Brett Thompson: CEO of Mzansi Meat Co. & TEDx Speaker – Ep. 146

About This Episode:

Brett Thompson is the CEO & Co-Founder of Mzansi Meat Co, Africa’s first cell-based meat start-up.

Using cellular agriculture technology, the company hopes to produce cruelty-free cell-cultured protein products. It’s something that I personally see as the future of meat consumption on our planet, and a necessary step towards a more sustainable future.

Today we talk about taking an unpopular stand for something you believe in, building a company in uncharted waters, and how cultured meat represents a massive chance to make access to high-quality protein possible for millions or even billions of people.

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3:16 – “The three ingredients [I gave up] were meat, egg and dairy. And it was a decision that I made 10–15 years ago to stop consuming these things. And I didn’t really think about it much at the time. I thought it was maybe just a rebellious decision to make, and kind of what you do in your second year university, trying to explore, but it took me on this incredible path and I spent 10–15 years then working in the advocacy and promotion of an alternative, or what I believe is an improvement of the current way that we eat.”

4:12 – (Ross) “I can see the negative YouTube comments now because there’s either the camp of ‘I’m not going to eat that because the world is totally fine. Everything that we’ve been doing is totally fine. We don’t need to change anything. Everything is perfect.’ There’s a lot of hate from that side. But of course, what I found that sort of surprised me, but I guess not really, is that the real vegan communities, of which I was once a part, but not 100% anymore. They also take issue with this idea of cultured meat and for very strange reasons. I thought that they would embrace this kind of thing wholeheartedly, but they often take issue because they say if even one fish was harmed to capture the cells that can produce 10 million artificial cultured fish sandwiches, then I can’t do it because it’s against veganism. And my vegan ethos says I can’t harm a single animal at any time for any reason.’ Obviously, cultured meat might fall into that same category. So we find ourselves caught in between two giant groups of people, sort of in a no man’s land, very much off the beaten path here.”

7:38 – “The people that have these strong feelings to continue eating conventional animal agricultural products is, it’s probably not best to engage with them. They’re not the target audience and the people in the middle are. And I think that’s how I deal with it, is to say that there’s just so many conversations that we have within the mainstream or just in the center where people are so interested and excited.”

8:51 – (Ross) “All human advancement has come from attempting things. And I’m just amazed at the people who do comment on videos like this saying, ‘Oh, that’s stupid,’ or ‘That will never work.’ It’s like, ‘But how do you think anything good ever happened in humanity? But for somebody taking a chance on something that at the time seemed crazy or seemed outside the box.”

10:49 – “I think the way to get better results is probably through choice and through the market opposed to maybe through government or through a state.”

12:17 – “Meat has gone from the per capita consumption in the forties, which was quite small. And overnight industrial agriculture turned it to be a ubiquitous consumption when it comes to food. We didn’t really realize this has happened and attitudes have changed, but it’s everywhere.”

13:11 – “Are people going to be consuming meat alternatives and all these things that I’m trying to be in favor of in the future? I don’t know. But is it going to be allowing more people to, as you said, nudge or shift slightly over? I think so. And I think it’s going to allow people for more choice. And as soon as these products become more readily available and almost commoditized, I think people, why would you want to continue consuming something, particularly if it’s competing on price and maybe even cheaper?”

14:00 – (Ross) “When you are a vegan and you commit to that, there’s two points that I want to touch on. First of all, I don’t understand why they get hate. Like, why does Greta Thunberg get hate? I’ve never understood that. Here’s somebody who dedicated their life to trying to make the world better for all of us and just boatloads of hate mail. We’re a very weird species in that regard. The people who are doing their best to be philosophical and to live with discipline and ethics, because these things are hard. It’s not easy to be a vegan, certainly not in this world. And then the second point is that when you’re at home and you can sort of arrange your life the way that you see fit – I can get a farm box from my local farm and have vegetables. I can arrange my life at my home the way that I like, but then throw international travel or throw something unusual into it, and that becomes so much harder.”

15:15 – (Ross) “I think we have to believe that given a choice between, ‘Okay, you can have this burger that has all of this baggage attached or this burger that has none of that baggage attached,’ you have to believe that a certain subset of the population will choose the one that has no baggage, because that’s an easy choice to make at that time – assuming that they taste the same or great and all of those other things, right?”

18:51 – “If you look at horse and cart, and that was the way people got around…There’s all these newspaper articles coming out of New York 200 years ago, or whatever it was before the car was invented, about how New York was soon going to be covered and knee-deep in excrement. And there was impending disaster and everything was, you know there’s no way people are going to change. Everybody has a horse. You’re not going to change that. And then Henry Ford came along and he produced something that if you look at the original version of the automobile, I mean, a horse was better. It was more reliable in many ways, it wasn’t breaking apart and…it could actually go faster, all those types of things. But it was still a bit of technology that was, it had a longer potential as a lifeline than the horse. Eventually, not overnight, but eventually everybody switched. And the idea of a New York being covered in horse manure is forgotten and long gone.”

26:31 – (Ross) “I’m re-reading Plato’s Republic and the Dialogues with Socrates, and one of the things that I didn’t realize the first time, Socrates was a vegetarian, and I find it very interesting that he’s defining his new Republic in that book and he’s building it from the ground up. And he first suggests an ideal republic where people eat beans and legumes and vegetable stews. And then somebody says, ‘What about meat?’ And he says, ‘Oh, you don’t want a perfect society. You want a luxurious society.’”

