Vegan documentary filmmaker shares the inside story of lab-grown meat

Liz Marshall’s latest release, meat of the future, will be available to stream on April 5th on Apple TV, Amazon and Google Play. The feature-length documentary traces the birth of a new technological innovation that grows meat from stem cells instead of animals, reducing the need for industrial agriculture and ending slaughter. She tells the story through Uma Valeti, a cardiologist-turned-food entrepreneur who now runs one of the world’s leading cell-cultured meat companies, Upside Foods (formerly Memphis Meats). I spoke to the director about her new documentary, next steps and the taste of cell cultured chicken.

ZEIT: You are vegan. Why did you decide to do a story about cultured meat?

Marshall: Back in 2016, I was actively looking for something that was very solution-focused and character-focused, in part because I knew we didn’t want doomsday stories. I’ve been trying to find something that’s actually viable, and that was on-going, not just a utopian pursuit. I was introduced to Uma [Valeti] when he was in Genesis – he just moved into their first R&D facility – and we had a few talks and it just clicked. I started filming just to see what would happen.

Growing food in barrels is often a symbol of techno-corporate hyperbole in dystopias movies and novels. Did you have any doubts or squeamishes on this subject?

Naturally. But then it normalized for me. It really only made sense. I never claim that this is the silver bullet that will change the world. But I hope it changes the food system. In the meantime, this film has become a historical document. It is the only film in the world chronicling the birth of this industry, told from the perspective of a cardiologist who embarked on this very risky career to become the CEO and founder of the world’s leading cultured meat company.

What surprised you the most during filming?

When we started, the whole idea was extremely novel, marginal and abstract. And I think it still is, although there’s growing interest for a lot of people. In 2017, the meat industry invested in Memphis Meats [now called Upside]. I didn’t think things would accelerate so quickly. How quickly this progresses and becomes part of the conversation was the biggest surprise. I think it’s because we all recognize the need for something like this.

Did you expect to see cultured meat on the shelves by the time you’re done?

I thought it was the pandemic after all, so maybe that plays a role. Yet this industry is expanding worldwide, despite and perhaps because of the pandemic, fears of zoonosis, and the need to find solutions to problems with our food system. I think it’s just a matter of time.

Read more: The cow that could feed the planet

Did you try?

I tried twice. The first time was early in their first R&D facility. And then I tried it a few years later. It was an experience because I don’t eat meat. I became vegetarian and vegan in 1989 while doing this Ghosts in our machine documentary [about animal farming] in 2012. It was not an issue for me to try. It was like flying to the moon. It was part of my research. It was a fascinating experience.

And how did it taste?

I remember saying it tasted like meat and the team all laughed at me for saying it is Flesh. It wasn’t revealing. It tasted like chicken. But it reminded me why people like meat.

What would you like to have captured more of?

I always want more access. Figuratively and literally, you want to be in the room. You want to witness these monumental milestones and moments. It was clear to me from the start that we couldn’t possibly film everything. I approached it with that understanding, but at the same time you always want more.

What’s the next chapter for you?

My intent and hope is that this will become an entry point to demystify technology, to become a platform for awareness and education. When this industry takes off, this will be a historic, exclusive story about the genesis of something that helped change the paradigm. And if it doesn’t go well, it’s still an important story to look back on.

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