It is not unusual for visionaries to be impassioned, if not fanatical, and Willem van Eelen is no exception.
At 87, van Eelen can look back on an extraordinary life. He was born in Indonesia when it was under Dutch control, the son of a doctor who ran a leper colony. As a teenager, he fought the Japanese in World War II and spent several years in prisoner-of-war camps. The Japanese guards used prisoners as slave labor and starved them. “If one of the stray dogs was stupid enough to go over the wire, the prisoners would jump on it, tear it apart and eat it raw,” van Eelen recalls. “If you looked at my stomach then, you saw my spine. I was already dead.” The experience triggered a lifelong obsession with food, nutrition and the science of survival.
One obsession led to another. After the Allies liberated Indonesia, van Eelen studied medicine at the University of Amsterdam. A professor showed the students how he had been able to get a piece of muscle tissue to grow in the laboratory. This demonstration inspired van Eelen to consider the possibility of growing edible meat without having to raise or slaughter animals. Imagine, he thought, protein-rich food that could be grown like crops, no matter what the climate or other environmental conditions, without killing any living creatures.
If anything, the idea is more potent now. The world population was just more than two billion in 1940, and global warming was not a concern. Today the planet is home to three times as many people. According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock business accounts for about 18 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions—an even larger contribution than the global transportationsector. The organization expects worldwide meat consumption to nearly double between 2002 and 2050.
Meat grown in bioreactors—instead of raised on farms—could help alleviate planetary stress. Hanna Tuomisto, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford, co-authored a study last year on the potential environmental impacts of cultured meat. The study found that such production, if scientists grew the muscle cells in a culture of cyanobacteria hydrolysate (a bacterium cultivated in ponds), would involve “approximately 35 to 60 percent lower energy use, 80 to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions and 98 percent lower land use compared to conventionally produced meat products in Europe.”
As it is, 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is used for grazing livestock and growing animal feed. If cultured meat were to become viable and widely consumed, much of that land could be used for other purposes, including new forests that would pull carbon out of the air. Meat would no longer have to be shipped around the globe, because production sites could be located close to consumers. Some proponents imagine small urban meat labs selling their products at street markets that cater to locavores.
The Only Choice Left
Even Winston Churchill thought in vitro meat was a good idea. “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under suitable medium,” he predicted in a 1932 book, Thoughts and Adventures. For most of the 20th century, however, few took the idea seriously. Van Eelen did not let it go. He worked all kinds of jobs—selling newspapers, driving a taxi, making dollhouses. He established an organization to help underprivileged kids and owned art galleries and cafes. He wrote proposals for in vitro meat production and eventually plowed much of his earnings into applying for patents. Together with two partners, he won a Dutch patent in 1999, then other European patents and, eventually, two U.S. patents. In 2005 he and others finally convinced the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs to pledge €2 million to support in vitro meat research in the Netherlands—the largest government grant for such research to date.