chicken dinner for your family, than by skipping six months of showers. The problem is so bad that the Center for Biological Diversity's number one recommendation for giving wildlife a fighting chance on our planet is a simple three-word slogan. They say, "Eat less meat." The problem is, most of the world just isn't following that advice. Meat consumption is on the rise, globally, with nations like China and India and Brazil aspiring to eat more like Americans do - that is a diet heavy in meat, eggs, and dairy. With our population projected to swell by billions more by 2050, the situation is looking pretty dire. Our planet just isn't big enough to sustain billions more consumers with a meat-centric diet. The change in climate will be too great, the deforestation too severe, the water use too draining, and the toll on the farm animals themselves is a serious concern too. But ... what if we were able to have our meat and eat it too? What if there were a technological innovation that, just like kerosene allowed us to light our homes without slaughtering whales, would allow people to eat the meat that so many crave without having to raise and slaughter animals? It turns out that some entrepreneurs are now doing exactly that. Today, we are witnessing the very beginning of an incredible revolution: a clean meat revolution. If the problem is too many farm animals, the solution may lie within those animals themselves, within their very cells. In order to feed a growing population, rather than going big, with animal agriculture, some are now starting to go small, with cellular agriculture, the process of growing foods like real animal meats and other animal products, directly from cells rather than from slaughter. To be sure, this is not an alternative or a substitute to meat. We are talking about actual animal meats, simply grown without the animal. It may sound like science fiction, but indeed, it is now science fact. Simply by taking a sesame-seed-sized biopsy from a chicken, you can grow real chicken nuggets from those cells and eat them in front of that very chicken while he pecks around in the grass by your feet, alive and well. (Laughter) Something one startup working in this space, Hampton Creek, has already done. Other entrepreneurs, like those at a startup called Geltor, are simply ditching the initial animal starter cells altogether and are just growing, from the molecule up, real gelatin, real leather, real milk, and real egg whites that are all essentially identical to the products we know, except they never involved a living creature. By applying what up until now have been medical technologies to growing animal agricultural products, these entrepreneurs are bringing to us what Dr. Uma Valeti, CEO of the clean meat startup "Memphis Meats," calls the second domestication. In the first domestication, thousands of years ago, our ancestors began breeding wild animals and planting seeds, exerting more control over how we produced our food. Today, we are taking that control down to the cellular level. Whereas our ancestors domesticated wild animals into livestock, today, we are beginning to domesticate those animals' cells. And from the single cell of a cow, you can grow enough beef to feed an entire village. And the story of this coming second domestication is anything but tame. In order to learn more about this clean meat revolution, I traveled the world to see and taste firsthand just what these innovators and their investors are cooking up. And their ideas are hardly new. In 1931, Winston Churchill prophesized that these innovators would come about. In an essay predicting what the world might look like in 50 years, the future British Prime Minister suggested that we would abandon the absurdity of raising entire animals when we could simply grow the parts that we actually wanted. Sure, his timing may have been a few decades off, but the revolution that he foresaw is now in full swing, with startups - some of them backed by billionaire investors like Bill Gates and Richard Branson and even meat giants like Cargill - now racing to turn Churchill's vision into reality. And if they succeed, the results could be astounding, as they would be producing real animal products with staggeringly fewer greenhouse gas emissions, less land, and less water. The term "Clean Meat" was popularized by the nonprofit Good Food Institute and with good reason. Like clean energy, clean meat is of course cleaner for the planet. But it is also literally just cleaner. Think about it: right now, we are warned to treat raw meat in our kitchens almost like toxic waste. Why? Because it's riddled with feces, E.Coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter. These are intestinal pathogens that can sicken us if we don't cook the crap out of our meat, literally. (Laughter) But when we're growing clean meat, you don't need intestines! You just grow the muscle that you actually want. This lack of pathogenic bacteria not only makes it safer to eat, but it also means that clean meat spoils at a much slower rate than conventional meat does. These companies are bringing about a food revolution that has so many food safety experts so enthusiastic about it. Now look, I realize it's one thing for me to say that clean meat will deliver all of the good qualities of meat and so many fewer of the bad. There's a whole other question, of course, which is that, Will people actually eat this? I mean, how does it even taste? Well, I'm proud to say that I may have eaten a greater variety of clean animal products than perhaps any person on the planet. The first time I ever ate clean meat was in 2014. At that time, more humans had gone into space than had ever eaten meat grown outside of an animal. My host, Andras Forgacs of the startup Modern Meadow, at that time was growing what he called steak chips. Think about them like potato chips, but made out of beef. He since has gone on to focus his efforts solely on leather, but at that time, Andras was taking single cells from a cow and growing these steak chips in his lab, barbecuing them and dehydrating them, making them look kind of like thin pieces of jerky. He surprised me by very generously offering me a sample of one of his steak chips, and of course I accepted. