The AI-mazing new world where carnivores, vegans and vegetarians meat

The AI-mazing new world where carnivores, vegans and vegetarians meat
Rudolf II as Vertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Der schöne Schein’ exhibition of replicas of artwork in the Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany. Photographic detail of original Arcimboldo work by Frank Vincentz. (Wikimedia Commons/public domain)

Food science and food reinvention. Plant-based or nurtured in a petri dish. Prepare your dinner plate, your braai and your appetite for a brave new world of guilt-free dinner options where you can give up your steak and eat it too.

Is he a chef? Is he an alchemist? Is he a genius? Perhaps a sorcerer. Or some novel kind of food artist? His name is Giuseppe, this being my reason for making “him” a “he”. Named for Giuseppe Arcimboldo, linked to here, the 16th century Italian painter whose witty fantastical fruit, fish and veggie-faced portraits (so ubiquitous in ads and popular culture, you’re most likely “seeing” them without having to look) provided inspiration to the surrealists so many years later.

Giuseppe’s “father” is Chilean entrepreneur and academic, Professor Karim Pichara, computer scientist and researcher (data science and machine learning geared to astronomy being his focus). And if you’re wondering about all this, how it fits together and where it’s going, let me give you a clue. Meat. Or perhaps not… 

Because, since my first encounter with Giuseppe a little over a week ago, I’ve been on a journey down the rabbit hole into a brave new world of questions, possibilities; no definitive answers. The focus being on meat, in one guise or another. 

I am sure there will be readers familiar with at least some of the prime-cut snippets I will share from my journey of discovery. Tapping into “meat” sourced from plants that is indistinguishable from real meat (worlds apart from the old-style soybean-heavy protein-delivery-with-flavouring options); meat created from a single cell extracted from an animal and nurtured in a petri dish; vegetable-based “meat” from a 3-D printer, which you can read about here.

Giuseppe is an artificial intelligence (AI) system set up by Pichara using an algorithm that analyses animal-based products at a molecular level to predict what combinations of plants will result in: well, I am imagining a rib-eye steak, the bloody bits cut with fatty veins so when it sizzles on the grill and the Maillard reaction kicks in, proteins break down, coagulating and contracting, making the meat both tender and firm and giving it that distinctive “meaty” aroma, taste and texture…

And yes, this could, it seems, ultimately be possible. Pichara does have Giuseppe analysing meat protein structures to “perfectly emulate, say, a rib-eye”.

But for now, the Chile-based food technology company, NotCo, reportedly Latin America’s fastest growing food company, has perfected their “Not Milk”, made from plants, no cows involved. Their other product lines are “Not Burger” and “Not Meat”, “Not Ice Cream” and “Not Mayo”. I read on Tech Crunch that the milk and meat replacement company, with its $1.5-billion valuation, has an abundance of big-name investors, including athletes Lewis Hamilton and Roger Federer; and musician DJ Questlove. Read a FoodDive article on NotCo here.

The difference between these new-generation plant-based options and what went before is that they are not attempting to offer a protein replacement as in a burger patty or sausage that might taste okay and be nutritious, but that is nothing like the real thing. Giuseppe’s mission is to replicate the whole product. The sensual nature. The flavours, textures, taste, smell, colour. The physical, nutritive and functional characteristics. Part of Giuseppe’s task is to match animal proteins to their ideal replacements among thousands of plant-based ingredients. “There are 300,000 plant species and we have no idea what 99 percent of them can do,” to quote company founder and CEO, Matías Muchnick.

So, let me share a story that tells a story. It seems NotCo is unique among the plant-based mock meat companies for their use of proprietary AI technology. But they are in competition with other plant-based enterprises also working, in their unique ways, to replicate the meat experience – down to beetroot (extract) or pomegranate (powder) used to simulate the ooze of blood. Yes, food science is where it’s at. Beyond Burger is a name at least some readers will probably know, given that their US-produced Beyond Meat burgers are sold at Woolies among other outlets. And on the menu at Spur and Circus Circus, being two chains I know of.

My committed vegetarian friend, Linda, tells me she tried one recently. So what was it like?

“I have not eaten meat for many years so can’t comment on the taste and anyway there was sauce and other stuff on the burger,” she says. “But, I didn’t like the texture. It reminded me of meat. So I can understand why in blind tastings few people can tell the difference.”

