Are we ready for alternative meat? By “we”, I mean those of us who run livestock for meat production. Perhaps within 10 years, certainly within 20, we are not going to be the only ones in the animal protein game.
Plant-based products from companies like Beyond Meat are on the market, and are apparently quite tasty. Beyond Meat has a cast of athletes promoting the virtues of its vision for the “future of protein”.
But most humans love meat, the real thing, which is why livestock producers should be paying more attention to the “cultured meat” movement.
Cultured meat is meat grown in a laboratory from living cells. It sounds gross, and surveys show that most people currently think the whole thing sounds disgusting. But attitudes change.
In 1958, few people were thinking that in 70 years’ time most of the world would be wearing synthetic clothes derived from oil, and that the world’s use of wool would be reduced to a rounding error.
The first lab-grown burger pattie, eaten with fanfare in 2013, cost around AUD$400,000 and took two years to produce. But modern science moves at incredible speed. It’s forecast that a $10 cultured meat burger will be available by 2020 as researchers draw on developments in other fields to drive progress.
The science that will deliver cultured meat is in an ecosystem that includes the race to grow skin and organs as spare parts for humans, and the new gene-editing technologies that allow gene sequences to be changed quickly and cheaply.
As with the “functional” aspects of synthetic fibre, different qualities can be built into lab-grown meat - new tastes, more or less nutrients or health-related compounds.
There is also the promise of cultured meat being grown at a local level, similar to microbreweries, producing different meats for different tastes.
Good money is already being bet on cultured meat. Israeli company SuperMeat has collected US$3 million for its “clean meat” cultured chicken meat program.
Promoters of cultured meat reckon they will have a reasonably-priced, tasty burger pattie on the market by 2020. Us livestock producers may soon have to start looking hard at our future business case.
In a world where most commodity meat is grown in a lab, what happens to commodity livestock, like those raised on our rangelands? How do we sell secondary cuts?
When cultured meat is sold with huge variations in taste and style, what is the marketing proposition for animal meat?
I don’t think, as some have gleefully speculated, that cultured meat will eventually lead to the extinction of livestock farming.
If the technology takes off, it is probable that farmers will run fewer meat animals, but sell them for far higher prices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, for the farm environment or our bottom line.
But to stay relevant, we may have to re-think the business of livestock farming from top to bottom. I look forward to having those conversations in coming years.
Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.