Clean meat: Part 2

I didn’t realize it, but over 11 months has passed since my first post about lab-grown meat. I said I had more thoughts on the topic, and although tardy, I’m finally getting around to sharing them.

DC needs to do something about this.

Who’s going to eat that crap? Real beef that’s what’s for dinner

When they all end up with cancer everywhere they will blame it on the beef, not the chemical they ingested that were created in a lab. Some people fall for the latest trend everytime and they are counting on that. When everyone figures out it is poison they will have made their money and on to the next thing. Stupid is as Stupid does….

These comments (which are definitely not mine) were all in response to an article in my Facebook feed about Cargill investing in an alternative protein facility. I’ve read many other comments by people in the cattle business, and most fall into one of these categories:

  • It is gross. No way it could ever taste as good as real beef.
  • It’s a fad. Look at margarine, it didn’t last.
  • It (contains GMOs/made in a lab/not natural/has an ingredient list like dog food) and consumers don’t want that stuff, so it won’t catch on.
  • It’s not actually good for the environment because of the ingredients aren’t sustainable.

I’ll address each of these and why I think they are wrong…or maybe right.

It’s gross. Yeah, it might be. But if you have convinced yourself it’s better, it’s going to taste better. If you feel like you’re saving the planet and keeping animals from suffering, and those are your values, you’ll give up a little in the way of eating experience in order to live out your values. Now, what if it ISN’T gross? As I said in my first post, they’re going to figure that part out. No doubt in my mind. Also, have you tasted ground beef from the supermarket? It isn’t wonderful. I’m spoiled because we pretty much only eat our home-raised stuff, which is absolutely wonderful. For most consumers, I’m afraid we’ve set the bar pretty low.

It’s a fad. Yeah, maybe. Margarine was, I’ll give you that. But it was fake butter. At least some of these products are actual muscle cells but are grown in a lab. So, not really fake. A closer analogy would be hydroponic tomatoes. They’re still tomatoes, but grown without soil and with artificial light. This alternative meat movement does feel like a fad to me. It speaks to people’s values and has the potential to be a better product. It’s not a health thing, at least not at this point. Health trends change like the wind. Cultural values and spending habits are much slower to change.

The ingredients aren’t acceptable to consumers. This is complicated, so bear with me.

Let’s look at GMOs. Why are many consumers anti-GMO? I believe it’s because those technologies were never marketed to them. It was marketed to farmers. GMOs addressed farmers’ challenges and concerns: yield, work load, input costs, weed control, etc.

Consumers don’t care about any of that. The first ideas many consumers ever heard about GMOs were negative, and thus Monsanto has been playing defense ever since. The battle was largely lost before it even began. They want to feel good about what they eat. Given the choice, consumers want their food choices to have benefits beyond their health. When they believe cattle are ruining the earth, and killing animals to eat them is morally wrong, and suddenly a product comes on the market that addresses both of those concerns but still tastes reasonably (or remarkably) good, it’s a no-brainer. They will overlook the ingredients, even if it reads the same as what they are feeding the dog. As the average consumer gets further removed from the farm, they become less and less comfortable with the concept of animal agriculture in general, and animal suffering specifically. I think this will be the biggest advantage these alternative proteins have over the real thing – “no animals were harmed during the creation of this cheeseburger.” For people like me who grew up with the “circle of life” on the ranch, which includes inevitable death, we learn to accept how nature works. That just isn’t the case for most people these days.

Along with this angle, I’ll include the labeling laws. I think it’s a waste of time to argue about whether or not it can be called “meat.” Do you suppose the carriage makers petitioned the government to force Henry Ford to call it an “automobile” rather than a horseless carriage? More importantly, would it have mattered? Of course not. You could have called it whatever you wanted, the result would have been the same.

It’s not actually that good for the environment. This one actually might have some traction. It’s a classic case of “it depends.” Conventionally-grown soybeans on highly erodible soils, or cattle grazed in a responsible manner in the Northern Great Plains? I’ll take the cattle for positive environmental impact. Clearing the Amazon to raise cattle vs. soybeans grown using regenerative practices and a diverse crop rotation? Soybeans for the win. The reductionist mentality that A is always better than B does not fit in the how-we-grow-food conversation.

