Today, meat can be created without the slaughter of animals or the use of feed crops, arable land, excessive water, and polluting byproducts. But cultivated meat and other novel animal-free products face resistance from conventional producers, policy barriers, and uncertain consumer acceptance. How can animal advocates shift public perceptions and unlock the market potential of cultivated meat?
The Benefits of Cultivated Meat
Cultivation here refers to any type of biomass being grown using cellular or acellular techniques. The first usually involves in vitro tissue engineering that clones and nurtures cells. The second mostly makes use of precision fermentation, genetically altering microbes to create subcellular byproducts such as proteins. A product of precision fermentation, the cheese-making enzyme microbial Rennet, widely utilized since the 1990s under FDA approval, represents an accepted cultured product that has displaced the use of its animal-based predecessor.
The production processes behind cultivated meat[i] (also known as “cultured meat” and “clean meat”) and related products such as cultivated milk and honey are not so different from those used in familiar traditional foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, and tempeh. Modern cultivation technology can also produce a wide range of non-edible materials, such as as furs and wood, without relying on harvesting living plants or animals. Rapidly expanding in both variety and scale, cultivated food and material production has the potential to significantly displace traditional animal-based products.
A societal switch from conventional to cultivated foods and materials would benefit animals, humans, and the environment. Globally, humans kill over 70 billion animals for food and 100 million more for their fur each year. Innovative cultivation systems negate the need to produce meat and animal products by harming animals.
Compared to traditional slaughter-based meat, cultivated meat can potentially virtually eliminate the public health risks associated with bacterial meat-borne illnesses, such as salmonella and E. coli. Cultivated meat production also dramatically reduces the risk of spawning new zoonotic diseases of concern to humans, like H1N1 “swine flu” and COVID-19, both of which are primarily spread through humans exploiting animals and their habitats.
Agriculture occupies about 40 percent of Earth’s landmass, and 75-80% of that agricultural land is used to raise and feed farmed animals., Animal agriculture involves heavy ecological damage, including deforestation and biodiversity collapse. Cultivated food production is a key tool that can decouple meat production capacity from demand for fundamental resources such as land, minerals, water, and oil. Scaling up cultivated food and materials production is a compelling solution for the global community to address many intractable health, ethical, and scarcity concerns.
The “Natural” Trap
The general public largely continues to regard conventional animal farming as a natural and sustainable process. However, this could not be further from the truth. Industrial animal agriculture causes significant damage to the environment, and the cruel and exploitative conditions that animals face in factory farms are nothing like those that they would encounter during normal development and behavior outside of human influence.
Nevertheless, there is considerable confusion among consumers faced with opaque marketing terms such as “natural” and “locally raised,” alongside conflicting messages about sustainability. A 2019 survey found that 50 percent of Americans believe there are direct environmental sustainability benefits from conventional animal foods that carry the marketing phrase “no added hormones,” an unrelated term applied misleadingly to many animal products. In reality, there is nothing inherently “natural” or “sustainable” about industrial animal farming.
Still, a 2018 Faunalytics study found that about 80 percent of Americans do not perceive conventional meat as unnatural, instead considering it both acceptable and desirable. Consumers prefer traditional foods because they believe that such foods are the most healthy. Yet, high consumption of farmed animal products is proven to increase the incidence of chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The dominant perception that conventional animal agriculture is natural and therefore yields healthy foods is helping to propel animal products’ continued consumption globally.
Despite cultivated meat’s significant potential benefits, public acceptance faces certain barriers due to the human preference to avoid “unnatural” food interventions. A 2019 survey found that a majority of consumers in the US, India, and China were open to trying cultivated meat, and greater familiarity with the concept was associated with a higher willingness to give cultivated products a try.
Consumers tend to distrust foods perceived as “tampered with,” potentially due to humans’ evolutionary tendency to avoid unfamiliar substances. Today, however, oversight by government agencies, quality assurance technologies, and health certifications have increased the amount of possible foods and flavors safely available to consumers.
Consumers’ food preferences have strong ideological motivations, too. Animal product consumption has so far been strongly associated with virility, masculinity, and higher social class. Many consumers place fundamentally higher values on foods produced with little to no human interventions, largely believing that naturally-occurring products must be better for their health.
Consumer suspicion of cultivated foods may be related to chemophobia, which is the aversion to any chemical additives in products. A poor understanding of cultivated foods, coupled with evolutionary tendencies and societal biases, creates significant barriers to greater consumer acceptance of cultivated meats.
