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The Cell-To-Table Movement: How Steer-Less Steaks Will Redefine Sustainably Grown Meat

In the late 1970s, the “farm-to-table” movement was born out of Alice Waters’ desire to create a local, sustainable ecosystem between food production, distribution, and consumption. Chez Panisse, her Berkeley restaurant credited with championing this new dining approach, has since inspired many others. Farm-to-table mainly refers to restaurants sourcing food directly from local, ideally small scale, organic farms, and restaurants and growers maintain close relationships. Although farm-to-table as a concept has since been mainstreamed into casual dining, it still retains a top spot in sustainable food innovation.

Fast forward to 2020. In December, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited by Aleph Farms to participate in a tasting event for cultivated meat that moved the regulatory agenda for cellular agriculture one important step ahead in the race to market its products. Although Aleph Farms was by no means the first company to orchestrate a much-publicized tasting event, nor was Netanyahu the first high profile taster of cultivated meat, his approval undoubtedly legitimized cellular agriculture as a serious contender for sustainable future food production.

Aleph Farms’ signature product, a petite steak grown from beef muscle cells presented in a distinctly elevated culinary aesthetic style, invites viewers to imagine what cultivated meat might look like on their own future entrée plates: the visual grace of the dish evokes a fine dining experience and distinct sensory appeal of modernity that we are already quite familiar with: it’s clean, it’s fresh. And if the Prime Minister had a bite, well then it’s definitely safe.

This, and a similar event in Singapore where Eat Just's cultivated chicken was served to a handful of diners at high-end restaurant 1880, which even read “history made” on the menu covers, could mark the birth of a new food movement that answers to consumer demand for sustainable meat.

While the farm-to-table-concept is commendable, by the time it scales up enough to feed a critical mass of meat eaters, it would unfortunately become less sustainable. Cellular agriculture, conversely, becomes more sustainable the larger it scales, because it eliminates the need for animal agriculture all together. This is why I think the next ecosystem of sustainable meat production, distribution, and consumption will be, or should be, the cell-to-table movement.

Farm-To-Table vs. Cell-To-Table: Where’s The Beef?

Farm-to-table branding is very literal in its presentation: invariably, we are shown vegetables with the dirt still on, nonchalantly thrown on a rustic wooden table. But my anthropological eye quickly discovers this pattern: unlike vegetables just pulled out of the dirt minutes ago, farm-to-table imagery almost never features animals just killed on the farm minutes ago, still bloody, or god forbid, still moving.

Cultivated meat (hopefully soon to be cell-to-table) branding, on the other hand, shows close-ups of the featured cultivated product in both raw and cooked states, as if microscopic scrutiny is needed to inspect this new yet familiar food, and it also shows people about to put it into their mouths, as if to prove that “people are really eating this!” There’s a subtle Fear Factor vibe in there to be sure.

Now, you might say I’m comparing apples to oranges as cellular agriculture has nothing to do with producing plants or plant-based food. But that’s not the point: what I’m getting at is the absence of what even the most humane, compassionate, or conscientious farm-to-table producers don’t want you to envision: slaughter, rustic wooden table included.

Thinking that your farm-to-table meat gets onto your plate in any other way is wishful thinking or outright cognitive dissonance. Farm-to-table is still slaughter-to-table no matter how much we romanticize its food narratives about compassionate treatment of the animals before we kill them. What does this achieve anyways? Some people would go so far as to call this kindness before killing ethos psychopathy, not compassion.

So, can we have our steer and eat steak, too? If you’ve read my first blog on ceganism then you already know the answer. Steer-less steaks, as shown above, are the way to eating meat without eating animals, and cell-to-table, by way of cellular agriculture, is the food movement we need to create them.

Why Cell Grown Could Be The New Locally Grown Meat

Buying locally grown food directly from the producer is a key element in farm-to-table practice as it circumvents large-scale industrial agriculture production, distribution, and consumption. But while locally grown meat may reduce carbon emission in terms of transportation and refrigeration, there are limits as to how large of a local population it can actually supply. Far easier to de-centralize, cell grown meat could radically reshape the meaning of “local” once production facilities can be custom scaled to produce exactly what is needed where and when.

The new “local” meat doesn’t need grass, barns, or “processing” (slaughter), and could come from anywhere a bioreactor can be housed, whether in the back of the restaurant or smack in the middle of any American city block. Bioreactors don’t burp or fart out methane, nor do they require an astronomical feed-to-calorie ratio, large plots of land, or millions of gallons of water. They do tend to use quite a bit of energy, a problem the industry takes rather seriously, but in the long run, this, too, may only be a few hackathons away from being tackled.

