Israeli startup, Aleph Farms, makes cell-grown meat in hopes of developing an ethical and sustainable alternative to steak for generations to come.
By Ben Rappaport
Didier Toubia, CEO of Aleph Farms, explains the process of cell-grown meat. Via Foodtank
Dinner is cooking, the sizzle of the steak awakens the senses as the aroma pours throughout the house. The satisfaction of getting a home-cooked and hearty meal is a wonderful sensation. But does that feeling change if that sizzling steak came from cells grown in a lab instead of directly from the animal?
Didier Toubia, Co-Founder and CEO, and his colleagues at Aleph Farms, an Israeli cell-grown meat company, said the answer to that question is no.
Aleph Farms provides a sustainable and real steak without harming animals or the environment. Make no mistake, these are real steaks with the taste, texture, and nutrition to prove it. This is done by taking stem cells from a cow and replicating the conditions inside cow tissue in a lab. This means the entire process is slaughter-free and takes just a fraction of the time.
A typical cow in the modern industrial farming system takes two years to grow and develop before it is slaughtered. Aleph Farms has reduced this process to just three weeks by emulating nature in a controlled and safe setting.
Beef production is also one of the biggest contributors to climate change, consuming large amounts of land, water, and other resources and emitting tons of methane, a greenhouse gas, along the way. Cell-grown meat offers an alternative without environmental destruction.
An Aleph Farms scientist shows off a fully grown beef steak from cultivated, lab-grown cells. Via 3D Natives.
The demand for protein rises as the world gets richer. Meat consumption has risen exponentially over the past 20 years and is likely to continue to rise, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Meat demand is expected to grow 70% between now and 2050. That is why sustainable and real alternatives, like the steaks grown at Aleph Farms, are necessary for the future.
Seeing the Trouble in the Kitchen
Toubia has a background in food engineering. He received his master’s degree from AgroSup Dijon in France and focused on malnutrition issues in Africa for his master’s thesis. This focus on malnutrition was part of the inspiration for innovating new agricultural food technologies to produce nutritious food, Toubia said.
“I got to the conclusion relatively quickly that the big issue with malnutrition is not necessarily the lack of resources,” Toubia said. “But the wrong use of those resources. The current system doesn’t ensure equal access to basic nutrition and food for everyone.”
Following his studies, Toubia worked at the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in West Africa. The IFC is a branch of the World Bank working to promote private investments in the developing world. Toubia was in charge of agricultural food technology projects by local entrepreneurs in the region.
25 years later, Aleph Farms aims to right the food resource inequity by providing high-quality protein, even in areas where it is not possible to raise cattle. This holistic approach is aimed at the environmental, social, and economic realms of sustainability through the creation of a resilient food chain.
The company was started by The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, a food-tech incubator in Israel that helped Toubia raise nearly $12 million to start the project.
There is meaning in the name too. Aleph (א) is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. In Hebrew, every number of the alphabet is assigned a number value with Aleph being one. For Aleph Farms, it is a symbol of leadership and oneness with the planet. In 1800 B.C., the aleph was derived from a hieroglyph of an ox head, a symbol Aleph Farms believes displays strength and new beginnings.
Their commitment to the planet and its inhabitants even goes beyond the meat itself. Aleph Farms is the first cultivated meat company to announce the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025. They plan on furthering this goal by making their entire supply chain carbon neutral by 2030.
New Young Chefs
Aleph Farms view itself as the mainstream option in the future, said Toubia. The focus of the company is on future generations and that is part of the reason they started the Gen Z Advisory Board.
“My main motivation is preserving the world for them,” Toubia said. “We take the future very seriously and we view Aleph Farms as a leading force behind a new global and sustainable ecosystem.”
Toubia talks with young people about the future of cultivated meat. Via Aleph Farms
The Gen Z Advisory Board is a dialogue platform that enables Aleph Farms to listen to youth leaders from around the world. It allows the company to understand how young people of today see the development of tomorrow.
Yoav Reisler, External Relations Manager and head of the Gen Z Board at Aleph Farms, said the interest from young people to make their mark on this project has been inspiring.
“Together we are building the right future and the right vision,” said Reisler. “Young people are going to be the ones to create consumer acceptance of a product like Aleph Farms so it is essential to involve their inputs.”
Reisler got involved with Aleph Farms when he met Toubia at the Kind Earth Tech Conference (KET) in Amsterdam. Toubia was in search of young leaders and found a way to formalize their input through the creation of their advisory board.
The advisory board now includes seven young leaders from all corners of the globe, from Hong Kong to New Zealand. Beyond community engagement work, the board also writes blog posts, organizes webinars, and invites speakers to college campuses about cultivated meat.
“Gen Z is involved in this movement because we want to create this pipeline of communication between our generation and cellular agriculture,” said Sophia Retchin, a member of the Gen Z advisory board.
Making cellular agriculture the future of protein is going to take collaboration with business, science, government, and even strong advertising to make it viable in the broader marketplace. That is why Aleph Farms is so heavily invested in young people because they bring freshness and challenge the pushback that often comes with something seemingly from a sci-fi novel like growing meat in a lab.
