Guest essay by Eric Worrall
If Silicon Valley green tech giants have their way, real meat will become an unaffordable carbon taxed luxury item eaten by the very rich. The rest of us will have to eat “meatless meat” – meat flavoured mashed vegetables and lab grown tissue cultures.
Silicon Valley and the Search for Meatless Meat
By BETH KOWITT
December 19, 2017
In August one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups closed a $17 million round of funding. The Series A had attracted some of the biggest names in tech. “I got closed out because of Richard Branson and Bill Gates,” bemoaned Jody Rasch, the managing trustee of an angel fund that wasn’t able to buy in. Venture capital firm DFJ—which has backed the likes of Tesla and SpaceX—led the round, with one of its then-partners calling the nascent company’s work an “enormous technological shift.”
The cutting-edge product the startup was trying to develop? Meat—the food whose more than $200 billion in U.S. sales has come to be the defining element of the Western diet. But what made this company’s work so revolutionary was not what it was trying to make so much as how it was attempting to do it. Memphis Meats, the brainchild that had the startup-investor class salivating, was aiming to remove animals from the process of meat production altogether.
It’s the type of world-saving vision that has oft captured the imagination of Silicon Valley—the kind of entrenched problem that technologists believe only technology can solve: feeding a fast-growing, protein-hungry global population in a way that doesn’t blow up the planet. Conjuring up meat without livestock—whose emissions are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases—is core to that effort. Just listen to how the progenitor of Googleyness itself describes the prospect of animal-free meat: “It has the capability to transform how we view our world,” Google cofounder Sergey Brin has said. “I like to look at technology opportunities where the technology seems like it’s on the cusp of viability, and if it succeeds there, it can be really transformative.”
As a sign of the market’s potential, alternative meat producers point to the explosive growth plant-based milk has made in the dairy aisle, now capturing almost 10% of U.S. retail sales by volume. “I want to be able to say you don’t have to make a choice in what you’re eating,” Memphis CEO and cofounder Uma Valeti says, “but you can make a choice on the process of how it goes to the table.”
Hoping to make that choice easier, the new agripreneurs are tackling semantics first—redefining what “meat” means. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown says he’d like to get people to think about meat “in terms of its composition” rather than its origin. The reframing isn’t just an epistemological one, but also a scientific one, reducing meat to its molecules.
That won’t be an easy sell, and the movement has its detractors—some of whom seem miffed by the notion that anyone would try to mess with Mother Nature. “They want to make up their own dictionary version of what meat is, and these are people who do not eat meat,” says Suzanne Strassburger, whose family has been in the meat business for more than 150 years. “The real question is, are they feeding people or are they feeding egos.”
There will be a market for this product. While I understand some people drink soy milk because of allergies or cost, many of those 10% of people who drink Soy milk do so for idealogical reasons – they also try to avoid other cattle products, buying veggie burgers and suchlike, and will likely be ready in many cases to buy lab grown cultured meat (guaranteed cruelty free).
For people who genuinely can’t afford meat at current prices, a cheap substitute which helped them and their children get the protein they require wouldn’t be a bad thing – though cutting red tape to help reduce the cost of real meat would likely achieve the same goal.
I doubt most of the remaining 90% of us would willingly embrace highly processed artificial meat tasting substitutes when we can buy the real thing.
Discouraging ordinary people from buying real meat will have to be a business goal of these high tech entrepreneurs. No doubt they would justify such efforts in terms of saving the planet from climate change.
It is easy to see how discouraging real meat consumption could happen – advertisements flooding the airwaves with messages emphasising the “cruelty” of cattle farming, adding Vegan messages to elementary school lessons, imposing carbon taxes and animal welfare regulations to make cattle farming impossibly expensive, lots of donated cash for politicians who pass laws which favour well funded artificial meat producers. Though I suspect real meat would still be available at climate conferences and UN events, at least for important attendees.
Coming soon to a supermarket shelf near you.