When it comes to meat, few businesses can rival Tyson. The poultry giant ranks at number 82 on Fortune 500’s list of the world’s richest companies. Generating revenue of over $41 billion every year, it sees its products used by big name brands such as KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King and Wal-Mart. But, for all Tyson’s dominance of the meat industry, there are signs that they could be preparing to radically transform their entire business model. If Tyson’s recent investments are anything to go by, the future of meat eating may not have anything to do with meat as we know it today.
Over the last few years, pioneering advances in technology have allowed us to, for the first time, explore the possibility of artificial meat. Using cells from live animals, this new breed of food is “grown” in a culture rather than on a farm. With advanced biotechnological techniques more accessible than ever before, a world where we can all eat meat without killing a single animal is coming close to reality.
The world was first exposed to lab-grown meat in 2013, when scientists from Maastricht University presented an artificially prepared hamburger at a news conference in London. Cooked by Cornish chef Richard McGeown and (bravely) eaten by critics Hanni Rutzler and Josh Schonwold, the reviews were promising - praising the product’s consistency and flavour.
The conference prompted a flood of interest from around the world, and the artificial meat industry has since gone from strength to strength. Household names like Bill Gates, Richard Branson and agriculture super-business Cargill have all become minority shareholders in artificial meat specialists Memphis Meats. In the last few days, it has been announced that Tyson have joined these moguls in backing the San Francisco-based business. In fact, a significant portion of their $150 million-dollar investment fund is going towards research into meat alternatives. Together with their previous investment in Beyond Meat, a plant-based burger company, it’s clear where the eggheads see the industry going.
It’s little wonder that the potential for artificial meat is causing much excitement. Given the huge environmental pressure that our current farming practices are putting on the planet, the chance for meat to be produced en masse without the need for rearing huge numbers of animals is being welcomed by environmentalists. Agriculture is currently responsible for around 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so any steps that can be taken to reduce this is good news for everyone. That big businesses like Tyson are acknowledging a need for change by investing in projects like Memphis Meats just goes to show how urgently the situation needs to be addressed.
Similarly, anyone with ethical qualms over eating meat could have their concerns alleviated by slaughter-free animal products. While it remains to be seen whether vegetarians and vegans would welcome a new range of lab-grown meat products with open arms, businesses are clearly alert to the fact that this new technology could introduce their products to previously untapped markets.
The new technology is essential in making meat substitutes more naturalistic. Though meat alternatives like Quorn and seitan have been on the market for a while, it is only recently that real leaps have been made towards creating a substitute that is genuinely “meaty”. Tyson’s other investment, Beyond Meat, has been able to successfully create "chicken" strips from a protein found in peas, as well as a "beef" burger that bleeds beetroot juice. Bill Gates recently described being utterly fooled by a “Beyond” product, indicative of how far the industry as a whole has come.
Despite both the clear global benefits of exploring the possibilities presented by lab-grown meat and the technological advances various businesses have made, the concept has been met with no small degree of scepticism. In a recent poll, the idea of eating artificial produce was sharply divisive. Only about one third of responders said that they would be open to the idea of eating artificial meat on a regular basis. The most common concerns cited were cost, flavour and “naturalness”. This reticence from consumers could prove to be one of the biggest barriers to the industry’s continued expansion.
There are also justifiable concerns over what the introduction of lab-grown meat could mean for those whose livelihoods depend on animal agriculture. There’s a very real danger that those at the bottom of the business pyramid find themselves excluded from the marketplace, if the world does embrace new, more “ethical” meat products. Balancing the need for development in our farming practises with maintaining peoples’ livelihoods promises to be a difficult tightrope to walk over the coming years.
Lab-grown meat is not a straightforward issue. Talking to current vegetarians over whether they would consider buying an artificially produced steak raises a whole host of hitherto unconsidered philosophical questions about what does and does not constitute eating an animal. However, that we are even able to have these conversations at all indicates that these advances are going to change our relationship with meat forever, whether we want them to or not. It might seem unappetising to some, but with giants like Tyson muscling in on the action, it seems inevitable that lab-grown meat will soon be a permanent feature in the culinary landscape. For better or for worse, there is a new player about to take a seat at the dinner table.