Lab-grown meat companies are after a slice of the farm bill. In the words of Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrick, “Some country is going to decide to lead the way in creating alternative proteins and meat and eggs and dairy from plants and from precision fermentation and through cultivating cells…We need to ask ourselves whether we want to be buying food from some other country decades from now or would we rather just produce it ourselves.” In other words, it’s only prudent for the U.S. to commit to lab-grown meat, because someone is going to make it happen.
You will not be surprised to hear that I’m skeptical. The main reason is pragmatic. Though Tetrick portrays the arrival of lab-grown meat as inevitable, I remain unconvinced. There have been a number of recent reports highlighting the challenges of scaling lab grown meat, and while lab-grown meat companies are great at getting press — breaking ground on factories, getting on the menus of high-end restaurants — I have seen no recent claims that any of them have developed a process capable of cost-effective production.
When I look at lab-grown meat I don’t see an industry that is inevitably ascendent. Instead, I see an industry that is now a decade into trying and failing to develop a commercial product, despite receiving billions in private equity. If this is the case, then government funds will not ensure that America is the leader in lab-grown meat. Instead, it will be a transfer of money to doomed companies dedicated to a failed technology.
Reasons to doubt
The study linked above (here’s the link again) is interesting in that it attempts to quantify the environmental costs of producing lab grown meat at scale. The authors conclude that attempting to do this using existing technology would result in significantly greater environmental impact than conventionally raised beef.
If this proves to be true, it is further evidence that the lab-grown meat industry has a long way to go. But it’s important to extend the same skepticism to studies that confirm my beliefs as those that go against it, so I’ve attempted to look for limitations.
It’s hard to do so, because it’s a fairly technical paper, and I don’t have a deep enough understanding of the subject to assess the merits of the methodology. But from what I can glean, and based on the authors’ concluding remarks, the claims are somewhat less radical than they appear to be at first glance.
They argue that several critical hurdles should be overcome before anyone gets too excited about lab-grown meat. Specifically, they focus on producing the nutrients needed to culture cells, and the difficulties of adequately purifying the liquid by which those nutrients are delivered. The standard processes were developed for biomedical applications, which, unlike lab-grown meat, do not require massive volume or low cost.
But no one involved in lab grown meat that I’m aware of would claim that known technology could be effectively scaled; the whole point is to find a production system that is radically more efficient. The industry is hoping for breakthroughs similar to those in whole genome sequencing, the cost of which has fallen from roughly $1,000,000 in 2007 to about $600 today. So a study that confirms that it would indeed be a bad idea to try to replace conventional meat production with our current capabilities shouldn’t be surprise.
Still, it does point out the fundamental uncertainty. There is no reason to believe that lab grown meat is going to follow the development curve of gene sequencing rather than something like flying cars, which have supposedly been in the offing for literally my entire life, and which I never expect to be more than rare, expensive, impractical curiosities. There is no law of nature that says because something is technically possible, like growing animal cells in isolation, it will inevitably become economically practical. It may turn out that chickens and cows and pigs are better at making meat than bioreactors.
The farm bill is already bad, don’t make it worse
I have no illusions about the farm bill. It exists to support the industrial production of corn, soy, cotton, wheat, and rice. It is a supremely cynical piece of legislation, one that no one who does not directly benefit from it will defend. But it at least achieves its goals, as misguided as those happen to be. America does produce huge amounts of the big five crops, especially corn and soy. The subsidies distort the food system and promote the excessive production of unhealthy foods, which is terrible, but they at least work.
The farm bill is bad. But for some reason I’m even more offended by the idea of millions or billions of dollars going to companies that are producing nothing than I am at the thought of those same dollars going to produce industrial corn. It’s not rational — I could argue that wasting money on lab-grown meat companies would do less damaging to public health than successfully increasing the amount of corn and soy in the system — but it’s such a brazen grift that I feels like an insult to our collective intelligence.
At a minimum, lab-grown meat companies should prove that they have a clear path forward before they start getting in line for handouts.