On a recent vacation to colorful Colorado, I had an interesting conversation with a vegan that made me wonder about the future of meat.
Because I am an iPhone junkie (typical millennial), this conversation took place in an Uber ride from the Denver suburbs to the heart of the Mile High City. The art school-educated, Toyota Prius-driving chauffeur gave me advice about the trendiest spots and shared his disinterest with my profession due to his veganism. I shut my mouth and listened.
The driver said the most exciting thing in the vegan community right now is the promise of synthetically produced, or lab-grown, meat. Vegans abstain from eating, or using, any products derived from animals. So, the driver explained, there’s a lot of excitement about being able to eat meat without any actual animals involved.
In late August, a startup company called Memphis Meats received a multi-million-dollar boost from investors including agricultural giant Cargill. The company promises so-called clean meat produced using self-replicating animal cells that eventually form up enough matter to be called chicken or beef. It follows the trend of other similar companies who already have a product on the market, like Beyond Meat, the makers of the “bleeding” veggie patty, and Hampton Creek, the makers of the egg-free mayonnaise-like spread.
A Wall Street Journal story from March 2017 said Memphis Meats plans on taking its product to market in 2021. As of March, a pound of their chicken meat costs – according to the company – less than $9,000.
To me, this excitement about lab-grown meat seems contradictory for the vegan and vegetarian community. Chemically, it’s meat and its produced using animals. Therefore it’s an animal product (and blasphemous to vegans). But, I am not here to argue morality.
The much more concerning question is whether the average consumer will choose Silicon Valley over Farmer Brown at the grocery store. Clearly, the “clean” argument – which means literally nothing from a regulatory or nutritional perspective – is poignant with consumers who say they want a “cleaner” diet. Thanks to the indefatigable animal welfare activists, the welfare argument is gaining traction, too. If the startups are to be believed, economies of scale will eventually make lab-grown meat more cost competitive as well.
Maybe, then, the best tactic to use is the natural one. “But that’s not natural” is clearly working well against genetically modified organisms in the food chain. Consumers are scared of GMOs to the point of where it influences their buying decisions and their politics. However scientifically innovative it is, growing chicken in a Petri dish is unnatural. Average consumers likely aren’t going to understand the science behind lab-grown meat and aren’t going to make the time to learn.
If a consumer isn’t sure how an egg gets into their grocery store, how can they be expected to wrap their head around rapid self-replication of animal cells in a laboratory setting? A chicken is simple. A laboratory is complicated.