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3D Printed Food: In Defense of Ethical Meat

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In Florida and Alabama, politicians have banned lab-grown meat. Ethical meat is an industry in its infancy, yet it is already banned. Lab-grown meat, in my opinion, should not be banned. Moreover, banning it may not help the traditional meat industry at all. As we can see in this article, looking at a decade of progress, things are slow-going and likely to stay that way.

The Meat Industry

SHMeat alternative beef steak meat. Image courtesy of Steakholder Foods.

Meat prices in the US have gone up 7% in the last year, and ground beef prices have increased fourfold since 1995. The US sold 1.2 million tonnes of beef overseas and imported 1 million tonnes. Beef alone is a $143 billion industry, with around 28 billion pounds consumed each year, while the US slaughters around 34 million cows annually. Beef is an important industry, and the association of steak with good times and Americana runs deep. The total meat processing industry is a $227 billion industry that produces up to $30 billion in exports.

The meat industry has historically had a disproportionate level of influence. Increased lobbying activity targets “lab-grown meat” and the few startups trying to make more ethical or sustainable meat products. Around 75% of all agricultural land is used for meat and livestock. In total, “livestock grazing and feed production use 27%” of the planet’s landmass. With over a quarter of the world’s land being used for producing meat, even more might be allocated for it in the future. As societies become richer, meat consumption explodes, a trend seen repeatedly worldwide. At the same time, concerns about the climate are also growing globally.

Will societies decide to reduce emissions or use more of their emissions quota for building houses versus raising livestock? These are decisions that will need to be discussed globally. The meat industry isn’t waiting around and has started positioning meat as a human right. Meat products, especially those like steak and bacon, are beloved by millions worldwide. People crave meat and eat it at many, if not almost every, meal. The force of habit around meat and the desire for it are not likely to abate.

According to the OECD and FAO, ¨Growth in global consumption of meat proteins over the next decade is projected to increase by 14% by 2030 compared to the base period average of 2018-2020, driven largely by income and population growth. Protein availability from beef, pork, poultry, and sheep meat is projected to grow 5.9%, 13.1%, 17.8% and 15.7% respectively by 2030. In high income countries, however, changes in consumer preferences, ageing, and slower growing populations will lead to a levelling off in per capita meat consumption and a move towards the consumption of higher valued meat cuts.¨

A 14% growth seems particularly healthy, but the trend towards more vegetable eating and a reduction in meat consumption will happen in rich countries. Older people tend to eat less, and a large generation is steadily aging. Meanwhile, younger generations are more likely to be vegetarian or opt for a few vegetable-centric meals every week. However, if you’re a cattle slaughtering company in Belgium or Canada, you might look at your shrinking local market and feel worried. Meat inevitably seems to be transitioning into a delicacy. No longer will everyone opt to put minced meat in every meal. Instead, they might have a steak once a week. This could be concerning for businesses. Any businessperson would, of course, diversify or move towards making alternatives to meats. The meat industry, instead, finds it cheaper to fire up its lobbyists and get them to ban alternatives. It is important to note that the meat industry is not fighting for survival here; it’s just cheaper to lobby rather than invest.

Ethical Meat

People trying the cell-based chicken dishes at The Chicken.

Anyone can try SuperMeat’s cell-based chicken at The Chicken. Image courtesy of SuperMeat.

Ethical meat is a category of meat products that use the cells of one animal to create more meat, mix meat products with tissue from fungi, 3D print cells, or create the sensations of meat through other means to achieve products whose taste and experience match or exceed that of traditional meat. These products do not directly kill or kill far fewer animals while using significantly fewer of the world’s resources. Ethical meat is a choice for those who care about the planet or wish to enjoy meat while consuming fewer fats or harmful substances.

Unlike traditional meat made through the killing of animals, ethical meat must be more sustainable and will probably also be lower in cost to the consumer while being higher in margin for the producer. When put this way, you can see the emerging threat. The obvious response when someone is entering your market with a lower-cost, more profitable product is to make that product yourself.

Ethical meat, at this stage, is quite expensive to make. Indeed, precious little effort is being used to scale this industry, and growth media remain too costly. It’s a curiosity for now, with the volume literally only in a few kilos worldwide. Banning this seems rather silly given the low volume. Additionally, given the reduced success of Oatly and Beyond Meat, it is difficult to build a sustainable meat or dairy alternative business. In the case of oat milk and vegetable burgers, these products are much less expensive than 3D-printed meat would be. So, the ethical meat industry is unlikely to succeed at any rate.

Meat a Luxury

At the same time, meat prices are destined to rise as the costs of water, energy, land, and labor increase. Steak and other choice cuts are already moving from stable to luxury in the minds of many people. This trend is set to continue and cannot be reversed. For many, meat will become something reserved for birthdays or Fridays, not an everyday staple. Ethical meat is unlikely to match even these high costs, especially not this decade. Therefore, ethical meat is unlikely to cost meat producers any real market share.

Instead, meat producers should focus on reducing their costs and making their business more efficient and sustainable. This would do more to shore up their balance sheets and give them a solid footing for the future. Establishing local and luxury brands around meat and moving into end products like sausages will also yield more profit. For example, Spanish sausage and ham producer Joselito regularly sells its products directly to consumers for over $100 a kilo. However, precious little effort in branding and development is put into US-based sausages. It would be valuable to make the best burgers, bacon, or other products in any given state, let alone in the US as a whole.

The meat industry should move into branding, products, and luxury experiences rather than bashing a young upstart industry that is unlikely to alter its bottom line any time soon. New products and new paths to market are a surer path to continued success. Even if lobbying and marketing efforts extinguish the ethical meat industry altogether, the traditional meat industry will still suffer from declining economics. The meat industry should focus on building a future for itself. Simply badmouthing another industry will do nothing for its own future.

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