Right now, a group of companies are racing to introduce you to a radically new kind of food: “meat” cultured in labs, rather than grown on farms. Maybe you’ve heard about these products, which don’t require animals to be raised or slaughtered. Sometimes they’re called “clean” meat. Or “lab-grown” meat. Or “synthetic.” Or “in-vitro.” Or “cell-cultured.”
Maybe one reason the nomenclature is so confusing is because we’re still not quite sure how to feel about what is essentially test-tube meat. This scientific innovation, born out of the growing field of cellular agriculture, has more in common with medical biotechnology—and Blade Runner—than raising livestock. And though some companies claim they’re just a few months away from bringing lab-grown meat to market—first in restaurants, and later on supermarket shelves—those predictions are probably optimistic, and downplay just how much work needs to be done to acclimate us, as a culture, to this new approach to food. For now, the idea of growing animal cells at scale inside a bioreactor is still really foreign to most people.
Biologically, these products are meat. But it could take a wholesale reimagining and redefining of a food group that many people feel very passionate about before they accept it on their plates. And that work that is already playing out in battles over what, exactly, to call this stuff. Proponents of cellular agriculture are faced with a marketing dilemma: What do you call a product to stress that it’s a major departure from the familiar, without conjuring images of a sinister science experiment (“vat meat,” anyone?) that will surely stress people out?
So far, the industry’s solution has been to use the term “clean” meat—emphasizing lab-grown’s environmental footprint, which supporters say is only a sliver of traditional meat production’s. But how many people really want to think about offsetting carbon while they enjoy a burger? Which is why Jack Bobo, a biotech industry veteran, has an alternative suggestion: Ditch the “clean” and call it “craft meat.” The idea is to position cellular ag as a kind of idealistic upstart, one focused on taste, exclusivity, and bespoke production—to the meat industry what craft beer is to AB InBev.
I saw Bobo speak at AgTech Nexus, an investor conference held in Boston earlier this month.
Until 2015, he was a senior advisor at the Department of State on global food policy. These days, he works for Intrexon, a diabolical-sounding biotechnology company that owns some of the biggest names in biofood—the genetically-modified (GM) food companies AquaBounty and Arctic Apples, and the cloning company ViaGen—along with OxiTec, the company behind zika-fighting GM mosquitoes. Bobo expects most meat eaters will feel antagonized by companies that say their products are “clean.”
“Imagine somebody says, ‘I want you to have some clean meat.’ You’re like, ‘Clean,’ that means all the stuff I know means ‘dirty.’ ‘And so that means you think I’m evil, and I can stop being evil if I come over to your side,’” Bobo said, speaking at AgTech Nexus. “Well, what happens if you don’t decide to eat clean meat? You eat a Big Mac, or a Quarter Pounder, because you’re kind of mad at them. Because they said, ‘All my friends are evil. The entire ag industry is evil.’ And I don’t really like that.’”
Historically, food companies have appealed to potential companies by marketing the taste, price, and convenience of their products. More recently, an appetite has emerged for products marked with “credence qualities”—attributes that suggest a food was produced in a way that’s better for you, or for the earth. And the buzziest, most anticipated lab-grown meat companies, like Just Foods, Memphis Meats, and Finless Fish, have latched onto that approach—pitching consumers by stressing the morality of their products above all else. But if these companies want to be as big as Cargill—one of the world’s biggest livestock companies, and an investor in Memphis Meats—they have to market themselves in a way that speaks to everybody, not just those who eat their values. Enter “craft”: A word that is perceived by many to stand for quality, for skill, independence, uniqueness, and in the world of beer, innovation.
Craft breweries pride themselves on developing “new styles that have no precedent,” the Craft Beer Association proudly proclaims. Americans, apparently, love that innovation: The craft beer market has shown rapid growth, with the country adding nearly a thousand new breweries every year since 2014. Scientifically, the products are similar, as both beer and lab-grown meat can be made through fermentation techniques. It’s why some boosters have taken to saying that, if all goes as planned, and lab-grown meat catches on, the animal-free meat factories of the future will look more like breweries.
“You want your product to be exciting and new, and that’s what’s gonna get people to adopt it,” Bobo said. “They’re not gonna try it just because, you know, we’re trying to save the planet, they’re gonna try it because, ‘Hey, that’s $20 a pound, I wanna try that meat.’ You want it to be a quality, exciting exclusive.”
In the world of craft brewing—and craft chocolate, and artisanal food in general—small-batch production is part of the ethos. In some cases, that’s by virtue of necessity: Plenty of craft brewers, for example, don’t produce enough beer to afford retail distribution. With cultured meat, the limited availability is actually one of its biggest criticisms. These companies have big valuations, and are being bankrolled by some of the world’s wealthiest investors and most prominent venture capital firms, after all, but still have struggled to bring a product to market after taking on hundreds of millions of dollars. What Bobo is talking about is turning a liability into an asset, spinning lab-grown meat’s limitations as exclusivity appeal.
Part of what makes lab-grown meat unique is that it’s going to be made in only a few places, at least at first. And unlike traditional livestock, which are raised on farms way outside of town, lab-grown companies may be able to operate closer to cities—where consumers are. This approach could even allow the lab-grown companies to lean in to the local angle: A craft meat for every market with a local identity. Rather than suggesting that their lab food is Southern fried chicken, maybe San Francisco-based Memphis Meats should actually open up a clean meat lab in Memphis.
“Production is likely to be small at first anyway, so take advantage of the things that they’re doing, which is they’re brewing meat, they’re creating it in fermentation, that it’s going to be a local production,” Bobo says, in a phone conversation with the New Food Economy. “They’re located inside these city limits, unlike a CAFO, which is as far away from the city as people make them go.”
The thing is, like every other company that comes out of Silicon Valley, the professed ambition of the “clean meat” movement isn’t just to bring a good product to market. It’s to really be meat, and interchangeable—if not cheaper and more appealing—with the real thing for a large proportion of the world. That likely won’t happen all at once. Before lab-grown meat takes over the world, it may first need to find its niche in a larger meat ecosystem. And in that vast, firmly-established industry, the sweet spot may be as a prestige or flagship product that doesn’t bear the fingerprints of the main, mothership buyer. Increasingly, meatpacking companies like Cargill and Tyson are diversifying their risk by buying stakes in alternative protein companies. That means the leading lab-meat startups are already tied, financially, to the industrial meat system they’re claiming to disrupt.
Which isn’t too dissimilar, as it turns out, from the very place craft beer is in, today—considering that the world’s largest beer companies are snapping up celebrated breweries, and launching “craft” labels of their own. That’s exactly what we’re seeing in the nascent lab-grown meat industry. So maybe these products, in the end, won’t be quite as disruptive as they seem to be. Maybe the best lab-grown burgers and foie gras will turn out to be, when it’s all said and done, the rarer, tastier, Goose Island IPA, to Big Meat’s Bud Light.