A Likemeat brand of no-meat burger. (Photo by LikeMeat on Unsplash)

A telling – and relevant – observation. Because these new-wave no-meat “meat” producers, sure, have a ready market among the vegans and vegetarians of this world. But it is on those who are meat lovers and meat eaters that their prime-target sights are set.

And yes, saving the planet, which goes without saying. Because we’re all aware, even if we don’t heed it, of the cost to the environment of breeding animals for consumption along with the crops grown to feed said animals. And ultimately, feeding the hungry affordably and nutritiously.

To quote from a New York Times interview with Beyond Meat founder and CEO, Ethan Brown, that ran just two weeks ago, “There’s a term that we use here [at Beyond Meat] called ‘hedonistic altruism’. I’m going to try to create products that help people feel better about themselves, but also confer benefits to the world, versus obligating someone to eat something because it’s good for the world.”

Okay. So on to lab-grown meat and the petri dish. This is happening in countries around the world. And right here at home in South Africa.

In my search of the past week for academics working on plant- or lab-grown meat, Prof Gunnar Sigge, Stellenbosch University’s chair of food sciences (Faculty of AgriSciences), sent me a link to a news story. He had previously confirmed that, as overseas, most of this type of work is being done by private companies. None that he knew of at universities.

And sure enough. He thought of me when he saw a Business Insider article, From springbok to beef and chicken – now meat made in a petri dish is coming to South Africa, published this week. The report shares details of the work of two companies right here doing what those my research had uncovered are doing overseas.

Dr Paul Bartels, a wildlife veterinarian with over 25 years’ experience in biobanking, cell culture and assisted reproduction technologies, founded Mogale Meat Company, which is researching how to grow meat, from springbok to chicken, in its lab in Hartbeespoort.

“At some stage, I read an article about cultivated meat, and suddenly the light went on … here was a massive opportunity to actually play a much larger role in conservation,” to quote Bartels in the article.

His company is looking into making springbok and impala meat. Also, cultivated chicken “to be part of a solution to counter the rising cost of meat and its impact on the environment”.

The second South African company is Cape Town based Mzansi Meat Co founded by entrepreneurs Brett Thompson and Jay van Der Walt. Targeting neither game nor chicken, they are looking at cultivating beef on a large and affordable scale.

The technology is similar to what is being used in Israel, the United States, Europe – wherever lab-grown meat is being grown. Explored. Researched. Welcomed. Deplored.

Because of course there are questions and concerns. Could a vegan or vegetarian eat a lab-produced product? How much processing is going into the plant-based options? Just as fantastical, some of it seems, as Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s art.

All of which takes me to a memory. It must have been 30 years ago. A party at the Durban flat of journalist – politics, religion and “the arts” – Patrick Leeman. Dead 10 years now. But the memory from that party lives. It is of a conversation. A conversation about meat. A conversation that, like a popcorn kernel, bursts forth every so often on cue. Now I think of it with Giuseppe in mind. 

Talking about meat at the party – and veggies too – were two scientists working in the field of cancer research. I recall a long conversation, probably because I was greedy for details. Their warnings, that I’ve heard a gazillion times since, about the dangers to us humans of hormones and antibiotics in much of the meat we eat. I don’t recall free-range being discussed. Game, they said, was good. And their veggie conversation was a revelation: that if veggies are grown in depleted soil, we might imagine that eating them has health benefits. But in the imagination is where the health benefits stop.

I recall back then having given up on pork. A very cute piglet picture and reading about the intellect of pigs had motivated that. At some point I gave up on red meat. Fish and fowl stayed. Except during the three-and-a-half years I lived in a Zen Buddhist temple in San Francisco when tofu ruled. These days I have vegetarian friends. Vegan friends. But unapologetically eat meat. Fish and fowl mostly.

I guess I could call myself serially monogamous in a culinary sense. Promiscuous. Definitely opportunistic. 

Sounds like there are some new possibilities gearing up to present themselves. Plant-based or petri-dished. A combination of the two? Who knows? Perhaps I can consult with Giuseppe.

And meanwhile, some resources: This link is a good one for understanding lab-grown, cultured aka cultivated meat. It includes a video. And if you want more,  here is another. And for good measure, link here to a podcast from The Conversation on lab-grown and plant-based meat: the science, psychology and future of meat alternatives. DM/TGIFood 

SUBSCRIBE: There’s much more from Tony Jackman and his food writing colleagues in his weekly TGIFood newsletter, delivered to your inbox every Saturday. Subscribe here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.

The author supports Food Forward SA, committed to a South Africa without hunger. Please support them here.


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