CLEANING OUR HANDS OF DIRTY FACTORY FARMING
The future of meat production is almost here
The hashtag ‘vegan’ has been used over 64 million times on public Instagram posts alone. Long gone are the days where identifying as vegan was associated with malnourished, tree-hugging, red paint-splashing protesters. Instead, clever marketing and increased consumer awareness has turned veganism into a multi-billion dollar industry over the past decade, one that extends beyond food and into make-up, clothing, toiletries and healthcare.
Nowadays, you'll be hardpressed to find a trendy cafe or restaurant that offers mushroom risotto as its sole vegan option. Veganism appeals to a generation of health and ethically conscious millennials, particularly in an era where self-identity is often expressed via and
(more importantly influenced by) social media. Celebrities, body builders, social media influencers and animal activists alike have all helped move plant-based diets beyond a health fad and into the mainstream.
However, I could never go vegan. Meat is still too cheap, convenient and delicious for me to completely give up, despite the countless documentaries I've watched and articles I've read exposing the inhumane, wasteful and environmentally unsustainable industry of modern day factory farming and animal agriculture. And I am not alone – global meat production has increased by 15% in the last ten years1 in response to both the growing world population and increased consumption of meat per capita, and there are no signs of this demand for meat waning.
It is clear that the current ways of producing meat and dairy products are unsustainable and inefficient. Twenty-six percent of Earth's habitable land is already used for livestock grazing, and a third of croplands are used to produce feed for livestock. 2
Furthermore, the calorie input to output ratio for meat production is an economist's nightmare; it takes 9 calories of feed to produce 1 calorie of chicken meat, and that ratio gets higher for pork and beef. The remaining 8 calories of feed is converted into energy required to keep the animal alive and produce feathers, bones and other internal organs not consumed by humans.3 How
As someone who has tried to go vegan, then vegetarian, then flexitarian, then ‘meatless Mondays', the potential for an ethical, sustainable, eco-friendly meat alternative seems like the only way.
I could never go vegan. Meat is still too cheap, convenient and delicious for me to completely give up, despite the countless documentaries I’ve watched.
are we are expected to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 using these existing methods?
When I first heard about clean meat, images of raw mince squashed inside a petri dish on a sterile laboratory bench didn't do much to stimulate my appetite. But as someone who has tried to go vegan, then vegetarian, then flexitarian, then attempted ‘meatless Mondays', the potential for an ethical, sustainable, eco-friendly meat
alternative seems like the only way I (and others like me) could reduce my ‘traditionally-produced' meat intake.
Clean meat is biologically and physiologically identical to traditional meat. You take a painless biopsy the size of a sesame seed from the muscle of any animal of your choice, then use techniques currently already used in regenerative medicine to replicate the muscle cells, fat cells, connective tissue, blood vessels and all other cell types found in meat. This one biopsy could potentially produce enough cells to make hamburger patties for an entire country's population, and then some.
This process requires 99% less land, 45% less energy, produces 96% less greenhouse gas emissions, and removes the need for slaughterhouses.4
Since the animals will no longer be packed to the rafters in faecal-filled sheds, foodborne illnesses, antibiotic use and drug-resistant microbes would also be reduced. Clean meat may also be healthier for our waistlines – manufacturers can control the amount of unhealthy saturated fats and cholesterol naturally found in meat, and either increase the amount of healthy unsaturated fats or add other types of healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acid found in fish and plants, into the meat.
We're not even limited to household meats – exotic meats such as shark, whale, zebra or dog (or mammoth and Tasmanian tiger for the more adventurous foodie) and even leather production are all possible with this new technology.
When the first clean meat patty was revealed in 2013 to a panel of food experts in London, it cost $325,000 to develop. In its current stage of development, it costs $11 to produce one burger, but is predicted to reach price parity with traditional minced meat by 2020. Healthy competition between several clean meat start-ups, investment from billionaires (such as Richard Branson and Bill Gates) and major food corporations (such as Tyson Foods and Cargill), and the natural reduction of costs once economies of scale are achieved, makes it easy to picture clean meat on supermarket shelves in the next few years.
