I’m vegan and I tried cultivated meat
The tiny slab of meat in my hand is ground and shaped into a burger. The middle of the patty is a dark pink and gets darker and browner as it expands to the edges. I put it up to my nose to smell it. I flick my tongue out to see if I can get a little taste before I bite into it, but then think better of it. Instead, I enter into a stare down with the baby burger no bigger than my knuckle. Am I really going to eat a piece of meat when I haven’t for more than a decade?
My vegan brain whirls with objections, but the argument that is the loudest is: it’s cultivated meat, no animals were harmed in this. Give. It. A Try.
The day I went vegan was the day it all connected. I was in my new home of Chiang Mai, Thailand, heading back from a day spent at the elephant sanctuary I had just started working for. En route home, face pressed against the window of the Toyota van that is synonymous with tours in the region, I saw a truck filled with pigs, their pink heads and floppy ears poking through slats. They were being taken to slaughter.
It wasn’t like I didn’t know about animals being killed for my food before, but seeing this very real image of adorable faces being taken on their final drive to be killed was all I needed to see. That was July 20123 and until May 20, 2023, I never had a single piece of meat.
Why I tried cultivated meat
I stand, still holding the meat, looking into the camera I had set up to document this trial of Ohayo’s WagyuMe burger. I bring it to my mouth. Pull it away. Bring it to my mouth again. Purse my lips like a child who refuses to open wide for food. I glance back at the screen, showing my confusion, my apprehension, as I sit with my hand perched inches from my mouth. My brain fights a battle with my hand.
In the end, the logic wins: if I can show people that this cell cultured meat is a viable option, then I’ve done something good for the animals and the environment. After all, so many people tell me they would go vegan but they don’t want to give up the taste of meat and the experience eating it brings.
My hand makes its way to my mouth as I slowly part my jaw, scraping off the most microscopic bite of burger I can muster. I roll it around in my mouth. I let my tongue feel the ground texture. The flavor sinks into my tastebuds.
The first place I taste it are the sides of my tongue — that umami flavor I’ve always thought I understood, but really never did until this moment. Mostly because before I became vegan, I wasn’t a true foodie. Since I moved into that era, I’ve tasted umami, but not in this iteration. It’s earthy, heavy, thick and entirely unpleasant in my mouth. It tastes exactly like what I remember meat tasting like. And, after more than a decade of abstaining, meat is no longer a part of my palette.
But, if I don’t like it, that means other people — meat-eaters — hopefully will. After all, it is meat. It’s just not from an animal that was killed to be ground up and stuffed into a spongy burger roll and dressed with all the condiments and consumed. It’s the “good” without the horrific, which I can get behind as a vegan.
What is cultured meat?
Instead, Ohayo’s wagyu, like other cell-cultivated meats, comes from just that — cells. Public-facing testimonies and information state the cell removal is done painlessly from animals. Then, it is created by “feeding” these cells nutrients so they can grow in a bioreactor, ultimately morphing into a consumable meat product. More complex meats, like the wagyu, are constructed via “scaffolding”. These hold together muscle, fat and connective tissue, recreating the structure of meat.
Dr. Jess Krieger, the CEO and founder of Ohayo, has been called a pioneer and visionary (according to the company’s website) when it comes to cultivated meat. She first delved into that world in 2010. A scientist, she applied her muscle tissue engineering experience to product development for structured meats and is among the leaders.
The company’s wagyu blends plant-based proteins and fat, mixed with cultivated wagyu cells and the result is impressive. If you’re vegan like me, it’s wild to be tasting and eating meat that is meat (and therefore tough for me to stomach). However, for meat-eaters, it’s perhaps the answer to the growing issues around animal agriculture and climate change.
Today, animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of global warming. But, the rapid development of cultivated meats hold a glimmer of hope in a world that is getting hotter by the day and land burns for crops.
So, is cultivated meat actually vegan?
This is where it gets a little gray. If you ask me, I’m going to go with “yes.” A resounding “yes.” The animal itself is not harmed, though cells are taken from an animal to initially create this product. I support this as a far more viable and cruetly-free (and death-free) option for people who still want to the taste and experience of eating meat without harming or killing an animal for it.
I’ve long been outspoken on perfection as the achille’s heel of veganism and policing which makes it harder for people to go vegan. If this product helps save an animal, I’m all for it.
Will I eat it?
Nah, it’s not for me. Even though I went through my steak and meat phase in my late 20s, I’ve lost any taste for them.
Will I support people who choose to eat this?
Absolutely I will. Change has to happen sometime, and this is an excellent opportunity.
Is cultivated meat the future?
There are currently more than 100 companies around the world creating cell-based proteins. These run the gamut — cows, chicken, oysters and even lab-grown foie gras. It is still cost prohibitive for the general public. However, in the next decade science promises cheaper price points as technology improves and demand expands. Meaning the future of our food will likely be rooted in science rather than animal ag.
And, that gives me hope. Even as I fight the urge to spit the meat into a napkin and wash it down with an Impossible burger and vegan wine. But, that’s an entirely other subject for another time.