• Film

Docs: “Meat the Future” Points Viewers Toward Next Great Agricultural Revolution

Truly big ideas — advances that overturn hundreds if not thousands of years of conventional thinking — are in general notoriously difficult to distill in nonfiction reportage, even for an audience who might be receptive to the change they offer. But director Liz Marshall’s Meat the Future, executive produced by Moby and celebrated filmmaker Chris Hegedus, among others, does just that.

A timely documentary about the next agricultural revolution, it arrives not wrapped in the cloak of a swaggering polemic but presented instead as a straightforward, solution-oriented work. It’s the rare nonfiction film that, in telling the story of a group of people’s own passion project, feels less like an amplification device for their zealousness and more like a well-crafted yet still easily digestible research paper, scrupulously balanced between ordered facts and personal appeal. In taking that approach, it demystifies a potentially hot-button topic, pointing a way forward that might allow humankind to slip the looming noose of ever-expanding industrial farming as Earth’s population tops eight billion and pushes far beyond.

Narrated by Dr. Jane Goodall, and available now on digital platforms from Giant Pictures, Meat the Future serves up a character-driven look at the game-changing world of “clean” meat. What is that one might ask? Meat grown directly from animal cells, eliminating the need to breed, raise and slaughter animals. Unfolding over the course of five years, the movie takes as its central subject Dr. Uma Valeti, the visionary CEO of start-up company Upside Foods (previously Memphis Meats).

The externalized costs of conventional animal agriculture are many. They include taking up nearly half the world’s land, producing harmful greenhouse gases, and also providing a breeding ground for species-jumping health pandemics. While it may sound like science-fiction, the notion of cultivating beef and poultry directly from animal cells to consumable meat in four to six weeks is actually very much of the moment. And once scale is achieved, making the price per pound competitive with (and even lower than) that of conventionally raised and slaughtered livestock and other animals, the potential ramifications for the environment are enormous. Research indicates that clean beef is estimated to reduce land use by more than 95 percent, nutrient pollution by 94 percent, and climate change emissions by somewhere between 74 and 87 percent.

Privately held Upside Foods wants to be at the forefront of this change, and viewers here get to track them from financing (early strategic investors include Bill Gates and Richard Branson, but also such meat industry heavy hitters as Tyson and Cargill) through the construction of a 1,625-square-meter production plant in Berkeley, California.

Meat the Future includes a couple of interviewees, including Bruce Friedrich, the co-founder and executive director of The Good Food Institute. But mostly it unfolds at a remove, showing several scenes of other journalists interviewing Dr. Valeti. In debunking myths and misconceptions (by the way, this is not cloning; cells grow and become meat muscle tissue), the movie works less to try actively to change thinking than simply to give viewers the proper vocabulary and tools to discuss the issue.

Canadian-born Marshall (The Ghosts in Our Machine) is an award-winning filmmaker whose work focuses largely on environmental and social justice issues. Working here with editors Caroline Christie and Roland Schlimme, she eschews a chronological tack when approaching the history of cell-grown meat. This results in a movie that sometimes struggles a little to provide a clear arc of scientific progress surrounding the topic, as when it introduces Ira Van Eelen, the daughter of the so-called grandfather of clean meat, around 40 minutes into the film.


It also might bore or frustrate some viewers that Meat the Future eventually pivots into a discussion about naming and other regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of market entry. But this argument about nomenclature is actually very important — the use of the word “clean” results in a consumer engagement rate of more than 20-plus-percent over the word “cultured,” and even much higher when compared to other pejorative languages. It reflects a societal (and especially American) preoccupation with branding, and to ignore this charged cultural battleground is to ignore the outsized degree to which descriptions so frequently derail and hijack sensible, workable solutions which would help fast-track social progress and inarguably benefit humankind.

What Meat the Future gets so very right, though, is its selection of subject. In hitching her movie to Valeti, a Mayo Clinic-trained cardiologist who walked away from that field to pursue his dream of helping even more people, Marshall has a highly relatable protagonist. This fact, combined with its overall embrace of educating rather than merely proselytizing, makes the film enormously persuasive, in a very even-keeled, rational manner. It’s a reminder that using markets and food technology to help creatively solve the biggest problems facing humankind shouldn’t be an inherently political issue.