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but when I put that steak chip on my tongue, my mouth began watering. I chewed it, I told him that I liked it, and I got to admit, I really wish that I had more. Since then, I've sampled all types of clean animal products, from beef, duck, and fish to liver and even yogurt. I realize what might be going through your head, listening to this talk right now. You might be thinking, alright Paul, this is all fine - maybe better for the planet, maybe it's safer - but come on: Growing an animal's meat outside of that animal's body, isn't that unnatural? Well, this may be a good time for us just to pause and take a quick moment to consider how natural our current methods of meat production are. Let's just take chicken as one sole example. Nearly all of the chicken that we eat today in America comes from birds who languished inside factory farms, where they lived in their own feces, never felt the sun on their back, never stepped foot on a blade of grass, were pumped full of drugs like antibiotics, were genetically selected to grow so big, so fast that many of them couldn't even take more than a few steps before collapsing underneath their own unnatural bulk. And when they were finally taken to slaughter, well, let's just say you'd rather not hear about it. So when we consider just how unnatural, unsustainable and inhumane many of our current methods of meat production are, clean meat all of a sudden seems like the naturally preferable choice. In some ways, it brings to mind the natural ice industry of old. In the 19th century, as whales were dodging harpoons, huge blocks of natural ice were being dragged out of northern lakes to ship them all around the world to warmer climates, where consumers didn't have ice. Well, enter the advent of industrial refrigeration, and all of a sudden, you had a much more efficient way to produce ice, simply by cooling down the local water right in front of you. Well, the natural ice industry was livid over this technological innovation, railing against the so-called artificial ice, warning consumers that by using this artificial ice - it was unnatural and maybe even unsafe. Well, the irony at the time was that the artificial ice was actually much safer because they were using water that was boiled or otherwise filtered prior to freezing it whereas natural ice was being harvested from lakes that were polluted from the industrial revolution by horses who were defecating in the very lakes from which they were taking this water. And today, nearly every single one of us has an artificial ice maker in our homes - we call them freezers. We don't think there's anything unnatural about it at all; in fact, you probably wouldn't even consider living without one. Now look, today we all have freezers in our homes, but we don't yet have access to clean meat in the commercial marketplace. But that will change, and it will change within a matter of mere years, not decades. And as we think about these changes that these can bring to our lives, we have to start wondering: How might this change the way that we live? Now, in the meantime, we have to think about - We don't have clean meat, but we do have numerous other alternatives available to us. There's many plant-based meats for example, many of which really do taste and look like the so-called "real thing." I love those products, I eat them myself, I hope you'll eat them, and I expect the market for them will continue to grow. But for the people who profess that they are wedded to actual animal meat, might clean meat soon become a solution for them to engage in the habit without causing so much damage in the process? Just as we need clean energy to compete against fossil fuels, clean meat can become a competitor of factory farms. Yes, we should switch to a more plant-based diet; eating less meat is a wonderful way to protect our planet and to protect our health. Yet just as we need many different types of clean energy, wind, solar, geothermal, and more, like plant-based meat, clean meat is a promising alternative to factory farms that deserves our support. Because of the revolution that these clean meat startups are brewing, we may soon be getting a taste of that future that Winston Churchill envisioned. Is it possible that in that future, a factory farm may seem as archaic to us as a whaling ship does in the present? Might a slaughterhouse knife one day appear as much of a relic of a technologically primitive past as a whaling harpoon does to us today? I don't think it's that hard to imagine. And I, for one, am looking forward to tasting that cleaner, greener, more sustainable, more humane future with each and every one of you. Thank you. (Applause)