Li Ka-shing is on to something. The richest man in China is making a huge move into artificial meat, eggs and leather—little wonder, given that lab-grown protein can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent, water use by 90 percent and feed the estimated 9.5 billion inhabitants of Planet Earth by 2060.
Li recently headed a $10-million investment in Brooklyn-based bioengineering startup called Modern Meadow. The company has developed a technique called "biofabrication" in which protein cells are developed in the lab and 3D printing technology is used to produce eggs, meat and leather. The process is animal friendly and environmentally friendly. It also brings to mind retro visions of The Futureand Star Trek-like replicators that can synthesize meals on demand. Modern Meadows aims to produce lab-grown leather within the next two years and 3D printed meat some time after that. The company is also looking into developing fish and poultry.
The Hong Kong billionaire is a big fan of bioengineering and fried up a couple of lab-created eggs for the press earlier this year, promoting a $23-million investment in startup Hampton Creek. The plant-based eggs and mayonnaise have already hit supermarket shelves in Hong Kong and will roll out to the mainland later this year. Lab-created is another profitable area for investment. Leather demand is expected to reach $92 billion in the next four years and the cost of raw hides has risen by as much as 30 percent in parts of the world.
"Technology enables everyone to have more options to better our future together. To keep up with all the demands for the growing global population, we need to be more efficient, more environmentally friendly, and have more quality and affordable choices," said Li.
Modern Meadow last year was named among the 100 most "Brilliant Companies" by Entrepreneur magazine. It also receives funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"What we build is skin, or hide, and we do this elaborate game to turn it into leather," said Gabor Forgacs, who co-founded Modern Meadow with his son Andras. Gabor also serves as chief scientific officer.
"Our goal after [the prototype] is to be able to do a limited production run and to incorporate [the leather] into fashion accessories and apparel in 2014," Andras Forgacs, who serves as CEO, told Entrepreneur. "Then, it's all about scaling."
Leather and eggs is one thing, but would you ever eat a hamburger grown in a lab? British scientist Mark Post thinks so, and created the world's first lab cultured hamburger last year in London. The five-ounce burger took five years and more than $330,000 to produce and tasted "almost" like a conventional burger.
"It's close to meat, but it's not as juicy," said Hanni Rützler, an Austrian nutritional scientist. "I was expecting the texture to be more soft. The surface was surprisingly crunchy."
Li seems more focused on the ethical and practical benefits of lab-generated meat than taste. Li and other billionaires like Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Google cofounder Sergey Brin are committed to supporting a sustainable future for humankind. Earlier this month, Li spoke of the worries that keep him up at night at the commencement ceremony of Shantou University, which he founded.
"What I'm worried about is that in the era of the globalization and knowledge economy, differing intelligence, capability and effort have turned the imbalance of opportunities into a new norm. I'm worried that limitations of national resources may become a problem for future development," Li said.
Li is right. The world's growth can only be constrained by limitations of national resources. There is a heck of a lot of mouths to feed and the rise of the middle class has correlated into a growing demand for protein. Meat is environmentally expensive. About 80 percent of the world's farmland is used to support the meat and poultry industries, and much of that goes to growing animal feed. A single pound of cooked beef requires 298 square feet of land, 27 pounds of feed, and 211 gallons of water to produce and more than 4,000 BTUs of fossil-fuel energy to get to the dinner table. Worldwide the amount of meat eaten per person nearly doubled from 1961 to 2007, and the UN projects it will double again by 2050. People cannot afford to ignore companies like Modern Meadow.
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City