Cultured Meat & Our Post-Livestock Future: A Technological Forecast

Cultured meat is the growing of animal protein cells for human consumption in a laboratory setting rather than through traditional livestock practices using a living animal. In the last several years, the cultured meat industry has blossomed into several leading companies domestically and abroad; it has seen millions of dollars in investment from prominent venture capitalist organizations and individuals like Richard Branson and Bill Gates. While cultured meat has yet to reach consumers, many of these leading technology organizations see only 1–2 years before products like ground beef, chicken and even lab-grown fish are available in restaurants or supermarkets. Proponents of cultured meat see it as a major opportunity to address a growing world population demand for meat; animal-cruelty concerns with traditional livestock and factory farming; and climate change by reducing the greenhouse gases created and the resources needed by traditional livestock.

The intent of my research was to understand both the challenges that the adoption of this technology faces and to determine how cultured meat may affect existing meat growing industries and food at large. Through my research, I identified three pillars that must be overcome for this technology to see widespread adoption. Those pillars are:

  1. The “Uncanny Valley” of Cultured Meat
  • Overcoming prevailing consumer attitudes surrounding lab-grown meat.

2. Technology

  • Addressing price and production scalability.
  • Locating appropriate growth serum materials.

3. Regulation

  • The settling of an ongoing battle between local/national livestock associations defending traditional livestock practices and the leading cultured meat organization and their supporters (like PETA, the Good Food Institute and the ACLU).
  • The looming regulatory decisions to be made by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

While there are many hurdles standing in the way of cultured meat, my research indicates a favorable climate for adoption in the United States which is likely to result in:

  1. A slow, but steady adoption of cultured meat by consumers.
  2. The shrinking of the traditional livestock industry.
  3. The adoption of alternative-meat technologies, like cultured meat, by prominent livestock organizations as a principal aspect of their business.

What Is Cultured Meat?

In 2013, Dr. Mark Post, a researcher at the University of Maastricht, staged the world’s first tasting of a cultured meat burger on a live BBC broadcast (Fernández, 2018): this marked a culmination of 5 years of research to grow meat with cells in a laboratory instead of using a living cow from a farm (Maastricht University, [2010]). Though that burger cost around €250,000 to develop, the stage was set for scaled development of cultured meat for consumers with the intent of disrupting the livestock industry.

Though there are variations of practice in developing cultured meat, the general process requires first the sampling of muscle tissue from a live animal. That tissue is distilled down to stem cells (also known as starter cells) which are placed in a scaffold structure meant to physically support the growth of cells. The scaffold is then placed inside a bioreactor (or incubator) which recreates the atmosphere inside of an animal. The cells are fed a growth serum that provides nutrition and promotes cell growth. In 6–9 weeks, those cells develop into pieces of meat and then are processed into a meat patty or other meat structures (WIRED, 2018)(Peters, 2018).

Why Cultured Meat Matters

To proponents of the technology, cultured meat is an answer to prominent issues of climate change, the growing demand for meat, issues of animal cruelty in traditional farming, and nutritional concerns.

While traditional livestock practices are estimated to contribute up to ⅓ of greenhouse gases in the world (Vermeulen, Campbell, & Ingram, 2012), initial calculations suggest that cultured meat could offer a significant reduction (4x less greenhouse gases per pound of meat) should the practice be adopted as a meat growing alternative (CBInsights, 2019). Similarly, on a per-pound basis, cultured meat is speculated to require 100x less land, 5x less water and reduced feed resources (CBInsights, 2019).

Additionally, with a growing world population, the United Nations estimates a 73% growth in meat demand by 2050 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011) a demand that even traditional livestock organizations find troubling to fulfill (Morgan, 2018).

Cruelty-free meat is a further selling point of cultured meat. As factory farming animal-cruelty has emerged as a consumer concern, cultured meat may offer an alternative to alleviate those concerns as no living animal is being consumed or harmed.

