Mammoth meatball part of cultured meat’s plan to end meat agriculture
Over the last several years, thawing permafrost in northern climes such as Siberia and the Yukon have unearthed intact woolly mammoths, some with blood still in their veins. It’s been both a fascinating scientific discovery and a warning of the dangers of climate change to see prehistoric animals extinct and frozen for thousands of years suddenly emerge. Some scientists have even been pushing to resurrect mammoths. But until now, no one had made a meatball out of them.
That is, until Australian culture meat startup Vow came along with its mammoth meatball this year. The meatball is mammoth in more ways than one – it was made using a woolly mammoth DNA sequence, and it’s between the size of a softball and a volleyball. Nobody’s going to eat it. (“We haven’t seen this protein for thousands of years,” professor Ernst Wolvetang of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering, who helped Vow create it, told the Guardian. “So we have no idea how our immune system would react when we eat it.”)
Rather, the mammoth meatball is a symbol for how animal agriculture relates to climate change and how, Vow and other startups hope, cultured meat can make a difference. Livestock farming accounts for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions and takes up about 30% of Earth’s land surface. Cultured meat, proponents tout, takes up much less space, contributes a tiny fraction of the emissions, and saves water. Plus, Vow points out, they can customize lab-grown meat to tastes and nutritional requirements.
Smells Like Crocodile
Though nobody is eating the mammoth meatball, Vow did cook it at its unveiling at the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam, slow-baking then finish it off with a blowtorch. Witnesses reported a smell faintly similar to that of crocodile meat, The Associated Press reported. Your mileage on whether that is good may vary.
Scientists sequenced the mammoth genome in 2015, and Vow used mammoth myoglobin, which gives meat its color and flavor, filling in the gaps with African elephant genetic data, then using sheep cells as a base to multiply into the 20-billion-cell meatball.
“We chose the woolly mammoth because it’s a symbol of diversity loss and a symbol of climate change,” Vow co-founder Tim Noakesmith told the Guardian.
This is not the first time scientists have synthesized food from a large prehistoric beast. In 2018, Bay Area-based Geltor used mastodon DNA to make gelatin for gummy bears. Wolvetang said the process of creating the mammoth meatball was “ridiculously easy” and took just a couple weeks.
Though it has no current plans to sell mammoth meatballs, Vow has looked into more than 50 different species for its cultured meat products, including alpaca, buffalo, crocodile, peacock, kangaroo, and several fish, the Guardian reported.
“We have a behavior change problem when it comes to meat consumption,” Vow CEO George Peppou told the Guardian. “The goal is to transition a few billion meat eaters away from eating (farmed) animal protein to eating things that can be produced in electrified systems.”
On the Menu
Vow and other cultured meat producers know they have a long way to go to convince carnivores that there’s a better way to get their protein fix.
“Our aim is to start a conversation about how we eat, and what the future alternatives can look and taste like. Cultured meat is meat, but not as we know it,” Bas Korsten of ad agency Wunderman Thompson, who came up with the mammoth meatball idea, told the Guardian.
Vow’s first public offering will be lab-grown Japanese quail, which it plans to serve in Singapore by the end of the year. Singapore has proven to be quite the test market for cultured meat. It has also approved chicken from GOOD Meat, which has also gained FDA approval in the U.S. Chef José Andrés plans to serve it to American diners, starting in Washington, D.C.
“The future of our planet depends on how we feed ourselves … and we have a responsibility to look beyond the horizon for smarter, sustainable ways to eat. GOOD Meat is doing just that, pushing the boundary on innovative new solutions, and I’m excited for everyone to taste the result,” Andrés said.
UPSIDE Foods has also obtained FDA approval to sell its cultured chicken in the U.S.
Vow’s unique approach certainly will grab attention and stand out from the pack of other cultured meat makers, but Seren Kell of the Good Food Institute Europe thinks that cultured replacements for the meats people most commonly eat is a better approach to changing habits.
“By cultivating beef, pork, chicken and seafood we can have the most impact in terms of reducing emissions from conventional animal agriculture,” Kell told the Guardian.
It might not be a mammoth meatball, but you’ll be able to try cultured meat soon.