Reflections On Animal Products And Cost-Competitiveness
Unless you’ve been vegan your whole life — and very few people have — you’ve probably eaten meat and dairy before. To put it bluntly, for many people, those products are delicious. Obviously, if we’ve decided to go vegan, we’ve decided that the harms inherent to those products outweigh the benefits that we get from them, including taste. Is there a day on the horizon where partaking in them might be possible again without being unethical? How long until we can go back to eating them without contradicting our own morals?
This paper attempted to determine just that, specifically looking at when we can expect cost-competitive alternatives to meat and dairy that are near-identical to the real thing. The study is underpinned by a disclaimer that these timelines are estimates, not guarantees, and that the situation could change with differing levels of investment and competition. Furthermore, they are based on private conversations with people involved in the animal product alternative industry as well as the author’s own understanding of the technical process involved in creating such products.
Plant-based alternatives are currently the furthest along in the development cycle, but are also the least-similar to animal products. The author believes that these products will become more convincing in the next decade, as they are blended with cells grown in a lab. However, the author does not believe that plant-based alternatives will ever reach a level of mimicry that is possible through fully lab-grown products. To create products that are truly identical or nearly identical to traditional meat and dairy, the author believes that we will need to rely on lab-grown products, through the processes of acellular and cellular agriculture.
Acellular agriculture is the process of creating non-cellular animal products in a lab. Food enzymes are an example used by the author, which are already produced in this way at a competitive cost. However, scaling these processes up to create dairy and egg proteins, for example, is still a long way away. The author estimates that we will see cost-competitive acellular alternatives between 10-20 years from now.
Cellular agriculture involves growing animal cells in a lab and constructing them into edible structures like meat. This process will be simpler for processed meat products like chicken nuggets or sausage, since the structure is simpler than whole meat cuts and requires fewer types of cells. To mimic something like a steak or chicken breast, scientists have to create not only the muscle and fat cells, but also blood vessels that carry nutrients to those cells.
Mammalian and avian cells are likely the most difficult to produce, the author predicts. However, since mammals and birds are the most widely eaten animals, the level of investment will likely be high in this field. Fish and aquatic invertebrate cells are simpler to grow, but existing research and investment in this area is scant. Dairy and eggs will likely be produced through acellular agriculture, since the “important” bits of the final product are either quite simple, in the case of eggs, or provided by microbes, in the case of cheese and yogurt.
The author also touches on companion animal food, which makes up around a third of all animal calories consumed in the U.S. per year. However, the market for plant-based companion food is low, despite the relative ease of producing it, because of the (mostly correct) belief that dogs and cats need nutrients found in animal protein to be healthy. Furthermore, the meat found in most companion food comes from byproducts, not meat suitable for human consumption. Therefore, changing to non-animal companion food likely will likely minimal impact on demand for meat overall but may affect the industry economically. Finally, the author believes that we will soon see cost-competitive alternatives to luxury animal foods like foie gras, since their price point is already high.
The author closes by once again mentioning that these estimates are just that – estimates – and that increased investment and interest will likely speed things up. Furthermore, these are only for highly similar alternatives to animal products. Products that mimic the form of animal products, but are clearly not those products, like seitan sausages, almond milk, and vegan butter, for example, would not be included in this category. Once animal products can be perfectly mimicked at an affordable level by cellular agriculture, there’s obviously no justification for animal agriculture, or consumption. However, no one knows when exactly that will be, if ever. We as animal advocates need to push for reduced meat, dairy, and egg consumption in the meantime, before these miracle products are on the market.