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People Keep Saying We'll Eat Lab-Grown Meat by 2040, But We've Heard That Before

For decades, we've heard that lab-grown meat is just around the corner. So what's the hold up?

by Bettina Makalintal
Jun 12 2019, 6:32pm

Photo by Randy Risling/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Most of the world will be eating alternatively sourced meat by 2040, according to a recent market report from the consulting firm A.T. Kearney. The report is titled "How Will Cultured Meat and Meat Alternatives Disrupt the Agricultural and Food Industry?" and its answer is, well, a lot. By the firm's estimate, 60 percent of the world's meat will be lab-grown or plant-based by 2040, with conventional meat falling from 90 percent of the market to just 40 percent over 15 years. Because of the venture capital backing, increased customer acceptance of alternative meats, and features like a longer shelf life, the report suggests, "it is only a matter of time before meat replacements capture a substantial market share."

By 2040, the firm predicts, cultured meat (i.e., made by harvesting animal cells to grow new protein in a lab) will be more popular than "vegan meat replacements," like the plant-based burgers we're hearing about everywhere, occupying 35 percent and 25 percent of the market respectively. As a partner at A.T. Kearney told the Guardian, "For passionate meat-eaters, the predicted rise of cultured meat products means that they still get to enjoy the same diet they always have, but without the same environmental and animal cost attached."

Given the high profile of alt-meats like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, that might seem reasonable. If you're a frequent reader of food news, those brands are unavoidable, and those options are surely gaining popularity with consumers: according to numbers from the Plant Based Foods Association, plant-based meat sales rose by 24 percent between 2017 and 2018 (animal-based meat, meanwhile, grew by two percent). Still, it's worth considering the report with a grain of salt: People have been predicting the takeover of alternative meats since before the Impossible Burger was even a twinkle in Silicon Valley's eye.

As far back as 1931, Winston Churchill predicted that lab-grown meat would become the norm within 50 years. In the essay, "Fifty Years Hence," the former Prime Minister wrote, "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." 1981 is long gone, but the future Churchill envisioned, where "new strains of microbes will be developed and made to go a great deal of our chemistry for us" to make new proteins, isn't yet our reality.

As the New Yorker has pointed out, prominent works of speculative fiction have included lab-grown meat in their visions of the future. The world of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake includes genetically-modified "Chickie-Nobs," while William Gibson's Neuromancer relies on "vat-grown flesh." (To be fair to their predictions, the timeline of each is quite vague.)

After Dutch scientists grew "muscle-like strips" in a lab in 2011, the BBC listed lab-grown meat as the food we'll be eating in 20 years. In the same year, a researcher at Oxford predicted just five years before lab-grown "mincemeat" became a commercial option, according to The Week, and at least ten until lab-grown steak—but only if research funding increased. By this past March, Modern Farmer claimed that lab-grown meat was "closer to store shelves."

However, after "tens of millions of dollars in the last two years from billionaires such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and the agriculture giants Cargill and Tyson," Nature wrote this February, biologists told the journal that the industry still has "lots of technical hurdles [to] overcome." That's in addition to the inevitable logistical problems of regulation and scaling—consider, for example, the recent Impossible Burger shortages at restaurants—and the suggestion that cultured meat might also be environmentally destructive.

Of course, lab-grown meat will eventually make it on the menu, and who knows? It might end up being the most common option. For now, though, we're not holding our breath.