The future of clean meat: Why Impossible Foods’ move to DTC is just the beginning
If you’re searching for a reason to hope that the climate crisis won’t burn the whole world to a crisp, look no further than clean meat.
Clean meat, otherwise known as “cultured” or “lab-grown” meat, is meat that was grown from animal stem cells. Stem cells are harvested from the muscles of an animal and fed nutrients in an external environment, eventually growing into a full-sized hunk of edible flesh.
Clean meat isn’t vegetarian because it’s literally still meat—but it is cruelty-free and more environmentally friendly than factory farming. If we lived in a world where clean meat was the norm, the donor animal would contribute the stem cell and amble away unscathed, maybe into a nice patch of grass.
Here’s a quick explainer on the development process of clean meat:
Why clean meat is important for fighting climate change
You may live inside the confines of an urban, plant-based social bubble, but did you know global rates of meat consumption are actually going up, not down?
It’s true. World population has doubled since 1960, but our meat consumption has increased by 500% in that same time period. The United Nations is projecting that the demand for meat will only continue to rise as people in China and India begin to make more money (yay!) and start eating more meat as an indirect result (not-so-yay).
Even in the U.S., rates of vegetarianism have stalled between 2%–5% over the past 30 years. And if you are vegetarian or vegan, there’s an 84% chance you’ll go back to eating meat, most likely within a year.
We want meat. We love meat. Yet our current meat production processes are so environmentally destructive that we’ll likely look back on them the same way we look at, say, medieval bloodletting or burning coal (oops! we still burn coal…).
To give you an idea of how many resources it takes to produce one family chicken dinner, know that you’d save the same amount of water if you skipped six months of showers.
It takes 50 gallons of water to produce a single egg and 900 gallons for every one gallon of cow’s milk.
Animal agriculture is more destructive than all transportation methods combined. Factory farming produces 37% of the world’s methane emissions. Even though humans eat less than 10% of it, corn and soy take up more than a third of agricultural land in the U.S.—factory farm animals are gobbling it up instead.
And the thing is, we can look away from the environmental repercussions of animal protein consumption because we never need to face it.
It’s easy. Just sear each side 3-4 minutes until you see a brown crust.
When you can’t change behavior, change demand
People don’t change—but the market does.
In the book Clean Meat, Paul Shapiro tells a story about whale oil. Before the twentieth century, whale oil lit up the world, literally. Whale oil fueled lamps, then it was used as a mechanical lubricant to power the Industrial Revolution.
So you could say the whaling industry was important. The U.S. was particularly preoccupied with whaling, and New Bedford, Massachusetts became known as “The City That Lights the World.” During the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the British attacked whaling fleets as a strategic move to kneecap the American economy.
Some people were concerned about whale suffering, but their activism did little to change a whale’s plight. People needed light, and lamps needed whale oil. What could you do?
Turns out you could invent a better alternative: kerosene.
Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner commercialized kerosene in 1854 as a better, more affordable alternative to whale oil. Within 30 years, the whaling industry had shrunk by 95%.
The same set of circumstances applies to clean meat: People aren’t going to give up factory farmed meat until cultivated meat is widely available, convenient to buy, and cheaper than factory farmed meat.
The truth hurts: Consumers don’t care where their meat comes from. But in the end, that could work out in clean meat’s favor.
Impossible Foods vs. Beyond Meat: The DTC battle begins
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat don’t produce clean meat—both companies make damn good plant-based alternatives—but they may just be paving the way for the clean meat business model.
Last year during the pandemic, Impossible Foods launched their direct-to-consumer online store so that people could buy their burgers in bulk. Serving the vegetarian and “flexitarian” markets, Impossible Foods delivers within 48 hours with free shipping, promising compostable and recyclable packaging.
The move was a signal to Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods’ largest competitor. Lo and behold, just a couple months later, Beyond Meat announced they were launching their own ecommerce site, along with “UPS carbon neutral shipping”.
“I think it's a smart move that can help them see better margins,” says Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat. “They can charge similar prices as the grocery store, but without a middle person taking a cut. People in the space are excited about it.”
Why the DTC model is an important part of clean meat adoption
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are a test, and their success will indicate, in part, whether or not consumers will buy into a direct-to-consumer model for clean meat. But an important part of the movement to kill factory farming isn’t to think of the market as “plant-based vs. clean meat”—we’ll need both to be successful.
