Modern Meadow was founded in response to a simple question: “if you can grow human body parts, can you also grow animal products, like meat and leather?” The underlying process, known as biofabrication, essentially utilizes 3D printing technologies to engineer biological products, such as tissues and organs, using the same foundational cells that comprise them in nature.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “livestock production plays a critical role in land degradation, climate change, water and biodiversity loss”. Grazing alone occupies 26% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, and feed-crop production requires a further 33% of all arable land. The livestock sector accounts for 9% of global carbon dioxide emissions, 37% of global methane emissions, and 65% of global nitrous oxide emissions. Conventional production of animal products place the environment, public health (due to animal-borne diseases), and food security at risk, all of which are expected to be further stressed as the global population increases over time.
Right now we breed and raise highly complex animals only to create products that are made of their relatively simple tissues. Andras Forgacs, the founder of Modern Meadow, argues that this is not only cruel to slaughter animals, but also potentially inefficient from an energy conversion perspective as it would take far fewer resources to grow the desired cells/tissues than to grow entire living, breathing animals. Focusing on biofabrication of animal products may present a humane, environmentally responsible, and efficient alternative to conventional production methods and Modern Meadow is one of the few funded labs tackling this solution via entrepreneurship.
Growing leather is technically simpler than growing other animal products (such as meat), as it mainly uses one cell type and is largely two-dimensional. It is the belief of Modern Meadow that until biofabrication is better understood by the public, more people would be willing to wear novel materials than would be willing to eat novel foods, no matter how delicious they are. Modern Meadow views bioleather (which they have launched and branded as Zoa) as a gateway product, the success of which may potentially open the door to long-term, mass-scale food production using biofabrication.
Modern Meadow has refined its approach using a bio-engineered strain of yeast that, when fed sugar, produces collagen, which is then purified, assembled and tanned to create a material that is biologically – and perceptibly – almost indistinguishable from animal leather. This bioleather can have all of the same characteristics of animal leather because it is made from the same cells, but bioleather has a variety of distinct manufacturing advantages over animal leather. Bioleather eliminates the possibilities of imperfections (i.e. scars, disease, etc.) that are often associated with living animals due to the controlled growing environment, while the sheets themselves can be grown in any shape or dimension (i.e. you no longer have to work within the dimension of an animal-hide), both of which dramatically lower waste during production. Unlike conventional methods, Modern Meadow has control over both the specific cells selected and the number of layers it chooses to combine, which in combination can dramatically influence the characteristics of product development (i.e. transparency, softness, breathability, durability, elasticity, pattern, etc.). Operationally speaking, bioleather has the potential to reduce variability and cost of input materials while decreasing waste and simplifying the supply chain, all of which would improve performance.
A few major fashion houses (notably Hermès, Prada, and Gucci) have taken a keen interest in funding tech companies to grow leather in laboratories to ethically source exotic materials (i.e. crocodile-skin) for their luxury labels and feel that the speed of technological advancement could soon result in a viable product.
I believe that Modern Meadow is making a mistake by trying to bring a finished good to market within the next 2 years, as it only has a competitive advantage in the production of bioleather, not the downstream production of handbags. In my opinion, their goal should be to prove that their bioleather is of comparable quality to animal leather as soon as possible so that they can partner with the major fashion houses who can produce goods for the end consumer with the immediate benefits of scale.
Is the company’s time better spent on replicating exotic leathers or traditional cow leathers? What would it take for consumers to become comfortable with eating biofrabricated food?
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 Stanford University. Harmful Environmental Effects Of Livestock Production On The Planet ‘Increasingly Serious,’ Says Panel. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070220145244.htm [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018]
 Zoa.is. (2018). ZOA™ | Grown by Modern Meadow™ – Introducing ZOA™ bioleather materials. [online] Available at: http://zoa.is/ [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].
 Alexei Kansara, V. (2018). With Lab-Grown Leather, Modern Meadow Is Engineering a Fashion Revolution. [online] The Business of Fashion. Available at: https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/fashion-tech/bof-exclusive-with-lab-grown-leather-modern-meadow-is-bio-engineering-a-fashion-revolution [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].
 Dalton, M. (2018). Fashion Labels Scramble to Shed Their Skins. [online] WSJ. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/fashion-labels-look-to-be-cool-by-being-less-cruel-1532005200?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1&ns=prod/accounts-wsj [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].