The fast food and hospitality industries are racing to keep up with the demand for plant-based alternatives as consumers turn their backs on meat and dairy.

So what does Dunsford make of the Moving Mountains hot dog? “That’s surprisingly good,” he says, fighting an admirable battle to keep ketchup out of his thick, reddish-brown beard. “It tastes like a commodity product, a cheap product, the texture is a little bit too hard, but for me if this was a street-corner product it replaces it quite easily.”

Praise then, but qualified. Dunsford can see scenarios in which plant-based simulacra can fill a gap – and for the planet that has to be so – but the notion that they can replace the real thing entirely is a stretch too far. “For me as a meat eater, there’s an organoleptic quality when you consume meat,” he says. “And none of these plant-based products offers exactly the same response. You don’t quite have that little glob of hot fat going down your chin you get with real meat.”

For this reason, Dunsford believes the future of meat has to be growing it in labs from animal cells. His long, at times confounding journey to this conclusion began in 2015, when he attended a symposium on cultured meat at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and continued when he was chosen as a prestigious Nuffield farming scholar and spent 15 months travelling the world to explore the future of meat production, which included seeing the impact of animal agriculture on deforestation in the Amazon. But it all fell into place in late 2017, in the San Francisco headquarters of a US company Just, Inc (a building where Dunsford, a film buff, notes that Toy Story was screened for the first time).

“They cooked me up a little duck liver chorizo,” he remembers. “It was in a little taco, it was tiny. And I ate it and it just had the umami kick of what I expect from meat. It was like this final piece of the jigsaw for me: this actually tastes exactly the same as meat. I thought, ‘Well, if you could produce that product cheaper, why on earth would a consumer buy something else instead?’”

Charcutier was wound down and Dunsford now runs Cellular Agriculture, the first UK startup in the cell-based meat space, with Dr Marianne Ellis, whose day job is head of chemical engineering at the University of Bath. “Our machine at the moment produces milligrams worth of cells, so very, very small,” says Dunsford. “But by the end of the next two years, we’re looking at about 10 kilos for a cycle, which is about three weeks. And the aspiration really, in around five years, is to build factories that produce tonnages of cells.”

Dunsford is well aware that cell-based meat has a yuck factor to overcome, but he’s confident that over time it will. And if it does, the potential market is huge: while he believes plant-based food will mainly appeal to flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans, who make up about 20% of the British population, cultured meat would be an option for everyone else, whether they plan to reduce their meat intake or not. “The difference with cell-based is that chemically it is meat,” says Dunsford. “There’s nothing that you have to do to it to flavour it to make it taste of meat, because the cells are derived from animals.”

As an individual, Dunsford accepts that he should be the perfect target for meat alternatives: he buys local; he cares about sustainability; when he takes a flight, he offsets his carbon. “So I’m that kind of consumer and I’ve tried to do plant-based but I can’t,” he sighs. “It’s just my body and my mind are not strong enough. Even though I know there are a certain number of things that we need to do to help the planet, I’m weak. Most people are.”

Cell-based meat is, as you would expect, divisive. For Rankin, it’s a future that he doesn’t care much to imagine. “One, growing meat in labs, that’s terrifying,” he says. “And two, we have sustainably produced meat in this country. It’s just the fact we are eating too much of it. The whole problem with meat is that we just need to replace 90% of what we eat with other things, then we can sustainably farm animals and the animals can sustainably add manure to the soil. That whole thing that we used to do 100 years ago, really effectively, can work again.”

So Rankin doesn’t think lab-grown meat will find a market then? “Oh, I’m sure it will take off, but I’m just saying it’s going to be terrible for us,” he warns. “You look at history and as soon as we started to get labs or companies to do our diets for us or to feed us food it turned out incredibly badly every single time.”

Van der Molen looked into cell-based meat before starting Moving Mountains. For him, the issue was not ethics, but timescale. “I met with the University of Bath and, as soon as I understood what was involved, I stopped that,” he says. Why? “It’s another 10 years away from now, I would guess, from being produced. Anyone who tells you it’s this year is wanting more money from a funding round in my opinion. And as well as caring for the planet, I’m also a businessman. I need to have a company and I need to get the company moving.”

Still, Van der Molen agrees with Dunsford that ultimately the market for cell-based meat will far outstrip that of the plant-based sector. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, I won’t eat it’ and I say, ‘But you just might not have a choice, because these massive big meat producers will just force it upon you.’ They don’t necessarily care about the environment – though some certainly do – but the savings that they can possibly make from using cell-based as opposed to rearing cattle? Unbelievable.”

So we will see cell-based meat in McDonald’s or Burger King? “Oh God, 100%,” Van der Molen replies. “Yeah, I just think it will dominate.”

For Dunsford, the breakthrough product will likely be a hybrid of cell- and plant-based ingredients. “Because the cells actually taste of meat and plant-based doesn’t,” he says. “You have to think about things like a fish cake: a lot of that is potatoes. Think of a sausage, a lot of that is just filler. So it is the same principle as what we currently do with food products.”

Everyone agrees – some with zeal, others resignation – that it’s not if meat production will change, but when and how. In 2016, Dunsford was asked by advisers at Downing Street to present his research on protein alternatives. At the end of the day, he walked down the Strand to catch his tube and started humming David Bowie’s Space Oddity. “The line ‘Take your protein pill…’ came into my mind,” Dunsford recalls. “And I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do next. I want to make a sausage in space! I want to build a system that will exist for space travel and for planet colonisation!’ That’s what will come of this technology.”

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