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'Clean' meat unlikely to make meat obsolete

"Clean meat" making livestock obsolete? It’s sort of like claiming Prius would make pickup trucks obsolete.

By now, you’ve likely seen something about Paul Shapiro’s new book, Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. I’ve not read the book, nor do I have plans to (I can’t bring myself to purchase a book written by someone who works for the Humane Society of the United States). Therefore, I don’t really know what’s in the book.

I doubt none of it is new or surprising. That assessment was confirmed last week after reading a review by Matthew Scully in the Wall Street Journal. (Scully served as a speechwriter for George W. Bush and subsequently authored, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.) Case in point, he explains in his review that: 

…”Clean Meat” advocates...a process that many will at first reject as “unnatural”. An odd objection, given that all but a slight percentage of meats now come from factory farms, and those places aren’t exactly a picture of nature’s wonders in all their glory. No one is better acquainted with the wretched reality of factory farms than Mr. Shapiro….

Scully’s review is affirming because it matches his negative view of animal agriculture.

That aside, what most caught my attention was the review’s title: “Clean Meat Could Make Livestock Obsolete.” And Scully argues in favor of that assessment largely because, “…Tyson Foods acquired a 5% stake in the startup Beyond Meat, through a venture fund focused, as Tyson announced, on “breakthrough technologies,” include clean meat.”

Apparently, though, Scully doesn’t understand foundational business principles. The hurdle for new technology is always overcoming resistance -- not at the front-end where innovators embrace the innovation -- but in the maturing stage where survival is dependent on broader adoption.

Geoffrey Moore details that challenge in his book, Crossing the Chasm –- the point at which a company must grow market share beyond the innovators and early-adopters to also include the early-majority -– the most difficult step of all. Moore says it like this, “…the point of greatest peril in the development of a high-tech market lies in making the transition from an early market dominated by a few visionary customers to a mainstream market dominated by a large block of customers who are predominately pragmatists in orientation.”

Meanwhile, just a week after Scully’s review, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “Growing Appetites Fuel Record U.S. Meat Production.” It highlights U.S. red meat and poultry production encroached 100 billion lb. in 2017 -– a new record. Moreover, that output is expected to grow even further in coming years. The article concludes with a quote from Tom Elam, president, FarmEcon: “Right now, pretty much everybody except for the turkey people [is] making money. Until that changes, they’ll just keep expanding.”

The protein industry has struck a favorable chord with the consuming public –- and they’re voting with their dollars. Call me skeptical, but I just don’t see livestock becoming obsolete.

First, there’s the “ick” factor -- that’ll be hard to overcome. Second, even the purists don’t like the concept. Case in point, a letter-to-the-editor regarding Scully’s review notes that, “…[if] clean meat from cows, pigs, chickens and lambs nevertheless seems okay, you are still under the sway of speciesism, the evils of which are well known.” ​Last, but not least, it’s really, really hard to change people’s habits, especially when it comes to food.

To that end, I’m reminded of a NPD study from 2007 noting that, “New moms are feeding their young children nearly identical foods for breakfast as moms did two decades ago…. The top 10 foods that are given to kids under six today are virtually the same as 20 years ago.” In other words, bacon is still on the list and will be for a long time.

Make livestock obsolete? It’s sort of like claiming Prius would make pickup trucks obsolete. I just don’t see it happening –- no matter how cool or hip it might seem. My money is on America’s farmers and ranchers.

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