Discover more from Idée Fixe by Toni Cowan-Brown
Idée fixe 2.2: The Lab-Grown Industry
Part two: Lab-Grown Meat
Thank you for being here, when really you could be in many other places. If you are new to Idée Fixe, welcome. 🤗
I don’t know about you but I found last week to be particularly challenging. I have barely been able to stay focused for more than 50 minutes at a time, I keep getting lost scrolling through Twitter and the news (but also TikTok and Instagram), I kept trying to pick up a book and failing miserably to read more than 10 pages. Productivity last week was at an all-time low.
I wanted to name that it feels weird to publish the second part of this series on the lab-grown industry amidst this pandemic. But I figured it might give some of you something else to read that is not COVID-19 related, and you might appreciate this.
This is part two: Lab-Grown meat 🍔in a series on the lab-grown industry. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read part one: Lab-Grown Diamonds.
🖐Heads up it’s 1,600 words and will take you approximately 14 minutes to read. ☕️So grab your beverage of choice and settle in.
Part Two: Lab-Grown Meat
Fun fact, Winston Churchill predicted the rise of synthetic foods back in 1931.
“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future.”
What is covered in part two:
The no-meat culture
Cellular agriculture, lab-grown meat, and plant-based meat
What problems is this solving?
The no-meat industry
The alternative meat industry might feel like a niche industry but it has been growing in both scope and acceptance over the years. The products are getting tastier, harder to distinguish from animal-derived products, and more affordable. And I’m not talking about your average veggie burger.
Right now they alt meat industry is certainly having a moment with companies innovating across the ecosystem. Startups like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have made a lot of headlines in the past few years, mostly due to their partnerships with the likes of KFC, White Castle, Burger King, Del Taco…
While the environmental benefits of lab-grown meat are potentially dramatic, meatless products are still significantly more expensive on a per-pound basis than animal alternatives. So it’s definitely going to be a while until these products become a part of our daily consumption. And yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking these alternatives seriously today.
There are a couple of alternatives to meat or meat-derived products.
Firstly, unlike veggie burgers or other plant-based options, these products and companies such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, although they are products from plants they are “meant to taste like meat, be marketed to meat-eating customers, and replace some of those customers’ meat purchases.”
🌱 Plant-based meat / Impossible meat is, as the name suggests, meat made from plants. Heme is credited with what makes the meat alternative taste good. Heme is a molecule found in every living plant and animal. You can now make plant-made heme “through fermentation of genetically engineered yeast”.
🧫 Cellular agriculture is the production of agricultural products like food and materials from cell cultures rather than whole plants or animals. Now nearly 30 years later, cellular agriculture has advanced to the point where it can impact society in a much broader way. This process does not involve plants in any way.
🥼 Lab-grown meat is meat grown from a few cultivated animal cells but grown in a food production plant instead of taken from animals raised (more often than not) in captivity, and purely for consumption.
And yet there is still one key component missing. Today, no matter how close you get to the similarities of meat, the fat component is generally missing. It’s almost always what adds the flavour. As Yaakov Nahmias puts it, “the fat gives you the aroma and the distinct flavor of meat”. Which is precisely why he and his teams at Future Meat are working on growing fat and muscle cells.
The plant-based race to be a part of fast-food chains.
It’s worth remembering that for all the exciting new products and renewed customer interest, the larger adoption won’t happen until the industry is able to make the extraordinary volumes that the global consumers of meat demand. And 🍟 fast-food 🍔chains are a big part of making that happen.
Thus in a weird turn of events, the ultimate race is the one where these meat-alternatives ink deals with the big fast-food chains.
In spring 2019, Impossible Foods announced the Impossible Whopper with Burger King. This was shortly followed by Beyond Meat announcing meatless tacos at Del Taco. And then came Subway’s meatless meatball (Beyond Meat), White Castle started selling the Impossible Slider, KFC trialed Beyond Fried Chicken and MacDonalds also trialed Beyond Burgers but it seems they have yet to be convinced.
Most recently, Disney announced in February 2020, that it would partner with Impossible Foods and serve plant-based meat at a handful of Disney locations.
The fight over lab-grown meat.
There are some key players to be aware of within the lab-grown meat space. Just like with any billion/trillion-dollar industry, we have the key incumbent, the innovative startups and lots of money spent on lobbying efforts from all sides.
The innovative companies growing lab-grown meats
Beyond Meat (who was “the first of the Silicon Valley startups to use advanced technology to produce extremely meat-like burgers”), Memphis Meats, Just, Finless Foods, Impossible Foods, and Mosa Meat are just a few of the companies working on the challenge of creating meat alternatives.