As exciting and innovative as cultivated meat is, it still has a long way to go if it will ever end up on the everyday consumers’ dinner plate. Toubia said there are two key steps to getting to that point. First, what exactly cell-grown meat is must be more clearly communicated. The initial aversion that many people feel to lab-grown meat is based on habit and perception, not the quality of the product.
The urgency, importance, and conversations surrounding alternative proteins need to be had in the classroom and in the media, Retchin said. “This is going to be extremely important down the road. We need more educational conversation and hard science research to create a strong product.”
Aleph Farms has increased its transparency by opening up a visitor center on-site. They offer tours, explanations, and tutorials during site visits.
Second, the product has to match consumer expectations. This comes through total control of the entire growing process so that it is as close as possible to the real thing.
A meal served by Aleph Farms using their cell-grown steak. Via Aleph Farms
Many consumers desire a product that is “natural” or “organic”, but it’s hard to say where exactly a product like a steak grown in a lab falls. Because the technology replicates nature so closely and uses cells that are not genetically modified, it isn’t exactly natural, but it isn’t exactly processed either. The meat from Aleph Farms is somewhere in the middle, or perhaps in a category of its own.
Being in the middle is actually one of the things setting Aleph Farms apart from other alternative protein companies. Others in the industry like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat are making vegetable-based proteins, but Aleph Farms is making the real thing with the exact same flavor, texture, and taste by making structural tissue in steak.
The whole food system and modern agriculture is deeply embedded in technology, but it’s harder for people to stomach when that technology is staring them in the face. It’s all safe to eat, but skeptics have a problem understanding the actual process.
“People seem to be really uncomfortable with technology in their food,” Retchin said. “But it’s so prevalent in the things we eat all the time. Most people just don’t think about what happens before it hits their plate.”
The actual process of making cultivated meat is taking the tissue regeneration that normally occurs inside the animal as it grows, to control conditions outside the animal. These controlled conditions mimic the natural environment of muscle cells. The cells taken from the animal are placed in an aqueous environment and provided with the same nutrients needed inside the body that allow muscle tissue to grow. That muscle tissue is what becomes the steak.
“We can theoretically produce an infinite amount of meat from just a few cells,” Toubia said.
This whole process involves no farming, raising of the cattle, or slaughtering of the animal and it can be done in just a few weeks.
This provides an incredibly intriguing alternative to the industrial farming methods of today. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are common practice in much of the developed world because they are low-cost and high output for animal products. However, these operations often pack animals in close quarters and emit hundreds of harmful greenhouse gases. Globally, livestock accounts for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to FAO.
The meat industry is massive, and it continues to grow. Currently, the industry is estimated at $1 trillion. That number could rise because meat consumption is expected to double by 2040. However, this is an unsustainable industry. “The way the meat industry is going, it doesn’t have the capacity to feed this amount of people with good nutrition,” Reisler said.
Cultivated meat removes the need for abusive and harmful agriculture with just a fraction of the resources. The big problem with modern cattle agriculture is the land use and water wasted, but cultivated meat removes all of that. There is no land, much less water, and much less greenhouse gas emissions. This alternative is how people can enjoy meat without harming the planet.
Aleph Farms has intentionally focused on making a beef alternative precisely because it has the largest environmental footprint in agriculture.
“We are putting sustainability at the forefront and putting a focus on creating an inclusive system with meat producers, processors, and farmers,” Reisler said.
They’re also different from other cultivated meat companies. Aleph Farms has created the first whole muscle beefsteak without slaughtering any cows. Other cultivated meat companies have had to slaughter their cows to extract the cells necessary for meat growth. Aleph Farms is also not genetically modified at any step of its process.
They keep the process GMO free by using cells that have a natural capacity for rapid growth. These rapid growth cells mean that no new genes need to be inserted.
“We end up in the same place as the steak from the grocery store, we just use a different process to get there,” Toubia said. “The goal is to replace the way meat is produced today and create something better, safer, and more sustainable.”
The Next Meal
Aleph Farms is still in its development phase and has not yet rolled its product into the mainstream, but they have made cultivated meat a reality since 2018.
The Israeli startup has even taken its product to space. In 2019, Toubia’s experiment of cell-grown meat was done at the International Space Station.
“The experiment in space shows that meat can be cultivated in the harshest conditions, meaning anywhere, anytime and for anyone,” Toubia told Bloomberg News afterwards.
The company was also recently featured in Billion Dollar Burger by Chase Purdy. The book explores technology in the future of food and humanity’s reconciliation with modern food ethics.
Toubia and his team are getting recognized around the globe for their exciting and sustainable alternative to steak. It’s one of the reasons they have been awarded as Technology Pioneers by the 2020 World Economic Forum. The World Economic Forum selects these pioneers because they are poised to make significant impacts on business and society.
“Besides aggressive environmental targets, to reach carbon-neutrality by 2025 and by 2030 across the supply chain, our sustainability encompasses also empowerment of local communities and livestock farmers, long-term economic growth, digital traceability, and sustainable diets,” Toubia said.
All these accolades are just the beginning of the massive impact Aleph Farms is sure to have on the food market.
The elegant steak dinner is finally ready. Thanks to Aleph Farms, the steak on the plate has the taste of the future.