Clean Meat vs. The Real Thing: It’s not really a fair fight

I’ve been following the buzz around “clean meat” for a few months.  If you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, “clean meat” refers to meat grown in a lab from actual muscle cells taken from a cow (or chicken or pig or wallaby or whatever).  I’ll refer to it as cellular agriculture (or cell ag for short) hereafter, because I don’t believe the meat we produce is dirty in the first place.  After hearing where cell ag is at now, and thinking through the possibilities of what could be, I truly believe it has the potential to cause major disruptions in the ag sector – beginning with those of us in the livestock business, but also impacting crop growers as well.

Ten years ago, the iPhone had been out for less than a year.  Most of us thought they sounded cool, but we’d never need one.  They were expensive, at least compared to my flip phone, and (at that time) didn’t have nearly as many useful functions as now.  Siri wasn’t a thing.  Ten years later, we can’t do without them.  They have allowed third-world nations to leapfrog over more primitive forms of technology.  They are cheap (well, maybe not iPhones, but smartphones in general), easy to use, are everywhere and connect to everything.  In less than 10 years.

I mention this only to remind you of how quickly technology improves and becomes indispensable and cheap.

I think cell ag has three huge advantages over natural meat production: consistency, modularity, and a short generation turnover.

Consistency.  With cell ag, they have infinitely more control over the environment those cells grow in than I do on the ranch.  I’m dealing with a diverse ecosystem, complete with interactions from a variety of plants, other animals, and the always-unpredictable South Dakota weather.  They have a lab.  Additionally, cell ag can basically replicate the same cells over and over again.  They have control on the cellular level, being able to pick the specific genes they want to propagate.  I, on the other hand, have to deal with an entire animal.  Whose genes might not match up with its’ mate the same way every time.  Even if my cattle are extremely inbred (which is not economically or biologically feasible) they would still have more variation than lab-grown meat.

Modularity.  I have to grow an entire 1400 lb critter to make a steak.  That means there’s probably 1350 lbs of “not steak” as well.  Cell ag could potentially make exactly the amount of steak, or roasts, or tongues, or whatever, that the market is asking for.  There’s no having to “get rid” of certain unusable or unwanted parts of the animal.  Also, since a single product is being created with cell ag, there is no multi-trait selection to mess with.  When I’m selecting genetics, I need to consider far more than just the eating experience; I’m needing maternal traits, docility, good mobility, proper skeletal structure, hair coat, the list goes on.  The more traits selected for, the slower progress becomes in any one category.   Cell ag doesn’t have that burden.

Along with this, with cell ag they can potentially create the exact quality in demand as well.  All it takes is one cell to start with, and they could crank out 100% USDA Prime beef every time.  Or, if lean beef is in demand, they could do that next time.  Want to add a certain flavor?  That could be baked in as well.  The possibilities are only limited by the consumers’ imagination.

Short generation turnover.   The 1400 lb finished steer we got those steaks from a couple paragraphs earlier didn’t happen overnight.  He was conceived almost 25 months ago.   The data points I collect from him and his siblings will inform breeding decisions for next year, but those progeny won’t be harvested until at least 30 months from now.  It’s a terribly long process.  I don’t know exactly how long it takes to grow these cells in a lab, but I am quite sure it is not measured in years.  If something needs changing, they can adapt so much faster than I can with live animals.

 

I’ve got more thoughts on this topic, but I’ll save them for another post.  So much is unknown at this point, but when “clean meat” hits the market (supposedly in late 2018) we’ll likely know more about how the consumer reacts.  I believe they will accept it, especially as it improves in quality, choices, and value.

If you’d like to hear an actual intelligent conversation about cellular agriculture from some guys who are involved in the cattle business, check out the Working Cows Podcast Episode 42.

It’s not a level playing field.  But that’s the nature of disruptive technology.  We best start preparing for that very possible outcome.

 

 

Treating problems, not symptoms

I read an advertisement recently for a herbicide for controlling weeds in a pasture.  It touted the increased grass production to be gained by using the herbicide on your pastures, and presented the data to back it up.

I don’t doubt their findings, but I disagree with the conclusion.

First, no mention was made of any other management changes.  The question needs to be asked, “why were there weeds to begin with?”  Perhaps the management that resulted in the weed invasion ought to be changed first.  Perhaps the product being advertised could be of some temporary assistance, but in the long run a change of management is the only cure.

Second, what are weeds anyway?  Did anyone tell the livestock they are weeds?  Might there be some lemonade potential in them there lemons?  This is something that goes through my mind frequently when I see “less desirable” plants.   Goats and sheep are well-known for having a different diet than cattle – perhaps adding a different type of livestock could turn the weed into an asset.  If that doesn’t sound appealing, Kathy Voth has a training program for teaching your cattle to eat all sorts of stuff.   We’ve given it a try with some success.

We’re not completely against using herbicides around our place.  In fact, we have used the actual product in the advertisement, in specific places and for specific reasons.  However, we understand quite well there are other tools we can use to reduce or eliminate the need to reach for the jug.

