A new agricultural revolution is in progress. The Good Food Institute’s Good Food conference at UC Berkeley on September 6-7 provided an inside look at how plant-based and cell-based meats are beginning to reshape U.S. meat industry. Winston Churchill anticipated this back in 1932 when he said, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing.” Churchill’s vision has been a long time coming, but it’s finally happening.
Let’s start with some definitions. “Plant-based” meat refers to analogs of animal meat that are made from plant ingredients like soy, wheat, peas, lentils, or mushrooms. Think of products like tempeh bacon and Boca burgers, or newer entrants like the Impossible burger and Beyond Meat sausages. Some of these products are almost indistinguishable in flavor and texture from animal meat, while others celebrate vegetables with more plant-centric flavors – but they all provide protein-rich offerings that take the place of animal meat on the plate. In contrast, cell-based meat (also called clean meat or cultured meat) is made from actual animal cells that are replicated to produce different cuts of meat. Cell-based meat is made of the same nutrients as animal meat, but does not require raising and slaughtering an animal. It’s not yet available commercially, but will be widely available in the next 5 to 10 years.
The Good Food Institute (GFI) was founded in 2016 to promote more sustainable and less cruel alternatives to today’s factory farming system of meat production. GFI’s Good Food conference, the first event in the world to focus on the commercialization of plant-based and cell-based meat, attracted an astonishing breadth of attendees – CEOs and entrepreneurs, food scientists, biochemists, venture capital investors, manufacturing technologists, government policymakers, regulatory agencies, researchers from academia, animal advocacy groups, executives from the animal meat industry, food journalists, and more. It was clear from the panel discussions and networking conversations that these disparate players all share a sense that major changes to how we produce meat are both necessary and inevitable.
The market opportunity for alternative meat products is staggering. Recent research from GFI shows that sales of plant-based meat are up 23 percent in the last year. Despite this growth, plant-based meat still represents only about 1 percent of retail meat sales. The plant-based milk industry gives us a good idea of what happens next – over the last 10 years, plant milks have expanded to 13 percent of retail milk sales. When plant-based meats achieve this same market share, the plant meat category will be worth almost $10 billion annually.
Cell-based meats are on an even faster growth trajectory. The first proof-of-concept cell-based hamburger was produced in 2013. By the end of 2016, 4 companies were working on cell-based products, and today 26 companies are developing clean meat replacements for cow, chicken, pig, and fish meat. Their focus now is scaling up for commercial production and bringing costs down.
The scientific consensus is that our current approach to meat production is unsustainable. Raising animals for consumption is a major contributor to many of the world’s most serious problems, including climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, antibiotic resistance, and food-borne pathogens. If we are to feed 10 billion humans by 2050, we’ll need radical change. Plant-based and cell-based meats offer promising solutions – addressing the underlying sustainability issues while allowing people to continue enjoying the flavors and textures of meat.
Both plant-based and cell-based meat also enable substantial reductions in animal suffering. Cell-based meat does require animal cells to start the replication process, but these cells can be obtained via a small biopsy from a living animal. Animals can’t be removed entirely from the process of producing cell-based meat, but cell-based meat requires orders of magnitude fewer animals than the number who are suffering in factory farms and slaughterhouses today. If you’re interested in more thoughts on this topic, see our blog article titled, “Dear Vegans: It’s Time to Come Clean about Clean Meat.”
The Good Food conference featured many discussions of the barriers to disruptive change in the U.S. meat industry. Interestingly, both scientists and CEOs agreed that, while the technological and scale-up challenges are substantial, they will be solved. One promising indicator is the dramatic reduction in production cost that has already occurred in the clean meat sector.
Much attention is now being paid to the acceptance problem: Will enough people be willing to eat non-animal meats? Research suggests that, once the taste, cost, and convenience are comparable to those of animal meat products, plant-based and cell-based meats will reach a tipping point of broad acceptance. In fact, conference panelists talked about opportunities to make alternative meats that are even more tasty, cheaper, and cleaner than their animal-based equivalents. Food scientists are continuing to develop exceptional flavor experiences with plant ingredients, and they’re hard at work on cultivating cell-based meat that has superior taste, texture, and nutritional qualities compared to animal meat.
One of the more unexpected attendees at the conference was Tom Mastrobuoni, CFO for Tyson Ventures, the corporate venture capital arm of Tyson Foods. Tyson is the largest animal meat processor in the U.S., yet recently they have invested in both Memphis Meats (a cell-based meat company) and Beyond Meat (a producer of plant-based meat products). Tom commented that Tyson sees clean meat as an opportunity for the company. As Tyson CEO Tom Hayes put it in a recent interview, “If we can grow meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we?”
In the closing session of the conference, Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown asked: “For those of you who eat meat, is part of the value proposition the fact that it comes from a dead animal?” He asserted that people eat animal meat despite its origin in the slaughterhouse, not because of it. He believes that people value food that is delicious, familiar, affordable, and convenient, and when alternative meats can deliver these things, we’ll see rapid progress towards a more sustainable and humane food system.