The environmental angle is the one we need to get right in the beef sector. I think it is really our only hope of survival. Too many producers don’t understand the tremendous value that grazing ruminants bring to the environment. And, we need to come to grips with the fact that some environments probably shouldn’t have cattle in them, and some methods of production aren’t environmentally sound. We can’t continue to defend all forms and practices of beef production and still maintain credibility.

Beyond Meat had it’s IPO on May 2, with stock trading at 65.75. It peaked July 26 at 234.90, over triple in price. It’s still trading at about 160 as of this post. Apparently some people think it’s a good enough idea to throw money at. I had an inclination to buy some stock when it hit the market, as a hedge against what I fear may come to pass. Turns out it wouldn’t have been a terrible idea.

There isn’t a lot of love for alternative proteins among people in the cattle business. Many just can’t fathom why anyone would want to eat anything but real beef. Their response reminds me of another quote:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

I am afraid we’re past the first two, and well into the third stage. Where will we go from here?

What makes US beef special?

Last week I received an email from the head chef at Keen’s, an award-winning NYC steakhouse, with the following question:  What makes US beef special?  He is going to Japan in May to speak at a New York foods festival and will be speaking on this topic, and wondered how I would answer.  Below is my reply:

I’ve thought about your question the past few days, and while I didn’t have any grand epiphanies over the weekend, I’ll share what came to mind.
For me the first thing that comes to my mind, because it is our passion, is the integral part of cattle on the landscape.  North America is home to some of the world’s largest intact grasslands, which play key roles in air & water quality, plant and animal species diversity, and climate change mitigation.  The prairie was developed with bison and elk as a keystone species, and now cattle perform the function of the large ruminant herbivore.  The US beef industry’s foundation is these grasslands.  We have the ability to raise cattle, not in spite of, but in cooperation with a very important ecosystem.  Grazing lands are not a single-use resource, only providing food for humans via beef.  It provides a whole host of ecosystem services, something even a vegan can appreciate.  Even better, this is a regenerative system.  Cattle grazing, done properly, takes nothing away from the resource.  There are very few industries that can make that claim.
US farmers and ranchers have been ahead of the curve in adopting technology to improve the entire production cycle.  From genetic selection, to feed efficiency, to environmental impact, to food safety, we have the most advanced systems in place of any nation in the world.  This makes our beef more predictable, more safe, better quality (with all due respect to Kobe), and more economical than many competitors.  The processors and distribution networks also have very high standards and employ technology to ensure food safety all the way to the consumer.
There are some structural advantages we have as well.  With diverse climate and geography, the US can grow a lot of different things.  Our transportation network means we can move things (cattle and feed) to the appropriate places.  The cattle industry is integrated with other food and fuel systems, utilizing byproducts from the ethanol, soybean, potato, and sugar beet industries, among others.  The US farmers’ incredible ability to grow corn means we can finish as many cattle as we want on a very consistent and predictable feedstuff.  This lends itself to managing cattle flow out of feed yards, providing the processors and then consumers with a steady supply.  It also provides a more predictable finished product than using forage alone.  That said, we have the forage resources to finish cattle to fit grass-fed markets as well.  No matter the consumer preference, the US beef industry has the resource base to provide the eating experience desired.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the people who care for the cattle.  I guess I can’t speak to the traditions and values of cattlemen and women elsewhere in the world, but the for the American farmer and rancher it is a labor of love for certain.  The hours are long and the business climate is filled with uncertainty in markets and weather.  The skill set most farmers and ranchers have would make a lot of CEO’s blush.  Marketing, finance, HR, R&D, strategic planning, operations, succession planning, investing, biology, physics, zoology…these people are the original multi-disciplinarians.  Problem-solving ability develops out of necessity.  “Design thinking” has been a recent trend in Silicon Valley.  It’s been a way of life for generations for farmers and ranchers.
In a nutshell, I think American beef is special not just because of what it tastes like, looks like, or smells like on your plate – it’s the entire process leading up to that eating experience that makes it special.  It’s how cattle-raising in the US is not a zero-sum game, playing key roles in grassland ecosystems and upcycling resources thrown away by other industries.  It’s the way technology is leveraged to create efficiencies and safety mechanisms to provide highly dense nutrition at an affordable price.  It’s the passion that folks have in raising those cattle and caring for those resources.  I think these are what make American beef special.
But I also think Japanese beef is pretty special, which is why we using Wagyu and Akaushi genetics on our Angus cows.  They have a great history.
What would have you said?

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.