So a future with clean meat appears more efficient, more ethical, healthier, and is soon to be even cheaper than traditional animal agriculture. However, public acceptance will be the biggest challenge for clean meat producers. Even if the technology is successful and the product is cost-competitive to traditional meat, clean meat will fail commercially unless it has a social license to operate.
Social Licence – the key ingredient
We've seen many cases where lifesaving medical research such as stem cell technology, vaccine development and embryonic genetic testing have struggled with public perception and understanding. People tend to be even more cynical and less willing to experiment with new technologies that tinker with one of our most basic instincts: eating.
Take genetically modified food for example; despite the great potential for disease-resistant, high-yield and highly nutritious crops to help solve the world food crisis, a recent survey on GMOS by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics
Exotic meats such as shark, whale, zebra or dog (or mammoth and Tasmanian tiger for the more adventurous foodie) and even leather production are all possible.
Last year the European Court of Justice ruled that only products made with real animal milk can be labelled as ‘milk’, ‘cream’ and ‘cheese’.
revealed that 82% of Americans support mandatory labelling of GMOS, and a worrying 80% support mandatory labelling of foods containing DNA5. The pervasiveness of public ignorance and misunderstanding poses a danger to the budding clean meat sector, so what should be done to avoid a PR disaster?
Strategic naming is one of the most important steps to creating a commercially viable product. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but it probably wouldn't sell as well. Consumers are more likely to purchase meat labelled ‘clean' over ‘safe', ‘pure', ‘cultured', or ‘meat 2.0', according to a survey run by the Good Food Institute.6 It is a reference to ‘clean energy', but also reminds the consumer that the manufacturing process is both sterile and ethical.
Other names seen on media headlines such as tissue-engineered, synthetic, lab-grown, in vitro and artificial meat conjure up images of mad scientists producing Frankenstein meat in bubbling beakers. In reality, clean meat will be produced in large vats called bioreactors, which are similar to fermenters in a beer brewery. Most processed foods, like potato chips and sauces, started off in a lab, yet no one would consider them as an artificial lab-produced food.
Talks on naming regulations for clean meat have already begun in the US. On June 12th this year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a public meeting on ‘Foods Produced Using Animal Cell Culture Technology' in Washington, D.C.7 While the primary subject of the meeting was food safety, naming of clean meat was recognised as the most crucial element in the market success of clean meat.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of opposition from those in the cattle industry, and naturally the first line of attack is aimed at product naming. The US Cattlemen's Association (USCA) filed a 15-page petition to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) this February asking to exclude clean meat from the definition of ‘beef' and ‘meat'. This proposition is rightfully intimidating to those in the clean meat industry, since the USCA have a disconcerting amount of political influence and lobbying power over the USDA.
It is currently not yet clear whether clean meat will be regulated by the FDA or the USDA, but it is important that the playing field is levelled and not dominated by policy makers who have interests in the factory farming industry.
Other countries have already seen the success of powerful players in the meat and dairy industry to dictate the rules for labelling vegetarian food alternatives. An amendment was passed on April 20th this year in France that prohibits foods containing a significant portion of plant-based material to be labelled with words that are synonymous with traditional animal products8. This ban affects food such as ‘tofu burgers, ‘soy sausages' and ‘cauliflower steaks'. However, the bill did not address clean meat, which technically is still derived from animals.
Additionally, last year the European Court of Justice ruled that only products made with real animal milk can be labelled with dairy-related terms such as ‘milk', ‘cream' and ‘cheese', with few exceptions such as coconut milk and peanut butter9. If clean meat does not win the legal rights to its name, there is little chance the product will be accepted by the public.
