By the end of the year, you may be able to walk into a restaurant and order chicken grown from chicken cells in a bioreactor rather than from an animal. It’s already possible to buy plant-based burgers more realistic than anything available in the past. It raises a question: What would it take to fully replace meat from animals?
In a new book, The End of Animal Farming, Jacy Reese, the research director and cofounder of the nonprofit think tank Sentience Institute, argues that it’s something that could feasibly happen by the end of the century.
Reese studied past shifts, such as how long it took women to get the right to vote and how long it took for cars to be widely adopted, and then made adjustments based on the difficulty of the problem, how motivated people are to tackle it, and what tools are available.
Increasingly, he argues, people are aware of the giant environmental footprint of producing meat, and problems with factory farms. And now it’s becoming more practical to actually replace it. “We’re getting the food technology, and we’re getting the commercial infrastructure,” he says.
Meat giants like Cargill and Tyson are investing in startups like Memphis Meats, which made the first lab-grown meatball in 2016, and Beyond Meat, which sells its uber-realistic plant-based burger in the meat case at Whole Foods.
Impossible Foods, the manufacturer of a plant-based burger known for its use of heme–the protein that makes blood red and gives meat a large part of its flavor–has raised $387 million to date. Just, a food tech company that started with a plant-based version of mayo and plans to soon launch a “cultured meat” or “clean meat” grown in bioreactors, has raised $220 million. Reese says that more funding could move the field much more quickly.
“In the scope of global technologies, that’s still not much funding,” he says. “If just one government decides to pick up the flag and carry this as one of their most important technological issues, the way renewable energy or solar or something has been picked up, we could see really, really rapid technological progress.” New policies–like meat taxes, which some governments have considered–could also accelerate the adoption of alternatives.
Impossible Foods aims to eliminate the need to use animals in food production by 2035. Richard Branson, who has invested in startups in the field, says that he thinks all meat could be “clean” or plant-based within three decades.
“As a social scientist, as someone who doesn’t have the same incentives, I do take a more pessimistic outlook,” Reese says. “You have to consider the logistics–the meat industry is particularly embedded and particularly large–it’s over $1 trillion globally. So that makes me think that even if we get really rapid moral changes and this exciting new technology, it’s still going to take decades . . . to get to all corners of the globe.” Still, he argues that by 2050, more than half of meat, dairy, and eggs in high-income countries could be animal-free. By the end of the century, that could potentially be true for all “meat” everywhere.
One of the big issues, of course, is social acceptance–something that Reese, who grew up in Texas near cattle ranches, understands well. In the book, he talks through the fallacies in some common arguments about nutrition (meat is not necessary for health), naturalness (animals bred to live on factory farms, with growth hormones and antibiotics, are not “natural”), or the idea that it’s possible to raise animals for meat humanely (even producing eggs humanely may not be possible at scale). Reese argues that social pressure can help people make the shift, whether through campaigns that tout vegan celebrities or through other forms of social proof that societies can move beyond eating meat produced from animal agriculture.
By 2100, he predicts in the book, “all forms of animal farming will seem outdated and barbaric.” The date may be not be precise, but it’s important, he tells Fast Company, to take the long view. “It’s just really important for us to speculate,” he says. “It’s important for us to have long-term strategies. A lot of movements, I think, falter because they are too focused on just what can we achieve tomorrow and not how do we build a movement–how do we build social momentum and legislative momentum for long-term goals.”