PRICE will Trump all as the Synthetic Meat Train Leaves the Station....

 Cellular Agriculture / Clean Meat. Source: China Dialogue

Cellular Agriculture / Clean Meat. Source: China Dialogue

My commentary and insights into cellular agriculture (lab grown meat and animal products) and plant based proteins (PBP) and the existential threat these pose to conventional animal agriculture (US feedlots) and outdoor pastoral farming systems (like NZ) has, at times, not landed lightly. Particularly by those intimately involved in the primary industry sector (understandably, who wants to hear their very livelihood is at risk?!). But also everyday naysayers in denial that the animal meat they're eating may no longer be grown inside a living animal's body in years to come.

However, one can no longer deny - lest ignore - the threat of lab-grown meat, and all those subsidiary sectors it serves (feed suppliers, co product industries, slaughter houses, freezing works, animal transportation companies, animal pharma etc), no matter how intimately connected you are to the animal agriculture industry. Even if you're one of the lucky few in farming who excel at producing the world's most sustainably produced, ethically raised and free range animal proteins (like much of NZ).

Sure, cultured meat, seafood, eggs and milk et al. are not going to replace traditional, industrialised agriculture overnight - and there’s still a fair bit of progress to be made along the cellular agriculture production value chain before manufacturing can ramp up to feed the world en masse (read my latest print investigative story in the Technology Issue of Idealog and accompanying online series which features a comprehensive expose on this). But it's clear the cultured/synthetic meat and protein train has left the station, and at a speed, even we industry proponents weren't quite expecting.

Why? Because our modern food system is such a wildly flawed business model. Environmentally, ethically, socially AND economically. And one technology and synthetic biology are more than capable of disrupting, some would argue beneficially, on so many levels.

It isn't the purpose of this story to fastidiously dive deeply into all the arguments as to why cellular agriculture and lab grown meat is superior to conventional farming (though there are many!). However, for context's sake, just some of the benefits of harvesting animals cells without the animal include: ZERO animal slaughter, longer shelf life, the ability customise nutrition (i.e. protein / fat/ vitamins and minerals content), reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, water and inputs (crops etc) use, localised and transparent urban production, quicker time to market, and the elimination of salmonella, E. coli and other hideous health threatening bacteria (read more of my commentary on these hereand here).

Of all the benefits noted above, what will be the ultimate existential nail in the coffin for animal agriculture as cellular agriculture begins its ascent into this modern exponential era? PRICE. Plain and Simple.

The takeaway? Even if you couldn't care less about animal welfare (which you should!) there's a massive business case and market opportunity for those invested in disrupting the current ag model. And ultimately price savings for those who choose to eat clean meat. 

Yes, it is true that the first lab grown meat patty, produced by Mosa Meats in 2013 at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, cost a whopping $333,000. And Memphis Meats' (the next player entering the cultured meat market) meatball cost $1,000 ($18,000/lB) in 2016. Meaning lab meat is still very much way out of the price range for the average consumer -Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos even. But, much like the exponentially declining cost of genome sequencing and other technology curves (think Moore's Law), the cost of producing the cultured meat has plummeted dramatically over the past several years since these initial world first lab grown feats. And right on queue, it looks like cellular agriculture is bang on track to follow the tried and true exponential cost reduction curve - the ultimate sign of an industry about to be born (and by extension, the death of its respective incumbent).

 Clean Meat's historical and projected cost curve. Source: Rosie Bosworth 2017 (adapted from Memphis Meats projections)

Clean Meat's historical and projected cost curve. Source: Rosie Bosworth 2017 (adapted from Memphis Meats projections)

You need only look at the 330X dramatic price drop between Mosa Meat's $330,000 beef patty and Memphis Meats' $1,000 meatball a mere 2 years later to get a rough idea of the insanely steep decline in prices to come for cellular agricultural products.

But it doesn't stop there. Since the birth of Memphis Meats' cultured meatball, in April this year, the company has successfully honed its practice to produce a pound of textured chicken or duck breast for $9,000/lB via its multi meat technology platform (meaning the company will, over time, be able to harvest ANY animal cells and displace more than just cows and chickens).