“It is time to re-think the supply chain of animal products.”
Regulation and lobbyists
Right now there seems to be one big regulatory issue that is front and center, and it has to do with what we should be calling these produces.
Similar to what we saw with the diamond industry, we are starting to see the same push back but this time from the key meat associations such as the North America Association.
“Big beef successfully lobbied for a labeling law in Missouri banning any products from identifying themselves as meat unless they are “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” (But this is wrong; the word simply meant sustenance for the first thousand years of its existence.) Similar labeling laws have passed or are pending in a dozen more states, most of them big ranching ones.” - Rowan Jacobsen
And just as De Beers jumped on the lab-grown diamond train realizing they probably couldn’t beat it so they might as well join the trend, Tyson Foods (America’s largest meat producer) did something very similar and has recently debuted its own plant-based nuggets. And we can expect more products to follow.
Noel White, Tyson CEO, says he expects Tyson “to be a market leader in alternative protein, which is experiencing double-digit growth and could someday be a billion-dollar business for our company.”
Does it actually solve our problems?
💪A healthier lifestyle.
Health reports continue to link red meat and processed meat to chronic diseases. It’s certainly not as straightforward as vegetables are good for you, so plant-based burgers must be too. You are definitely not eating a bowl of greens or a salad, and that shouldn’t be the comparison either.
The New Harvest also sites public health benefits such as being able to avoid viral outbreaks, antibiotic resistance and possible food contamination such as Salmonella and E.coli.
🐄The horrors of factory farming.
I don’t think many would dispute that the amount of meat consumed today (especially in America) just doesn’t sit or feel right. According to Vox, “every year, more than 9 billion animals in the US are raised and killed on factory farms.”
🌳Help fight climate change.
Food production in general causes extensive damage to the environment; greenhouse gases and emissions from livestock (especially from cows), deforestation and destruction of wildlife habitat to make room for farmlands, water shortages from farming, and vast agricultural pollution of rivers and oceans.
Lab-grown meat can absolutely make a difference for the environment by almost every metric, including land use, water use, and fighting climate change.
“Part of the appeal of the new burgers is their smaller environmental footprint. Beef is the most wasteful food on the planet. Cows are not optimized to make meat; they’re optimized to be cows.” - Rowan Jacobsen
The lab-grown meat production chain has the potential to be massively simplified (as shown in graph below) which will, in turn, be friendlier on our planet. Right now, however, alternative meat is far too small a share of the market to significantly impact the above problems.
Obviously this will also depend largely on what level of sustainable energy can be achieved for these labs.
The Backlash is coming
Just like with lab-grown diamonds, as cellular meat (and other products which we will discuss in part three of this series) become more mainstream, we can expect to see an increasing backlash, and not just from the meat industry.
As mentioned above, one of the most recent criticism is that products from Beyond Meat and Impossible are highly processed, and thus not as healthy as we might initially think. We expect to see more of this sort of criticism and there is definitely a need for further and broader education of what is available and how healthy it all is.
A trillion-dollar industry
Some have estimated that at least 30% of all the calories consumed globally (by humans) comes solely from meat products. This starts to make sense when you realise that, according to CB Insight’s Industry Analyst Consensus the global meat market is worth $1.8 trillion. 💰A fact that I had never really grasped until doing the research for this Idée Fixe.
I think we can expect to see an increasing number of big meat players become part of the disruption, that is once they have tried to ignore it, then fight it.
“There is a growing demand out there,” said John Pauley, the chief commercial officer for Smithfield, one of the largest pork producers in the country. “We’d be foolish not to pay attention.” - David Yaffe-Bellany, New York Times
Finding a wider audience
The idea here is not to offer products simply to the vegan and vegetarian community (who make up a fraction of the population) but rather create something that meat-eaters would appreciate and enjoy.
There has been a renewed appeal for the plant-based alternative. It’s expected that as this industry matures, the products it is offering will be healthy and more affordable. Once that happens, we can expect to see a broader variety of products which will in turn attract a wider audience.
Recent projections suggest that 60 percent of the meat eaten in 2040 will be alternative meat.
Resources The Good Food Institute 🗞Articles CB Insights: Our meatless Future vegan meat alternatives are on the rise (Vox) The new makers of plant-based meat? Big meat companies (New York Times, 2019) Lab Grown Meat Could Be Worse for the Climate Than Farm-Raised Beef, Oxford Study (EcoWatch,2019) Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet (The Guardian, 2020) 📺Documentaries What the health documentary Cowspiracy documentary