Reviewed by Jaclyn Holland
The idea of cell-grown meat has gained a huge amount of traction since Dutch scientist Mark Post dished out the first in vitro grown hamburger in 2013. With the promise of providing an environmentally friendly way to continue eating meat, without any associated loss of animal life, it’s easy to see why the media are so enthralled. At the same time, however, there is a prevailing discomfort with what some call “frankenburgers”, as well as opposition to the product even using the name “meat”. With this in mind, renowned Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall’s documentary Meat the Future is perfectly timed.
Following her prior success with The Ghosts in our Machine in 2013, Marshall’s new work has taken the natural next step in her inquiry into animal welfare by exploring an alternative solution to traditional meat production. Meat the Future follows Uma Valeti, the co-founder of clean meat producer, US based “Memphis Meats”, and the company’s quest over the last four years to make their products affordable and sustainable. Their process involves taking a tiny sample of muscle tissue from their animal of choice with a needle and then feeding these cells the nutrients they need to grow into a substantial portion. This is achieved without further sacrifice on the part of the animal. The cost of this process is a major challenge faced by the team, and getting the price below even $1,700 per pound is cause for major celebration.
From the start, Meat the Future takes a futuristic sounding concept and completely normalises it through the lens of a commercial business. We are introduced to the team behind Memphis Meats through extensive interviews, and hear about Valeti’s own personal challenges, like trying to attain a visa to work in the US and attempting to balance family time with developing his company. Though showing these real-world aspects is commendable, the extensive time spent discussing issues like funding and establishing regulations and marketing strategies makes for somewhat dry entertainment after a while. The one point in the film that really strays into emotionally charged territory, however, is disturbing enough to make you feel relieved when it does return to the business world of Memphis Meats. This is of course the almost expected depiction of crowded stockyards and abattoirs that traditional meat production depends upon, accompanied by a suitably foreboding soundtrack created by composer Igor Correia. As the only visual we get of farm animals in the documentary, this contrasting scene cleverly supports Valeti’s goal to separate meat eating from the slaughter of livestock.
Compared to the continuous business challenges, the characters themselves are far more interesting. Each person involved in the Memphis Meats project has a genuine passion for their job, which makes one automatically want them to succeed. These people give you an insight into the real faces behind cell-grown meat, which are nothing like the stereotypical ‘mad scientist’ figure. The token opposing viewpoints presented are somewhat more stereotypical, being made up entirely of beef industry spokespeople or farmers. However, their concerns that cell-based meat might take over their market space or that more information should be made available about the processes involved are still presented without judgment, despite Marshall’s clear support for the scientists. This respectful treatment of valid uncertainties and the lack of a didactic narrative voice in the documentary allows viewers the space to come to their own conclusions from a somewhat intellectual distance. With so many shots of golden fried cell-based chicken sprinkled into the mix, however, it’s hard not to be won over by the clean meat revolution.
Now all there’s left to do is wait for the price to drop into a more student friendly budget… but we might be waiting a while yet.
Meat the Future, directed by Liz Marshall can be viewed as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival online at http://mdff.org.au until the 15th July 2020.