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?

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