Cultured meat proponents also point to the absence of antibiotics and growth hormones involved in some practices of the technology as a major selling point compared to their widespread use in traditional livestock.

Cultured meat organizations have coined the term “clean meat” to aid in consumer-facing communication of these value propositions in comparison to traditional livestock (WIRED, 2018).

The Primary Actors

Though only emerging as a viable technology in the last decade, the cultured meat ecosystem is becoming rapidly nuanced with clear industry divisions.

The Technology Leaders

The leaders of cultured meat technologies are highlighted primarily by Silicon Valley’s JUST Inc., Finless Foods, Memphis Meats, Dr. Mark Post’s MosaMeat in the Netherlands, and Israel’s Future Meat Technologies.

Founded in 2011, JUST Inc. and its CEO Josh Tetrick is often featured as an industry leader, likely due to the previous market success with plant-based egg and mayonnaise products (Bosker, 2017). Having raised over $220 million since its founding (Crunchbase, 2019), JUST has suggested that bringing its cultured beef patty to market is in the more immediate future, as have many other leading organizations. However, JUST itself is not without controversy: in 2015, the organization faced FDA warnings over inaccurate labeling (which was resolved later that year), and 2017 saw its entire board of directors step down and a lawsuit by actor Jaden Smith over the JUST brand (Agar, 2019). Nevertheless, JUST is pushing forward with an additional $200 million funding round which may determine their more immediate future (Agar, 2019).

The Investors

Along with traditional VC firms, prominent cultured meat investors include billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson who have invested in startup Memphis Meats (Morgan, 2018) and other organizations developing plant-based protein-alternatives like Impossible Foods. Gates himself acknowledges the growing population and demand for meat as a primary driver in his decision (Gates, 2013). Notably, traditional livestock organizations are also investing in meat-alternatives. Tyson Ventures, the investment branch of the world’s second-largest meat producer, Tyson Foods, along with another meat industry leader, Cargill, has led investments into organizations such as Memphis Meats, Israel’s Future Meat Technologies, and Beyond Meat, a plant-based protein company (Morgan, 2018).

The Advocates

The advocates are groups who support cultured meat through vocal, political, or financial advocacy and supporter: they’re highlighted by the Good Food Institute, which provides strategic and financial support to organizations developing or promoting alternative meats (Good Food Institute, 2016). The GFI has contributed $3 million to 14 projects via grants (Beres, 2019) and is led by founder Bruce Friedrich, who served 13 years as Vice President of International Grassroots Campaigns at PETA (Popper, 2019).

PETA, the controversial animal-rights advocate, is also a notable supporter of cultured meat. As far back as 2008, PETA has shown support for cultured meat, running a contest that promised a $1 million dollar prize to whichever organization could develop lab-grown chicken (PETA, 2014).

The Regulators

The USDA and the FDA play pivotal roles in the United States’ adoption of cultured meats as they will provide regulatory oversight of production, food safety, and labeling. Their decisions impact how consumers interact with cultured meat products.

The Traditional Livestock Organizations

At the local and national level, traditional livestock is represented by Cattlemen’s associations which act as advocacy groups for ranchers and the livestock industry as a whole. The United States Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are the major players in the traditional livestock space and are appealing to the USDA and FDA for legislation that restricts the use of words like “beef” and “meat” to traditional agricultural practices.

Consumers

Consumers play a pivotal role in the adoption of cultured meat. Their interaction with the technology is heavily influenced by the adoption challenges that cultured meat faces.

Challenges: The Three Pillars of Adoption

To clarify the major challenges facing the adoption of cultured meat, my research has identified three primary areas that cultured meat technology needs to address to achieve more widespread adoption and to impact how the players in the space interact.

  1. The “Uncanny Valley” of Cultured Meat

In robotics, the uncanny valley refers to the space in which robots vary considerably from normal human appearance. In cultured meat, the uncanny valley is a term that appropriately describes the gaps in taste, appearance, smell, and texture which may need to be overcome for cultured meat to be acceptable. In a video by WIRED, culinary biochemist Ali Bouzari suggests that the slightest dip into the uncanny valley may signal to the brain that cultured meat isn’t okay to eat (WIRED, 2018).