Paul Shapiro says pitting clean meat against plant-based isn’t the answer. “The problem of fossil fuels is so bad that you want lots of alternatives—wind, solar, geothermal, and more. The problem with factory farms is so bad that you want lots of alternatives, plant-based meat and clean meat.”
The DTC model may be a way to accelerate consumer demand for clean meat, in addition to grocery store and restaurant availability. As mentioned before, the adoption of new technology requires wide availability, convenience, and cost reduction.
If clean meat companies can sell directly to consumers, it may be the margin booster needed to make it profitable for the companies that are making headway—once they can clear a few hurdles, of course.
Overcoming hurdles for mainstream adoption of clean meat
Problems that once seemed insurmountable for cellular agriculture companies are slowly untangling. The barriers to widespread adoption are cracking, and many experts say it’s just a matter of time.
Here are some of cellular agriculture’s main problems—and their solutions.
Government regulation is slow and fractured
First, some great news: Singapore created the world’s first regulatory approval for clean meat, a potential model for other countries.
In December 2020, the Singapore government gave the go ahead to U.S.-based company Eat Just to sell its cultivated chicken to consumers. At first, people could buy Eat Just’s chicken nuggets in restaurants only, but the company has since partnered with Foodpanda Singapore to deliver three dishes to homes: katsu chicken curry, chicken coconut rice with pak choi, and chicken caesar salad with kale and a plant-based dressing.
So where does the U.S. stand with its own regulations?
“There's been a bit of a problem,” says Paul Shapiro, “which is that right now, foods that are the product of cell culture are regulated by FDA; however, meat is regulated by USDA. So what happens when you have meat that’s produced through cell culture?”
In 2018, the FDA and USDA issued a joint pronouncement about how they're going to jointly regulate cultivated meat. While movement after the announcement has been slow, Paul says companies are “bullish” on its outcomes: Upside Foods, Wildtype, and Blue Nalu are all building pilot plants that depend on a finalized regulatory framework.
Science is expensive—and clean meat is still more science than food
We’ve come a long way since the first cultivated burger. In 2013, Google co-founder Sergey Brin forked over $330,000 so that Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University could develop it.
Now the industry is estimating that clean meat will see price parity with factory farmed meat by 2030—but the price has already come down 80 fold, as announced by Mosa Meat. Still, cellular agriculture is science, and science is expensive.
“The biggest cost is what you feed your cells,” says Paul Shapiro. “The industry is using pharmaceutical-grade biomedical equipment, but it’s trying to lower costs by using food production equipment and processes instead.”
What’s in a name? Turns out, consumer acceptance
When cellular agriculture was in its early infancy, advocates were afraid people would be freaked out by it. But as it turns out, people are more open to the idea of eating cultivated meat than experts originally thought—it just depends on what you call it.
People in the industry run focus groups to test consumer attitudes toward clean meat, particularly terminology. “For example,” says Paul Shapiro, “if you call it ‘lab-grown meat’ fewer people want it—but if you call it ‘cultivated meat’ more people want it. There also seems to be a negative association with anything that uses the word ‘cell’, like ‘stem cell’. People don't want to eat cells, apparently!”
A recent study, however, found that “a majority of consumers would at least try cultured meat, and substantial portions say they would eat it regularly or as a replacement for conventional meat.” Consumer acceptance, with a little more education, may not be such a barrier for long.
Meat watch 2020s: Like the space race, but meat
The cellular agriculture industry is one of the most innovative spaces of our time. If you want to keep up with the race to widespread adoption of clean meat, here are some companies to follow:
Because Animals: Okay, so this is cat food—but it’s exciting because pet food doesn’t require the same regulatory approval as human food. If cultured pet treats could replace conventional pet treats, that would mean more than a quarter of the environmental impacts of the animal agriculture industry would be eliminated.
BlueNalu: As it turns out, cultivated fish is a lot cheaper to produce than beef. That’s because reactors need to be at the same body temperature of the donor animal—and cold blooded animals like fish are cheaper to “keep warm”.
Eat Just: The first cellular agriculture company to receive regulatory approval for home delivery of clean chicken. Check out their mung bean egg, which has almost the same amount of protein as a regular egg.
Tyson Ventures: The venture capital arm of Tyson Foods, which is leaning into the cultured meat space rather than running away from it. Turns out they want to be Canon, not Kodak.
Wildtype: The race is on against BlueNalu—select consumers can now tour Wildtype’s pilot plant in San Francisco, “where visitors will be able to taste Wildtype seafood at our very own sushi bar.”