There’s no question the world is dealing with some serious issues: climate change and rising carbon emissions threaten resources and even our existence; population growth is placing increasing strains on food and water supplies; and, over-farming of our seas and livestock similarly raises concerns about long-term sustainability. All of these issues are fueling new pursuits to find solutions. And one of the most intriguing involves lab-grown meats, or clean meats, that might one day replace traditional animal farming.
A handful of companies are pursuing clean meats aggressively and are receiving tremendous funding. Climate activists, vegans, vegetarians, and PETA supporters alike naturally support their efforts. Similarly, so do those who anticipate lab-grown meats to be essential as food supplies become constrained. But what about the meat-lovers of the world? Humankind has been eating meats for 2.4 million years. Is it reasonable to expect that clean meats will be able to replicate the real deal? Is it fair for those willing to pay top-dollar for Wagyu beef or Iberico pork to have lab-grown meats instead?
“Our findings suggest that vegan and vegetarian consumers are more aware of cultured meat, although they would not be the main market. Consumers who eat fresh cuts more frequently are the group most likely to adopt this product when in the market.” – Federico Perez-Cueto, Associate Professor of Food Science, University of Copenhagen
Examining the Market for Clean Meats
There are many reasons why lab-grown meats are a logical next-step in improving the world’s food supply. But will consumers actually eat them once they’re produced? According to some recent global surveys, the answer is “maybe.” Among those sampled, roughly 47 percent said they’d be willing to try clean meats grown in a lab. Slightly more than a third also said they would buy it if it was at a comparable or lower price. But 57 percent believed it was unnatural and a fifth said it was outright disgusting. Clearly, lab-grown meats won’t be a grand slam right off the bat.
As with many things, however, the devil is in the details. In the survey, there was one segment of the group that might be the best target for clean meats. Those who enjoyed eating meat on a regular basis were most willing to try lab-grown meats. Likewise, they were most accepting of these products if they were more processed. Things like chicken nuggets, hamburger, and other processed options seemed to be more appealing for lab-based food products. (Get caught up on the lab-based food product craze with this Bold story.) More high-end, less-processed offerings from the lab were met with greater resistance, even among this group.
“Conventionally produced beef and cultured beef are different products, but we believe there can be a market for both. We believe that the tradition of Japanese Wagyu beef will not be lost—in fact, it will be enhanced because more people around the world will be able to learn about it and taste it.” – Wataru Toriyama, Senior VP of Toriyama Co.
Rising Stars in the Lab-Grown Meats Business
Several companies are well-invested in the development of lab-grown meats, and a handful are pursuing this process for high-end meats. Just Inc., based in San Francisco, launched in 2011 and has partnered with Toriyama Company in Japan. The Japanese purveyor of Wagyu beef provides Just Inc. with cells from their prized cattle. These cells are then cultured to produce Wagyu in the lab. While the company has not perfected a 3D printing process to recreate actual Wagyu steaks, they do believe Wagyu hamburger is feasible. if Just Inc. can reduce the price of the culture medium significantly, they hope to introduce this and other high-end meats to the masses.
Just Inc. is certainly not alone. Orbillion Bio is another company committed to lab-grown meats. In addition to Wagyu beef, they are also pursuing elk steaks, lamb loins, and bison burgers. The company’s founders have extensive backgrounds in bioprocessing and biopharmaceuticals, which are beneficial in this industry. They also have a Master Butcher on their advisory board. These features of the company have enabled it to receive over $5 million in venture capital financing. Orbillion also uses a similar approach as Just Inc. but hopes to scale more quickly in the coming years.
“The way I see it, there will always be traditional steaks – beautiful, marbled Wagyu cuts available – and they should be available at a cost reflecting their environmental footprint. But, in the future, if you go to a fast-food restaurant and the cultivated meats they are selling have the same taste, texture and aroma as traditional meat, and if it comes with price parity or costs less, then there will be demand.” – Professor Johannes le Coutre, School of Chemical Engineering at UNSW, Sydney, Australia
Authenticity Matters with High-End Meats
No matter how advanced lab-grown meats become, it’s highly unlikely that they can replicate traditional farming practices for high-end meats. Wagyu cattle are pampered, brushed, and fed a strict diet that provides their rich mixture of fat and umami. Thus, genetics alone cannot offer the same result. Epigenetics that derives from environmental exposures play a notable role in the final product. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect lab-grown meats to ever be able to provide the same level of quality. The finer things in life still require artisanship and demand patience that clean meats simply cannot offer.
Today, digital art in the form of non-fungible tokens is being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (In case you missed it, non-fungible tokens are a thing – read more about them here.) This seems ludicrous to some, but the reason for the appeal relates to the works’ authenticity. Guaranteed through blockchain that the work is the only one of its kind provides value. When it comes to foods like Wagyu beef and Iberico pork, the same holds true as well. For those willing to pay a premium price for these items, lab-grown meats will not suffice. While clean meats offer many advantages, and are ideal for some meat products, this is not one of them.
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