Like farm-to-table restaurant models, the first restaurant owners or chefs to put cultivated meat on the menu may similarly desire to get to know their local cultivated meat producers and build relationships with cellular agriculture companies. This is already happening as Aleph Farms and Eat Just have demonstrated, and it will likely become a “best practices” standard of the industry. I could also envision a mutually beneficial coexistence between farm-to-table and cell-to-table partnerships where the former supplies the pesticide-free chickpeas, and the latter supplies the cruelty-free chicken cells.

Exclusively cell-to-table or cegan restaurants may even license cell lines and bioreactor equipment to claim the meat was actually grown “on site” – and it really doesn’t get any more local than that. Premium sources for sustainable meat would thus no longer depend on the prestige of the farm, but on the reputation of high-profile local bioreactor facilities (in-house or nearby) that have transparent production standards and may eventually even produce at zero carbon emission rates or operate solar powered. Of course, the cell donor (remember Ian the chicken?) would likely also remain an engaging topic of dinner conversation about where tonight’s special comes from.

The Future Cell-To-Table Restaurant Won’t Be A Place For, But An Experience In Sustainability

For the culinarily cautious or curious diners, the first step up to the cultivated meat plate might be a so-called “hybrid” food item (composed of cultivated and plant-based meat) that they are already familiar with: chicken nuggets, burgers, perhaps even Memphis Meats’ duck a l’orange. Whether it’s eaten in cell-to-table restaurants or eventually prepared at home, the path to cell-based or cegan food will probably follow plant-based or vegan food in terms of limited restaurant roll-out, gradually expanded to full-scale commercial availability similar to Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.

But I would predict that the early cegan adaptors will quickly outgrow their appetite for both comfort food as well as classic fine dining dishes replicated with cultivated meat. They will want to experience something truly novel: once forbidden to hunt or impossible to domesticate, the future featured dish on cell-to-table restaurants could be giraffe au vin or lion heart kebabs. The cultivated exploratory paths of the future are virtually limitless and future chefs will need training in a different kind of culinary school where cultivating, and not just cooking, will be part of the curriculum. This new breed of chef would venture into a food territory so uncharted, it would make Ferran Adria’s molecular gastronomy creations look like old-timey country club staples.

Exclusive cell-to-table restaurants would be fully immersive sustainability experiences with tablecloths made of cultivated silk, and chairs made of bio-printed cultivated wood covered with cultivated leather that has never even touched the back of a cow. Culinary art and science would meet anew on entrée plates that would make sustainable the new umami. And all things creamy on the dessert menu would be concocted with cultivated dairy rich enough to leave cute little milk mustaches on fully grown men.

You Knew The Ubiquitous Million-Dollar Question Was Coming: Will Vegans Eat At Cell-To-Table Restaurants?

Imagine, for a moment, a restaurant where everything on the menu is 100% cruelty free and environmentally sustainable. That’s another vegan dream come true, right? The only problem is that every single dish on the menu has meat, fish, or dairy in it. Wait, what?

So, would vegans visit, support, or be accommodated in cell-to-table restaurants? Or might they give them the ice-cold vegan shoulder since these establishments might be so meat-centric that vegan dishes might barely be an afterthought, if not completely absent from the menu?

This is where it might get a bit complicated for entrepreneurially minded future restauranteurs: some might feel that since they have righteously invested in reaching the cegan pinnacle of cruelty free sustainability, vegans can just go eat an Impossible burger at Burger King (oh, the irony!).

Personally, I think this would be an arrogant and unfortunate mistake. Sustainable food movements should aim to bring people together, and not further divide them, so I would keep the vegan, plant-based options where they belong: everywhere, you not-even-a-real-cegan-yet snob!

Like ceganism, the cell-to-table movement might need to happen so that it can eventually become superfluous when no one needs to grow a cow to serve anyone a burger. What also needs to be a temporary contingency is that sustainable meat is only available to people with enough currency to opt out of cruelty. Yes, we need the moneyed to lead the way for the masses, but cell-to-table sustainability can only happen when it’s happening on every table, not just at the Chez Panisses of the foodie world.

What the cell-to-table restaurant will ultimately sell you is a choice to end animal cruelty and a chance to revolutionize an unsustainable food system that is destroying the planet. The steer-less steak is for free.

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