20 October 2021

The future looks bleak for lab-grown meat

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In 1931 Winston Churchill predicted that, ‘We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium’. Lab-grown meat has long been touted as the cruelty-free, environmentally friendly future of food. It feels like the perfect solution – a way of freeing up land for much-needed housing, or reclaiming ecosystems destroyed by intensive agriculture, all without harming animals or asking consumers to give up hamburgers. Dig a little deeper though, and you’ll find that lab-grown meat is very far indeed from becoming a truly accessible, affordable food source.

The reality is that the technological barriers to creating meat in a lab are such that it’s far more likely to become a luxury good than a product for mass consumption. Like many forward-thinking globalists, my spirits were heightened when in 2020 Singapore started allowing the sale of lab-grown meat. But to actually buy some man-made chicken nuggets you have to shell out $50 a portion.

The conditions needed to grow meat are expensive, with sterile conditions and costly, sophisticated labs essential. As with most developing industries, innovation will drive down prices. Market forces will eventually make the technology less expensive, but by how much? The technology used to cultivate animal proteins has been around for decades, but commercial use is still very much in its infancy. So it looks unlikely that we will see a price competitive cultured meat on the market any time soon.

So is lab-grown meat worth fighting for? It’s already facing fierce opposition from the farming industry. The NFU has criticised the practice, saying that those championing ‘imitation meats are for the total elimination of traditional animal production of meat’. These protectionist messages will be heard loud and clear by MPs with rural constituencies – many of whom happen to be Conservatives.

Even if some sort of agreement manages to get pushed through Parliament, the regulatory burdens will no doubt be sky high, making the industry less efficient and innovative, and the products more expensive.

On a far more hopeful note, the plant-based market has been accelerating for the last decade. There’s real potential that this could be the answer to cheap protein for an ever-expanding population, on a planet that’s surface area is predicted to shrink in the coming decades. Ever tastier, ever cheaper, ever more in demand – plant-based food is proving itself to be a viable option for many.

This isn’t to say the government shouldn’t deregulate cultured meat and let the industry take a crack at it – innovations in vegetarian food have proved that there is an expanding market for meat alternatives. Merely to warn anyone investing their hopes in lab-grown meat that its prospects look, at best, unappetising.

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Rebecca Wray is a Research Intern at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX