Cellular agriculture is the emerging industry producing animal products like meat, fish, leather, and dairy from animal cells without having to raise animals. As an organization dedicated to ending factory farming, we believe this new industry shows a lot of promise, as does plant-based food technology, which in recent years has seen surging popularity thanks to innovators like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and others. As cellular and plant-based technologies are developed, they could eliminate a tremendous amount of animal suffering.
Farm Forward is hopeful and enthusiastic about cellular agriculture and plant-based food technology.
The question is not, “Will plant-based/cellular agriculture help fight factory farming?”—it will—but “How much can plant-based/cellular agriculture replace factory farming?”
That said, we also recognize that the reception and impact of new technologies is notoriously difficult to predict. The extent of the role cellular agriculture will play in replacing factory farming depends upon a variety of factors: cultural acceptance, environmental impact, cost, and more we discuss below. This is why we believe that those seeking to end factory farming should support both plant-based/cellular meat and efforts to directly challenge factory farming.
Plant based/cellular meats will play a key role in replacing the need for factory farming by providing nutritious, desirable, low-cost products, but even assuming wide adoption of these technologies a sizable group of people will remain committed to eating farmed animals. Bearing those consumers in mind, defeating factory farming will require a second strategy: providing an adequate supply of animal products from higher (and the highest) welfare conditions. Farm Forward’s strongly supports plant based/cellular meat, but we would be unwise to put all of our eggs in one basket. Plant based/cellular meat and higher welfare meat must work synergistically if we are to create a world free of factory farming. We must not lose sight of either.
At this moment, philanthropists have incredible enthusiasm for cellular meat technologies as the solution to industrial animal farming—and the rest of this article will focus on cellular technology in particular. If you’re investing in a for-profit enterprise, nothing could be better for the environment or animals than investing in cellular meat! But if you’re a philanthropist asking where your dollars can most effectively fight factory farming, the picture is more complex.
Farm Forward advocates a “both/and” approach that takes into account the promise of the already massive investment in cellular technology, but recognizes that cellular technology cannot be the sole silver bullet that will end factory farming. As enthusiasm for cellular technology has grown, the limits of what we can confidently assume about how this technology will impact factory farming are coming into increasingly clear focus. Below we consider several sticking points that are helpful to keep in mind to both better steward the future of this technology, and to illustrate the increasing importance of direct efforts to reduce meat consumption and reinvent animal agriculture.
How will consumers feel about cellular meat? Will they accept it as a regular part of their diets, replacing products from farmed animals? Although some consumers may be skeptical of cellular meat products initially, research suggests that most consumers will be willing to try these products.1 Any initial aversion to cellular meat has been shown to be moderated by how the products are named, marketed and presented. Consumers eating meat in fast food restaurants, grab-and-go meals, and frozen dinners are generally unconcerned about where the meat comes from. It seems likely that if cellular meat is safe and affordable, most consumers will eat it.
That isn’t to say that cultural acceptance is guaranteed. Many communities have important food and agricultural traditions that could pose barriers to their culture’s acceptance of cellular meat. For example, as the New York Times has recently reported, the kosher-observant Jewish community is in active conversation about whether cellular meat should be considered kosher.2 The Orthodox Union, the largest kosher certifier in the world, has been leading a conversation about cellular meat and Jewish dietary laws. Questions include whether an animal can be considered dead if the cells are taken from a living animal (Jewish dietary laws prohibit eating flesh from a living animal), and whether cellular meat grown from animals not traditionally considered kosher (pigs, shellfish, etc.) can be considered kosher. These questions are nuanced enough that it may be a long time before answers are widely accepted, and even then, there may never be universal acceptance of cellular agriculture products. Debates about how cellular meat may fit into specific religious and cultural traditions are important. Farm Forward is eager to participate in them as part of our ongoing work with religious communities supporting alternatives to factory farming, for example with particular focus on kosher through our Jewish Initiative for Animals and on the link between Christian theology and farmed animal welfare through our partnership with CreatureKind.
Of course, it’s not just the relatively small kosher-observant community that might have religious or cultural objections to cellular meat. Consider, for example, arbiters of Islamic halal codes who are only beginning to discuss cellular meat,3 secular focus groups whose participants declare that “people should consume cultured meat, but not me, personally,”4 and cautious consumers—akin to anti-GMO consumers—who may object to cultured meat for themselves and their children due to concerns about unknown health implications.
One thing is clear: the introduction of cellular meat in the marketplace will start new conversations about how animals are raised on factory farms. We already see that when journalists and consumers reflect on cellular meat production, they compare it to how meat is currently produced. This comparison will lead to additional scrutiny on factory farming and could both speed adoption of cellular meat and motivate reforms in farming practices.
Proponents highlight the potential of cellular meat to reduce the environmental impact of meat production. Without having to address the animals’ waste, or feed animals corn, soy, and other agricultural products, cellular meat should have a lower environmental footprint than industrially produced animal products. Plus, growing animal tissue without the need for the rest of the animal should be more efficient. For example, cows and pigs require between 14 and 40 kilocalories of feed to generate 1 kilocalorie of milk or meat.5 Cellular meat may require a lower energy input than conventional meat, thus lowering pressure on the environment.
