One family’s story of bringing cultivated meat to consumers
A Family AffairAffair
One family’s story of bringing cultivated meat to consumers
Here she was, in Singapore, so close to her father’s homeland of Indonesia eating the food of her childhood she’d never thought she’d taste again.
Ira van Eelen was sitting at a table at the Marriott Tang Plaza hotel in the fall of 2022, surrounded by a group of girlfriends who had all traveled to the Southeast Asian city state from The Netherlands to dine on GOOD Meat, the first meat made without slaughter approved for sale.
It was a long time coming for van Eelen, whose late father, Willem, first thought of the idea of cultivated meat more than 40 years ago.
Emotional as it was to taste the work of her family’s life, it was a whole other thing to taste the comfort food of her childhood. With an Indonesian-born father, the kitchen was often filled with satay and flavors from Southeast Asia. So when the plate of chicken satay was put in front of her, it was extra special.
“I had been brought up on Indonesian food my whole life, and I’ve had satays all my life until I became a vegan (four years ago),” van Eelen said.
She pauses, getting emotional.
“...that satay and being so close to where my father was born, you have no idea how immensely moving it was.”
It was a dinner more than four decades in the making.
In the 1980s, Willem van Eelen, who had since moved to The Netherlands, began to think critically about how the world would feed itself with its ballooning population.
“He had all these calculations on a paper napkin with estimations that if all the Chinese eat meat the way we do, how are we going to continue what we’re doing?” van Eelen recalled of her father.
During World War II, Japanese soldiers caught Willem and transferred him to several prisoner-of-war camps across Indonesia. He nearly starved.
“Being a prisoner of war, experiencing extreme hunger, it made food something that was extremely important to him,” van Eelen said in late November from her home in Amsterdam.
So he started to more seriously investigate this wily (at the time) idea that you could make meat from cells. It could be the answer to world hunger, it could vastly reduce carbon emissions and it was the only way to humanely eat meat.
Willem van Eelen tipping his hat to a cow, ”Mareike.” Amsterdam, 2012. © Michael Hughes
But, in these early ideas that we could one day grow meat from cells, he was largely alone.
“It took a long time for medically trained people to want to start working on creating steaks instead of heart valves,” van Eelen said.
Willem was a stubborn man, and so he persisted. In the 1990s, he gathered a team of scientists who were willing to help him write a proof of concept for the idea of cultivated meat, and, in 1994, he filed for his first patent on the idea.
“It would have hurt people’s careers at the time if it was known they were working on steaks instead of medical solutions,” van Eelen said.
And another problem: Even if he could find scientists to help him, he needed money. And that was slow to come too. Once he had his patents, the Dutch government and a team of universities and private funders – including a meat company – began to fund these ideas, the idea that we could one day grow meat from cells instead of slaughtering animals.
The larger scientific community viewed Willem’s idea as fantastical and unworthy of study.
Then, in the late aughts, the Great Recession hit, and funding for projects like Willem’s decreased again. Willem died in 2015 after suffering a stroke, and so it would seem the idea of cultivated meat had lost its champion, its cheerleader, its father.
Van Eelen, despondent from the death of her father, largely forgot about her father’s work. It hurt too much to dredge it all up again.
That is until one day, more than two years after Willem’s death, when she was standing in her garden and got a call from a man in San Francisco named Josh.
The American in question was Josh Tetrick, the chief executive officer and co-founder of a new company that wanted to realize her father’s dreams. Tetrick had bought the patents that once belonged to her father, and, Tetrick said, it was time to get to work.
Shortly after, van Eelen was on a plane to San Francisco to taste some of the first cultivated meat the world had ever seen. At the GOOD Meat kitchen in California, van Eelen tasted foie gras, Bolognese sauce and tacos – all made with real meat, free of slaughter.
She returned to the test kitchen the next year and tasted “the best ever chicken nugget I have ever had.”
But this was still small. It was in a test kitchen where only select people could sample it. This wasn’t enough.
Van Eelen, in the meantime, took up the mantle of her father’s life work and became a tireless advocate for the future and the possibility of cultivated meat, applying for grants for cultivated meat – including a successful application to the Dutch government for a €60 million investment in cellular agriculture – making films about it and lobbying Dutch politicians to support it.
Then, in 2020, Singapore became the first country to grant regulatory approval for GOOD Meat to actually sell its cultivated meat. That changed everything.
Finally, people from across the world could sit down with their loved ones, toast to their good fortune and enjoy meat that never required an animal to die.
What would Willem have said, what would he have felt had he been at that dinner, eating the meat he had tried to tell the world about for decades?
“He would have loved everything about that dinner, but the huge amount of frustration in my father would be: Why didn’t we do this 20 years ago? Why was not killing animals not enough? Why are we now on the brink of climate disasters and only now we’re doing this?” van Eelen said.
She paused, thought about her father again and his years of trying to convince people the future of food rested in cultivated meat.
“He would have been frustrated we’re not going faster,” she said. “But he would have loved the chicken satay.”
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