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In January 2019, thousands from the tech industry lined up to get their first taste of an Impossible Burger in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show.
It wasn’t long before this early adopter audience at the world’s biggest tech conference was posting pics on social media describing their first alt-burger experience. Some publications even called the Impossible 2.0 the winner of CES.
Flash forward a couple years later, and tens of millions have tried the Beyond and Impossible Burger as plant-based meat has become commonplace in fast food chains and grocery store aisles across the country.
Will the same fast adoption into the mainstream happen with cultivated meat?
I’m not as sure.
Not that I don’t think the potential for cultured meat is huge. I do. And like Jim Mellon, I think the market could be bigger than plant-based meat in the long run.
It’s just that it’s some new types of food have a more complicated story to tell. In the case of cultured meat, the story starts, like is often the case, in the minds of our storytellers.
As early as the 1950s, there were writers talking about the idea of cultivated meat, and nearly as long ago as a century essayists (in this case none other than Winston Churchill) proposed the idea of meat without the animal. Since then, well known futuristic story franchises ranging from Star Trek to Westworld have taken on the idea of creating cells without the animal.
It’s not surprising that lab grown meat has been fertile ground for futurists, since the idea is so, well, futuristic. And despite thinkers exploring the idea for the better part of a century, the idea is still one that is foreign and hard to grasp for the everyday consumer.
The same cannot be said for plant-based food, in part because plant-based food products have been a part of our food system for decades. Sure, today’s new-generation of meat analogues created by plants and other inputs are an amazing feat of science, but many of us have known about products like bean or soy burgers and fake crab meat most of our lives. The new products are just a better versions of those products we are already familiar with.
So what do consumers think about cultivated meat today, if anything? There have been some consumer surveys on the topic, and one study by researchers in the Netherlands showed promise. The survey creators had respondents taste test real meat against “cultured meat” (which was, in reality, conventionally produced meat). According to the study, 58% of respondents indicated they were willing to pay a premium for cultured meat after trying what they were told was cultured meat and told of the benefits.
Another study was not as promising. In a survey of Gen Z, respondents age 18 to 25 largely rejected the idea of eating cultivated meat.
“Our research has found that Generation Z – those aged between 18 and 25 – are concerned about the environment and animal welfare, yet most are not ready to accept cultured meat and view it with disgust,” said Dr Diana Bogueva, a professor from the University of Sydney.
In some ways, cultivated meat faces some of the same challenges bugs face as a new food source. A majority of people in western culture view eating bugs as gross and, when asked if they’d be open to the idea, most answered no.
The good news for bug-as-food proponents is that while their product may face an uphill challenge amongst those societies and cultures where it’s not commonplace, history has shown that humans can adapt and embrace new foods that they once saw as unpalatable. Lobsters, which share some of the same DNA as cockroaches, were once seen as unpalatable sea “trash”. Now they’re a delicacy.
Can the same happen with cultivated meat? I think so, but it will take time. And, fortunately, the cultivated meat industry does have time before it is anywhere near the level of production that the plant-based world is currently enjoying.
But in five or ten years time, when cultivated meat will be produced at scale, at price parity, and widely available, a big part of the market education battle will be, for lack of a better term, “influencer marketing”. The reality is consumers often listen to those they trust or believe in, and nowadays that often means chefs and celebrities on social media. Once someone they look up to starts talking about how good (and healthier) cultivated meat is, it might not be long before many consumers will want to try it.
But not all consumers. For some, it will be hard to separate the process from the product, and some may be resistant to such a departure in the food they eat, even if is basically the same product, only healthier, better tasting and more sustainable.
In the end, however, that’s probably fine. The future of food will come in many different forms, whether that’s plant-based, microbial fermentation, cell-based and, yes, bugs. For the cell-cultured meat industry, maybe 6% of the total market by 2035 might be enough.
However, if they want to reach a higher share of the market, they will need to work on their message and how to make meat-without-the-animal not so futuristic in the minds of consumers.