Making people feel good about themselves has always been a safe bet for activists, politicians and investors. Right now, this time-proven principle is behind the flow of a whole lot of exploratory capital into developing meat-protein alternatives.
This money is betting that in the future, a lot of people will believe that avoiding meat that was once part of a living animal is a virtuous act that disassociates them from their perceptions of animal cruelty or livestock’s role in the warming of the globe.
Among the investors with skin in the “alternative meats” game are Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Tyson Foods and Cargill. Plant-based alternative meat company, Impossible Foods, has disclosed funding of more than US$500 million. Presumably there are now billions of dollars fuelling a race to take animals out of meat.
But will anyone want to eat what they create, even if the eater feels virtuous doing so?
A recent survey of 1800 Americans who were asked to choose between meat and three meat alternatives found that 75% would choose meat, and only five per cent would consider “cultured meat” – meat grown from cells in a tank.
Some in the livestock industry seem to take heart from such surveys. I don’t think there is any room for complacency.
A survey of contemporary society is no indication of what people will be eating in a few decades time. As a child, I rarely saw chicken on the table. Now it is one of Australia’s dominant meat, its market share rising.
We shouldn’t confuse the new generation of meat alternatives with tofu. Plant-based burger patties are already tasty enough for the market: what will they be like in 20 years time? What happens if the manufacturers of such products start weaving in “functional” attributes, as makers of synthetic fibres have done so successfully? Wool is perhaps the best natural fibre we have ever clothed ourselves in – and today it is a rounding error in global markets.
Cultured meats – clusters of meat cells grown in a nutrient-rich soup – sound revolting. But so does a chicken nugget it you look past the fried tastiness of the end product.
And the rewards for getting cultured meat right are immense, because it separates meat production from land ownership and complicated supply chains.
What if, for instance, an international fast food chain could make its own burger patties and chicken nuggets? A lot of manufacturing meat would have to find another home – or supply chains would have to make a lot more profit from primary cuts.
Will it happen? No idea. But the livestock industries should be planning for it to happen, because there is little downside.
The billions being poured into making real meat™ redundant are based on the assumption that real meat™ is bad.
The best way for the real meat™ industries to head off this threat is to ensure that their product is objectively good at every level – environment, welfare, consumption. Even if the threat from alternative meats vanishes, there is no downside to this strategy.
By Robbie Sefton