Food of the Future Making Meat for Africa with Brett Thompson | co-founder of Mzansi Meat

Food of the Future – Making Meat for Africa with Brett Thompson | co-founder of Mzansi Meat

Mzansi Meat Co. was founded in March 2020 by Brett Thompson and Jay Van Der Walt. Schalk Kearney, CEO and co-founder of +earth interviewed Brett for episode 6 of our founder feature interview series, Be Different.

Watch the full video interview.

“With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e. the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
Winston Churchill

During the period referred to as his ‘wilderness’ years, Winston Churchill published a number of influential historical works and essays. In 1931, an article entitled Fifty Years Hence expressed Churchill’s vision of what the world would look like in the 1980s. A prediction of the future where he anticipated the effects of advancements in science and technology on the world. In his article, he predicts a scientific breakthrough in food production. Specifically, where scientists draw on microbes to manufacture lab-grown meat, in a similar way a baker would utilise yeast to make bread. He imagines the breakthrough in meat production to, ultimately, replace livestock on farms altogether. 

A few weeks back in Carnivores and Climate Change, we shared the very real pressure industrial livestock farming is having on Earth. “In a nutshell, modern livestock agriculture is burning up our planet.” If the facts there aren’t enough to shock you, Damian Carrington, Environmental Editor for The Guardian, pointed out recently: “By weight, 60% of the mammals on earth are livestock, 36% are humans, and only 4% are wild.” He goes on to say that, “A series of scientific studies have shown that people in rich nations eat more meat than is healthy for them or the planet. Research shows cutting meat consumption is vital in tackling the climate crisis and some scientists say this is the best single environmental action a person can take.”

Easier said than done, however.

The culture of eating meat has been ingrained in humans for millennia. From ancient hominids who started cooking meat when they discovered fire, to the modern barbecue culture that spans the globe, cooking and eating meat has a deep significance steeped in both tradition and contemporary culture. But it has come at a great cost. A cost that has spurred the onset of a flurry of creative meat alternatives that look, feel and taste the same as the real deal. 

Fast forward over 80 years from Churchill’s prediction to 2013 – the year that saw the world’s first ever ‘cultured’ beef burger manufactured in a laboratory. The burger, created by Dutch startup Most Meat, cost almost $280 000 to make. Fortunately, production costs have dropped dramatically since then, allowing for more and more ‘cultured meat’ startups to pop up around the world, revolutionising the future of food. Just as Churchill had envisioned. 

Mzansi Meat Co.

“We started the business because Jay, my co-founder, and I saw a huge opportunity to make a big difference in South Africa. And that was through cellular agriculture,” says Brett Thompson, co-founder and CEO of Mzansi Meat Co. – the first ever cell-based food tech to arrive on the African continent. “Cellular agriculture gives us an opportunity to change the way that we eat. To change the food system, and add improvements to the environment, to animals, and to our health. And that comes from eating meat from cells, and not animals.”

Brett is no stranger to the wonderful world of meat alternatives. After school, he went on to study finance and economics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, during which time he completed his Honours thesis entitled: Making an Economic Case for Vegetarianism. His career in food marketing began during his time at Fry Family Food Co. – one of the world’s leading manufacturers of plant-based food alternatives. He has also held senior positions at Beyond Carnism and ProVeg International, and has over ten years of experience in animal advocacy.

“South Africans love meat,” says Brett. “It’s eaten and enjoyed by all. Whether at a braai or at a shisa nyama, nothing unites South Africans like good meat. So much so that National Heritage Day is also celebrated as National Braai Day.” Mzansi Meat Co. was born out of a relentless pursuit to change the age-old food systems and the way meat was procured for such occasions. Brett and Jay both saw a massive opportunity to bring healthy, accessible and affordable meat to the people by growing it from cells, without harming animals or the planet. “For us it’s about showcasing the fact that you can have your meat and eat it too, and it might just be that it’s more sustainable than the current options.”

Why the name?

Mzansi is a word understood by all, but its meaning cuts a little deeper. It’s that place in your mind when you’re coming home for the first time in ages, the smell of the braai that brings you back to childhood, or that spirit of togetherness you feel in your core. We’re here to bring that magic of Mzansi to life through delicious, homegrown meat.

Mzansi is understood in 11 official languages in South Africa. It’s a colloquial term. It’s understood by all. And that’s what we want. We want to make a product and a food that’s available and accessible to all,” explains Brett.

But, how?

The process of disrupting the food system using biotechnology is nothing short of fascinating. It begins with a visit to Mzansi Meat Co.’s local vetted farm animal sanctuary where the donor animals are living their best lives. A registered veterinarian painlessly harvests tiny tissue cells from the animals. These are, essentially, the building blocks of muscle and other organs. Once these cells are removed, samples are placed in a nutrient-rich transport medium and taken to Mzansi Meat Co.’s state-of-the-art BioCiti Labs. The cells are then isolated and grown in a culture medium – a special type of food containing all the right vitamins, proteins and salts the cells require to develop and divide. Essentially, the 10 000 or so cells initially harvested from one biopsy are grown into millions and millions of cells in a short amount of time under these perfect conditions. Once there are enough, they are placed on an edible structure, seasoned with a few additional spices and flavours, and voila – a delicious, lab-grown, meat dish is ready to be served up and enjoyed. 

The benefits

The benefits of eliminating commercial livestock agriculture are endless. Cultivated meat uses considerably less land and water, making production less costly, while countering the devastating impact of intensive agriculture on the earth. It is also good for our health and, of course, means less animals have to suffer at the hands of a broken and unfair food system. “Not only can cultured meat play a role in the reduction of animal suffering but it can also help prevent food scarcity resulting from increasing populations, liberate and repurpose land for nature (including wild animals), and meet our need for a sustainable source of protein for the African continent,” Brett points out. “The future of food in Africa is evolving – becoming one where food security is no longer tied to intensive animal agriculture.”

What sets Mzansi Meat Co. apart?

According to their website, the company is breaking ground for a number of key reasons: 

Biology Driving Progress
“How do we retrieve biopsies from animals? We use harm-free methods that reduce stress levels by ensuring animals live out their lives in peace. This means a happier, healthier life in a spacious environment. Yes, feel-good meat is a thing and we’ve coined it.”

Engineering Innovation
“The braai is an important part of South African life so when it comes to meat we want the real thing, without compromise. That’s why we’ve made it our mission to bring you the traditional tastes and textures we love, without the harm. Cultivated meat – that’s how.”

A Harm-Free Philosophy
“We’re driven by a desire to help change food systems and we’re always guided by science. Since we’re setting the narrative in Africa, it’s important we’re transparent about how we do things. Here’s to setting the standard for responsible cellular agriculture practices and sustainably produced cultivated meat in Africa.”

The future of food

What does the future of the African food system look like in this new frontier of novel meat engineering and agriculture? We say, pretty darn bright. This new, innovative model that is disrupting the current meat paradigm strives to be the most influential protein producer on the African continent. It is propelling Africa into the scientific future while shifting age-old perceptions on archaic food production systems that simply aren’t sustainable anymore. For us, for the animals, and for the planet. 

“Our primary goal is making meat for Africa and narrowing the protein gap between the continent and the rest of the world,” says Brett. 

With a deadline of having Mzansi Meat Co. products donning the shelves by the second half of 2022, the future of food is indeed among us.

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