While some vegans may revel in the opportunity to feast on fake BBQ chicken wings for the first time in years, others will baulk at the thought of substitute beef grease lining their upper lip.
Veganism is on the rise. The number of people who subscribe to the diet has grown by 500% since 2014 in the US, according to a report by GlobalData. Meanwhile, The Vegan Society reports that 42% of vegans in England, Scotland and Wales are aged 15–34, and veganism is one of Britain’s fastest-growing lifestyle movements. But will the same people who scour restaurant menus for the magic green ‘v’ tick symbol be as likely to bite down on a bleeding piece of in-vitro steak?
The answer is not a straightforward yes or no. New Harvest claims its lab-grown eggs, milk and meat are a cruelty-free and sustainable alternative to intensive crop and animal farming. Similarly, Finless Foods, a company that grows fish flesh in its laboratory, says it can feed 5,000 people without needing to kill a single animal.
Essentially, the argument is that if you eliminate livestock from the equation, you remove the environmental impact of meat production. Cows, in particular, drink up to 11,000 gallons of water a year each (source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and account for 9.5% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
There is no shortage of investors willing to pour money into this growth market. Memphis Meats – which already produces chicken, beef, and duck from animal cells – received a new £13m ($17m, €14.6m) donation from American industrial powerhouses including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and global agricultural corporation Cargill.
Vegans might not salivate at the idea, however. Firstly, there are ethical as well as environmental reasons for going vegan. Although in-vitro labs may argue that in-vitro meat was never technically alive, biting into flesh still presents a moral dilemma. After all, lab-grown meat is still the sum of its components: be it blood serum, often from unborn calves, or collagen from animal skin or bones. Secondly, the manufacturing process will be heavily scrutinised as in-vitro meat production presents consumers with a similar quandary as genetically modified crops.
The entire organic movement is based on the idea that we do not know what the damage to the environment or humans is if we play God and modify DNA, and is opposed to chemicals becoming involved in the food production process.
The in-vitro meat industry could hit back by arguing that its product is cleaner and leaner. Meat could be modified to match a customer's palate, or be engineered to be more nutritious. Dr Koert van Mensvoort, director of the Next Nature Network and co-author of the In Vitro Meat Cookbook, even suggests that we could dine on the flesh of celebrities grown from swabbed cells. Fancy a bite on a Kim Kardashian rump steak anyone?
Still others will argue that in-vitro is not Kosher, Halal or even Christian. The closest product on the market that offers an absolute guilt-free experience is The Impossible Burger. The research and development team have worked extensively to mimic everything from the smell to the texture of a bleeding burger using nothing but plant proteins. This places The Impossible Burger closer to the fake meats category than cultured meat.
Ultimately, with food it all comes down to taste. While some vegan consumers may revel in the opportunity to feast on fake BBQ chicken wings for the first time in years, others will baulk at the thought of substitute beef grease lining their upper lip. If brands can perfect the recipe perhaps customers will keep coming back for more. For now, though, the best strategy is to keep products as guilt-free as possible – eliminating barriers to entry by addressing consumers’ ethical, societal and environmental concerns as best as possible.
For more on the emerging attitudes and behaviour that will become more of a pressing concern for brands in the near future, see our Consumer 2020 piece.