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?

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.



Moving From City to Farm

I sit on a covered porch at 8pm on Wednesday evening, watching the sun decline and listening to the cooing Mourning Doves; it’s a peaceful time of day – the time when work is done and I can catch a breath.  My body relaxes. The dog next to me begins to pant heavily and hides, my warning that a thunderstorm is coming; the crickets are chirping, the breeze is talking. This might be the daily solitude of my backyard in Philadelphia, but today I’m writing this from South Dakota.  The dog is not my own but belongs to the Ranch and he’s filling in pretty-well for the one I left at home. I can watch the same nationally-televised newscast or scan the same standardized Dairy Queen menu, but these people are not the people of my melting-pot American experience.  I haven’t traveled overseas, but I might as well have because I’ve stepped into a foreign culture.

Around the dinner table, we don’t talk about the hassle of detouring around the current street closures, the latest movies or Phillies stats.  These Dakotans use words that I know when digested individually, but when used in combination, stretch my mind in new ways. Words like, “regenerative agriculture,” “soil health,” or “carbon sequestration.”  How about a conversation on “Riparian-area recovery?” “High-density stocking?” Or a “right-side-up prairie?” In my head, I transfer knowledge to try and create a twinkling of meaning; inevitably, I need help understanding.

There are a few holistic ideas that I’ve learned in my first weeks here at Rock Hills Ranch that start to help others fold into place.  One thing I learn is that the Great Plains is as endangered a landscape as the Rainforest. Another thing I learn is that agricultural and livestock farming practices don’t need to work in opposition to the health of these softly, rolling landscapes that were shaped millions of years ago by the glaciers.  

One more big idea at Rock Hills Ranch is “legacy.”  Legacy has a multitude of meanings, like a tree with many limbs.  Stewardship of land is a legacy – using it while also restoring the natural prairie, working in rhythm with the landscape, keeping in mind all the wildlife of the region and not just the beef.  Creating happiness within the family through all the hard work is also part of the vision around legacy. Stabilizing a financial future is also part of it. Garnet said to me, “When someone here gets married, they just don’t marry the man, instead they marry the land.”  The Permans are 4th generation farmers and the future two generations are here right now.  So, “The Land” is a full-partner in every aspect of life; as if it has an endowed faculty chair in the fanciest Boardroom in the best college.  

I am the 6th Ranch-Life intern at RHR – a high school teacher from the metropolis.  I read somewhere that South Dakota has 0.2 people occupying an acre; I believe that Philly probably has a thousand.  I am not young, but I am trying to digest and understand a way of life that I’ve never encountered before beyond the latest cowboy movie.  As I feel more confident in my understanding on the nexus of beef-farming practices and prairie sustainability, I will write more about it.  I’ll also write more about the animals of the farm and the feeling that permeates the Ranch of being a modern-day pioneer. But for now, this is a way-of-life that can only be understood by walking through it.

– Felicia Rosen