"a moonshot that might just land"
July 29, 2021 5:01 AM   Subscribe

Man v food: is lab-grown meat really going to solve our nasty agriculture problem? If cellular agriculture is going to improve on the industrial system it is displacing, it needs to grow without passing the cost on to workers, consumers and the environment (The Guardian, long read)
posted by bitteschoen (38 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks for posting. Meat production is so detrimental to our future, such as greatly increasing the potential for disease (pandemic), contribution to climate change, and causing reductions in biodiversity, etc. If you're interested in more information on the development of alternative proteins, this podcast with Bruce Friedrich and Rich Roll is fascinating and gives a thorough overview of the current state and challenges of lab grown and plant based meats.
posted by j810c at 5:19 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]


"Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." Michael Pollan. I love vegetables and could easily skip meat for all eternity. That being said I also love fish and maybe a steak once a month. However this goes I am not too interested in factory food. Is factory food really food, at least in Michael's definition?
posted by caddis at 6:28 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


Haven't finished this yet, but clearly Betteridge's Law applies. The various input feedstocks for lab-grown meats must themselves be heavily processed and don't come anywhere near being efficient at turning sun and dirt into human available calories when compared to e.g. soy, the existing animal protein replacement for a good chunk of the world.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:30 AM on July 29 [15 favorites]


I'd be pretty happy with just reducing the very direct impact on the lives of the animals we end up eating, and people don't care enough about that to switch to the existing plant-based replacements, so.
posted by tigrrrlily at 6:59 AM on July 29 [12 favorites]


There also doesn't need to be a single-silver-bullet solution. Is lab-grown mean going to solve it, well-- no, not in the near-term. But it could eventually take a bite out of the chicken nugget and minced beef market if we choose to invest in it— we're probably a way off faking a sashimi quality blue-fin tuna.

The article mentions that chicken/pig wasn't that popular before industry pushed it into the minds of the consumer— the idea that we 'love' particular meats is learnt, so largely, chicken yum, beef yum, goat mmm?, dog eww! The chicken you had in your dinner four nights ago— was it memorable, did you *love* it, or was it just the go-to easy option?

Replacement options beyond burgers and it's kin— they're great, tasty and another quiver in the arrow (hopefully the price drops!). Tempeh's great for a chunky meat replacement in some dishes— how many people know about it? Better vegetarian options in schools, learning to cook and learn about foods and options— raising food standards and environmental standards to consider the real cost of meat, therefore raising it's production costs. Lots of arrows to be fired— the crux from the article is:
Perhaps the best way to overcome these challenges is to deploy the same strategy that the US government used to industrialise farming a century ago: invest robustly in research and development through public universities, national labs and generous subsidies.
Funny how much of this **gesticulates everywhere** comes down to future looking governance.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:28 AM on July 29 [22 favorites]


The article claims that the energetic cost of lab meats is somewhat higher than current chicken, which is about 50% efficient compared to plant-source foods. That's a major win for beef (~10%) and pork (~20%) replacement, if I'm interpreting that right. So not quite as good as chicken, but a clear winner over large animal farming even in the prototype stage.

I'd also say almost any efficiency penalty is worth paying to avoid wild fish harvest. Ocean ecosystems are under critical threat right now. Commercial overfishing is a major crisis, of similar scale (and linked to) climate change.
posted by bonehead at 7:29 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]


the idea that we 'love' particular meats is learnt, so largely, chicken yum, beef yum, goat mmm?, dog eww!

much of the rest of the world (non-US) enjoy goat & mutton/lamb. Which are far less environmentally destructive and more delicious to this guy.

mmmmm goat curry I miss U
posted by djseafood at 7:35 AM on July 29 [6 favorites]


It's so bizarre that we repeatedly lean on the promise of "just over the horizon" sciences to solve problems that have economic solutions.

People are eating too much meat? Stop subsidizing meat below its cost. Promote meat as the luxury it is. One doesn't need meat every meal, or even every day. Promote quality over quantity, the holiday roast shared with family rather than the 5 lb steak. Encourage moderation instead of abstinence versus performative meat consumption.

It's just like carbon. We know that carbon taxing works and that it works well. But instead we're promised carbon sequestration and we encourage individuals to reduce their "carbon footprint" as businesses have no financial incentive to reduce consumption.

