The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, and fellow billionaire Richard Branson have joined other business giants investing in a nascent technology to make meat from self-producing animal cells.

The Silicon Valley start-up they back hopes to tap rising consumer demand for protein that’s less reliant on feed, land and water.

Memphis Meats produces beef, chicken and duck directly from animal cells in the lab, without raising and slaughtering livestock or poultry. The company has just raised $US17 million ($21.5 million) from investors including Gates, Branson and Cargill, one of the world’s largest agricultural companies, according to a statement this week on the San Francisco-based start-up’s website.

“I’m thrilled to have invested in Memphis Meats,” Virgin Group boss Branson said in an email in response to questions from Bloomberg News.

“I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”

Cargill’s move to pour funds into the small company is the latest move by an agricultural giant to respond to consumers, especially millennials, who are rapidly leaving their mark on the food world through surging demand for organic products, increasing focus on food that’s considered sustainable and greater attention on animal treatment.

Big poultry and livestock processors have started to take up alternatives to traditional meat.

‘Problems that everyone wants to solve’

“The world loves to eat meat, and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions,” Uma Valeti, co-founder and chief executive officer of Memphis Meats, said in the statement.

“The way conventional meat is produced today creates challenges for the environment, animal welfare and human health. These are problems that everyone wants to solve.”

To date, Memphis Meats has raised $US22 million, signalling a commitment to the “clean-meat movement”, the company said. The latest fundraising round was led by venture-capital firm DFJ, which has previously backed several social-minded retail start-ups.

Cargill has “taken an equity position in Memphis Meats’ first series of funding,” Sonya Roberts, the president of growth ventures at Cargill Protein, said in an email, without disclosing the investment amount.

“Our equity position with Memphis Meats gives Cargill entry into the cultured protein market and allows us to work together to further innovate and commercialise,” Roberts said.

“We believe that consumers will continue to crave meat, and we aim to bring it to the table, as sustainably and cost-effectively as we can.

“Cultured meats and conventionally produced meats will both play a role in meeting that demand.”

The investment is just the most recent by traditional meat companies.

Tyson Foods, the largest US meat producer, has created a venture capital fund focused on investing in companies “to sustainably feed” the world’s growing population.

In December, it announced a stake in plant-based protein producer Beyond Meat, which also counts Gates among its early funders.

Bloomberg

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