- As technology to produce meat and dairy in the lab gets better and less expensive, the beef and dairy industries will collapse by 2030, according to a forecast written by think tank RethinkX. The group, which forecast the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption, projects demand for cow-associated products will fall by 70% in 11 years.
- The current animal-centric way of food production will be replaced by what report authors call a "food-as-software" model. Under this plan, scientists would engineer food at a molecular level and upload them to databases that are accessible to food designers worldwide. The report states this can geographically spread out food production and make high quality food that is not subject to price volatility or threats posed by weather, disease or trade.
- The study predicts far-reaching economic impacts. These lab-grown foods will cost half of what the conventional prices do — if not less. Beef and dairy companies will be decimated, with revenues down 90% and about 90% of the 1.2 million U.S. jobs in those industries lost by 2035. But about a quarter of the continental U.S. now dedicated to livestock and feed production will be available for other uses, and greenhouse gas emissions from the food industry will be down 45% in 2030, the study says.
If RethinkX's vision of the future comes to pass, the food industry will be completely different. Farms will be replaced with fermenters. Cows, chickens and pigs will only live in petting zoos or as household pets. And consumers will be able to get whatever top-quality protein they want easily and inexpensively.
However, it seems unlikely that such a dramatic change will come in just 11 years. While technology to create protein from animals in a lab exists today, the products are far from the point where they can be launched to consumers on a grand scale.
So far, only dairy company Perfect Day has created a product from its lab-fermented proteins. The company, which makes milk without cows, sold pints of cow-free ice cream on its website for $20 a piece this summer. The ice cream sold out in a day and hasn't been offered since. Co-founder Ryan Pandya told Food Dive in July he plans for the company to scale production of more products and ingredients through its partnership with ADM.
Other companies are working on fermenting animal protein products, but haven't brought anything to market. Motif FoodWorks, created this year, has raised a total of $117.5 million to work on replicating several proteins to move toward animal-free eating. And Clara Foods, which has raised a total of $16.8 million so far, is producing egg whites without chickens. The company has a partnership with Ingredion — the lead funder in its last round — to develop, market and produce its ingredients, but nothing has come out yet. CEO Arturo Elizondo told Food Navigator this spring that products could be introduced as early as 2020.
The technology for lab-produced meat also is being developed, but no products have come to market. Companies including Memphis Meats, Just, Shiok Meats and Aleph Farms have made small amounts of meat, but not enough to sell.
Getting cultured meat products to market have been difficult for two big reasons. One is cost, though that may be coming down quickly. A spokesperson from Dutch meat company Mosa Meat told Reuters that a lab-grown burger — which cost around $280,000 when the company first created one in 2013 — could be about $10 in the next two years.
The other issue these companies face is regulation. While the U.S. government has started to try to determine how these products will be regulated and inspected, solid rules are likely far in the future. And this isn't just an issue in the U.S. Other large markets, such as the EU, will require lots of regulation when products are completed. The regulatory path is easier in some Asian countries, including Japan and Hong Kong, the Good Food Institute told Food Navigator, but there has to be a product to get to market first.
While technology is moving quickly, even if there is widespread availability of inexpensive lab-created proteins by 2030, RethinkX's full vision is unlikely to come true right away. The report's "food as software" model relies on a widely available database of different proteins. And while sharing technology is a commendable idea, in this case it goes against the mission of most companies.
Food companies care about things like sustainability, consumer satisfaction and health value of their products. But they also care about making money. While these companies are working together to figure out common issues in production and talk about marketing ideas, they are all doing their own work and filing their own patents to protect their methods of production.
It's also hard to believe consumers will walk away from traditionally produced animal protein. Last year, fewer than three in 10 consumers said they would try meat produced in a lab. A lot needs to be done to change perceptions and ideas.
But even then, it's doubtful that consumers won't also buy conventionally produced protein. At the very least, powerful lobbying groups representing the beef, poultry, egg and dairy industry will continue the fight to keep consumers enjoying farm fresh food.
Even the Good Food Institute, which works to support and promote the lab-cultured and plant-based meat movement, finds this transition "far from inevitable." In a blog post, Liz Specht, the group's associate director of science and technology, wrote that while the move to industrialized animal farming happened in a single generation, there is still a fair amount of ground that needs to be covered to get this technology to the scale mentioned in the RethinkX report.
However, she wrote, it's worthwhile for stakeholders to pay attention to the points made in the report — it may be close to reality.