I’ve written about the topic of lab grown meat here, here, and here. But some new reporting really nails down important points about the scam that is afoot. It’s a long article, but worth reading over at The Counter if you can spare some time.
I think the article does an outstanding job unpacking such a complex topic. My only gripe is that I wish the author would have taken a moment to consider grass fed beef instead of painting all beef with the ecological problems associated with grain fed beef. But many people share that big blindspot when it comes to beef. I’m not surprised to encounter that mistake.
What follows is my synthesis of the article and some thoughts on the situation.
Big Shiny Mess
Investors and all their influencers-for-hire have been telling us to look at this big shiny new thing. They’ll save this world with lab grown meat. It’s coming. Soon. It’s right around the corner. Wait for it. Any minute now…
But they can’t make it work at any kind of realistic scale. The scheme totters on a base of faulty assumptions, fraudulent data, and flights of fancy.
They don’t have solutions for overcoming basic thermodynamics or basic economics. No, they can’t address the supply side of how they’ll feed all these fermentation tanks with inputs, nor can they explain how they’ll adequately deal with all the waste material they produce. There are no designs for large scale system that can keep the meat cultures from infection by bacteria or viruses.
The production facilities will require laboratory-grade factories larger, more complicated, and more expensive than the combined total of all pharmaceutical production in the entire world, and even that would only offset a tiny fraction of the world’s meat. But how will they build pharma-grade factories if they also need to work at food-grade profit margins? And then there’s the problem that nobody has ever designed fermentation and reactor systems that output at anywhere near the scale proposed.
Besides all the well-documented objections in the article, I’d also like to add one not addressed: vulnerabilities. Concentrating food production into these complicated production hubs creates new vulnerabilities. Whether we’re considering outages due to hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemics, grid shutdowns, hacking, bioterrorism, or global supply chain disruptions for key inputs, shutdowns and production bottlenecks at these food factories will create never-before-seen levels of food uncertainty. Increased complexity and consolidation exacerbates the potential for havoc when critical links fail.
Anywhere we look for the solutions that will enable the large-scale production of lab grown meat, we find unsubstantiated handwaving. Don’t worry, we’ve got an imminent solution for the problem. Trust us. Just keep on investing in the next tranche of capital.
Emperors and Their Clothes
Here are some salient quotes from the article:
- “And it’s a fractal no,” he told me. “You see the big no, but every big no is made up of a hundred little nos.”
- “Rather than disrupt the existing paradigm for food production, or help incentivize a pivot to a more dynamic, diversified agriculture, cultured meat fed on soy protein might only further lock us in.”
- “Cultivated meat won’t be economically viable until companies can make cells grow beyond certain widely recognized biological limits.”
- “To me this sounds like the story of the Emperor’s Clothes,” he wrote, in an email. “It’s a fable driven by hope, not science, and when the investors finally realise this the market will collapse.”
- On the problem of maintaining the necessary sterility at the production scale needed: “It’s never been done because you can’t. You’re just going to be producing vats of contaminated meat over and over again.”
- “I’ve got nothing against it, but don’t pretend it’s going to solve world food. That’s the thing I find most offensive.”
- “It is a zero-sum game, to a certain extent,” he said. Money we spend chasing cultured meat is money we can’t use on converting coal plants to biomass, or scaling solar and wind, or modernizing concrete and steel.
Making the Flashy Choice, Missing the Point
Lab grown meat is an unproductive distraction. It is diverting critical investments into a boondoggle and, more importantly, it is diverting our attention from real food and farming solutions.
We should be focusing intensely on cleaning up our methods of producing food and breaking free from the entrenched corporate interests that lock us in to this dysfunctional system. Food production is broken. And this isn’t just about meat. The problems in conventional food production are equally atrocious across the spectrum of farming: vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts all trail devastation in their wake.
Doing the Good Work
Instead of chasing delusions, let’s do the work in front of us. We have good solutions that address fundamental food problems. These solutions are old fashioned and uncomplicated, but they don’t appeal to venture capital investors. They are not patentable. There is no money to be made from their intellectual property rights. The slow work of building soil doesn’t show double digit annual ROI.
Regenerative, organic farming works from the bottom up, from the vision and sweat of people intimately connected with their land, their plants, and their animals. Silicon Valley culture, venture capital investors, synthesized food advocates, entrenched corporations within the food system, and government regulatory bodies all insist on solutions from the top down. They just can’t, or won’t, comprehend what transformative, durable farming is all about.
We already know what we should be doing to produce our food in a way that builds up our soils, sequesters our carbon, enhances our plant and animal diversity, recycles our water, cleans our air, and nourishes our bodies. We can do this in a way that involves more people in the process so more of us share a stake in the outcomes. We know how to do this. It is hard work, but the work works.
Some of us are at this task right now. Let’s all get on with it!