On 1 January 2019, I won’t have eaten meat for exactly three years. No sausages, no bacon, no fish, no gelatin-based sweets, no cheeses containing animal rennet and no beers containing isinglass. Frankly, it’s been miserable.
I don’t enjoy being a vegetarian, and anyone who tells you they do is either lying, or was never really a foodie in the first place. Meat is delicious, and thousands of years of evolutionary programming and cultural rituals have told us that fact.
Unfortunately, with meat also comes health complications, environmental destruction, energy consumption, land waste, air pollution and deforestation — not to mention the annual killing of 56 billion farmed animals and 120 billion fish. Depending on your personal morality, meat may not be murder, but it is perhaps one of humanity’s most regrettable vices.
Still, there’s no point arguing that smoked salmon, Wagyu beef, or even just a bucket of fried chicken doesn’t have its charms. People like meat. It’s just that most of us wouldn’t be willing to kill for it.
That’s where cultured meat comes in.
For nearly ten years now, a small group of start-ups and technology pioneers have been promising to do the impossible — to grow real authentic meat without the need for a sentient host. Using in vitro stem cell technology, cultured meat (also known as lab-grown or “clean” meat) would remove one of the most significant ethical arguments for vegetarianism while also limiting destructive farming practices and creating a more environmentally-sound food source for the world’s growing population. In short, if lab-grown meat was available today, I’d quit being a vegetarian tomorrow.
Still, while the dream of cultured meat is one I’m desperate to believe in, experience tells me that the promises of Silicon Valley start-ups should always be taken with a sprinkling of salt.
Corporate models built on venture capital, obscene valuations and endless growth have fostered a culture of zealous optimism; a culture in which overpromised ideals, lofty mission statements and utopian rhetoric have overtaken the slow moving reality of global change.
The go-to defence for such start-ups is to point to the industry-disrupting success stories of Amazon and Uber. If they can overthrow the biggest players in an established market and redefine the rules of the game, then why can’t cultured meat start-ups do the same?
These arguments, however, ignore the fact that most of the success stories told by Silicon Valley are in the exact same handful of industries. Disruptive start-ups have done a great job of reshaping retail and transport but are yet to make real in-roads when it comes to taking on the established giants in other industries such as healthcare and finance. Why? First, because these industries face a far stricter standard of regulation and a far higher expectation for consumer safety. And second, because end users need to know that their suppliers can be trusted. Unlike in the worlds of retail and transport, when it comes health and finance people want to be treated as citizens, not consumers.
I fear that the food industry will be much the same story. Faced with strict standards, significant regulation, consumer sensitivity and competitors that control some of the world’s most powerful lobbies, it’s fair to say that clean meat start-ups will need more than just optimism to achieve their goals.
Rather than looking to disrupt the meat industry, cultured meat producers need to be open to working closely with the infrastructure, supply chains and farming systems that are already in place. Silicon Valley’s vision of stand-alone entrepreneurs moving fast and breaking things simply won’t cut it this time. Instead, clean meat needs to be positioned as much as a cost saving function for the meat industry as it is a radical replacement.
At the same time, those working in the current “sentient-meat” industry need to be open to the potential of cultured meat — both in terms of consumer demand, efficiency and ultimately their bottom lines.
For years, traditional industries have fought to protect their short term interests against new science and radical technological change. As with cigarettes in the 1960s, renewable energy in the 1990s and even electric vehicles today, those with a vested interest in the status quo have been quick to ramp up their PR machines to dispel the threat and blur the issue in the minds of the public.
Already we are seeing a campaign of media articles telling horror stories of lab-grown “Franken-meat”, alongside a wave of industry bodies warning about the “dark side of clean meat”. In some instances, these groups have even gone as far as to call upon graphic visuals of pregnant cattle being mutilated for access to their baby calves and the precious stem cells within. Of course, the fact that the sentient meat industry is estimated to slaughter over 150,000 pregnant cattle a year, isn’t mentioned.
While it’s easy to see why such spin tactics would offer a quick fix solution for the traditional meat industry, the reality is that such arguments rarely win out in the long-term. Whether it’s cigarettes, asbestos, climate change or renewable energy, the truth almost always comes to light. Even more importantly, the businesses that don’t undertake such delay tactics are typically the first to benefit when the inevitable change does eventually come. This isn’t a form of corporate or social responsibility, it’s a way for these businesses to future-proof their organisations for decades to come.
Cultured meat is coming, and when it arrives a significant number of the half a billion vegetarians and vegans on the planet will go back to eating meat. Those that take advantage of this trend will be opening themselves up to an unprecedented new market. Those that hide behind half-truths and PR spin, will inevitably be left behind.