Is there a future for lab grown meat?
In 2012, we reported on the first meat grown in a lab, which used stem cells from cows to grow strips of muscle tissue that was turned into mince and made into a burger. So now, in 2017, how has the industry advanced? Is it an economically viable future for our food? Chris Smith spoke to Paul Cuatrecasas - founder and CEO of London-based investment banking firm Aquaa partners.
Paul - There is a willingness now, as we’ve seen in the last 5 or 10 years, for consumers to try new types of food and food produced by new methods. This meat would have a longer shelf life, you can add vitamins and minerals, it reduces greenhouse gases, you can eliminate e coli and other bacteria. And probably, at the end of the day, the thing that will matter most are two things: taste and cost. If you, a consumer, can eat a hamburger that tastes at least as good as the one you’ve always eaten, and you can buy it at a lower cost, then you’re probably, over time, going to want to eat that burger. And when you have so many other reasons that I’ve described, it makes sense for the world to pursue this artificial meat, then you can start to see how this can become a reality.
Chris - Is the technology capable of meeting the challenge yet though because we’ve had things like single cell protein - quorn is one example of that that vegetarians have been forced to embrace whether they liked it or not as an alternative to meat for many years, but many people say it just doesn’t taste like the real thing? Because I think you put your finger on it when you said it will come down to taste as well as cost. Is the technology capable of delivering good taste?
Paul - It will be. Like all technologies that are developed and ultimately used or applied somehow on the mass market, it takes time. With artificial lab meat, technology and science will find a way and, in fact, I would look at this and say it’s quite amazing how advanced some companies already are. So Beyond Meat, for example, is already selling a burger in 600 Kroger stores in the US and over 300 Wholefoods stores, and these burgers aren’t that bad because people are buying them and eating them.
Chris - Have you tried one?
Paul - I have not tried one myself but I have heard what other people have said. And they said it’s not quite as good as the real thing, but when you consider it’s plant based, it’s antibiotic free, it’s hormone free, it doesn’t have GMO, soya, gluten free, no cholesterol, less fat, about the same amount of calories, same amount of protein, it’s already getting to the point where it’s getting interesting.
Chris - Because one of the key things with food is it is consumer led. It’s the most consumer led probably of all things isn't it? So what do people tend to make of this, not just the reality - here’s a burger, taste this, do you like it right now? What do people think about the principle, do they find it a digestible principle?
Paul - There have been studies done that it’s not so much the vegetarians that are interested in the veggie burger or artificial burger, it’s the existing meat lovers and people eating meat in hamburgers who are looking for a healthy alternative, and that number is growing. I don't have the statistics in front of me but it’s quite a large percentage of people. I think only 8% in the latest study I read would not be interested in trying a different form of meat. I think that could be the most significant statistic is that meat eaters today are open minded about trying a new form of meat.
Chris - What will happen to traditional farmers? Do you think that they will be able to embrace these technologies or will they become the dinosaurs of agriculture?
Paul - That is a great question. It’s not going to be an overnight thing. It’s a development that will happen over time, but there will be a period of time, whether it’s a year or two years, where there will be quite intense, disruptive change. And it will, inevitably, dramatically affect farmers and farming around the world. I actually had a conversation with the CFO of a very large company involved in the fertiliser business recently and we discussed this, and he basically acknowledged that yes, if this - let’s call it in-vitro or lab artificial meat - were to have a massive presence on the shelves, it would be the beginning of the end of their whole customer base - farmers who need fertiliser.
I think that’s the way to look at this, it isn’t just one sector, it’s not just the meat processors, but it’s the entire ecosystem. It’s the farmers, the fertiliser, it’s the supermarkets, it’s everyone. That is a big number and it has massive implications and it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of when. It’s not 20 years out, it’s more like 10 years out because we are looking today at exponentially accelerating technology. I think that is the reason we’re so interested in this and talking to the larger companies about how they can adapt and take advantage of this as an opportunity and that includes the farmers. There are ways that they can invest in this new future.