Taxes and incentives work. Yes, we want the economy to keep afloat. Yes, we want food affordable for all people. But not at the expense of the environment.
posted by explosion at 7:55 AM on July 29 [35 favorites]


I like the phrase "cellular agriculture".
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:03 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]


It's so bizarre that we repeatedly lean on the promise of "just over the horizon" sciences to solve problems that have economic solutions.

I'm not clear that pushing people around economically is much of an improvement.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:04 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]


I once read a book by an Orthodox rabbi that made the case for the laws for keeping Kosher being developed (he thought by God, but it doesn't matter by whom for the sake of this discussion) in order to wean people off of meat.
By making it more difficult to eat meat... setting up regulations about how it should be killed, prepared, and kept separate... meat consumption would by necessity, not choice, be infrequent. A stepping stone to full vegetarianism.
I think a similar idea can be used here, in that lab grown meat is just a step on the path. Society needs interim solutions, and meat substitutes are one part of that.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 8:07 AM on July 29 [2 favorites]


The article mentions that chicken/pig wasn't that popular before industry pushed it into the minds of the consumer

It may say that, but it's not correct. People have been eating chicken-like birds for a very long time. Per wikipedia, since 600BC, and it was the most common meat during the middle ages. Specifically for the US - the cattle trade across the entire center of the US was so huge that is probably did upset the economics of chicken raising until mass production techniques could catch up, but that's not the same thing.

Also the first paragraph describing nugget production is something that should be lauded for creating value from waste, not condemned. "Eww it's connective tissue". Stuff like that is childish, and it demeans entire cultures that also eat eyes, tongues, entrails, and other castoffs too exotic for the 1950s white people diet.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:22 AM on July 29 [25 favorites]


Sorry, my point more to the article is that meat production (within the scope of a single animal) is very efficient, and that trying to gross out meat eaters isn't really a productive strategy. Lab grown and plant based meats could be of value if they are more economically feasible even if hotdogs are made of gross animal parts, especially if price increases to meat coupled to better conditions for the animal are done concurrently.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:26 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]


I'm not clear that pushing people around economically is much of an improvement.

It worked for smoking. Taxes have made cigarettes a purchase that people have to think about, rather than cheap as a pack of gum. We limited how tobacco companies may advertise.

It was a lot better to do the hard work to get people to quit (or at least prevent people from starting) than to lean on science to fix the damage smoking caused while letting smoking remain popular.

It's not just about consumer-side pricing, it's about industrial incentives. If we stop subsidizing meat, it's less profitable to pursue, and we get a lot fewer "beef: it's what's for dinner" commercials.
posted by explosion at 8:30 AM on July 29 [6 favorites]


I think there's justice to saying that lab- and plant-based foods have to win economically. A major driver for McDs switching to one or the other will be because it's cheaper than beef.

Economics isn't enough though. McDs won't switch if it's customers refuse to buy new foods, even at a lower price. If bad-faith marketers, for example, start saying "Lab 'meat' is really Cancer! You're eating Cancer!", that would keep culture meat out of Big Macs.

That's why the climate change argument is important, as well as the no pesticides, no preservatives ones are as well. New technologies won't succeed just on economic terms. They can be marketed against by both activists and traditional farmers. GMO-crops have struggled to find markets, for example, sometimes for good reason, sometimes simply because of the association. In Canada, a major selling point for our (very expensive) domestic milk is that it's hormone free, compared to the 'nasty' US imports. This information however comes from the farmer-owned milk marketing boards.

New foods, whether Beyond or Lab-cultures, will need both, some level of market acceptance, and to be cheaper than what they're replacing to succeed as a universal replacement.
posted by bonehead at 8:44 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


It's complicated. My basic emotional reaction is the same as explosion's. Make the fiscal cost of meat equivalent to the environmental cost. It is the right thing to do, and I personally live well and happily on a diet that is 80% vegetarian.

In a sustainably farmed world, there will be some livestock. Ruminants have a role in some ecosystems, chickens and other fowl are valuable helpmates in vegetable gardens and orchards, and pigs help till the soil and transform waste into fertilizer. But it will be perhaps ten percent of what we have today or less. Obviously, the price of meat in that ideal world will be very different from that of today.

Industrial farming arrived a little later here than in the US, so I have living memories of chicken and beef being treats that weren't eaten every week or even every month. We had game more frequently than chicken. Pork was more abundant even before the factory farms, but still, a family of five like ours would share a pound of pork, with the rest of the meal being potatoes, vegs and gravy.

