FREEDOM AND SAFETY
Missouri recently became the first state to pass a bill distinguishing slaughtered meat from fake meat.
This transpired not only because vegetable-based meats are becoming increasingly realistic, but because we are entering a “cellular agriculture” revolution where technology start-ups are now growing meat in vats from animal stem cells.
While it is understandable that the Missouri beef industry wishes to protect itself from fake meat companies, it’s a short-term fix to a very big problem: The real challenge is that the beef industry is now competing with technology companies, and technology companies almost always win. If Missouri beef companies want to stay alive, they will also need to become technology companies.
Cultured meat - also know as clean meat, in vitro meat or lab-grown meat - is meat that is grown in a vat rather than in an animal. Instead of slaughtering an animal for meat, scientists place animal stem cells into a vat with a scaffold and grow it with proteins and a culture. This technology emerged from the field of regenerative medicine, which grows human tissues for medical purposes.
Currently, startups including Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, JUST Inc. and Finless Foods are developing lab-grown beef, chicken, pork and seafood. They have significant investors, including DFJ, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill and Tyson Foods, but have yet to hit the shelves.
Already on the shelves are foods by Impossible Burger and New Wave Foods, which use new technologies and plant-based ingredients to make extremely realistic burgers and shrimp. Wild Earth is growing cultured pet food from fungus, and Modern Meadow is growing bio-fabricated leather from animal-free collagen.
Cultured meats have several benefits over slaughtered meat. Cultured meats can be customized as the scientists making them can control fat, salt, cholesterol, minerals, vitamins and more to improve flavor or cater to a person’s health requests.
Cultured meats are also humane and environmentally sustainable. No animals are killed in the process, and land and water use should decline by over 80 percent. Damage and pollution caused by the livestock and fishing industries could vanish entirely. While customers might initially turn up their noses at eating lab-grown meat, if the meat tastes good and is healthy, humane, sustainable and accessible, many might change their minds - especially if it is affordable.
The first cultured hamburger, created by Dutch entrepreneur Mark Post in 2013, cost about $325,000 to develop. In 2018, Fast Company stated he had lowered the cost to $11 per burger, and Future Meat Technologies stated it could reach $2.50-$4.50 per pound by 2020.
How should the current livestock industries respond? One option is to do nothing. Cultured meat may become mainstream with slaughtered meat becoming something people eat on special occasions or buy along with organic and non-GMO foods. However, even if that is possible, the market will be much smaller.
Another option is to keep passing regulations. The beef industry could try to ban cultured meat. However, given that the cultured meat companies will likely be selling vats and bioreactors for people to grow their own meat, rather than the meat itself, the beef industry will have to start banning technology products, which are harder to regulate given they can be manufactured and shipped all over the world.
A better option is for beef companies to transition into technology companies. Today’s beef companies have a huge advantage over the technology companies in understanding the industry, market, customers, suppliers, investors, and where the technology could help the most. If they are not using these advantages to compete, they are wasting a huge opportunity and endangering their future.
Wealthy players in the beef industry should set up their own cultured meat labs or invest in or acquire existing cultured meat start-ups. Smaller players might partner with local universities to find talent.
Lobbyists and labor unions also need to take on new roles. Instead of fighting against technology and regulating innovation, they should position themselves as leading innovation for their industries.
This is important not only for the livestock industry, but the entire food and agricultural industry. A tremendous technological revolution from cellular agriculture to robotic farming to robotic food preparation and delivery is underfoot and will explode in the next few years. Instead of hiding behind regulations, we need our livestock, food and agricultural industries bringing their tremendous talent, experience and resources to the game as leaders. Now is the time to act.
Darlene Damm is vice chair and faculty of Global Grand Challenges at Singularity University at NASA Ames Research Park in the Silicon Valley.