Above are pictures taken from JUST Meat’s promotional video, displaying what CEO Joshua Tetrick calls an out of body experience. Happy friends sat outside eating nuggets are joined by an unlikely member – Ian the chicken. Running around, Ian is unaware that they are eating him, or at least part of him.
Such a scene is the promise of cultured meat, that seeks to deliver products identical in taste and appearance to meat, but without killing the animal. Instead, its cells are fed a plant-based diet in vitro, growing in labs to replicate muscle tissue.
In presenting the live animal and focusing the meal on ‘out of body’, Tetrick showcases his company’s prime objective: improving the ethical and environmental footprint of meat consumption. Livestock production is now well known as a major driver of deforestation, excessive land and water use, and the industry is condemned for engendering animal cruelty and antibiotic resistance.
Cultured meat appears to have answers to all of these problems; ‘From one piece of muscle you can create 10,000 tons of beef’, according to Mark Post in his presentation Meat Revolution. This cuts land use by 99%, reduces the need for water, eliminates antibiotics and killing from the picture altogether, resulting in 78–96% less greenhouse gas emissions.
Such promises for sustainability have made cultured meat one of the frontrunners of the FoodTech, attracting the attention of influential investors such as Bill Gates and much of the media. Netflix’s Explained even devoted an entire episode to this feat of biotechnology. In such a small industry (30 startups worldwide as of September 2018), emerging as the leader in terms of ethical and environmental impact is paramount.
Perpetuating this aspiration rhetoric and jumping to conclusions of its inevitable good for our planet, our health and our morals may in fact hinder the technology’s long term perspective. I believe that the sustainability label does not reflect the reality of global consumption habits. In our heterogeneous society and unequal economic system, is this not a reductionist point of view? Are there not further ways to present a technology with such immense potential?
What do you call it?
Consumer acceptance is one of the major challenges faced by startups. How do you convince people to eat bovine-fed muscle tissue from labs when the status quo has been to eat an animal itself for much of our human existence? Meat and fish are entrenched in the culinary cultures of most countries. The issue with marketing cultured meat as an environmental and ethical clean meat, as done thus far, is that this resonates with the wrong audience and alienates the most carnivorous consumers. As stated by Jon-Mark Sabel, ‘the target market for ethical meat won’t eat animal protein, no matter the source’.
Many commentators believe that rethinking the name of the technology is crucial to getting the meat-eaters on board, but to me it is a matter of price and taste. If the ethics of plant-based diets were widespread, meat consumption would not be steadily increasing.
Furthermore, a growing middle class is eager to join the meat feast in emerging markets, with Southeast Asia’s consumption set to rise 78% by 2050. This should be cultured meat’s playing ground, attracting consumers to make the transition with a financial incentive. 2013 marked the first public tasting of a lab burger, with a price tag of $330,000. In 2019, it was down at $50.
If it remains more expensive than conventional meat, ethical and environmental sustainability alone will not mainstream cultured meat. Hong Kong Avant Meats, the first Asian cultured meat organisation, set out to replicate fish maw, an expensive gourmet fish. In the words of founder Carrie Chan, ‘with the high price of fish maw, we are able to compete with traditional sources’. In establishing her ambition as competitiveness, she does not restrict her customer base.
A transversal approach for public interest
We are light-years away from scientific and public consensus. Experts have estimated there to be 50-100 known researchers working on cellular agriculture worldwide. Moreover very few empirical models have tested for the economic and political implications of cultured meat upon market entrance. In his book Meat Planet, Benjamin Wurgraft explains that conclusions of a ready technology are simply the product of venture capitalists’ desire for rapid ROI.
One important question is what direction a cultured meat industry would take in the future. Some studies have found that the small-scale organisations of today may be taken over by multinationals, determined to further grow in capital. Others have considered meat production to develop into a more local sector, replicating mechanisms already in place for fruit and vegetables, such as Community Supported Agriculture. These examples show that academics, scientists and companies must work together to inform government regulation.
With environmental matters gaining significant ground in civil society and the public sphere, the matter of sustainable business is in the minds of state leaders, CEOs and entrepreneurs. International climate targets are calling for structural change, and FoodTech has emerged as an ecosystem of innovators in recent years. However, mainstreaming cultured meat would take several decades, and it remains uncertain whether it could replace animal agriculture at all.
So how could it go wrong?
> One scenario predicts an ‘addition’ effect rather than substitution of conventional meat, leading to a higher total consumption, hence intensifying environmental damage. Considering a population of 10 billion in 2050 and a high proportion of urban middle class within it, demand may just be too high for cultured meat to satisfy. The United States alone consume 48 billion burgers a year. Daunting numbers no doubt await.
> A second possibility is that the technology and its yields become unequally distributed. Meat consumption around the world sustains the livelihood of farmers in poor countries. If investment continues to predominate in richer economies, this is where the cutting edge advances in cellular agriculture will occur, giving them a clear advantage on the trade of cultured meat. Such a commodification of nature may in turn enhance the dominance of the richest countries over the poorest in this sector.
> Cultured meat, which requires numerous incubators, may become more energy intensive than conventional methods, due to the higher emissions of carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere hundreds of years more than cattle’s methane.
Land of opportunity
As we have seen, limiting our perspective on environmental statistics and bioethics prevents a holistic understanding of cultured meat’s long term risks and uncertainties. But this form of debate has also limited the exploration of new opportunity. To get an idea of where it could be headed, here are some of my favourite positive trade offs:
- The conversion of agricultural land back into natural habitats or into crops for biofuel, alleviating biodiversity degradation and contributing to the renewable energy transition.
- An ability to apply control measures at all stages of production, which under regulation, could lead to the customisation of meat. Higher in certain ‘vitamins, minerals and fatty acids’, these super-meats would satisfy demand for healthier, more conscious and more diverse nutrition choices. Memphis Meats has for instance advertised its products as ‘healthier, more nutritious and safer’.
- Cellular agriculture, as a young discipline, will open up entirely new business models. One blogger has explored the possibility of ‘Exotic meats’. Think Japanese Kobe beef, only this time marketed to the wider public at a quarter of the price. What about cells from the ‘carcass of a preserved Siberian mammoth’? Such cases would serve to alter our social perception of meat, no longer an endless commodity but rather a luxury product from far-away lands. Israeli startup SuperMeat has promised to deliver kosher chicken. Thomas Frey believes that over time new products such as ‘meat chips, meat candies, meat desserts’ will enter the market.
Although simplified until now by its creators to fit the environmental rhetoric of political agendas, cultured meat will no doubt face hurdles on its path to mass implementation, and any forecast of its social and economic impact remains inconclusive for now. Therefore, I believe concerted research, business and policy must examine the technology while still in its early stages, before allowing it to reach the consumer. When made public, interests could very well divert away from initial objectives, making eco-friendly cultured meat the vestige of an optimistic era.
Either way, our first experience with cultured meat remains far on the horizon. But who knows? Once we get over the uncanny valley effect of a lab burger, our previous animal eating methods might just become – unnatural.