The Government Needs an Innovation Policy for Alternative Meats
The government should accelerate innovation in alternative meats to benefit the environment, public health, workers, rural communities, and the ethical treatment of animals.
In December 2020, an upscale restaurant in Singapore became the first to sell cell-cultured meat anywhere in the world. Produced by the San Francisco-based company Eat Just, and taking advantage of the Singaporean government’s recent regulatory approval of lab-grown meat, that first sale of cell-cultured chicken nuggets marked a key step on the path from techno-optimist fantasy to a world in which alternative meat can replace meat from slaughtered animals.
A transition away from animal meat would bring huge benefits for the environment, for public health, for the ethical treatment of animals—and potentially for workers and the economy. Given the scale of potential public benefits, there is a powerful rationale for the US government to develop a strategy to accelerate innovation and commercialization of alternative meat products.
This new commercial availability of cell-cultured meat follows years of growth in consumer markets for novel plant-based meat produced by firms such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. In the past decade such products have revitalized the existing meat alternative market, which had been centered around long-familiar products such as veggie burgers, tofu, tempeh, and seitan. Like cell-cultured meat, novel plant-based meats aim to appeal to meat eaters in an attempt, in the words of Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown, to “get rid of friggin cows.”
Friggin cows indeed. Livestock production is responsible for at least 42% of US agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, or almost 4% of total US emissions. Ruminant livestock use almost 80% of global agricultural land, and more than a quarter of total US land, making animal agriculture the largest category of human land use in the country. Animal agriculture is the single largest driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss globally. Resulting habitat loss threatens to drive further outbreaks of zoonotic disease, while overuse of antibiotics within the industry increases the risk of antibiotic-resistant diseases. Pollution related to animal agriculture poisons humans, air, land, and water. Meat consumption, especially red meat and processed meat, contributes to increased rates of cancers and heart disease. And animal agriculture is responsible for the inhumane treatment and death of billions of animals every year.
Alternative meats mitigate the environmental, public health, and ethical consequences of animal agriculture. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with production of plant-based meats are lower than for beef and comparable or lower than for pork and chicken. The emissions resulting from a scaled-up cell-cultured meat industry in the United States are not yet known; they are likely lower than for beef but could be higher than for chicken and pork. Both cell-cultured and plant-based meat alternatives have drastically smaller land-use footprints, meaning less deforestation and biodiversity loss. Alternatives produce a fraction of the air and water pollution of livestock production, and use little to no antibiotics. And alternative meats dramatically reduce animal cruelty and death that is a necessary part of the industrial meat sector.
So it’s understandable that Brown of Impossible Foods, and others in the alternative meat industry, are bullish on the idea that their products are the future of meat. As more people become aware of the climatic, environmental, and ethical issues of livestock agriculture, further sales increases are likely. But despite a half-decade of growth that outpaced the meat industry, alternative meats still make up less than 1% of total meat sales in the United States, and an equally low, if not lower, percentage globally. Projections by the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return Initiative that alternative proteins—including milk and egg alternatives—could exceed half of the entire protein market by 2060 seem at best wishful right now.
What are the obstacles to market growth? Alternative meat producers must reduce their costs and provide consumers an equally tasty yet lower-priced option, driving consumer acceptance and increasing consumption. Alternatives are currently mostly limited to ground meat-like products. Companies are only just beginning to create more diverse product lines, such as cell-cultured steak and whole-cut chicken breasts. These are still significant barriers, but they can be addressed with research and development.
Most difficult are the socioeconomic challenges. The conventional meat industry is big, powerful, and politically assertive. Dominated by the “big four” companies of Tyson, Cargill, National Beef, and the Brazilian-owned JBS, the industry is worth over a trillion dollars globally. In the United States, the industry is worth about $100 billion and employs over a half-million people, with 36 different states boasting over 10,000 jobs each, effectively disincentivizing politicians from supporting policies that either increase regulation of the industry or could have negative consequences for it.
Because of these barriers, the alternative meat field requires public investment to catalyze innovation—not only to offset the unpriced externalities from conventional meat, but also to overcome the entrenched advantages of the incumbent industry. Yet in doing so, government must also play a role in helping to assure a smooth socioeconomic transition from an industry based on livestock to one based on synthetic and nonanimal products. Blind faith that the creative destruction of technological innovation always leads to greater benefit for all must be replaced by a government commitment to easing the social and economic disruptions that could accompany a transition away from traditional livestock production.
The Case for Public Investment
Public investment can stimulate the growth of the alternative meat industry and its competitiveness with conventional meat producers. At the same time, federal policy can help assure a faster, less politically divisive, and more socially equitable transition from conventional meat production to the new high-tech alternatives.
The US government has a long history of support for research and innovation aimed at boosting economic growth. Whether in the form of trade policy, broader industrial policy, investment in R&D and innovation, or direct procurement of advanced technologies, the federal government plays an important role in developing new technologies capable of boosting economic growth.
