Ever since the world's first lab-grown hamburger debuted back in 2013, the industry of in vitro meat production has been accelerating at a breakneck pace. We're closer than ever to having lab-grown meat on grocery store shelves, but as the barriers of technology and cost are broken down, one significant hurdle remains: How do we convince people to eat it?
Winning over meat-eaters, the industry's target market, will take effort. Telling consumers that lab-grown meat is better for the planet won't be enough—history shows that this hasn't convinced many to change what's on their plates. Add in the fact that people are wigged out that this meat is produced in a lab, instead of on a living animal, and it gets harder still. To really get people to change, in vitro meat manufacturers will have to bring something else to the table.
David Kay is the business analyst for Memphis Meats, which revealed its new lab-grown chicken and duck this week. He told me the company's plan is to make a product that's identical to meat as we know it, and then to educate people about why their version is better.
"We don't see us as asking folks to change their diet," Kay told me. "All we're doing is producing the same product that people have enjoyed for millennia in a different process that's better for the environment, the animals, and public health. We think if we communicate that clearly, folks will be able to get behind this."
In vitro meat is made by collecting a small amount of stem cell tissue from a living animal and then cultivating it to multiply naturally into muscle and fat. Compared to factory farming, it uses much less land and water, produces way less greenhouse gas emissions, and doesn't harm any animals. Because it's cultivated, it can also be enhanced to be more nutritious or less fatty, and doesn't need to use antibiotics, which, when used in farming, contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
But environmental messaging is often ineffective when it comes to changing people's diets. The link between eating animal products and climate change is well established, yet the majority of people have no idea how big of an impact eating meat has on the environment. Most people are aware that factory farming uses some pretty cruel practices, yet only 3 percent of Americans identify as strictly vegan or vegetarian. Our diets are culturally entrenched. Even when we know how problematic our food system is, changing what we eat is no easy feat.
"There will probably be that initial thought that it's gross or not natural, but factory farming is gross and unnatural," said Suzanne Lipton, a sustainable food expert and the project manager at Columbia University's Earth Institute. "If [lab-grown meat] was leaner, or had more protein per calorie, that could lead to people switching, as well as a lower price point."
Ultimately, it might be cost that convinces people to make the switch. Memphis Meats says that by 2021 it will be able to make its product cheaply enough to launch to consumers. Innovators in this field claim that, once scaled up, in vitro meat can be even cheaper than traditional meat. At that point, they'll be appealing to customers on a much more effective level than their conscience: their wallets.
Subscribe to pluspluspodcast , Motherboard's new show about the people and machines that are building our future.