A couple weeks ago, a story broke on the ability to produce meat/beef in the lab. The article itself is fairly slanted, but it’s the concept of lab-based meat that I want to talk about.
First, I want to acknowledge that this whole story was probably more of a marketing win than any breakthrough in science. The ability to develop food products in the lab that taste like meat has been progressing for some time. Many years ago I remember hearing about a soybean-based product that with a little added chicken juice was supposed to replace genuine chicken. I suspect this current effort was at best a small step forward on the lab meat journey, backed up by a big win for a marketing department somewhere. (As you can see, time and experience has jaded me a bit on the idea of a “breakthrough”)
Secondly, it is quite apparent that the agriculture industry I am a part of was VERY unimpressed with this scientific advancement. That concerns me a bit, at a pure science level, it’s hard to argue against this kind of thing. If essential nutrients or other positive attributes can be provided in a new, potentially useful form, what is wrong with that? Isn’t that the premise the entire biotech industry is built around?
I understand that the potential success of a product like this would cause significant disruptions in the livestock industry for sure and spillover effects in the grains and all of agriculture. We feed cattle for a living, and would feel the personal affect very much. I would remind everyone that technology change always brings about massive upheaval and with it new opportunities. How do you suppose the very large and diverse horse industry felt as tractors started to take over farm operations? Or more recently, the makers of soybean chemical products like Blazer and Cobra when Roundup Ready soybeans so quickly dominated the soybean industry? (For those not in agriculture, apologies for some industry-specific product names there) It is easy to fear potential change without trying to be objective. So for the remainder of this post I am going to try to as objectively as possible consider lab-based meat, realizing it is near impossible to completely remove my personal opinion or bias.
Lab-based meat would certainly find a market as a speciality product for those that for either health or ethical reasons would not eat regular meat. There’s probably only a small portion of this already small market that would be interested in the product, so for practical purposes it would remain a niche-based and expensive option. In this scenario the effect on the agriculture industry would be minor, and lab meat would simply be added to the dizzying array of food choices already available.
I have very little information on the economics of producing lab meat. I have seen arguments that it will always be expensive, as well as arguments that it will fairly quickly be cheaper to produce than traditional meat. (Who ever knew that prime rib/pork chop would come to be known as traditional meat!!) As long as lab meat is an expensive option, I am pretty confident it will be a niche product.
The more interesting/unsettling scenario would be if lab-based meat could be produced and sold at a price point less than conventional beef. From a pure economics view, it should be able to gain significant market share and cause major disruptions to a large, existing industry. This all assumes the public is willing to accept lab-based meat — that is by no means a sure thing. The public has a massive distrust for science messing with their food, and I suspect lab meat would be no different. It is just very interesting for me to note that in this case, the general agriculture industry tends to side with the anti-science crowd and support the “back to nature” concept!