That's less than half of what it cost to produce its first pound of beef meatball 12 odd months earlier in 2016 (which BTW was way already miles ahead in price efficiency compared to Mosa Meat's patty). One can only imagine the cost curves in the next 5 years when we have these as the front runners.

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Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats are both optimistic they will be able to match conventional farmed alternatives within 5 to 8 years (respectively). My rudimentary image shows this steep decline. Mosa Meats (the now laggard academic player) for example, announced in 2016 that the price of producing its burger meat has since fallen to around US$30 per pound, or $11 a burger, through further development of its process since its $330,000 launch.

And Memphis Meats (the now front runner honing the business model and economics) says it's on track for a target launch of its products to consumers in 2021 - at a price comparable or less to factory farmed meat (Ie Tyson) at Costco. 2c/gram or $2/kilo to be precise. That's more than half the price of today's most abhorrently vile factory farmed chicken found at supermarkets today!! Vivre the chickenless chicken future. And get this - in the time frame of a mere 4 cattle breeding cycles (@12months each) away!

What's more, a raft of other new cell ag start ups like Super Meats, Meat the Future and Finless Foods (a particular fave of mine!) to name a few have also entered the space, which will speed up the science and cost reduction curve even faster. This means when these companies iron out all key aspects of the cell ag value chain required to scale at large, like scaling cell media, meat scaffolding and mass fermentation (which doesn't seem to be a massive hurdle long term), they'll be able to reach price parity of conventionally farmed meat pretty quickly.

Meaning lab meat's route to price parity with conventional alternatives on the market will likely happen sooner than you thought possible (granted food based legislation doesn't hold it back), even if it is an expensive delicacy to the rare few right now. Not only that, price parity will only mark the beginning of success for cell ag companies.

Once these companies get started and reach some comparable level on price it will be a virtuous cycle of success and a vicious spiral of demise for conventional ag players. Ie: The more these companies produce, the more they will benefit from economies of scale. The more price competitive they become, the quicker the mainstream market acceptance and uptake for these alternatives will be. Driving demand up and price down even further.

Quick service restaurants like McDonald's, KFC, Burger King etc and food producers like Tyson and Cargill will promote their shift to clean meat as being driven by ethical, environmental and social reasons. But the very real reasons whetting their appetites will be the economics and profits made. You get the drift.

And at this point it's safe to say it may well be the end of the road for commodity factory farm producers and possibly a slow demise for pastoral farmers - no matter how superior (ethically, pastorally raised, environmentally or sustainable) their production method currently is today, unless they sell a damn good story. Prompting a rapid decline of the animal agricultural industry and all those operating within the system (feed suppliers, co product industries, slaughter houses, freezing works, animal transporation cos, animal pharma etc).

Others like Paul Cuatrecasas, CEO of Aquaa Partners, share similar predictions and sentiments.

"Cost will be a primary driver of consumer adoption. 
....When faced with the option between buying two types of meats: one that is cheaper, cleaner and more environmentally friendly, and the other – which is not – I cannot see traditional meat winning out long term. 

He goes onto say ....Of course, the cost of traditional meat may fall too. However, its price will always be held up by the fixed cost of land, feed, and water needed to raise livestock and poultry. Lab meat does not face the same obstacles. According to a joint study by the Universities of Oxford and Amsterdam, cultured meat uses 99% less land, emits 96% fewer greenhouse gases, consumes 96% less water, and demands 45% less energy."

Yes, questions are being raised about the ability for cellular agriculture to scale, the associated environmental toll of lab meat in itself when it does scale, and the regulatory hurdles ahead as it faces the ag mafia head on (read more here on this). But like any nascent industry, we are only in the early days and when you dive deeper into the science of cell ag, these (perceived) issues are certainly far less problematic than the layman think. OR if they are, they are certainly not insurmountable.

But at the end of the day, we can deny it all we like but all else being equal, cost trumps everything- and lab meat will be no different.