The cultured meat industry needs its own Elon Musk

Published on October 5, 2021 by Sylvain Charlebois

Aleph Farms steakPhoto: Aleph Farms
Cultivated meat isn't just about a new way to make meat. It's a chance to reimagine how we enjoy it.

Leonardo DiCaprio has just used his A-list magic powers again by investing in two American cultured-meat startups, Aleph Farms and Mosa Meat.

This is the same actor who invested in a vegetable protein company before the plant-based phenomenon was a thing. Beyond Meat is now worth more than US$8 billion. DiCaprio saw it coming before the rest of us.

But the idea of replacing the livestock industry with labs, using animal cells, is simply mesmerizing.

It’s a fascinating concept: humanity would no longer need to raise livestock to enjoy animal protein. In just a few years, we could grow meat in labs – or our kitchens – in small stainless-steel bioreactors.

All the problems meat-packing plants faced during the pandemic, and meat recalls, could be things of the past. The idea of slaughtering animals could be seen as ancient and barbaric.

The pandemic has turned more than four million Canadians into new pet owners and pet ownership can change how humans feel we should treat animals. Slaughtering anything will become, for a growing number of consumers, repulsive.

As of last year, it’s legal to sell cultured chicken in Singapore. And many other countries are considering the idea. A McKinsey & Company report recently suggested that the global cultivated meat market could reach US$25 billion by 2030.

Forecasts also suggest the production price will drop significantly over the next nine years, from over $10,000 per pound today to about $2.50 per pound, a staggering 4,000-fold reduction.

For climate change advocates, this will be a godsend.

Cattle consume about 25 calories of plant material for every calorie of edible protein they produce. Even chickens, which offer the most efficient plant-to-meat ratio, will eat nine to 10 calories of food for every calorie of edible protein produced.

Cultured meat would offer a four-to-one ratio, more than half of what chickens require. Other comparisons aren’t even close.

Photo: Wikipedia
The world's first cultured hamburger being prepared at a news conference in August 2013. The cultured meat product was developed by a team of scientists from Maastricht University.

The Western world is slowly putting a price on carbon production, including Canada. So our new distribution and production economics will be the incentive for more sustainable production of animal proteins.

The science needs work, though. More than 100 research projects on cultured meat are being conducted around the world, funded by venture capitalists and philanthropists. Yet cultivated meat companies have repeatedly missed product launch deadlines.

Creating the right product is challenging for a variety of reasons.

Putting our environmental enthusiasm aside, shifting our collective attitude toward accepting cultured meat won’t be easy. Food is cultural and culinary traditions have given meat a privileged role over centuries, at least in the Western world. Allowing labs to replace farms won’t be a natural shift.

Most important, land occupancy will become a critical issue when converting to more lab-grown food. With fewer animals to feed, we must question how to use our farmland over time. More cultured meat in our diets may mean fewer farms and farmers, compromising our rural economy’s future prosperity.

That’s certainly a challenge, especially in Canada. Expect groups to push back, as we’ve seen with the plant-based movement.

Labelling will be another issue. The cost to produce cultured meat will eventually be lower than that of conventional meat. This could make animal proteins more affordable and if producers label them as such, consumers will have a choice.

As we’re seeing with genetically modified salmon in Canada (it’s 60 per cent cheaper to produce), consumers have no chance to see prices drop due to modern technologies. A case needs to be made for informing consumers at retail with proper labelling.

As we also saw with genetically modified salmon, grocers may publicly boycott the product but still carry it in other more processed forms. This is contemptuous and dishonest.

Cultured meat could change our relationship with animal proteins. But as with other disruptive, revolutionary technologies that assure the betterment of our planet, the change won’t come easily.

Elon Musk understood a long time ago that to give the electric car its proper due and push aside the powerful car dealership cartels, the influence of the oil industry and the incredible economic clout of auto manufacturers, he needed to build a case for the e-car with the consumer.

And he did. Musk became the communicator and dreamer the electric car needed and built an entire ecosystem to support an innovative technology.

Fifteen years ago, many of us considered Musk crazy but look at Tesla today. The company is worth more than US$700 billion. It’s just an incredible story.

If lab-grown food is ever to become a thing, the industry will need its own Elon Musk. That person might be Leonardo DiCaprio.

About the author

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.