Meat Without Animals: Exploring Public Policy Around Food Made with Cultured Animal Cells” — Commentary and Conversation on the CFA’s Latest Panel

Watching the debate between Jessica Almy, Isha Datar, Tom Neltner, and Jim Thomas at the Consumer Federation of America “Meat Without Animals: Exploring Public Policy Around Food Made with Cultured Cells” was unlike any other panel I had tuned into in the space of cellular agriculture. I am likely to find discussions where all panelists agree that cell ag is a step forward as a solution to climate change, food security, and our faltering food system, if not a completely revolutionary idea. While discussions like these stoke complex ideas around regulatory challenges, sustainability, biotechnology, and what we eat, they rarely represent a dynamic debate. Bringing two sides into a direct conversation was an efficient way to move the conversation forward. In a boiled down version, the debate was this: that cell based protein is a key way in which we transform a food system that leaches our climate and feeds our world, or it is just another sector of “big meat” monopolies including Tyson and Purdue, that leaves a minimal impact on climate and food security, and hurts small farmers. Will cellular agriculture just become another small subsection of an oligopolistic market, one that remains too small to create a true environmental impact?

Tom Philpott of publication Mother Jones moderated the panel of higher ups from the Good Food Institute, New Harvest, the ETC Group, and the Environmental Defense Fund. He began with the sentiment that while meat production may not change for climate change, climate change is coming for our protein industry. This is true — from ocean acidification to forest fires and water shortages, conventional protein production will experience major stressors. Philpott then raised the question of funding, a continuously broached subject in the field due to the imbalance of growing private and waning public investment. Who should fund research into cellular agriculture? Should the public sector? Should it be the FDA? The USDA? We’ve seen governments such as New Zealand’s and Singapore’s fund grants into research behind cell cultivated proteins. The first cell cultivated hamburger in 2013 out of the Netherlands came from a federal grant. Of course, there is exponentially more private money available than public in this space; however, funding academic research and subsidizing the alternative protein market would accelerate it’s progress and maintain long term success (as there would be more open access research and a safety net for the industry). If we want this market to be anything besides a niche subsection of the industrialized meat market, we need the public sector’s support. Small startups and VC backed companies have a largely significant place in the chain of innovation, but scale up requires federal interest and the implementation and advocacy of targeted policy.

Almy, head of policy at the Good Food Institute, pointed to everyday environments of families around the country as a strong influence. These families, despite what intentions are present, are “overwhelmingly influenced by their food environment, and the options that are made available to them.” Almy cited the GFI’s main concerns of antibiotic resistance and climate change, saying that cellular agriculture is certainly a viable solution to these looming and current challenges. Almy was careful to say that we need to give consumers choices. Choices that will ensure a sustainable future and reduce the externalities of industrial meat. Language is critical when discussing the nascent field; as we have seen with recent public health crises, our country can quickly divide itself over feeling as though we have choices compared to a directive. I also believe that cellular agriculture is not an and/or situation in relation to industrial agriculture, but an and/and one. We do not have the resources or the public backing to eliminate traditional or industrial farming, but we have the power to reduce it. We have the power to implement regenerative practices, in addition to cell cultivated products entering the market.

Thomas, co-executive director and researcher for the ETC Group, respectfully countered Almy’s view. He acknowledged the “very real” crises of climate change, antibiotic resistance, and food security, but countered that cellular agriculture is not the solution. As an approach, Thomas believes cellular agriculture is “buckling down on the wrong food system.” He cited large and problematic corporations as a serious threat to cellular agriculture’s success, which he believes is not encompassed by a “moonshot” approach to culturing cells in a petri dish. He believes in an “earthshot,” which expands on what our Earth already has to offer, and which favors Indigenous peoples and small farmers. This view is idyllic, and it seems to be one of retrospective pastoralism. Although we need to support small farmers and regenerative agriculture, we also need to acknowledge the role innovative (and big) industry plays in feeding our steadily growing population and ensuring multiple communities have access to protein through distribution. Certainly, privately funded moonshot projects encourage participation in the field, but it is true that they will not succeed without policy and continuous R&D backing on the other end. It is not misplaced to worry that large corporations may monopolize the field (as it is our primary system of food distribution), but it already exists as an institution that would take a major overhaul to change in favor of Thomas’s view. Both Thomas and Isha Datar of New Harvest took a wider stance, bringing related policy into the conversation. While these are not directly related to policy around efficiently producing protein, they do have implications for what will happen with the land that would no longer be used for industrial farming. These questions ranged from: how will we ensure Indigenous land is restored while incorporating this new technology? How will we bring regenerative agriculture hand in hand with high tech food? All the panelists acknowledged that we live in a capitalistic system that does not know other ways of operating on a mass scale. However, at the moment these are only tangentially related policies that need to be addressed after market success. We need specific policy that first pushes regulation and ensures the market is subsidized. Thomas also brought up the food sovereignty movement, the small farmer, and a report the ETC Group recently published titled “The Long Food Movement,” that looks 25 years into the future, and takes an analytical approach to agribusiness movements like cellular agriculture.

