The global meat industry is facing an unprecedented challenge.
People are becoming more conscious about issues around ethics and the environment – and they are starting to change their behavior in droves.
Misuse of antibiotics in farming is a ticking time bomb, hurtling us towards a terrifying post-antibiotic era, where even simple infections could kill us.
In recent times, movies like What the Health have inspired millions to ditch animal products. Top plant-based physician Dr. Michael Greger’s book How Not to Die about the benefits of a vegan diet topped the New York Times‘ bestseller list for months.
On top of all that, look at concepts like veganism, plant-based diets, Veganuary, Meat Free Mondays, flexitarianism.
Together, these factors are changing the way millions of us eat.
The new technology
In tandem with these behavior changes, a slew of entrepreneurs and disrupters are working on building new foods – healthier and more ethical alternatives to traditional animal-based options.
But more about them later…
A toppling giant?
At present, around 30 percent of the calories consumed globally by humans come directly from animal sources including cows, pigs, and chickens, according to data company CB insights.
This equates to more than 50 billion animals farmed for food every year (not including fishes, who we kill in quantities so vast we count them by weight, rather than number).
Right now, the meat industry is a complex, sprawling giant, with many stages from farm to table, including transport, slaughter, processing, and more.
According to CB Insights: “Together, the seven largest meat companies combine for over $71B in market capitalization, with the largest, Tyson, boasting a $26B valuation.”
But with so many signs that progress is starting to happen on a meaningful level – how long can this aging industry keep its grip on the market?
The start of major change
Earlier this year, Josh Tetrick – the maverick CEO of Just (formerly Hampton Creek) – made a surprise announcement that suggested real change is on the horizon when it comes to disrupting animal agriculture.
He describes the sustainability issues in food production as ‘one of the biggest problems facing humanity right now’, listing antibiotic overuse, greenhouse gas emissions, and rainforest destruction as factors in farming animals for people to eat.
“But we’ve figured out a way to solve it,” he says.
According to Tetrick, his company is working on its own cultured meat technology – and plans to bring the product to market in 2018 (see video above).
Cultured (aka lab or bio) meat involves ‘building’ the flesh from animal cells.
While the use of these cells (as well as a serum taken from calves) means the product isn’t vegan, it does offer the potential to reduce animal suffering, as well as cut dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, the sterile lab environment means the product won’t be contaminated with substances like faeces, and the use of antibiotics will be not be necessary.
The price is right
But there was a twist to follow – and this was far more significant.
Tetrick claims to ‘be in talks’ with 10 of the leading global meat giants, who could be interested in licensing his cultured meat technology.
These companies would then use this tech in place of traditional farming methods.
In a bleak, but realistic summation of human nature, Tetrick reasoned that production of cultured meat has to happen on a wide scale to make it financially viable enough to have a meaningful impact.
He says: “Ultimately, anything we do in this space is irrelevant if we cannot make is as, if not more, affordable than the core categories of conventional meat today – it’s a waste of our time.
“I’m not a big believer that conscious consumerism is going to initiate a fundamental transformation.
“I think what creates a transformation in how folks eat is if you create products that taste better, are more affordable, and connect with people.”
PBN examines whether lab meat is ethical
Tetrick isn’t heading up the only brand racing to bring a lab meat product to market.
Memphis Meats, headed up by former cardiologist Uma Valeti is also in hot contention. The company, which recently featured on Inc. magazine’s cover, was described by the publication as the most credible competitor in the lab meat race.
In the cover’s accompanying featured titled Why This Cardiologist Is Betting That His Lab-Grown Meat Startup Can Solve the Global Food Crisis, writer Jeff Bercovici said: “The basic science to grow meat in a lab has existed for more than 20 years, but no one has come close to making cultured meat anywhere near as delicious or as affordable as the real thing.
“But sometime in the next few years, someone will succeed in doing just that, tapping into a global market that’s already worth trillions of dollars and expected to double in size in the next three decades.
“Despite a bevy of well-funded competitors, no one is better positioned than Memphis Meats to get there first.”
Memphis Meats also has cash behind it: Bill Gates and Richard Branson were just two of the investors behind the company’s recent $17 million Series A funding round. Traditional meat companies also invested in the technology.
Memphis Meats is the subject of an upcoming documentary
Lab meat is not the only product set to disrupt traditional animal agriculture – completely plant-based tech start-ups have already brought products to market which are making waves.
Leading the charge when it comes to these animal-free ‘meats’ are Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, who have both created revolutionary meat-free ‘bleeding’ burgers.
The companies have approached the whole ‘building’ of meat from a new, scientific angle, using high-tech ingredients to recreate certain flavors or textures.
Impossible Foods uses ‘heme’ – a an iron-rich molecule found in the blood – to give its patties that ‘meaty’ flavor. Only this ingredient is genetically modified from yeast, rather than taken from animals.
Products created by companies like these are not just for vegans – they are are focused on those who do eat meat and don’t want to compromise on the taste of animal flesh.
Meat… not from animals
According Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown: “We think of it as meat made a better way. Meat today basically is made using pre-historic technology, using animals to turn plants into this very special category of food.
“But to your typical consumer… the value proposition of meat has nothing to do with its coming from an animal.”
The company is expected to extend its technology to create other meat alternative foods in the future.
While Beyond Meat’s flagship product is its burger – which is available for delivery everywhere in the US now – it also makes a range of other items, including beef crumbles and chicken strips, which retail in a number of major outlets.
It is reportedly working on a pork replacement product.
The company, led by Ethan Brown (see interview below) has notably powerful financial backing – with cash from Hollywood heavyweight Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as a five percent stake owned by Tyson (that’s right – the meat processor).
The growth of these disrupters makes the corporations who are most reliant on animal exploitation – like Tyson – most vulnerable.
This is something the global giants are aware of – over the last year, Tyson has invested in this new disruptive technology, buying a five percent stake in Beyond Burger in October 2016.
At the time, Tyson senior vice president in charge of strategy Monica McGurk, said: “We think it’s a game-changing product that gives us exposure to this fast-growing part of the food business.”
The company has hinted that it will have to adapt to a world where animals are not the only – or even the key – protein source on a number of occasions, including recently, when Tyson Foods CEO Tom Hayes admitted that plant protein was essential is ensuring food security during an interview on North Carolina Public Radio.
PBN speaks with Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown
Benefits of new technology
The massive advances in food tech mean that alternative products are becoming increasingly tasty, and meat-like.
In addition, they are far more sustainable on an environmental level.
Last week, the World Health Organization again called upon agriculture to look at its use of antibiotics.
The use of these medicines to promote growth and disease prevention in otherwise healthy animals, is hurtling us towards what some have described as a ‘post antibiotic future’ – where even simple infections could kill us.
This is not to mention ethical concerns; many billions of animals suffer unimaginably throughout their short lives, before meeting a frightening, violent end in the slaughterhouse.
Plant-based meat would solve these issues; and lab meat would solve many of them.
Animal agriculture is likely to fight against the impending changes
So what’s the problem?
The clean meat sector is facing its own issues. Primarily, one of marketing.
For many, the idea of meat grown in a lab is ‘disgusting’ or ‘unnatural’ (let’s not get into how factory farming and genetically unmodified animals are unnatural right now).
Additionally, while high profile investors have been ploughing cash into the top tech players, it is pricy to bring these products to market.
If that pricing can’t match cheap supermarket flesh, a huge proportion of people will choose not to buy it, or won’t be able to afford it.
Scale could be another factor; will these companies – both the plant meat and lab meat brands – be able to make enough of the product to feed the world?
On top of this, both Just and Impossible Foods have been the subject of scandal this year, when it was revealed both companies had tested ingredients on lab rats.
Both companies said the testing was essential in order to get FDA [Food and Drug Administration] safety clearance on new ingredients.
Is the future vegan?
Animal ag bites back
While brands like Tyson seem to be preparing for a plant protein-heavy future, the powerful animal agriculture lobby as a whole is unlikely to back down without a fight.
If you look at the ailing dairy industry, it has hit back hard at the plant-based milk sector, with court cases and lobbying to ensure products can’t use words like ‘milk’ to describe themselves – not to mention campaigns smearing the health credentials of products like almond milk.
Also, according to CB Insights: “The automation of meat production could have far-reaching job implications for the agriculture industry.
“The meat sector is the largest employer within US agriculture, and mainstream meatless consumption could create chaos and eliminate jobs across the entire meat production value chain.
“Meat producers, lobbyists, and other bodies have a great deal at risk when considering the effects of automation across the meat industry.”
The future is clean?
This year has seen staggering development within the plant-based sector – with an increasing number of people choosing to eschew animal products.
As replacement products become more accessible and more affordable, this change is likely to create a feedback loop of supply and demand.
People are becoming increasingly aware that farming animals for food is no longer sustainable in terms of antibiotic resistance and the environment.
Additionally, young people are driving the move way from animal foods – suggesting we are moving towards a food revolution.
According to CB Insights: “Regardless of the hurdles to a meatless future, clean meat products are clearly diversifying and growing, capturing investor and public attention alike.”