28:29 – “Whether or not the way that we farm 60, 70, 80 billion – I mean, the numbers you can’t actually quantify – animals per year on land, the level of disease that those animals are going through and antibiotics. And the final component is the food-borne diseases, such as zoonotic diseases that we’ve seen. We’ve had some pretty hectic breakouts here in South Africa.”

31:35 – (Ross) “There are many different philosophical angles into why this is a problem from a human individual health problem to an economic problem, to a greenhouse gas problem, to antibiotics, to disease problem. There are many, many, many reasons to get into this line of thinking but all roads point to the fact that the most damaging thing of all is maintaining this many cows. It comes to cows and beef and dairy and cattle because they take up so much land, they ruin the land, they release so much methane gas. And I think most people don’t realize that cows produce more pollution than all forms of transportation on Earth combined, including commercial shipping, all automotives, everything, just cows.”

35:11 – “Our process from the time that we take a small, relatively insignificant biopsy from a cow to the time when we have burgers, that process in total takes 3 to 4 weeks. Okay, So from cell to burger, our process takes four weeks. Now our scale is not there yet. We’re still working on the scale of our production. But if our scale was at the production levels, which we hope to achieve in the next two years, when we start producing tons and tons of meat, it’ll still require three weeks roughly for growth and about a week for maturation. A conventional process, the time that it takes to impregnate, birth, feed up, fatten up a cow is 18 months. It is in South Africa, on average. So 18 months of resources consumed, of methane released, of land usage, and then also then the process of slaughtering is quite intensive, particularly on water. We’re doing it in an 18th of the time.”

38:50 – “We’re constantly developing our product. What we do have to work on is the structure, texture, and that’s an area of improvement because we are in our early stages of development in terms of the muscle tissue, but in terms of taste, the umami-feel, there’s certain things that plant-based just doesn’t do and I’m a massive consumer of plant-based but the smoke, the smoke generated when you’re cooking a patty, and the sizzle and the fat and all that, we cultivate fat as well, all that stuff was just, it was beyond my expectations. And the feedback that we’ve gotten time and time again has been, ‘It tastes like beef. It’s incredible.’”

44:22 – “Limited amounts of animal products in your diet is probably beneficial. So if we were trying to recreate those animal products, which is what we’re trying to do, like-for-like, to the cell, we are trying to make something that is yes, it is healthier than conventional meat because there aren’t antibiotics and hormones, but it is still meat. It is meat. There’s no ways that you can get around that, what is going to be interesting and this is what we’re starting to see now is, can you produce a meat with more protein, with no cholesterol, with no saturated fats, with high nutrient dense vitamins or whatever? Can you do that? And some people are already starting to do that. And we’ve already found that on average you might be able to get more protein. So you might be able to get more protein with less meat consumed. And if you’re eating less meat, then I think it’s actually more beneficial as well.”

50:16 – “I just really wanted to become independent. And that’s been a massive driver for me over the last 5 to 10 years. I want independence and I want to be able to do stuff that motivates me and the ability to work in an industry that I’m lucky to be a part of, which is shaping the way, hopefully, that the rest of us – how we eat in the future, and currently, is just something that always does motivate me. I get up pretty happy every single, day keen to get to work.”

51:45 – (Ross) “Independence is something that matters to me an incredible deal. And I’ve fought so hard the last ten years of my life to achieve it and building my own agency and to do things on your terms because I just can’t. As hard as this is, and it is hard, the stress is very high, the uncertainty is very high. All of that is very, very true, especially when you do the work that I do like client work and you have multiple clients having meltdowns at the same time and it can be incredibly overwhelming. But when I think about the alternative, that is still worse to me.”

54:18 – (Ross) “I lived in Europe for many years and then I moved here to L.A. So I literally gave up all of my possessions at two times in my life. I was down to two suitcases at two times in my life. When I went to Europe, I had absolutely nothing. And when I came back to L.A., which is 2015, a relatively short while ago, I also had absolutely nothing, nothing at all. Two suitcases, two cats and my wife. And that’s it. And I have learned, and I had a great job in the Netherlands. I was in the music industry for a long time. I was a DJ. I really loved the music-, well, I love music, I hate the music industry. I can say that very confidently. If ever you’re not going to get paid for months or years on end, it’s in the music industry. They just have a habit of just not paying people for things, which is a very nasty piece of that business. But I knew that because again, I have an international relationship, an international marriage. I knew that location, stability – some people, they just buy a house, they plant roots, and that’s the end of it – I knew that that was never going to be my life. I knew that was going to be impossible for me. So I knew that I had to be location independent.”

56:05 – (Ross) “Obviously, I think, well, if I’m going to do this, I would like to have a type of client that I believe in. If I’m going to invest my time and energy in somebody, I would like that client to be somebody that I actually believe in so that I don’t feel like I’m doing this just for the money. And that would alleviate the stress as well. So this show is my attempt at finding out people whose values that I share. And of course, there’s a component of, yes, I would like to have clients from these people because I think they’re incredible people doing incredible things and I’ve met some truly outstanding business owners through the process of this.”

1:01:00 – (Ross) “Sometimes I think, ‘Why oh why did I choose a philosophical angle for my new life?’ When I could just say, ‘Do you want to take better photographs? Let me review this camera.’ And then people from all walks of life can say, ‘I love your camera review channel. Whereas now it’s like every stance I make, somebody is like, ‘Well, that’s stupid. But I do believe in this stuff, and I think what keeps me going in this kind of thing, it’s not the external factors at all, but it is just these moments right here. Talking with people like you, reminding myself and all of us why we do it. I’ve never had a conversation like this that I didn’t feel much better about after. So that might, and I have come to terms with that might be the only reward from doing this. And that’s okay.”

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