Multiple surveys suggested that taste may be a primary factor when it comes to consumer acceptance of cultured meat, with one survey finding that only 23.6% of their respondents expected cultured meat to be tasty (Hocquette, et al., 2015), and another (Slade, 2018) finding that 90% of their respondents thought that cultured meat would be less tasty than conventional livestock. There are other factors behind the meat-consumption choices of consumers, as explored further in my research, but taste may be the most critical component in the uncanny valley.

Additionally, the very notion of consuming meat that isn’t from an animal is a serious paradigm shift in itself. Many surveys note the concerns of consumers over the unnaturalness of cultured meat (Marcu, et al., 2014), with some survey respondents seeing the perceived unnaturalness of cultured meat to be, in a word, disgusting (Verbeke, et al., 2015).

2. Technology

Though the specific challenges faced by leading cultured meat technology organizations are not publically available, the general technologic hurdles cultured meat faces are more apparent.

One technological hurdle includes the serum used to feed the cells behind cultured meat as potentially problematic in regard to both price and animal-welfare as the serum is derived from animal blood (Stephens, et al., 2018). However, organizations like JUST Inc. are searching for plant-based alternatives and may already have located viable options (WIRED, 2018).

Scalability in regard to the technology behind the bioreactors used to grow cells is also a major limiting factor which affects both the widespread availability of cultured meat product and its price. Due to limited technology, the sheer capacity of bioreactors may need to increase by nearly 1000x (Stephens, et al., 2018) in order for cultured meat prices to drop to an acceptable level.

3. Regulation

An uncertain hurdle for cultured meat technology in the United States is possible regulation at both the federal and local levels.

On the federal level, the USDA and FDA began serious consideration of cultured meat oversight in early 2018 after a petition was submitted by the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (United States Cattlemen’s Association, 2018) that asked for restriction on the words “meat” and “beef” to refer only to traditional livestock methods. After a regulatory tug-of-war in which the USDA and FDA laid separate claims to oversight of cultured meat (Greene & Angadjivand, 2018), the USDA and FDA announced joint oversight over different portions of cultured meat (USDA, 2018, November). This followed a standard procedural hearing in which both livestock advocates like the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (Kester, 2018), and cultured beef supporters like the Good Food Institute appealed to federal regulators. The joint oversight statement concluded that no regulatory measures are to be taken at this time, but there may be future regulatory action that could affect labeling or cultured meat processing.

At the local level, however, the battle over the use of the term “meat” is already in full swing. In August of 2018, the state of Missouri passed a bill backed by the local Missouri Cattlemen’s Association effectively restricting the use of “beef” and “meat” to meat grown with traditional livestock practices (Park, 2018). This has been met with a suit by the ACLU, the Good Food Institute, and plant-based meat company Tofurky (Park, 2018). Lawmakers in Nebraska, Wyoming, and Virginia have also introduced similar regulatory bills (Bloch, 2019), but at the moment this regulatory battle at the local and federal levels is far from settled.

Outcome Forecasts

In view of continued successful fundraising by the major startups represented which presumes that technological concerns are being addressed, this section will focus on my research supporting the other factors impacting likely outcomes.

What Do Consumers Care About?

A study examining the existing surveys of attitudes towards cultured meat in the United States and Europe highlight the many disparate opinions of consumers (Bryant & Barnett, 2018). Highlights include:

  • Attitudes toward cultured meat are initially unfavorable “because it’s unnatural”, but discussion made it more favorable among participants (Siegrist, Sütterlin, & Hartmann, 2018).
  • Most people in the US are willing to try cultured meat but price, unnaturalness, and taste remain concerns (Wilks & Phillips, 2017).
  • Positive comments about cultured meat are related to animal welfare and sustainability (Laestadius, 2015).