In order to verify the environmental impact, a thorough life cycle assessment of cellular meat should be weighed against the environmental impact of raising animals in a variety of settings. For example, the industrialization of the chicken industry—and the manipulation of poultry genetics in particular—makes factory farmed chicken fairly “efficient,” at least strictly from a calorie-per-input perspective. It’s possible that not all cellular meat will have a lesser footprint than industrially farmed chicken. That doesn’t justify raising chickens on factory farms, but it’s something we need to consider if we argue for cellular meat on the basis of a lower carbon footprint. Similarly, one study suggests that in certain circumstances raising cattle on pasture may sequester enough carbon to offset the emissions from raising the cattle.6 Although related studies suggest otherwise, we need to consider whether well-managed grazing land can sequester carbon in the soil when comparing beef raised on pasture to cellular beef.
In the end, cellular meat will likely be far more efficient than factory farming on balance, but some consumers will still demand meat from animals, so to vanquish factory farming we need a higher welfare, more sustainable animal agriculture that can avoid being incredibly cruel, like the current poultry industry, or incredibly climate intensive, like most beef production. A growing number of farmers are creating animal farms that pass higher bars for both animal welfare and sustainability, and we at Farm Forward hope that, together, cellular/plant-based meat and the highest welfare traditional meat can serve as a one-two punch to end the factory farm.
Many questions remain about the cellular meat technology itself. Historically, growing tissue outside of an animal has relied on fetal bovine serum (cow blood) as the growth medium. Cellular meat companies acknowledge that using fetal bovine serum is undesirable and unsustainable, and are seeking alternative growth mediums that don’t rely on industrial scale animal farming.7 Cruelty-free cellular meat will only be cost competitive if companies can find alternative growth mediums derived from agriculture products that are—like corn and soy—abundant, widely available, and inexpensively produced.
The expense of producing cellular meat continues to drop dramatically. Can the price of cellular meat someday compete with factory-farmed meat? Before we know for sure, a cruelty-free growth medium must be found, and cellular tissue manufacturing must be scaled up. While cellular meat companies are confident that their products will be cost competitive with meat from animals raised on industrial farms, they acknowledge that the technology is in the early stages and that many hurdles remain.
Over the last decade demand for higher welfare animal products has grown significantly.8 Dozens of states have passed laws prohibiting battery cages for hens and gestation crates for pigs, and dozens of companies have committed to improved conditions for chickens raised for meat. Individuals and institutions are choosing higher welfare meat because of concerns about the treatment of farmed animals, and if they see cellular meat as better for animals, they may choose cellular meat instead. Higher welfare farming competes with conventional factory farming, and even with the advent of cellular meat, we will need higher welfare meat in the fight against factory farming—some consumers will continue to eat meat from animals for religious or cultural reasons, or because they will want products that are harder to produce using cellular agriculture (e.g. a ribeye steak). If, due to its higher price, cellular meat competes with higher welfare meat, that would reduce factory farms’ incentive to improve their welfare standards, undermine higher welfare farms, weaken the market share of higher welfare meat, and drive consumers who want traditional meat back toward factory farmed products.
It’s also hard to know how the meat industry will respond to competition from cell-based meat. As cellular meat products come down in price, conventional meat producers may seek more efficiencies in production to continue to compete with cellular meat. Any additional attempts at “efficiency” will likely come at the cost of animal welfare, environmental pollution, and worker well-being.
Cellular meat may not be appropriate for all geographies. In countries in the Global South where per capita meat consumption is low and small scale agriculture using animals is central to the economy, the introduction of cellular meat—which will likely be owned and produced by large (and often foreign) companies—could be enormously disruptive and potentially hurt the millions of people who rely on livestock for their livelihood. Issues of food sovereignty, ownership, and small scale regenerative agriculture need to be considered.
Continuing to fight factory farming
Cellular meat companies have been asked to predict what impact their products might have on the market for conventional meat. While acknowledging that predicting the future of any technology is difficult, Memphis Meat founder Uma Valeti has stated that a realistic scenario might see cellular meat make up 10–20 percent of the market in 20 years.9 If that means we raise 20 percent fewer animals on factory farms, cellular meat would be a massive success. Similarly, if cellular meat competes with just byproducts of factory farms (leather, collagen, etc.), that may make conventional meat more expensive and make higher welfare farming more competitive.
For all of the promise of cellular agriculture (and plant-based meats), we believe that at this stage it’s overly optimistic to think that technology alone will solve the problems of factory farming. Advocates must continue to oppose factory farming directly—fighting for policies that make factory farms pay the true cost of their operations, supporting farmers raising animals outside of the factory farm system, and pushing institutional buyers to reduce meat consumption and invest in animal products from animals raised in higher welfare conditions. Altogether we hope that through combining these strategies with innovations in food technology, we’ll have a future free of factory farms.