This human preference for the familiar may be restricting the cultivated material sector’s progress. While cultivated food production systems are proliferating, as are the associated companies’ market shares, this growth is potentially being limited by how consumers perceive these products, long before they encounter them on grocery shelves. A 2017 study of American attitudes found that 65.3% of respondents were open to trying cultivated meat, but only 31.5% were willing to replace conventional meat in their diets with cultivated meat, with those opposed citing concerns including price, taste, and concern over “naturalness.” A 2020 review of cultivated meat studies and attitudes worldwide found that perceptions of cultivated meat varied greatly between countries and among socio-cultural groups, but concluded that resistance based on “naturalness” would likely decrease as consumers became more accustomed to cultivated products, leaving taste and price as the dominant factors affecting widespread consumer acceptance.
Points of Intervention
Traditional animal product industries are attempting to use consumer bias as a potent marketing tool to maintain the dominance of conventional animal source foods. Opportunities exist for strategic responses from animal and environmental advocates, as well as specific leverage points that cultivated meat producers can target as they seek to disrupt the conventional meat industry and solve the wicked problem of rising meat consumption.
The US dairy industry is currently lobbying for Congressional bills that would limit use of the word “milk” to products containing animal secretions, based on the questionable argument that consumers may be confused or misled about the contents of plant-based milks if the term “milk” is used on the label.
The US Food and Drug Administration, responding to industry pressure, proposed a rule in mid-2018 that would require products labeled as milk to consist of “lacteal secretion obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” (Whether most dairy cows can be considered “healthy” is another matter altogether.) Similarly, policies such as Texas House Bill 316 seek to exclude alternatives such as plant-based and cultivated meats by defining “meat” as a product deriving from the carcass of an animal.
The US Cattlemen’s Association is also petitioning the US Department of Agriculture to remove cultivated meat from its meat product category—a move that market research suggests would decrease cultivated meat market growth. Similarly, trade associations such as Fur Europe and the International Fur Trade Federation are attempting to taint consumers’ perceptions of synthetic fur by criticizing its reliance on fossil fuel-derived plastics and chemicals.
Now is a critical time for advocates to mobilize public opinion in support of plant-based and cultivated alternatives to conventional animal products.
Although consumers associate the lack of human intervention with healthiness, what is natural, is not always good. Some experts argue that naturally occurring calorie-rich sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup may be less healthy for inactive people than human-created chemical sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin, which are nearly zero-calorie and present negligible cancer risks. Disasters such as volcano eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis are entirely natural—yet they inflict widespread damage on humans and animals alike. Viruses and bacteria are also natural, but human intervention, in the form of vaccines and hygiene, saves lives.
Societies can engineer new production systems with “goodness” in mind, demonstrating that a system or product’s anthropogenic origins do not solely determine whether it is capable of functioning well and yielding benefits.
The innate human bias against novel food sources lags behind the pace of social and technological change in modern society and fails to account for the changing needs of our planet. Against this backdrop, “naturalness” often satisfies knee-jerk consumer preferences at the expense of the greater tangible benefits that novelty may offer.
Consumer openness to novel foods on store shelves is shaped by values and impressions formed long before. Especially during the moment of reflection created by the spotlight on industrial animal agriculture during the COVID-19 global pandemic, advocacy has a golden opportunity to help prime the public to welcome novel forms of cruelty-free meat.
Despite pressure from conventional producers and potential social barriers to consumer acceptance, the global cultivated meat market is predicted to grow by at least 15.7 percent in CAGR (compound annual growth rate) between 2025 and 2032 and to reach competitive production costs per pound by 2030. Conventional preferences are potentially constraining, but not entirely halting, a large-scale shift toward new products.
The field of cultivated meat and material production is still in its infancy, but many of its underlying technologies are rapidly approaching breakthroughs that may soon enable mass production. Under development by entrepreneurs and startups, experimental techniques, like those utilizing bioreactors—biologically active culture mediums in which cells can grow—are scaling up with automation, better filtration systems, and wider end-product diversification. Globally, technologies are currently available that can potentially replace every animal product with cultivated versions.
Over the next 20 years, analysts predict that conventional meat’s market share could drop to as low as 40 percent worldwide—with a 90 percent drop just in the US. Alternative protein companies, on the other hand, are booming. They raised $5.9 billion worldwide over the past decade, $3.1 billion in 2020 alone. The market continues to diversify.
