You’ve heard of cell-based meat? It’s been in papers and magazines and on the radio, TV and social media. It’s hard to miss; a media sensation rivaling the Kardashians and Avengers: Endgame, maybe falling a bit short of the final episode of Game of Thrones.
Certainly, it has garnered a considerable amount of ink, bits, bytes and airtime for something that has yet to reach store shelves. Proof of concept has been achieved, nevertheless, and like the shark in Jaws (the 1975 Spielberg movie that kept everyone out of the ocean for years) it’s coming and it has the potential to be massive.
Two years ago, in one of the opening salvos about the product, variously called clean meat, lab meat, frankenmeat and a few other unprintable terms, the Washington Post asked “Is this the beginning of the end of meat?’ The question was grossly premature, of course. The market for real meat, AKA traditionally raised beef, pork and poultry is still the king of the meat case and the ruler of the center of the plate. It saw the rise of veggie meat patties and was amused. It watched as those products struggled and failed to gain wide spread acceptance.
But cell-based meats might have a leg up. Using a starter colony of real meat cells, some well-financed companies have managed to grow meat that is remarkably ‘real’ in taste and texture. Sure, the price per pound is insane but it has been dropping rapidly, nearing the holy grail of the price leader in every meat case: ground beef. If it can get to within a few cents of 85/15 and enjoy the marketing clout of major players like Cargill and Tyson, the public will see a very different kind of meat case.
Being curious – the driver behind every journalist – I wanted to know how the cell-based meat business saw itself. A few inquiries to some of the producers returned the usual public relations BS. A little digging turned up Kristopher Gasteratos, the top guy at an industry organization called the Cellular Agriculture Society. His published comments tagged him as a true-believer but one with a solid sense of the market, swayed not-so-much by the usual overly excited peacock puffery of public relations people.
He agreed to answer a few questions. Wanting to be precise in how I phrased them and to publish his responses exactly as he intended them, I emailed my queries to him. He answered via the same route. What follows is the unedited copy. Read it carefully and you’ll have a much better understanding of the way cell-based meats intend to attack the market.
Q. Let's start with a definition. You're the founder of the Cellular Agriculture Society, a name that many in traditional ag find hard to accept. Tell me about the organization and why you chose to use the term 'agriculture.'
A. Sure, so to address the first part of your question, we have a bit of an ambiguous mission statement on our website (which we are currently redesigning) which says at the Cellular Agriculture Society “we advance cell-ag," but this was done intentionally. In the past, we have worked in a variety of areas to accomplish this goal, from conducting social science research and helping to create courses at universities, to consulting cell-ag companies with branding/design and speaking at conferences.
Our reasoning behind why we "advance cell-ag" can be best summarized in the piece 90 Reasons; "advancing cellular agriculture" will bring to reality the potential benefits we've found the concept of cellular agriculture presents to people, animals, and the world (our slogan at the Cellular Agriculture Society). With that said, we have recently announced that moving forward, we're going to place a stronger focus on design and video so that's worth noting when describing the current state of our organization.
As for why we chose the term "agriculture," I understand this can be traditionally thought of as simply farming plants or animals, but as much of the world's traditional categories are based upon leaps in human ingenuity, we think it's time for the term "agriculture" to evolve as well (just as transportation, for example, has expanded in scope over multiple generations of advancement). In any case, we think this term in full, cellular agriculture, properly describes the concept of developing real animal products from cells (the descriptive term in cellular agriculture) instead of living animals.
Q. In a recent Washington Post story, the market introduction of cell-cultured meat was likened to that of genetically modified foods: a good news/bad news statement. Although GMOs gained a lot of free press, much of it was not friendly to the concept. Cell-cultured as well as plant-based meats are enjoying the same extensive press as GMO-based foods. Will they face the same negative kickback and how will the industry handle it?
A. Based on my position, and likely any company you find in our space on this topic, cell-ag will not have these issues of public distrust based on a lack of transparency. I strongly believe our industry should simply share the information that's reasonable for consumers to know, which is essentially everything that doesn't compromise IP. If there is a product with a particular chemical which is shown to "sometimes" cause illness in a "small amount" of people, yes, I still think everyone has a right to know that, regardless of what regulatory stamps products receive. I understand there can be complicated nuance with certain information that producers don't want to relay to consumers to confuse them, but today, in the information age, I think it's always better to share more, rather than less.
This is something I know all of our industry partners are behind, complete transparency; we're even developing a future facility design right now at the Cellular Agriculture Society based in the year 2040, in New York City) that has a visitor area for members of the public to come to see how a product like cell-based meat is made. This is transparency that our field is fully committed to, and will serve as a fitting evolution to an animal agriculture industry today that, forget visiting, you can't even watch footage of what happens in some farms due to the degree of cover-up.