Now, if I could just find someone to run a goat enterprise for me….

Week One: Making Sense of the Louisiana Purchase

Tuesday, May 16 2017, It was my first full day of work as the new intern here at Rock Hills Ranch. Gray puffy clouds filled the vast prairie sky as I waited to witness the hidden South Dakota sunset for the second time. The bitter 40 degree winds bit at my shivering skin while it rolled across the green hills of the pasture. My head was hung. I stared at the ground watching my faithful cowboy boots take each step across the dark clay soil. Perhaps, the only things that reminded me of my Virginia home were the black-hided cattle tending to their new spring-born calves. Luke and I were conversing as we walked toward the newest addition to the ranch with intentions of tagging its ear. The conversation died in a split instant, along with any sense of security I had previously possessed, when my ears intercepted an alarming noise. “WOAH!!!,” Luke shouted. Without delay, my eyes rose from the fertile ground to see cow Y170 charging right at us. I quickly ran for my life as I sought the shelter of the Honda Pioneer. Terrorized and afraid, I hid behind the ATV. Luke however, had a much different reaction. After the initial fleeing, he handled the situation with experience and composure. The mother was calmed, the calf tagged, and the day went on. On the way back to the barn, I found new insight into American history as I thought, “No wonder France sold this land to Jefferson for so cheap. The weather is frigid, the wind never rests, and even the cattle are mean.” What a welcome to the West.

My name is Tucker Wyatt. I am a 19 year old full-time college student from the college town of Harrisonburg, Virginia. I enjoy hiking, fishing, kayaking, the MLB, the NFL, and writing country music with my best friend, Megan (yes, she is a guitar). I am the second oldest of six kids; Anna (20), myself (19), Jane (17), Lizzy (13), Kitty (11), and Bridget (7). No, your eyes are not deceiving you. I am the only boy with five sisters. Even our family dog is a female. My father, Bill, is the Director of Communications and University Spokesperson for James Madison University (Go Dukes!) and my mother Carey is a stay-at-home mom. We’re a loud and rowdy crew and I miss them already. Just a few short weeks ago, I graduated with my Associate’s Degree from Virginia Tech in Applied Agricultural Management with a concentration in Agribusiness. (LET’S GO, HOKIES!) After my time here at Rock Hills, I will be pursuing my Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Economics as a cadet at Virginia Military Institute. Upon my graduation from VMI, I aim to pursue my juris doctor in the hopes of one day getting involved with ag law and policy.

I spent the early years of my childhood in Glen Burnie, Maryland which is a suburb just south of Baltimore. So how does a kid from the big city end up working cattle on a ranch in South Dakota? Well, in short, he found his passion. Agriculture. As you might imagine, my pursuit of finding my place in the agricultural industry is quite different than most. When I first moved down to Rockingham County, two days after my 10th birthday, I was not a fan of the rural character of the “friendly city.” Slowly but surely however, thanks to the influence of my dearest friends, I found myself adopting more Virginian habits such as hunting, fishing, and listening to country music. By the time I got to Harrisonburg High School I was a natural want-to-be country boy who was only concerned at the time with a girlfriend, Toyota pickup truck, and playing baseball and football. During my junior year in the Governor’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Academy, my Honors Geoscience instructor told me that she knew of a job where I could make $40 dollars for each 2-hour shift I worked. With gas prices around $3.00 per gallon, I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the shifts would consist of milking cows or even that each shift started at either 3 am or 3 pm. While the initial adjustment to the job was rough to say the least, over time I began to take pride in playing my role in providing our region with nutritious dairy products. During the next several months, I became fascinated with the question, “How do so many people get fed by so few farmers and ranchers?” That very question led me to pursue my degree in agriculture from Virginia Tech. During my time there, I not only pursued ag in the classroom but also in extra curriculars. I pledged Alpha Zeta which is a professional honors fraternity for students studying agriculture and natural resources as well as the Collegiate Beef Leadership Council of Virginia Tech. I have learned so much through these organizations and the college itself and I am proud to call myself an advocate for our industry.

But why a ranch internship in South Dakota? Well, during my studies, I have developed a particular interest in beef cattle. Not only am I infatuated with a well-marbled steak and cowboy culture, but I really appreciate that the beef industry has remained largely in the hands of family operations compared to a world of other ag industries that seems to be gravitating toward consolidation and large corporate ownership. When I was applying for summer internships, I was hoping that I would find one that would help me gain valuable insight and knowledge that would assist me in becoming a better advocate for the industry and its operators as I pursue my ambitions of public policy and ag law. Although I have only been here for a short time, there is no doubt in my mind that I am in the right place. The Perman family is not only a proactive member and advocate of the beef industry but they are fountains of knowledge concerning production, marketing, and current issues facing the beef community. I have learned so much already and look forward to working for some of the best in the business this summer. Thanks for taking the time to read my first post and I look forward to keeping you posted as the summer goes on!