That all said, I have learnt here on MetaFilter that there are people for whom leaving meat behind really affects their quality of life, in spite of otherwise good intentions. In the environment sketched above, with only the biologically sound amount of animals in farming, maybe lab-grown meat can be competitive and even a good alternative. I don't see myself buying it. My kids like my vegetarian lasagna better than the meat version anyway. But I've learnt to respect that some may feel differently about it.
posted by mumimor at 8:49 AM on July 29 [9 favorites]


In 1931, Winston Churchill proclaimed that technology would one day allow humans to “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”. As recently as the late 90s, the remark could be cited as an example of the futility of futurology.

Not really. If he didn't cite a date, it's just a vision that had yet to come true. If he did give a year, well, that's a problem in this business, but one of calibration.
posted by doctornemo at 9:08 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the best way to overcome these challenges is to deploy the same strategy that the US government used to industrialise farming a century ago: invest robustly in research and development through public universities, national labs and generous subsidies.

Yes, higher education could play a role here. Student activism might appear, joined by staff and faculty.
posted by doctornemo at 9:20 AM on July 29


"Americans spend just under 10% of their disposable income on food, among the lowest rates in the world, and eat a whopping 122kg of meat each a year,"

Wait, what? I eat meat. I eat too much meat, including some badly farmed meat, unsustainably caught meat, and meat sold by places that treat their employees and vendors very badly. (I'm not proud of of that, but it's true.) I genuinely can't imagine eating that much meat. It takes planning for two people in my household to eat the ~1-3kg/month we buy before it goes bad. (Does "meat" also includes butter?) The article is interesting and thoughtful. But, for me, the surprise, once again, is that I don't actually know anything about my neighbors. I'm going to try not to feel comforted by this when deciding how much meat to buy.
posted by eotvos at 9:42 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]


I am definitely in favor of ending the general below-cost subsidies for meat products. I'm favor of getting rid of all the subsidies, in fact. However, that's because I live in a city with a lifestyle that wouldn't be impacted by the end of the subsidy.

The same can't be said for the hundreds of thousands of low-income slaughterhouse workers, the ranchers and other folks along the supply chain who likely would be ruined by the end of the subsidy. The folks that, if the subsidy were to end, would likely find a home in some reactionary populist circles who would like to roll back the changes as well as a few more changes regarding who has certain rights.

The meat subsidy is so ingrained in so many aspects of the American economy that doing the right thing from an environmental perspective, a thing I agree with, and trying to replace it with soy and lab-based alternatives runs the risk of some very ugly pushback. The Bundy standoff, where militia cosplayers came out en mass to protest the Feds not allowing grazing on federal land had the Feds ultimately buckling. A large portion of the far-right are armed to the teeth and itching for a chance to save "Real Americans" from the overreach of coastal elites and anything they've been told they stand for.

I'm becoming more and more pessimistic toward future good change in America as time goes on because there's so many people who are willing to fly off the handle over the smallest change in the right direction. A major change like ending the meat subsidy seems like grounds for a major insurrection at least, and a civil war at worst.
posted by Philipschall at 9:49 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


It seems that the 122kg figure is the weight of animal carcasses (i.e. including bones, etc), not the actual amount of meat that Americans eat annually, which is about half of that (per Wikipedia). That works out to about 170g of meat per day, which still seems like a lot, but some people eat a lot of meat.
posted by ssg at 9:51 AM on July 29 [5 favorites]


Sausages Georg, who lives in cave & eats over 10,000 meats each day, is an outlier adn should not have been counted
posted by oulipian at 10:06 AM on July 29 [21 favorites]


I'm not clear that pushing people around economically is much of an improvement.

There are other methods, like appealing to patriotism and America's past. For example, the US rationed things like meat and fuel during WWII. Even the Roosevelt household was issued a ration book. And they did use it, since White House guests complained how bad the food was.

At the very least, there are way more ingredients and prep techniques available now than back then so we wouldn't really have to sacrifice flavor/texture/taste if meat were rationed.
posted by FJT at 10:26 AM on July 29 [2 favorites]


Agree with you eotvos, I suspect that is 'animal protein', milk, butter, eggs .. and meat.

NZ has no formal agricultural subsidies NZ Agriculture A policy perspective - dropping subsidies [often in the form of free phosphate fertiliser, and urea - CO(NH₂)₂. ] bankrupted many farmers but they were mainly farming in non-viable places, e.g. near-desert, erodible/steep land. Removing subsidies has resulted in some diversification into grapes - 35000 Ha, and a lot more orcharding.