In regard to food in general, an annual survey by FoodInsight also suggests a strong dislike for artificial ingredients (International Food Information Council Foundation, 2018), although the same study also noted the importance of sustainability sources. Additionally, a survey of 23,000 Europeans highlights food quality being more important than price (Läubli & Ottink, 2018).

These findings suggest conflicting issues in the consideration of cultured meat. While attitudes towards trying cultured meat may be positive and approval of sustainability practices and animal welfare may aid in adoption, concerns of taste and unnaturalness may lead to hesitation.

Likely Regulatory Outcomes

Historically, the USDA has a history of supporting and promoting the values of traditional livestock and agriculture through nutritional guidelines (Shanker, 2016) (Freeman, 2013) and rulings in support of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) meat products (USDA, 2018, December). The USDA has also provided the livestock industry with favorable labeling outcomes, as a recent ruling allowed for the labeling of the fabled “pink slime” (a processed lean beef paste that is gassed with ammonia) as ground beef (Fassler, 2019). Notably, Tyson Food processing plants are heavily involved in the creation of “pink slime” product (Fassler, 2019).

In light of the “pink slime” labeling, in particular, it’s difficult to predict where USDA support for cultured meat may land. Despite growing cultural concern over sustainability, recent USDA nutritional guidelines specifically highlight that environmental or food system sustainability are non-factors in their decision-making (USDA, 2015).

Traditional livestock advocates want the USDA to oversee cultured meat, even going as far as appealing to the US President (Brodwin, 2018), which indicates that traditional livestock sees an ally in the USDA specifically.

The FDA has also supported GMO regulation, most recently approving AquAdvantage salmon (FDA, 2019) which is perceived negatively by some as a “frankenfish” due to potential nutrition concerns and wild salmon population safety (Meyer, 2019).

Importantly, in a press release by Susan Mayne, the Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Maybe asserts the FDA’s role in supporting innovative food technologies, specifically cultured meat (FDA, 2018).

Both outcomes offer a likelihood of support by the FDA towards cultured meat.

Considering the past rulings in favor of GMOs (and their comparison to human-made, lab-grown process of cultured meat), loose labeling restrictions of meat products, existing relationships with major meat producers like Tyson Foods, and the significant amount of funding moving into the cultured meat industry, while there may be some regulatory hurdles, it’s likely that the USDA and FDA will rule favorably for cultured meat.

Comparable Technology Outcomes

Both plant-based milks and proteins, as well as insect-based proteins, also provide valuable insights into the potential outcomes of the challenges that cultured meat faces for adoption.

Plant-Based

Plant-based protein and milk have seen widespread growth in the United States and internationally. The plant-based milk industry is expected to reach $10.9 billion in 2019, with a 13.3% annual growth rate (Marketwired, 2016), while a 2018 Nielsen study saw a 30% sales growth in plant-based meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger from Impossible Foods in the United States (The Nielsen Company, 2018).

Positive attitudes towards plant-based, non-animal food alternatives may indicate changing values and increased acceptance towards cultured meat.

Insects

Insect-based proteins are a uniquely apt comparison study as they too offer potential environmental benefits and have a similar uncanny valley that must be overcome in regard to American cultural attitudes against consuming insects. (House, 2016). While entomophagy (eating insects) is a popular practice in over 150 countries around the world (Ramos-Elorduy, 2009), some insight can be gained into how cultured meat may overcome its own perception of unnaturalness or “yuck factor” in the United States. One study suggests that new foods like bugs (and historically sugar, tea, and sushi) gain popularity in a small segment of society first before becoming more widespread in popularity (House, 2016).

Other Predictive Comparisons

The rise of both e-cigarettes and digital cameras may also provide some valuable predictive comparisons that support an understanding of cultured meat’s technological future. As e-cigarettes rose to prominence over the last decade, established cigarette companies invested, bought out and are effectively taking over the industry sparked by startups (Abate, 2017).

