It’s no secret that many efforts to enhance animal welfare through the promotion and development of plant-based alternatives to animal products may not be good news for farmers. The tension often comes out in lawsuits around using words like “milk” to describe products that contain no dairy, but the emotions and fears run deeper.
Cultured meat — meat manufactured in a laboratory using cellular agriculture techniques traditionally used in the medical field — is another new technology that has the potential to fundamentally change market dynamics for livestock farmers all over the world.
The day before National Farmers Day in the US, a panel discussion at the New Harvest Conference in Brooklyn, New York on October 11 sought to discuss the impact of the nascent cellular agriculture industry on farming. New Harvest is a nonprofit research institute dedicated to the advancement of cultured meat.
New Zealand beef and dairy farmer Richard Fowler and Welsh farmer and meat processing specialist Illtud Dunsford were joined by Memphis Meats’ head of mission David Kay, Mosa Meats’ founder Mark Post and moderator Danielle Gould of Food + Tech Connect.
Fowler studied cultured meat as part of a research project he undertook after receiving a scholarship from Nuffield New Zealand. Dunsford, who received the same scholarship, is a leading meat industry figure in the UK who has worked on reducing meat waste with famed New York chef Dan Barber, is a founding member of a UK working group on cellular agriculture, and has formed a biotech startup of his own called Cellular Agriculture Ltd.
The wide distribution and adoption of cultured meat won’t affect all farming economies equally, but the two on stage could be particularly impacted. Both New Zealand and Wales are heavily grass-based farming economies (much like Ireland). Since the countries get plenty of rain, and the grass grows without much effort, farmers have traditionally focused on dairy and forage. Both countries also have relatively small populations and therefore depend on exports. Both are also able to charge a premium for the products derived from the quality of their largely pastured cows and sheep.
“Faced with exporting cell cultured products, there would be no differentiation, so we’ve got a problem,” said Fowler.
Fowler and Dunsford both caveated, however, that they had a deeper understanding and perhaps more sympathetic view of cultured meat as a concept than most farmers because they had studied it in detail.
But Dunsford said that when he explained to his farming neighbors in Wales what he had been studying, the looks on their faces would often prompt him to change the subject.
Assessing the Potential
Both farmers acknowledged that the technology behind cultured meat deserves development and study.
Dunsford acknowledged that many technologies need to be brought too bear to feed the growing global population and that cultured meat may be part of that effort. “It’s not seen as an opportunity but it should be,” he said continuing to say that culturing meat cells may not exclusively lead to a replacement for traditionally raised and slaughtered meat.
“What this technology allows us is to produce new ingredients.”
Post, the Maastrict University professor who grew the world’s first cultured burger in 2013, acknowledged that this was a possibility and said that the focus to date has been on culturing a recognizable cut of meat because that would be best understood by the public.
“My feeling is that in order to familiarize the public with this idea, you don’t want to throw out hubristic scenarios and new products. It’s more of a strategic choice,” said Post.
Though both farmers seemed receptive to the possibilities of cellular agriculture, Dunsford also said that if cultured meat producers are eventually able to make their products cheaper than meat, consumers would be presented with an irresistible economic benefit to switching their consumption completely to cultured meat. “It takes the choice away form the consumer. If you can make it cheaper, then you’ve changed the whole system.”
What’s in a Name?
Apart from ‘cellular agriculture,’ ‘cultured meat’ and the less popular ‘lab-grown meat,’ industry proponents use the phrase ‘clean meat’ to describe the products of cellular agriculture. The term is strongly promoted by the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes plant-based and slaughter-free alternatives to animal products and scores much higher on Google Trends than other names.
Dunsford said that the use of the term ‘clean meat’ can offend farmers who often understand the term to imply that their meat is the opposite of clean.
Kay defended the term stating: “The term ‘clean meat’ makes sense in terms of its allusion to a lesser environmental impact and lesser risk of bacterial contamination… I don’t see any problem there and many of the folks we have engaged in the agribusiness industry have used the term ‘clean meat’ happily.”
Post said he is “agnostic” about the term and that all terms used to describe the product in question are received equally in his experience.
Memphis Meats, the cellular agriculture startup with the most funding to-date ($20 million), has positioned itself as a replacement for intensive animal agriculture often referred to as ‘factory farms’, implying that family farms may be spared.
“We’re not out to transform family farms; we’re out to transform factory farms,” said Kay, “There is a place for sustainable high welfare operations.”
However, Kay later said that in the future, traditional meat perhaps could follow the future of the horse-drawn carriage, which remains in our culture as a niche market, as he explained it.
Post has a much darker view of what cellular agriculture could do to farming operations of all sizes, stating,“I don’t have any illusion that smallholder farms are safe…”
However, Post also said that the idea that cultured meat startups will be able to create a product of the same quality of meat that comes from family farms is “still an assumption.”
More Questions Than Answers
The farmers on the panel seemed to believe that the adoption of cultured meat won’t be immediate or all-encompassing. Dunsford emphasized that in cultures like his, where farms are passed down through generations and farming is not just a business but a way of life, people won’t simply give up livestock farming if and when an alternative method of producing the same product exists.
Fowler said that it was a shame that cultured meat is being presented as a “disruptive” technology as it presents an extreme scenario of replacing farmers when this is not necessarily the eventual result.
Agricultural products are necessary for the cellular agriculture process including some animal cells (though several players are working to make the process completely animal-free). And Post is embarking on a project to address some of the fears and trepidation that traditional farmers may have at the prospect of wide-spread cultured meat products in his home of the Netherlands.
He explained that he is working on a government-funded pilot study with crop-growing farms and animal feed producers; two stakeholders that stand to lose their business should cellular agriculture progress to commercial success. Crop growers will grow agricultural products that can be used as food for the cells in cellular agriculture processes and animal feed companies will use their existing capacity to process the crops into the substrate required for cellular agriculture, though the processing methods will need to be refined, he said.
“Farmers are the ultimate entrepreneurs: they will do whatever is required to gain value from their land,” said Post.
In the end, the discussion demonstrated how many questions have yet to be studied, let alone answered, should cultured meat become a true competitor of today’s meat supply. Said Post, “I have not seen a very good systematic analysis of what would happen — if you exchanged 50% of livestock meat farming to cultured — to water, jobs, land, and, energy.” But it was clear that the inevitability of cultured meat as a replacement for the current global meat supply is far from a universal view.