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Hot Docs At Home Review: Meat the Future

May 7, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

With this year’s edition of Hot Docs cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a selection of festival films are being given broadcast premieres every Thursday night from April 16th to May 28th on CBC, documentary Channel, and the CBC Gem streaming app, as part of the Hot Docs At Home series.

In the early 1930s, when laying out his visions for the future, Winston Churchill proclaimed that, one day, “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

This quote is paraphrased by Uma Valeti, a cardiologist turned leader in the “clean meat” revolution, at one point in the documentary Meat the Future, which follows him over several years as he starts up a company and works with a team of scientists and researchers to perfect the process of growing meat in a lab entirely from animal cells. This would allow people to continue consuming meat without having to kill animals or use up the massive amounts of resources that it takes to raise livestock such as cattle.

With meat consumption expected to double worldwide by 2050, and factory farming recognized as one of the leading causes of climate change, there is a need for people to seek out different protein sources for the betterment of the planet. Cell-based meat seems poised to fill that void, a process that involves extracting cells from a live animal through an injection, and cultivating those cells in a lab so they will grow into the muscle tissue that gives meat its texture and flavour. In theory, the final product will be indistinguishable from traditional meat.

Valeti is the co-founder of Memphis Meats, a California-based startup seeking to corner the market on this major scientific breakthrough, and Meat the Future charts the evolution of the company, as they move into a full-scale production facility and try to get government approval for the product, while also facing intense pushback from groups lobbying on behalf of cattle farmers. The film is directed by the Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall, who previously made the animal rights documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine, and is no stranger to animal justice causes.

Marshall has crafted a slickly made documentary that serves as an engaging advertisement for Valeti’s company, while also getting into the more nitty gritty aspects of the debate over lab-grown meat, such as whether it will be regulated by the FDA or USDA. A big part of the journey involves trying to make the process more economically sound before it can become a viable market alternative to traditional meat, with the product starting out at $1700 per pound, and dropping exponentially as the months go on.

Valeti is at his most engaging as a subject during a trip to his home country of India, when he explains his reasoning for wanting to produce cruelty-free meat, after witnessing chickens being slaughtered as a child. He envisions a world where animals will no longer be raised and killed at the degree that they are now just to provide food, and there is great potential for the betterment of animal welfare through his company’s production of cell-based meat products that mimic those from a dead animal.

There are still some lingering questions that I have about lab-grown meat that the documentary doesn’t really get into, such as if it would be considered kosher or halal, and whether or not eating something grown from animal cells would be ethically acceptable for vegetarians and vegans. I am personally more interested in the possibilities of plant-based proteins, but can see the demand for lab-grown meat as well. This is a very interesting documentary that gets us thinking about how to make the food supply chains that we all rely on more sustainable.

Meat the Future premieres tonight at 8 PM EDT on CBC TV and on the CBC Gem app, and at 9 PM EDT on documentary Channel. The next Hot Docs At Home screening is They Call Me Dr. Miami, premiering on May 14th.

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