But we have a very few monopoly processors which distort the market, and this has resulted in suppression of organic farming with that attitude embedded in our Min of Ag. Meanwhile basic foods are becoming unaffordable in NZ as internal prices are matched with external sale commodity prices.

One fundamental that distorts much of the ag/hort market is the uneven way in which payments for goods are made. Here NZ sheep wool growers get about 1 payment a year, dairy farmers monthly, cropping in fall and so on. This has lead to lead to extreme focus on milk which is destroying most of our rivers, lakes and coastal areas. I imagine this payment approach is similar globally.

There is huge resistance (and denial, and anger) here about lab-grown and 'new foods', e.g. impossible burgers. Vegetarianism is rapidly increasing. Also increasingly radical (and very understandable) protest including railway blockades of coal trains - as most milk processors burn coal to dry the milk to powder - worse this year as we have a nationwide near drought.

I was at an ag. conf. two years ago where domestic terrorism against farming was discussed as a high potential and that farmers need to be seen to protect the land.
posted by unearthed at 10:26 AM on July 29 [7 favorites]


unearthed, the details you've given about NZ subsidies imply non-obvious reasons for not wanting to "push people around economically". Anything you do along those lines won't fit the world perfectly, and less so as time goes on, but there will be people who benefit from the system as it exists, and will resist changing it.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 11:42 AM on July 29


"What about the people who will lose their jobs" isn't an argument against taking the vitally important step of ending factory farming, it's an argument in favor of also creating robust social services. Since neither of these steps has a snowball's chance in hell (i.e. most of the world circa 2029) of happening, it should be relatively easy not to raise asinine objections.
posted by sinfony at 11:54 AM on July 29 [6 favorites]


much of the rest of the world (non-US) enjoy goat & mutton/lamb. Which are far less environmentally destructive

unfortunately, not true by carbon footprint. Maybe if you squinted hard and assumed benefits from removing invasive weeds or only compare to the worst beef factory farms. But sheep burp methane too, and grass-pastured lambs burp for a much longer lifespan.
posted by radagast at 1:53 PM on July 29


I think the future has to lie in substituting vegetable dishes rather than attempting to produce animal protein in more friendly ways. Meat imitations mostly suck and the good ones are energy and capital intensive; I can't see vat grown meat being any different. I think we'd be better off promoting felafel and sag paneer than trying to pretend Tofurkey roasts are the real thing.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:06 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


Oh hey, it's an opportunity to talk about an odd family quirk. My wife and I fell in love with the difficult but amazing short story "We Who Stole The Dream" by James Tiptree Jr (who has an incredible backstory herself). In that story, there is a space drink called "Star Tears" which is described by the book as the most euphoric, delicious thing possible. You read that the substance is basically distilled suffering.

In our household, we refer to factory meats as Star Tears. We still eat it sometimes, because we have too many people and keeping vegetables fresh is hard when you live half a day from a grocer. Though to be completely honest, the main reason is that we have American diets and change is hard. Summer is great because I get weekly veg from the CSA. I also belong to a meat CSA. Both of these are quite expensive, and I am lucky to be able to afford them. But we still use Star Tears ground beef and roasts to extend the pot meals, especially in the winter time. Each year we do eat less of it, but until we get cellular meat, I don't think we will entirely abandon it. What a shameful thing to say, but it's true.

My biggest shame is steak. We only cook it a few times a year, initiated by sale prices since it is so expensive. But I know in my heart and mind the only way a steak can be less than $10/lb (even on sale) is if it is made of suffering. If it is Star Tears. I am really hoping that cellular meat is a success.

(If you want to read the story: serious content warning, it is a brutal difficult read. My introduction to it was by the great Norm Sherman at the Drabblecast. The whole story is printed there to read, but I would recommend Norm's reading, at least check out his author bio at the start.)
posted by pol at 2:27 PM on July 29 [12 favorites]


So what's the latest on lab-grown meat that doesn't use fetal bovine serum? Because last I checked (and the article does mention this, offhandedly) almost all of the more-convincing meat replacements used it as a growth medium.

And anything that uses it is pretty much a non-starter on several fronts: it's expensive, so the products made that way won't be cost-competitive; the process of obtaining it is pretty gut-wrenchingly nasty (if you don't eat veal, well, you're really not going to like fetal bovine serum), so I don't imagine people who want to avoid meat for cruelty reasons would want anything to do with it; and it's not really scalable. It seems like a dead end to me.

