With 7.9 billion people and counting, the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations predicts that by 2050, food supply needs to grow by 70% in order to accommodate the global population. In a climate challenged world, it seems impossible to meet this demand while maintaining sustainability standards; the global meat industry alone accounts for 14.5% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. An environment and animal friendly alternative to this conundrum has presented itself in the form of in-vitro, lab-grown meat -- but how do we begin to accept it? Yuval Yancovitch, a recent industrial design graduate from the Holon Institute of Technology, Israel, sought to answer just this.
Yuval widens the scope of cultured meat from its focus on the final product and stretches it across the process of creating and consuming meat, from the lab to the plate.
Currently working in the food technology industry, cultured meat piqued her interest. Evolving In Vitro is a project centered around the consumption of cultured meat. Yuval widens the scope of cultured meat from its focus on the final product and stretches it across the process of creating and consuming meat, from the lab to the plate. “Cultured meat is created by taking stem cells from farming and just growing them in the right environment which supports them and then they become muscle tissues until they become the traditional meat that we are all familiar with. But unlike the traditional animal farming that we know, this process takes out the harm and the damage that current meat production is causing. My project actually presents this technology by showing four different meat products, each one of them providing a different eating experience with different scenarios.” For this project, she’s specifically concentrated on creating “meat products” from shrimp, bone marrow, ribs and fish. “In my research, I investigated lots of varieties of meat products, but eventually I saw those specific ones, what I call ‘archetypes’, that are very familiar, they have really identical gestures, and have an interest in interaction, and also are well known.”
As a designer, she focuses on creating an experience that is centered around the user and their interactions, creating offline and online experiences with food and personalization of food. In amalgamating these experiences, her project started with creating 3D printed scaffolds with the vision of producing a deliverable for scientists to make it easier to integrate cultured meat into society. “3D printing actually made it easier to plan the shape. I think 3D printing has a lot more to upgrade because currently it's a slow, low technology; I think in the future maybe this direction will be much more convenient. But as a designer I see it as a tool, a tool to address those archetypes, to sketch them, and to frame them from my perspective, from a design perspective.” The project is a stepping stone towards a future where the meat produced in these scaffolds can be eaten, despite not being edible at the time being. Her idea is to create a tool that can be further developed into an applicable model that can be used for various purposes. “I think it has a more functional purpose because the scaffold is something that we have to use while producing cultured meat. It is one of the more interesting things in cultured meat production and I think lots of companies now are trying to explore and seek alternatives to this scaffold, or to make it from other materials.”
Starting the project in late 2019, the limitations due to the pandemic dampened her plans on implementing her research -- but that did not stop her. “I bought a 3D printer, which nowadays each student actually had in their house, and I started producing it on my own. I had guiding lines from the scientist and they explained to me the method and how things are produced and it gave me a structure and to determine rules for my project. It made it a lot easier to understand how it works in actual production.” The “rules” that she speaks of are guidelines, she believes, every speculative design must have in order to determine a scope. She developed these guidelines for the scaffolds by consulting with scientists in Tel Aviv, a city that is a pioneer in the field of food technology. “I was trying to understand scaffold production. One of the main structures I needed was the broad structure that has holes in it, very tiny holes that you actually cannot see. So in 3D printing we can make the holes in such a way in order for the meat to grow inside the cells, to grow to be a tissue. The scaffold actually determines the 3D shape that the outcome will tend to be. The meat will grow in it, and the scaffold also integrates itself inside the experience.”
I don't eat a lot of meat, but I could eat it. I think we have to embrace this technology just to live to feed the population, we will have to embrace these technologies.
It’s surprising that from a personal point of view, she regards herself as a “vegetarian in the closet” yet understands the importance of accommodating a cultured meat future. “I don't eat a lot of meat, but I could eat it. I think we have to embrace this technology just to live to feed the population, we will have to embrace these technologies. So yes, it's definitely something that I would eat.” She believes that with the emergence of COVID and global inequality, that the relevance of her project has grown more significant since its conception, making it easier to relate and accept the project and cultured meat on the whole. “I think that people noticed the very complicated relationship we share with nature. The pandemic called out the harm that we inflict as a society and I think that when looking back people knew how to accept and to react to this new technology as something that may be a solution for us, because just the meat production and industry has really, really harmed the planet.”
As a designer, we can create innovative food products that are not only healthy, but create a positive experience for consumers. So I think as a designer, we actually have a very large tool to just be influencers.
Despite being speculative, the strength of Yuval’s project lies in the fact that it focuses on the transition from farm-grown meat to lab-grown meat. Instead of presenting a futuristic product, she’s focused on creating meat products that are familiar, making it less alien to transition into a sustainable future. “I was fascinated by the opportunities, just to speculate about future food systems. As a designer, we can create innovative food products that are not only healthy, but create a positive experience for consumers. So I think as a designer, we actually have a very large tool to just be influencers. In this aspect we can design the whole experience for the consumers to accept this technology, I believe we have the obligation to do it.” From a sociological perspective, she believes that taking away the aspects of environmental and ethical damage from the process of producing meat will in itself make it a lot more appealing for people to adopt. “The biggest challenge for us today is to feed 10s of billions of people by 2050. It is impossible to do that using the traditional meat production that we have. I think that the potential benefit in cultured meat is not only to protect animals but also to slow down one of the most polluted industries we created as human beings. It’s important to accelerate and develop this technology towards eco-friendly and sustainable meat production”
The biggest challenge for us today is to feed 10s of billions of people by 2050. It is impossible to do that using the traditional meat production that we have.
Trying to envision a longer timeline for this project, Yuval wonders about what the future may hold. “Maybe it will not be the same. For me, the target audience were the modern Westerners, but what will happen if I design it for other cultures and populations? I think there's a lot more to explore in that matter.” With the sole aim to achieve a connection between the natural and artificial, she emphasizes on the need to move forward to nature, “it’s very crucial to embrace these technologies and not postpone them.”
This interview was conducted as part of the research for the Embassy of Food 2021. Curators Annelies Hermsen and Chloé Rutzerveld selected seven projects and spoke with the makers designers about technology, food waste, health, education, protein transition, non-food and packaging. Collaborating with Next Nature Network, these interviews were edited and published. The Embassy of Food is made possible in part by the DOEN Foundation, Prince Bernhard Cultuur Fonds, Albert Heijn and the Dutch Design Foundation.