Q. Talking about the potential of cell-based meats, you boldly stated, "If only half of it becomes remotely true, it will be one of the most important advancements of the century." Notwithstanding we're not 20% into the century, what makes you so bullish?
To clarify, I specifically stated this on a panel last month at Texas A&M, referring to my piece, 90 Reasons to Consider Cellular Agriculture. Meaning, "if half of [these 90 Reasons] come true..." But in any case, please, I request anyone to thoroughly go through 90 Reasons and if you think that a random half of those reasons becoming a reality wouldn't make a significant impact on human civilization this century, and beyond, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, as I'd love to hear why. To give one example, every year about a million people get sick from poultry contamination alone (sources below).
So, as I said, let's consider this is one of those reasons that fall within the 50% (half) batch I spoke of in 90 Reasons. If this indeed becomes "remotely true," instead of a million people getting sick (and we propose nobody would get sick through cellular agriculture), let's say that number is reduced to 8,000 people getting sick every year through cell-based poultry production -- that wouldn't be an incredible advancement? We're talking about over 990,000 people who would have otherwise gotten sick from just eating something like chicken, who would no longer have to get ill.
Please understand as I've asked above for someone to explain how this wouldn't be "one of the most important advancements," I do not pose this question rhetorically, or in a sarcastic manner; my personal goal, and by extension, goal through the Cellular Agriculture Society, is to address serious problems facing the world -- cellular agriculture, is simply a means to an end. I'm more than happy to talk about cellular agriculture's potential pitfalls as well, and how some potential benefits have to be taken with a grain of salt, which is necessary to highlight too.
I want to make clear that my confidence for everything outlined in 90 Reasons is not derived from my position at the Cellular Agriculture Society, or a "biased belief" in this concept, but the other way around -- my position, and my confidence in cell-ag is derived from the massive potential we discovered this concept beholds. Claims on potential benefits were researched thoroughly for years, sources cited, and only then did an evidence-based approach ultimately manifest into my strong support for cellular agriculture.
Q. Let's delve deeper into your enthusiasm. You said lab grown meat will become half the world's meat consumption by 2050 and intensive animal agriculture will no longer exist by 2100. One of the major sticking points right now is price. In your favor, Maastricht University debuted a burger in 2013 with a rumored price of $1.3 million/lb. Today, we're looking at products priced as low as $50/lb., still way to high but rushing in the right direction to be competitive in the supermarket meat case. Walk me through the marketing advancements that have to happen before cell-based meats can go toe-to-toe with what the ag industry calls real meat.
The focal point here is "scaling up;" main factors being the media that cells will consume and developing bioprocesses at commercial scale; this is also species-specific, as a seafood product, for instance, will require a colder environment for its cells to grow than a pork product. So, in short, more R&D is needed.
Since you mentioned "half of meat consumption by 2050," allow me to clarify and elaborate upon the timeline I predict.
We live in arguably the most challenging time in human history to make accurate technological projections. Especially considering the complex intersectional nature of modern technology, predictions are particularly difficult to make with high precision.
So while the future is extremely difficult to predict, especially with advancing technologies on the horizon today, the following are my predictions which converge into three major stages I've predicted for the future of cellular agriculture:
It has taken us thousands of years of technological progress to get here, but by the 2030s the major commercialization of cellular agriculture products like cell-based meat, dairy, and fur become a reality. Many people are skeptical about cellular agriculture products, especially food products, but it is slowly increasing in acceptance around the world. Due to the complexity of different animal-based commodities and the biological/engineering hurdles such commodities present, not all animal products will be commercialized at once, so the early adopters will have chicken “nuggets” available to them over “rotisserie” chickens.
2) The Confluence
For years, variables like tradition, regulation, politics, high-profile endorsements/rejections, conventional industry support, religion, nation development, and intersecting technologies play an impactful role in the global proliferation of cellular agriculture, but the philosophy of cell-ag is growing after the first major products arose in the 2020s. Critical variables affecting acceptance like a lack of all products having cellular agriculture analogs and mass skepticism towards its long-term effects were notable decelerating factors, but after decades of proven positive impact, cellular agriculture products are becoming widely accepted, reaching 50% market share in early adopting countries and rising in the countries of least interest by mid-century.
Inversely, intensive animal agriculture-based products are falling in total market representation, while traditional animal farming is making a notable come back. While it will differ for different products, a salient milestone is reached shortly after the point that the cost/utility of cell-ag products rivals that of traditional animal ag products dynamically in product availability range, and hence it becomes clear to many that the benefits far outweigh the years of social reluctance towards adopting. Also, new generations help with increasing its acceptance globally, making large transitions possible of 10-20% in a matter of years. Ultimately, these last adopting countries reach at least a 10% average market share threshold for the bottom 10 adopting countries – this marks the end of the Confluence.
