Should the rise of alternative meat worry veterinarians?

Lab-grown and plant-based products raise prospect of tectonic shift in profession

May 8, 2023 (published)
Photo courtesy of Eat Just
Cell-cultured chicken developed by a California company was approved in late 2020 for commercial sale in Singapore, a world first. Another American company with a similar product passed a safety review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration late last year.

Dozens of veterinary students in Brazil soon will be challenged with a practical task that you wouldn't encounter in your standard veterinary medicine program: They will be asked to grow their own batch of cultured meat in a petri dish.

Cultured meat, also known as cultivated, cell-based or lab-grown meat, is at the cutting edge of an alternative meat sector that includes more established plant-based products proffered for years by the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.

Dr. Carla Molento, a professor at the Federal University of Paraná in southern Brazil, anticipates that "alt meat" will dramatically lessen the need for food animals. And she wants her students to be prepared with new skill sets that could help them adjust, be it through an understanding of animal-cell genetics or a continued role overseeing food hygiene and quality control.

The elective course, cellular animal science, was offered for the first time this academic year to students enrolled in the Brazilian university's veterinary medicine and animal science programs. Fifty-five students signed up — an unusually high number for an optional subject there.

"It's only an introductory course because we're still building our lab," Molento said. "We're aiming in the second semester to be able to teach with practical classes as well, so students can grow in a semester a small amount of muscle cells to see how it works."

The course's debut comes even as discussion sizzles over how long it might take for alternative meat to start challenging traditional meat as a major protein source, let alone replace it entirely.

Some people, including Molento, predict that alternative meat — along with alternative dairy and alternative eggs — could, in 10 to 20 years, become a disruptor in the veterinary realm akin to the internal combustion engine, which triggered a sharp decline in the world's horse population during the early 20th century. Others posit that alternative meat could take longer — 30, 40, perhaps even 100 years — to become a major component of our diets, while others wonder if it'll ever become mainstream.

Proponents point to two main growth drivers: improving animal welfare by removing the need for slaughter and/or cruel farming practices, and helping the environment. Meat production is a significant contributor to land clearing, whether to make room for farmed animals or the crops that feed them. Clearing land releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destroys native habitats, diminishing biodiversity and potentially promoting emerging diseases. Methane emitted by cattle and other ruminants also is a potent greenhouse gas.

In brief

Despite its purported benefits, enthusiasm for the only form of alternative meat to gain commercial traction to date — plant-based meat — has been tempered by concerns about its nutritional value, taste, texture and price compared with traditional meat. Plant-based meat companies insist their wares will become more popular as they shrink production costs and, in the words of Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown, "improve the sensory experience" of their products.

Cultured meat developers maintain they can more easily overcome concerns about taste and texture because their products are made from actual animal cells. Adopting techniques used in regenerative medicine, making cultured meat involves taking stem cells from animals, adding nutrients, and allowing the cells to multiply in petri dishes or, for larger-scale production, in bioreactors.

The cultured meat sector is in its infancy, with challenges of its own to overcome, such as high production costs and public perceptions about naturalness and safety. Singapore is the only place where it is available commercially. Moves are afoot to market cultured meat elsewhere, however, including in the United States.

In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration completed a safety review of a cultured chicken product developed by Upside Foods, based in Berkeley, California. The company still needs approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service before it can market the product. Still, it described the green light from the FDA as a "watershed moment in the history of food."

Looking back to see forward

Nobody knows precisely how and when alternative meat, milk and eggs might shake up the veterinary profession. But history tells us that veterinary medicine isn't immune to existential crises, most notably when horses — once the lifeblood of the profession — started being replaced by automobiles.

Harkening back to the invention of the internal combustion engine makes for an apt comparison when chewing over alternative meat, according to Dr. Susan Jones, a veterinarian and historian at the University of Minnesota. "That's because what you're asking, basically, is: What will veterinarians do if a certain type of animal is no longer important or valuable enough to support? And that's exactly what happened with horses."