It'd be great if we could have some sort of cellular-agriculture Manhattan Project, funded by the public and for the public benefit, but I doubt that Big Ag is ever going to allow that to go through. And moreover, after we've seen what's happened to the vaccine rollout, I think adoption of the eventual products might go better if the government's hands weren't all over it. (The last thing we need is Tucker Fucking Carlson going on about "Biden Nuggets" and "Pelosi Jerky".) So unless there's a real shortage of investment dollars in the field—which there doesn't seem to be at the moment—maybe we should let the private sector continue to work on it.

This strikes me as an area where the SV tech-bro penchant for "disrupting markets" is actually well-suited. Disrupt away!
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:56 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


All the above, but I also wonder why things like black bean burgers have never caught on? Some of them are tastier than meat burgers (certainly than the meat burgers that are comparable in cost and convenience), am I missing something? Like do most people really not like them that much, or is it just a branding problem?
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 6:09 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


All the above, but I also wonder why things like black bean burgers have never caught on? Some of them are tastier than meat burgers (certainly than the meat burgers that are comparable in cost and convenience), am I missing something? Like do most people really not like them that much, or is it just a branding problem?

I think there's just an assumption that meat is somehow "better." I've read that "vegan" is considered the label most likely to turn people off to a food - even though there are naturally vegan foods that most people like, like peanut butter and bean burritos (unless they have lard). One reason I ended up realizing I could just quit meat was that I used seitan in a stir fry and realized (a) it tasted like meat and (b) it was actually my least favorite part of the stir fry. I eventually went vegan, and I've been practically called a liar by people who just don't believe that I actually like my food and almost never miss meat. And then there's also all the macho bullshit around eating meat and Tweeting the word "bacon."

I think vegan/vegetarian foods are also going to be disappointing if you think of them as meat substitutes rather than foods in their own right. So if someone thinks of a black bean burger as a fake hamburger, it's going to seem like it's not that good. In my fantasy world, you'd put something like the McDonald's budget into advertising black bean burgers and tofu.
posted by FencingGal at 6:28 AM on July 30 [6 favorites]


Some of them are tastier than meat burgers (certainly than the meat burgers that are comparable in cost and convenience), am I missing something?

I've met so few that like black bean paste burgers. Mushrooms are more widely available as a meat substitute for hamburgers than black bean burgers.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:38 AM on July 30


> I also wonder why things like black bean burgers have never caught on?

I've had some good black bean burgers, but also some really horrible ones. In general, I think they're harder to cook than a standard 80/20 beef patty, probably because they typically don't contain a lot of fat. (Most recipes try to emphasize how "healthy" they are, and don't put much fat in.) They're really easy to overcook and dry out if you're doing them on a grill next to regular beef burgers, in particular.

I think the Beyond Burgers (which are mostly bean-based in terms of their protein content) are starting to do pretty well; I've seen them more and more often in restaurants in particular, and unlike with a generic "black bean burger" where you're not really sure what you're going to get, with a Beyond Burger you know exactly what you're going to get. That consistency is really important. Outside of "foodies", lots of Americans really don't like to take culinary risks when ordering out.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:41 AM on July 30


The chicken you had in your dinner four nights ago— was it memorable, did you *love* it, or was it just the go-to easy option?

This is a really good point. I've had meat substitutes that were fine for what they were, but they were replacing things that were fine for what they were, so that worked out. No, Beyond Meat sausages aren't as good as prime rib, but they are about as good as regular sausages. I can work with that.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:23 PM on July 30


Misread that as cellar agriculture and had a brief but powerful vision - solar panels on the roof and a farm in the basement.
posted by halliburtron at 3:14 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


Nancy Lebowitz Subsidies were mainly dropped as it was bankrupting the state (and bankrolling bad practice). Also made us uncompetitive for exports. It made us globally unique at the time.

But far from perfect as we import millions of tons of phosphate from Western Sahara, making NZ effectively an accomplice to genocide. Once in NZ that phosphate (plus urea from natural gas) causes a level of damage to rivers, land and sea that is equal to foreign earnings from farm produce sales [from 2012 data but it's got far worse since then]. Also most of our farm processing uses coal as hydro is mainly used to make aluminium for export (the ore comes from Australia).

Leading edge companies are frantically decarbonising but the government-backed Fonterra is stuck in 1950, intending to use coal until 2037.
posted by unearthed at 8:09 PM on July 30




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