Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 04, 2022 5:06 pm 
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Is meat grown from cells the next agricultural revolution?

The production of livestock for human food consumption, i.e. modern day industrial animal agriculture, is a major cause of the degradation of earth's environment. It takes up half the world's land mass and creates more pollution than land transportation. As the world population grows more numerous and in some cases richer, more people eat meat. So here the first focus is on a scheme to "grow" meat from "animal cells" in a lab or "farm" that will not produce the dangerous greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide, methane. We meet an Indian-born cardiologist from Minnesota and trained at the Mayo Clinic called Uma Valeti, the main focus of this film, who is a co-founder of Memphis Meats (later renamed Upside Foods), initially armed with $3+ million from a Silicon Valley venture capital group to start research and production. We hear the voiceover of Jane Goodall (which briefly bookends the film), we see Uma Valeti doing an online interview in the company's still empty headquarters in San Francisco, and we see a pan with something sizzling in it described as the first cooked meatball not from an animal. The interviewer says: "I'd like to be an investor... Because I have a feeling this may be one of the biggest ideas in the history of the world."

Extravagant? Maybe. But this is no pipe dream. Companies to produce meat grown from animal cells are springing up all over the world. In 2020, Valeti's company had raised $186 million toward getting his firm's Bay Area-based plant under way.

What about the fact that meat may not be the best thing for you anyway? Or supposing you don't care, and like to eat meat - what does this synthesized or "grown" meat taste like? Isn't it going to taste different, funny? (Tastings shown here indicate otherwise.) Will I be able to understand this process? While a deal of screen time is devoted to explaining, it is a bit too technical to make clear in this film. Not lab-grown, cloned or in vitro, Valeti explains, this meat is grown using tissue-engineering techniques similar to those used in regenerative medicine, something he experienced injecting stem cells during heart surgery. (He says he imagines as a cardiologist he might save 2,000 lives in his career. With this new vocation, he envisions a far wider influence. )

Much remains unknown. A positive hint, though: producing meat away from animals in controlled situations will avoid the kind of contamination that led to the global COVID pandemic. Equally or more important from a moral standpo0int, switching to "clean meat" would steer away humans from the global food industry's current massive scale animal cruelty and overfishing the ocean.

We hear from young, enthusiastic members of Valeti's early company, who are shown to have swelled their numbers by six months after the first filmed segments. Valeti is the co-founder with Nicholas Genovese, who is Chief Science Officer.

But Genovese, as a late 2021 article in the food journal The Counter reported, was fired from the company at that time, and his scientific team, known as Blue Sky, all resigned shortly thereafter. This seems somewhat of a mystery, and came just at the time of a company breakthrough, the Nov 4, 2021 opening of a development plant in Emeryville, California in a former supermarket space. But, The Counter explains, factory grown meat (1) is not legal to sell in the US and (2) may remain too costly to produce on a large commercial scale. The film boasts that the first beef meatball cost $18,000 to produce. This article appeared after the completion of Marshall's film. There are ways that this film feels hasty - even promotional.

It's predicted, the film tells us, that by 2050 the global demand for meat will double. Meeting such a demand by raising livestock is not feasible. Is meeting it feasible by "growing" meat from animal cells? It doesn't yet look like it, though this film, focused on one of several factory "clean meat" companies and on its founder Valeti, is a nice calling card, an enthusiastic blurb about this new possibility.

A May 2020 Variety review by Guy Lodge speaks highly of this film's brisk, "persuasive" presentation, but points out that it gets a bit bogged down at times in explanatory material. Another review argues that too much time is wasted in the "personal" focus on Uma Valeti. Indeed this film's scope isn't as wide as it seems to think. While Valeti's eyes are on the world's nutritional needs, no one can know what will happen to worldwide meat production, how it can be scaled back to sustainability while "clean meat" takes over. We have seen here that the US commercial meat industry is eager to nip the "clean meat" wave in the bud. And a lot of precious time is spent following Valeti to conferences and meetings motivating others and promoting his company.

Other companies, notably the big meat and poultry conglomerates Tyson and Cargill, have gotten involved in the "clean meat" movement and invested in Valeti's company. A venture capitalist official says Valeti, several years along, had lately been getting offered more money than he wanted to accept.

In documentary considerations of the many problems of increasing world population and resulting impossible demand, it is rarely mentioned that what's primarily needed is to radically curb population growth. Yet overpopulation can logically be seen - much though some theorists reject or disregard this - as the single primary cause of most of the world's current and ever more dire future problems. I keep asking why this essential element is so often overlooked. Is the issue too obvious to notice?

I can't find online any articles about Upside Foods since November 2021.

Meat the Future, 84 mins., debuted in Hot Docs Canada May 7, 2020, was shown in the Melbourne doc fest Jun. 30, 2020. It opens Apr. 5, 2022 on digital platforms in the US and selected territories from Giant Pictures.

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