The alternative meat industry is poised for greater, global growth as cell-cultured meat moves into the market. The governments of Singapore, Israel, and Canada, to name a few, have already invested in meat alternative innovation, aiming to set up domestic production for growing consumer demand. Aggressive public R&D investment by the US government to help drive cost reductions and increase product diversity would allow the United States to remain competitive with international producers that have benefited from national investment.
Industry growth will certainly lead to more plant-based and cell-cultured meat manufacturing jobs that will add value to the US economy. Given the high-tech, high-value-added nature of these new products, the industry is also likely, on the whole, to create higher skill, higher paying jobs than the conventional meat processing industry, which pays an annual mean wage of around $34,000.
But the high-risk and multidisciplinary science and engineering questions at the core of cell-cultured and novel plant-based production remain a major barrier to private investment in the necessary R&D. Because of the relative novelty of the sector, however, many companies have roughly similar needs related to technological development, bioprocess design for cell-cultured firms, feedstock and ingredient identification, and more basic scientific questions relating to cell biology and plant genetics—making alternative meat an attractive and appropriate target for federal investment.
National strategy with a regional focus
The history of US innovation demonstrates how the federal government, often in partnership with private actors, brought about real technological transformations. The government played a crucial role in developing technologies such as the internet and electric vehicles, but also the first novel plant-based meats.
To start, government investment in open access cell-line and plant-based ingredient databases would support both researchers and firms across the industry, meaning that the benefits of such public spending could not be siloed into the profits of a single firm. For more technical research, such as developing bioreactors for cell-cultured meat production, federal investment could drive cost reduction and scale up production at firms that cannot rely on private capital alone.
But while the continued growth of alternative meats could create new jobs, it also poses a threat to the workers and communities that depend on conventional animal agriculture. For the animal meat industry, the speed, disruption, and consequences of a transition to alternative meat will depend on the amount of skills transfer possible, the geography of future production, the cost of new equipment or practices, and the new employment opportunities created. Alongside investing in technological R&D, then, the federal government should fund research dedicated to understanding this socioeconomic transformation, and to developing policy frameworks for assuring a smooth and equitable transition.
For example, more research is urgently needed to understand the potential impacts that increased alternative meat consumption will have on producers, workers, and rural communities. If new production facilities are located away from traditional agricultural communities, any real consumption shift would adversely affect rural communities and workers dependent on animal agriculture, continuing a century-long trend of dwindling farm employment. Plant-based protein manufacturing still has a reason to be located in or near agricultural communities, as is Eat Just’s plant in Dawson, Minnesota. But cell-cultured meat production severs the tie between meat and the land, and could be located anywhere.
To help agricultural communities benefit from a transition to alternative meat, the federal government could create regional alternative meat research and manufacturing centers tied to agricultural universities. Just as federal funding proved successful in fostering regional economic growth and innovation in Silicon Valley, a federally funded regional policy that connects public universities, rural agricultural communities, and alternative meat companies and innovators would help spur technological growth while creating quality jobs and opportunities for communities that have continually been left behind by the concentration of American economic growth in urban centers.
The federal government has proved effective in creating vibrant innovation networks over the past 75 years, helping to drive innovation through collaboration on difficult and multidisciplinary research like that which will be necessary for alternative meat growth. Most recently, the advanced manufacturing institutes of the multiagency Manufacturing USA program, created and funded under the Obama administration, have helped to catalyze effective industry-university-government regional innovation ecosystems focused on targeted emerging technologies.
Indeed, in light of the continued failure of meat processors in the United States to protect their employees during the COVID-19 pandemic—matched by the long history of poor labor conditions in the nation’s meat packing facilities—creating opportunities for meat processing workers to transition from lower-wage, high-risk jobs to better paying alternative meat manufacturing jobs should be a government priority.
Along with developing alternative meat industrial policy that creates regional manufacturing and research hubs, the federal government can utilize a suite of innovation-enhancing investments aimed at reducing costs of alternative meats, increasing product diversity, and increasing scale. Actions should include:
- Funding public-private R&D consortiums aimed at connecting researchers, firms, nonprofit organizations, and other institutions to solve the many multidisciplinary problems related to alternative meat production. The Manufacturing USA program, as well as the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, already have the infrastructure to create such a consortium.
- Creating competitive grant programs targeting cost reductions, ingredient and cell-line identification, and basic scientific research on cell biology through the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
- Directing the Agricultural Research Service to develop and fund in-house research programs centered on alternative meat production, such as those programs already doing research on plant genomics or plant and animal cell biology.
- Aiming government food procurement, for the military and food assistance programs, toward alternative meats, to help create stable demand that would attract private-sector investment for continued innovation and scaling up of production.
Alternative meats can be a boon for the environment, a value-creating manufacturing industry, and a driver of rural economic growth. But for alternative meats to have a chance at meeting this potential, federal government investment is required.