Eat Just leads the way as the first company to ever obtain regulatory approval to serve a cultivated meat product, launching cultivated chicken nuggets in December 2020, in a Singaporean restaurant. They focus on cultivated egg and chicken products and became a unicorn company in 2016. In late 2020 they partnered with equity firm Proterra Asia to invest up to $120 million in the building of a new manufacturing facility in Singapore, which is expected to break ground sometime during 2021. Singapore sees cultivated meat production as a promising technology for meeting the goal of raising domestic food production from 10 percent to 30 percent by 2030.
Memphis Meats uses biotechnology to induce stem cells to differentiate into muscle tissue in bioreactors. They created the world’s first cultivated meatball in 2016 and the first piece of duck meat in 2017. Last year they raised U$161 million in a Series B investment round led by SoftBank Group, Norwest, and Temasek.
BlueNalu, which uses fish cells to cultivate seafood products, acquired $60 million in debt financing from investors earlier this year. In the next twelve months, they aim to open a 40,000 square foot production facility, get their products reviewed by the FDA, and do marketplace testing throughout the United States.
Back in 2017, China bought $300 million worth of Israeli cultivated meat – as part of their environmentally motivated investigation into halving their regular meat imports. Companies like Aleph Farms and SuperMeat in Israel are pioneering the technology for cultivated meat due to local cultural and religious factors—the country’s populace has had a long history of reliance on processed foods, and an increasing number of Israeli citizens abstain from meat-eating due to kosher beliefs.
European companies such as Mosa Meat, Mirai Foods, and Revo Foods see cultivated meat as a solution to environmental collapse led by the growth of global human populations and rising meat consumption. While high conventional meat consumption is particularly culturally ingrained in the US and Europe, many Global South countries do not have a similar degree of path dependency from a historically highly developed industrial meat economy. Without this lock-in effect, there is less potential friction for cultural acceptance and more opportunities for infrastructure development in support of alternative meat.
Entry Points for Advocacy
Despite their many harmful impacts, the commodities produced by conventional industrial animal farming continue to be in high global demand, due in part to popular misconceptions about novelty and convention. The resulting consumer misapprehension toward new products—exacerbated by marketing messages that reinforce the dominance of conventional sources—muddles the discourse surrounding cultivated products and slows the pace of change.
Work by animal advocates, policy experts, and social change campaigns can help to accelerate consumer acceptance of alternative proteins, improving their pathway to market. Partnerships with established food companies and governments can also speed the shift away from conventional meat production.
In 2020, five cultivation companies created the Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation aimed at lobbying to advance supportive policies, improve public awareness, and facilitate the cultivated economy at a legislative level. The Israeli nonprofit Modern Agriculture Foundation stated, back in 2017, that support from animal advocates and NGOs would be vital in providing the human capital needed for lobbying and generating public awareness.
Mobilizing animal protection advocates, lobbying, forging alliances with conventional meat brands, and investing in cultivated startups and scale-ups are all examples of leverage points where interventions can help free the public from a biased negative view of cultivated meat and related products—spurring system-wide transformation.
Cultivated and fermented meats will not single-handedly deliver the transformation to a sustainable food system with solutions for the problems of climate change, systemic racism, and poor animal welfare. Although they are not silver bullets, these innovations are part of an array of solutions that need support from funders and NGOs wishing to build a better, kinder, more sustainable food system by decreasing the production and consumption of animal products.
Appropriate messaging in the public sphere around the benign novelty of alternative meats and the unnaturalness of industrial animal agriculture are essential tools for allowing animal farming to be disrupted and eventually replaced, resulting in significant global progress on ethical, health, and environmental problems. Along with other food system improvements, cultivated products can enable a viable future in alignment with the values and needs of modern society—the only remaining obstacle is our own human bias.
Disclosure: Entities affiliated with Stray Dog Institute invest in the alternative protein industry, including but not limited to the following companies mentioned in this article: Aleph Farms, BlueNalu, Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, and SuperMeat.
[i] Cultivated meat refers to animal meat that is grown directly from cells, without requiring the slaughter of live animals. Some voices still describe this type of meat as “lab-grown” meat, a term that is something of a misnomer. While cultivated meat began as a product of scientific innovation, it will ultimately reach the consumer market through familiar processes more similar to micro-brewing. For more on the importance of using accurate and aware terminology to describe cultivated meat, please see https://gfi.org/blog/cultivatedmeat/.
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