“Clean Meat Could Make Livestock Obsolete” was the headline I read on January 5th, 2018. You might see that headline and wonder why I was reading the latest periodical from some extremist animal rights publication, but the problem is that I was reading the Wall Street Journal…and this article was just one of many getting mainstream coverage about the new phenomenon of lab grown meat. I have watched with interest (and growing fear) as lab grown meat products have moved from a fantasy to a reality we are going to have to deal with in the near future.
In August of 2013 The Economist published an article entitled ‘A quarter-million pounder and fries’ about a 140 gram patty that cost over $350,000 CAD to produce. It was created by researcher Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University and all he started with were stem cells from two live cows. The article noted that the base stem cells Dr. Post used provided the foundation for the creation of 20,000 tonnes of cultured beef…the equivalent of 440,000 slaughtered cattle.
The most frightening aspect of this to me is the head spinning speed that scientists are moving at to reduce the cost from these processes. Lab meat has seen exponential decreases in cost: in 2016 it cost approximately $18,000/lb to produce and then last year Memphis Meats, a leader in the space, produced the product for $2,400/lb. Innovation only requires two ingredients, ideas and money and this industry has plenty of both. Plant based protein and lab grown meat have received millions in funding over the past couple years and it isn’t just from “fringe” groups. There have been significant investments from agriculture heavyweights like Cargill and Tyson.
I will be the first to admit that I got lab meat entirely wrong. It never worried me in the past; why bother losing sleep about a niche product targeted towards vegans when they barely make up 2% of the North American population. But I started thinking about the possible future ramifications in earnest after hosting friends over the Christmas season. One of our guests had a dairy allergy and we had purchased some dairy free cheese (our dairy friends are safe, the stuff tasted more like cardboard than cheese). This got me looking into alternative proteins and how they are changing product positioning in the marketplace. What I found was very enlightening. The Globe and Mail ran an article last fall about Canadian Hollywood star James Cameron, who has invested millions in a Saskatchewan based pea processing plant and in this article one marketing executive shared that their company had begun to avoid the term vegan. They are replacing it with “plant-based” because of the negative connotations that come with the term vegan. A quick Google search will yield copious examples of companies that are working to replace animal products with either a “plant-based” alternative or lab-grown meat.
Perhaps you are wondering why we should be worried. I know many people that I have spoken to recently about this who haven’t given it a second thought. Most people will cite current consumer concerns and their rejection of agricultural technology as the primary reasons we don’t have to worry about lab meat. I find this ironic, because while my friends are correct in identifying fear of technology as a primary driver to current niches like Organic or non- GMO, they are forgetting how the majority of people buy their food. Most people only care about three things: safety, taste, and cost.
Lab meat producers were able to cut their costs by 86% from 2015 to 2016. If they continue to cut costs at this rate, by 2021 the cost of lab meat would drop below a dollar per pound. If that happens, it will not be hard for lab meat to surpass consumer expectations for safety and that only leaves taste…a frontier that the plant based food producers have not been able to conquer. But designing food flavours is nothing new and I wouldn’t expect this hurdle to remain. Once they’ve accomplished that, we may need to look out as even though lab meat has never mooed, oinked, or clucked, it is still meat. They may start with nothing more than a collection of cells, but when given energy, protein, and the right micro and macro nutrients they will grow and a steak, sausage, or egg. You may think that it is unrealistic that the lab meat process could maintain such dramatic decreases in cost year over year, but this should not be dismissed; in five years it has moved from a $350,000 pipe dream to $2400/lb and there is a very real chance that it could become cost competitive to traditional meat within a decade.
I can’t help but wonder if I am no different than a blacksmith in the late nineteenth century watching an early version of a car go by. At the time cars were dismissed as nothing more than a novelty for the rich and the famous. A generation later everybody had a car and the craft of blacksmithing had almost vanished. Food and cars may not be exactly the same thing, but people have always shown themselves to be willing to buy something new and different if it meets their needs and the price is right.