3) The Apotheosis
Over a century later, considering serious research began in the 1900s, there exists over 95% market share for cellular agriculture products wherever humanity inhabits, universally. Cellular agriculture has become so commonplace, that it is now taboo to consider raising live animals for animal products on places like Mars, where products like cell-based meat were the status quo since the inception of the first colonies. By the 22nd century, humanity has evolved from its past of factory farming with future generations shocked that such a system even existed in the first place.
Q. Danielle Beck, senior director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA), says every single product needs to be correctly identified in the marketplace. NCBA and other major ag industry associations are lining up to protect the terms 'meat' and 'poultry' from being used to describe lab-grown products. For instance, the term 'imitation meat' might be an acceptable labeling term. Your thoughts on that as well as the many government rules and regs that are being debated?
A. "Every single product needs to be correctly identified in the marketplace." Couldn't agree with this sentiment more, especially that she used the term "product.” In a cellular agriculture system, the process differs, not the product. People can try pushing this term, "imitation meat," on the plant-based industry; it's a title that I think is much more fitting there, but if you can't discern the difference between animal and cell-based meat, then I think you have your answer as to what to call the "product."
But we're very pro-labeling. We think just as meat that comes from cells should be labeled as such, which describes the detail of the production process that got it to the supermarket, so should happen for current meat production. As Shuo Li Liu, Stanford grad student has stated, just as cell-based meat could have a label that the "meat was derived from chicken cells grown in a cultivator, "there also should be labeling on conventional meat that the "meat was derived from multiple chickens raised with their excrement in a 1m^3 cage" and "may contain salmonella, which sickens over a million Americans per year."
Lastly, regarding the terms they're proposing like "lab-grown meat" or "imitation meat," I hope they follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion, in referring to nouns differently based on different processes. So, I suppose they'd also like to refer to a person who is born through the process of in-vitro fertilization, as an "imitation human."
Q. Your charge is to approach the marketplace with a winning argument in favor of cell-based meats, one that can create a wide-ranging appeal among the general population. Would you give me an outline of what that argument should be?
A. The potential benefits will appeal to each person differently, so I would simply suggest anyone interested in this concept to check out 90 Reasons, which you can most likely find by simply typing "90 Reasons" on Google, or the full title: “90 Reasons to Consider Cellular Agriculture.”
Otherwise, I would say this: People love animal-based commodities like meat, dairy, eggs, and leather, but this love for animal products has skyrocketed demand and, of course, the animal agriculture industry, who produces these products, has sought to meet that demand. In the course of doing so, however, they've had to make compromises on their stewardship for the environment, respect for animal welfare, and responsibility for public health. This is not a situation where we need to point fingers though; members of the traditional animal agriculture community have impressively fed and clothed the world, and many of them, I would even argue most of them, based on the farmers I've met with from the conventional livestock industry, are not happy with how animal farming has ended up over the last few decades.
They're not content with the current farming methods that have stripped away the real beauty of animal husbandry that existed for millennia -- a time, not too long ago, when quality products were prepared for consumers through methods where the environment and animals were well tended for, playing a harmonious role with each other. Fortunately, the industrialization that overtook this traditional system, called factory farming will end, and it will end soon. The production of animal products in the future will be two-fold: (1) cellular agriculture will be able to provide animal products at a scale that animal farming simply couldn't, which will grant (2) the ability for farmers to go back to traditional methods of livestock farming, not intensive animal agriculture which has become disastrously commonplace today. When it comes to scale and the tremendous amount of issues animal agriculture presents, the problem is not family farms, it is factory farms.
Cellular agriculture and traditional humane farms will coexist together, but since demand is only increasing around the world for animal products, a new system will have to be in place to match that demand, and at this point, cellular agriculture seems to be the best option for this. Those who support this new vision we're advancing, agree with us that it's quite clear that people around the world do not want their animal products to be potentially contaminated with pathogens or hormones that can make them sick, they don't want animals to be treated inhumanely, suffering needlessly, and they don't want a farming system they depend on for something as vital as food, to waste limited environmental resources -- people just want the products from animals, without all of these problems that have become so common today through factory farming.
These problems arose by raising a large number of animals through factory farms which, so far, has been the only way humanity has been able to match modern demand.
Well, while it's obvious our interest in animal products is not going to change, it's about time the production process evolves to better reflect what people expect from their agriculture system. Luckily, the evolution of animal agriculture is on the horizon; a system where animal products will not come from animals, but from cells instead. We call this field cellular agriculture -- agriculture from cells, instead of from animals, decoupling the animal from animal products.