Q&A: ‘Meat The Future’ Documentary Director Liz Marshall On The Revolutionary Promise Of Cell-Based Protein
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Award-winning Canadian filmmaker and director Liz Marshall is all about making “character-driven documentaries” and her latest production, which recently streamed at Toronto’s online version of its Hot Docs festival and which Variety calls “a substance-over-style doc that manages the rare trick of being at once dry and rather engrossing”, she takes on the story of cultivated meat via the lens of one of the industry’s pioneers. In a recent virtual panel discussion hosted by Big Idea Ventures (BIV) for its latest cohort of innovative food techs, Marshall shared her experience and journey of making Meat the Future (2020), a documentary that chronicles the burgeoning cell-based meat industry by following the story of Dr. Uma Valeti, the co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, and his startup team that is at the forefront of the alternative protein revolution.
“The birth of this industry is a convergence point to discuss timely and topical issues in the world right now,” explains Marshall. “I use the vehicle of filmmaking to elevate stories of people, to take audiences on an emotional journey that explores bigger issues and questions. Meat the Future is an exclusive story that is pushing all the right buttons.”
During the online discussion session, Green Queen‘s Editor-in-Chief Sonalie Figueiras had the opportunity to speak to Marshall and ask her about her back story, what inspired her to document the fast-growing field of cultivated meat, and what it was like to follow the Memphis Meats team and their extraordinary developments over three years.
GQ: What’s your relationship personally with this space? Are you a vegan? Where was the connection made to tell this incredibly important story?
LM: Yes, I am a vegan. But I’m pragmatic and live in the real world. I am in touch with reality and I know that 90% of the people on the planet eat meat. Meat consumption is expected to double. We need solutions and we need innovative ways to produce food. I was drawn to the topic of cell-based meat because for me, it brings together all the issues I care about, whether it be animal protection or environmental stewardship or human rights. It brings together everyone and everything – it’s a convergence issue that concerns all of us. That’s what excites me most about this topic.
As a filmmaker, I’m pulled towards human stories. I love the language of filmmaking. Having a strong main character or protagonist in this film like Dr. Uma Valeti allows for the opportunity to learn about this topic with someone who is really a pioneer and visionary. His rise in prominence as a CEO and founder is charted in the film.
I’m pragmatic and live in the real world. I am in touch with reality and I know that 90% of the people on the planet eat meat. Meat consumption is expected to double. We need solutions and we need innovative ways to produce food.Liz Marshall
To give you a concrete example, when we filmed at Memphis Meats for the first time in Spring 2016, the company had just moved into their first modest facility and the team was made up of just a few people. They were just getting started. Fast-track to our final shoot, which was in Fall 2019, the company has expanded dramatically. They have been able to attract investors like Cargill and Tyson – two of the biggest meat industry companies in the world – and Richard Branson and Bill Gates as influencers and billionaires, and a plethora of other investors from around the globe. In this final scene in the film, they are scouting their first production facility, and everything before that was all about research and development. They’re doing this because they know that the support and momentum is there, and that they are scaling-up soon to meet demand locally. Of course, we know that when it comes to the nuts and bolts of cell-based meat, the ability to scale-up is probably the greatest hurdle and challenge facing this industry. This is just a little example of how the film has been able to echo or mirror the acceleration of the industry itself, but seen through this startup.
This is just a little example of how the film has been able to echo or mirror the acceleration of the industry itself, but seen through this startup.Liz Marshall
GQ: When we talk to readers and focus groups, some people get stuck on the idea of cell-based food. There is this idea that it isn’t natural or from a field. What is your take on this side of things? Some people believe there will always be an “ick” factor barrier.
LM: This is such an important issue to touch on. Consumer acceptance is key to getting this off the ground. But we are an adaptive species and I think increasingly so, especially now with coronavirus. This zoonotic disease has affected everyone and we know that zoonoses jump from animals to humans. Everyone is talking about wet markets, but it’s animals that are bred, confined and slaughtered for their flesh. So I think that people are realising that the cell-based industry could be one that helps prevent the next pandemic.
We need solutions, and this is a solution for those people who want to continue to eat meat.Liz Marshall
Separate from that, when we look at issues of sustainability, regenerative agriculture is not a solution to feeding the masses. Local, small scale animals that graze – that kind of conventional meat operation – will probably never go away. But that’s not what this film is focused on. We’re laser-focused on the problem of industrial animal agriculture. It is unsustainable, inhumane and there needs to be urgent, fast solutions that make sense for feeding the word. Everyone needs protein and the world isn’t going vegan. While it is true that in some high-income countries, some estimates project that by 2030, meat consumption could be halved due to effective advocacy, that’s not going to be the case globally and we’ll still be seeing an overall doubling in meat consumption. We need solutions, and this is a solution for those people who want to continue to eat meat.
The more we understand something, it becomes something normative and something we can accept. If we can taste it, afford it and it is available and convenient to us, I think there can be a huge consciousness shift.Liz Marshall
I want to go back to this idea of adaptability as well. I think we can get used to things. The more we understand something, it becomes something normative and something we can accept. If we can taste it, afford it and it is available and convenient to us, I think there can be a huge consciousness shift. I believe that’s what can happen with this. That’s what these startups are focused on – affordability, taste and texture. They are focused on unpacking this for the general population so it isn’t alien or futuristic, but just food that represents a different way to get meat to plate. It’s something that our heads have to turn the lightbulb around, and for me, I had to go through that process and once I did, there was no going back. The “ick” factor isn’t there for me. Although I don’t eat meat, I don’t have a problem ethically eating this meat.
GQ: Following on from that, there is this problem of veganism and cell-based meat. Because veganism isn’t just a diet, it’s about not exploiting any animal. Lots of vegans say cell-based meat isn’t for them. Could you expand more on your views about this?
LM: It’s true, cell-based meat is not vegan, technically speaking. Even though there is no cruelty, suffering and it removes animals from the process, the product itself is identical at the molecular level to conventional meat. The difference is how it gets to the plate. There is some confusion out there that cell-based meat is “plant-based” – but it’s not. That’s also why I made the film, and I want it to be a tool and vehicle of dialogue, education and debate. It’s a part of my motivation behind this project.
GQ: One of the issues for plant-based and vegan activists isn’t just the cruelty and industrial complex of the animal meat industry, but the health profile of meat. That’s something that cell-based meat doesn’t change so much, right? Is this going to be a license for people to eat meat three times a day, which has been proven over and over again, is not ideal.
LM: I like the fact that Dr. Uma Valeti was a successful cardiologist that trained at the Mayo Clinic. He took this passion-driven career and co-founded Memphis Meats. He really cares about health issues. He’s driven ethically, he’s motivated for the animals and for human health and for environmental reasons to do what he’s doing. I don’t think that anyone is promoting people to eat cell-based or any meat three times a day. There is enough medical evidence out there showing that we need to eat more plant-based protein. It’s just that vegetarianism and veganism is still such a small minority in the world.
Lead image courtesy of Liz Marshall / Meat the Future.