Neltner of the Environmental Defense Fund took a midline approach, saying cellular agriculture would likely be part of the solution, but admitted he wasn’t sure when this would be achievable. He brought up the point that the industry should learn from past mistakes of others, such as the dialogue around GMOs. While the panel did not touch on this further, this is a significant point. Cell Agri has written on the topic, warning the industry to learn from the “Monsanto lesson.” The national conversation that was started around GMOs, one that often inspires misplaced fear, was spurred by the infamous controversies around Monsanto seeds, lawsuits, and the company’s history concerning Agent Orange, used in the Vietnam war. At Helikon, we believe language and public education are critical to passing policy and increasing consumer acceptance in this field. Cultivated protein is not always a GMO, yet it’s likely that many will believe it is by default. Just as the general public often misunderstands the science behind GMOs, the science behind cultivated meat is likely to be heavily questioned. We have seen the mRNA vaccine for Covid-19 causing concern around the health of our bodies and of our genetic makeup. How will we strive to create an accurate dialogue around cultured cells?

Datar of New Harvest said during the discussion that reduced land use was one of the aspects of cellular agriculture that excited her most. “Right now we dedicate 27 percent of land on this planet towards farming and animals for food.” Datar went on to point out that cellular agriculture could reduce this land use by 90 percent, or 50 percent if a less optimistic stance is taken. Rewilding the lands, restoring topsoil, and regenerative agriculture were also on Datar’s mind. “None of that will happen unless there’s appropriate policy that makes room for regenerative agriculture, Indigenous land management, and so on.” She finished her opening statement by referencing the disruptive nature of cellular agriculture, saying that it has the “power to bring about systemic change.”

Datar later told Helikon, “To me, the debate felt like one of the first I’ve seen that evaluated cellular agriculture against other types of radical agricultural policy, rather than the status quo — which obviously everyone agrees needs to change. We all recognized that it isn’t simply a technological silver bullet — that for it to truly have the positive impact that is being promised, there needs to be a ripple effect of change across policy, the supply chain, worker’s rights, and more.” She continued, “I loved the comment by Jim — that the one thing cell ag could do to be part of the broader solution is to “LISTEN.” It is true. Cell ag proponents could do better to be more in tune with the broader movement moving away from industrial animal ag.”

Almy had similar thoughts, telling Helikon, “Good food needs to be affordable, accessible, and delicious…And there’s clearly a role for policy to play in making it happen. (USDA took a step forward on that [recently].) And both the executive and legislative branches need to prioritize investments into public research that can benefit the sector as a whole by addressing white spaces and bringing costs down. What the United States and other governments around the world do now will impact not only the choices that consumers have available to them, but also our food supply’s contribution to the climate crisis, antimicrobial resistance, and zoonotic diseases. The stakes could not be higher.”

The alternative protein market has been booming for the last 5 years, with $3.1 billion invested in 2020. We need various sustainable options to feed what will be a population of 9 billion by 2050. This will not be a one system solution, and the time to innovate the various ways in which we will feed ourselves is now. Key drivers of success include consumer acceptance, regulatory policy, and scale up (which will need a secure supply chain established, perhaps in the form of more B2B interactions). While there is not an established timeline for when all of these products may hit market, there is already significant indication that they will. In a similar stance to Helikon’s “and/and” notion of cultivated meat coupling with regenerative agriculture, Almy continued, “At GFI, we’ve been thinking about how alternative proteins (including cultivated meat) and regenerative agriculture can be complementary strategies to feed 10 billion by 2050 without exceeding our planetary boundaries. I’m looking forward to more open and spirited exchanges like it.”

Written by Thea Burke, Helikon Consulting

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Helikon Consulting

Helikon Consulting

Scientific consulting in alternative proteins — plant-based proteins, cellular agriculture, and cell-based meat