Meating the Challenge
But having the right name is only the first step. The clean meat industry needs to work together and spend big bucks on advertising to make sure the right image is portrayed to the world. There's no doubt investors in the factory farming industry will dedicate all their resources to create a compelling smear campaign attacking the science behind clean meat. We need only look at the resurgence of the anti-vaccine movement – which has demonstrably caused an increase in preventable deaths – to know how damaging these attacks can be.
Consumers suffer inertia – it takes a lot to shift consumer behaviour. Much like the RSPCA stamp of approval on free-range chicken, clean meat needs to be backed by trusted institutions, such as CSIRO and Greenpeace, and authority figures such as doctors and environmental scientists, who already have consumer trust.
Establishing product credibility is key – there's a reason why sports brands spend billions on athlete endorsements and sponsorships. Taglines such as ‘the meat that does no harm' or ‘meat without murder' has limited effect unless the words are coming from the mouths of legitimate spokespeople. Brand trust and endorser familiarity will help clean meat build the positive perception required to influence consumer behaviour and compel a nation to make the switch.
However, these endorsements must be genuine and evidence-based. The Heart Foundation Tick was the most recognised food logo in Australia and was successful in driving food companies to reformulate unhealthy processed foods and provide relevant nutritional information panel on their packaging; but the moment the Heart Foundation accepted a $300,000 annual fee from Mcdonalds in exchange for a Tick on food such as the filet-o-fish and chicken nuggets, the program was doomed.
This deal alone brought about its downfall and eventual retirement of the program in 2015. Clean meat has the potential to fall into the trap of losing consumer trust if claims for improving health or having a low carbon footprint are exaggerated or not backed by scientific data.
The Foundation moment the accepted Heart a $300,000 annual fee from Mcdonalds in exchange for a Tick on food such as the filet-o-fish and chicken nuggets, the program was doomed.
To ensure that consumers retain this trust, clean meat companies need to be transparent about production, policies and performance. Consumers expect this information to be freely available in plain language and want the opportunity to engage in discourse about them. At this stage of development, some clean meat research labs have even allowed the public into the lab to see the scientists in action.
Once the product approaches mass production, however, producers will have to consider how to balance this ‘open source' approach with the need to maintain a competitive advantage. It wouldn't be difficult to see clean meat factories giving free public tours of the facilities, much like those given at beer breweries and chocolate factories.
Considering that the factory farming industry is notorious for its transparency issues with the public (various laws are being considered in the US to prevent people from entering or recording slaughterhouses to document animal abuse and unsanitary practices), this aspect could give clean meat a huge competitive advantage over traditional meat producers.
The results of third-party audits should also be publicly available on company websites. This includes assessments of animal well-being and food safety practices. If regulations are violated, it is important that the steps taken to correct these violations are documented and released on the website.
It is crucial we begin serious discussions about the inevitable introduction of clean meat into the Australian market. The gross value of Australia's cattle is estimated at $12.7 billion, and we are currently the third largest beef exporter in the world.10
Like any other new technology, clean meat could disrupt our economy, which would not only affect cattle farmers but also other jobs in the meat supply chain such as feedlot workers, transporters, beef processors and butchers.
But considering Australia is already a world leader in stem cell research for regenerative medicine, there is a lot of potential for us to also become leaders in the clean meat industry. Creating this new market would not only diversify our meat economy but could also advance scientific techniques that might also be applicable in the regenerative medicine sector.
While there are a multitude of time-sensitive issues the clean meat industry must consider before releasing products in supermarkets, the potential for this to revolutionise the future for humans, animals and our planet is mind-boggling.
I'm optimistic that humans are more likely to transition to a clean meat diet, rather than an entirely plant-based diet, for the sake of our health and the environment. Hopefully in the near future, inefficient, cruel and unsustainable factory farming will be as obsolete as using horses for transport.
[ This] would not only diversify our meat economy but could also advance scientific techniques that might also be applicable in the regenerative medicine sector.