Vegan documentary filmmaker tells the inside story of lab-grown meat

Iiz Marshall’s latest release, Meat of the future, will be available to stream on April 5 on Apple TV, Amazon and Google Play. The feature-length documentary traces the birth of a new technological innovation that grows meat from stem cells instead of animals, reducing the need for factory farming and ending slaughter. She tells the story through Uma Valeti, a cardiologist-turned-food entrepreneur who now runs one of the world’s leading cell-cultured meat companies, Upside Foods (formerly Memphis Meats). I spoke with the director of her new documentary, the next steps and the taste of chicken grown from cells.

TIME: You are vegan. Why did you decide to report on cultured meat?

Marshall: In 2016, I was actively looking for something that was very solution-oriented and character-driven, also knowing that we don’t want disaster stories. I was trying to find something that was actually viable, and that was happening, not just some utopian aspiration. I was introduced to Uma [Valeti] since he was in the Genesis phase – he had just moved into their first R&D facility – and we had a few conversations and we just clicked. I started filming just to see what was going to happen.

Growing food in vats is often a symbol of techno-corporate overreach in dystopia movies and novels. Did you have any doubts or dislikes on this subject?

Sure. But then it normalized for me. It really made sense. I never claim that it is the magic bullet that will change the world. But hopefully it will transform the food system. In the meantime, this film is a historical document. It’s the only film in the world that chronicles the birth of this industry, told through the eyes of a cardiologist who took that very risky turn to become CEO and founder of the world’s first cultured meat company.

What surprised you the most during filming?

When we started, the whole idea was extremely new, marginal and abstract. And I think that’s still the case, although for a lot of people there’s growing interest. In 2017, the meat industry invested in Memphis Meats [now called Upside]. I never imagined that things would accelerate so quickly. How quickly this moves forward and becomes part of the conversation was the biggest surprise. I think it’s because we all recognize the need for something like this.

Did you expect to see cultured meat on the shelves by the time you’re done?

I thought it would, but the pandemic hit, so maybe that plays a role. Yet around the world, this industry is growing, despite and perhaps because of the pandemic, because of the fear of zoonotic diseases, and because of the need for solutions to the problems in our food system. I think it’s only a matter of time.

Read more: The cow that could feed the planet

Have you tried it?

I tried it twice. The first time was at the start of their first R&D setup. And then I tried a few years later. It was an experiment because I don’t eat meat. I became a vegetarian in 1989 and a vegan when I did the Ghosts in our machine documentary [about animal farming] in 2012. It was no problem for me to try it. It was like going to the moon. It was part of my research. It was a fascinating experience.

And how did it taste?

I remember I said it tasted like meat, and the whole team laughed at me because they said so. East Meat. It wasn’t revealing. It tasted like chicken. But it reminded me why humans love meat.

What would you have liked to capture more?

I always want more access. Figuratively and literally, you want to be in the room. You want to witness these monumental milestones and moments. I knew from the start that it was impossible to film everything. I went with that understanding, but at the same time, you always want more.

What’s the next chapter for you?

My intention and my hope is that it becomes an entry point to demystify the technology, that it becomes a platform for awareness and education. If this industry takes off, it will be a historic, exclusive story about the genesis phase of something that helped shift the paradigm. And if that doesn’t take off, well, that’s still an important story to look back on.

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