The story of Kodak and Canon draws a similar conclusion, in which Canon invested in digital while behemoth film company Kodak floundered, eventually filing for bankruptcy (Usborne, 2012).

These examples suggest a great parallel between Tyson Foods and cultured meat today in both what may be informing Tyson Foods’ strategy and potential outcomes of their investment into the emerging cultured meat technology.

Changing Political Climate

A Pew Research study shows an overwhelming awareness of climate change in Millenial and Generation Z Americans (Parker, et al., 2019). Further, according to a report by data and analytics company GlobalData, millennials are leading the charge on a significant shift towards plant-based foods (Rowland, 2018). These trends may indicate support for cultured meat and possibly future supportive legislation.

Research Limitations

While cultured meat is a relatively new technology, American agriculture, the livestock and meat industry, and the United States regulatory bodies are institutions with long histories. Further research into their interactions and histories are likely to inform better predictions for cultured meat technologies. Furthermore, considering the newness of cultured meat technology, there is much in regard to the technology and its potential environmental impacts that merits additional research:

  1. USDA biases in support of traditional agriculture vs. success of the American economy.
  2. The effect of government subsidies and how they might be influenced by a growing concern for climate change. US livestock subsidies in 2017 alone were over $447 million (Environmental Working Group, 2017), which could have a serious impact on cultured meat technology.
  3. Quantitative information about technological limitations and challenges in regard to scalability, nutrition, resources, and the environmental impact of cultured meat.

Recommendations

In light of the research presented, assuming its technological and uncanny valley hurdles can be overcome, it seems highly likely that cultured meat will see adoption in the United States once it hits the market over the next 5–25 years. The prevailing attitudes of addressing climate change and animal cruelty will aid in its adoption, but due to the challenge of overcoming concerns of cultured meat’s unnaturalness, at a pace likely to be slower than that of plant-based alternatives. Cultured meat companies might focus on niche groups who are passionate about issues like climate change to develop an initial group of supporters. It’s also likely that there may be some regulatory hurdles that keep meat temporarily off shelves in some states, but in time, federal regulation is likely to support cultured meat.

As cultured meat gains in popularity and technologies continue to develop, there will likely be a continued corporate take-over by major meat producers like Tyson Foods, who will continue to develop alternative-meat products. In this time traditional livestock organizations that have not invested in meat alternatives will slowly dwindle as consumer attitudes move away from traditional livestock practices. Market forces may further require remaining ranchers to adopt more humane livestock practices in a shift away from factory farming and towards factory culture meat production. Animal feed companies may also start to see a reduction in business and might consider pivoting to other markets like pet supply. Traditional livestock organizations should invest in cultured meat and meat-alternatives in the immediate future to avoid being caught in a shrinking market.

In the next 25+ years, it’s somewhat likely that cultured meat and other meat-alternatives could make traditional livestock obsolete (possibly as a result of subsidies) or even heavily regulated due to its impact on the environment and animal welfare. Traditional livestock may be reduced to boutique humane slaughter farms serving specialty restaurants or experiences. Traditional livestock companies might position themselves as providers of a uniquely humane experience in the consumption of flesh from a once-living animal. Livestock companies might ally themselves with hunting associations to provide an immersive experiential offering that differentiates itself from the more mechanical experience of eating cultured meat.

Changing attitudes towards cultured meat might also give way to previously taboo human consumption like cannibalism, or the eating of rare and extinct animal flesh harnessed from fossilized or archival DNA. Creative entrepreneurs may continue to monitor the market for opportunities to offer unique products and capitalize on patenting technologies.

Cultured meat may seem like a bizarre, far-future technology, but in actuality, it is maybe only a few years away from being on the dinner plates of consumers. Its impact may be slow at first, but it has serious potential to upend traditional livestock practices and shape how human beings grow, eat and imagine food.

Originally published 03/23/19

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Content Designer, UX Writer | Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington | Master of Communication in Digital Media

Content Designer, UX Writer | Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington | Master of Communication in Digital Media