Horses, used by humans for millennia for transportation and power generation, started waning in economic value in the 18th century after the invention of the steam engine spurred the development of extensive railway networks. Short-haul travel, however, continued to be made on horseback until the emergence of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century raised the prospect of using automobiles instead.

Change thereafter, Jones recounts, was gradual, taking another 30 or 40 years to play out. Horses, for instance, were used extensively throughout World War I, which spanned from 1914 to 1918, and during which a staggering 8 million of the animals perished.

Still, the invention in 1908 of the Ford Model T made automobiles significantly more affordable, and, by the 1920s, veterinarians were starting to get worried, Jones said. "Then, by the 1930s, some were questioning whether the profession would even survive."

Many private veterinary schools closed during the 1920s due to a sharp drop in horse numbers. The epicenter of veterinary medicine, located in urban centers because that's where horses were needed, started shifting to rural areas where there were food animals. Employment opportunities in the country, however, were comparatively sparse, especially as more geopolitical calamity loomed.

"Veterinarians were experiencing this downturn in their most valuable patient at a time when the world was heading into the Great Depression, and then you had World War II," Jones said. "It kind of was a perfect storm for vets."

In the end, of course, the profession survived and has gone on to thrive. Initially, Jones explained, it got a boost from moves by many countries to eradicate certain diseases of livestock, upping the need for testing, treatment and vaccination. In the U.S., for instance, a major bovine tuberculosis eradication program that ran for about three decades was an important source of employment for veterinarians. Companion animal medicine, meanwhile, took off in the mid-20th century as people increasingly valued animals for more than their ability to provide food, power and transportation.

Today, companion animal veterinarians constitute by far the largest part of the profession. In the U.S., for example, the latest data from the American Veterinary Medical Association indicates that in 2022, of 92,875 employed practitioners, 67.2% were in companion practice, 4.2% in mixed practice, 4.1% in equine, 3.9% in food animal and 4.8% in "species unspecified." The remainder mostly were spread between academia, government, industry/commercial and "other."

A change decades in the making?

So, looking to the future, what does a historian like Jones think about alternative meat's significance? Could its emergence prove an equally revolutionary time for the profession?

It's hard to say, Jones said, noting that food animal medicine isn't nearly as dominant a force in the veterinary domain today as equine medicine was in the early 20th century. And, just as the switch from horseback to automobiles didn't happen overnight, nor would a switch from traditional to alternative meat, she said. "I think it's going to take a long time ... due to economic and cultural factors."

A profit-driven food system, Jones said, will find little incentive to change unless production costs fall and consumers change their tastes. "Food cultures tend to change slowly unless there's a lot of investment in persuading people to change," she said, while noting that demand for traditional meat is increasing globally as poorer countries develop a taste for protein-rich diets.

On the other hand, Jones observed, further technological innovation and environmental considerations could boost the alternative meat sector, perhaps sooner in European countries that are taking a more politically progressive approach to combating climate change.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Carla Molento
These veterinary medicine and animal science students at the Federal University of Paraná in southern Brazil are studying an elective subject that may allow them to capitalize on job opportunities offered by alternative meat. They are pictured with professors Dr. Carla Molento (far left) and Rodrigo Luiz Morais-da-Silva (bottom right).

For their part, food-industry experts predict that alternative meat could at least comprise a "large" portion of the meat sector before today's veterinary school graduates reach retirement, according to Rodrigo Luiz Morais-da-Silva, a professor of business administration at the Federal University of Paraná.

Morais-da-Silva bases that assertion on doctoral research he conducted with Molento and others at the university that involved interviewing 136 food-industry experts in Brazil, the U.S. and Europe about the potential impact of alternative meat on jobs.

The research, published last year in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, concluded that lower-skilled farm workers have the most to lose, while highly qualified individuals have an opportunity to recalibrate their skills to grasp employment opportunities created by alternative meat.

"Our study showed that specialists in the field see a scenario in which alternative meat represents a big part of the market — not the entire market, but a big part — in about 30 years or 35 years," Morais-da-Silva said in an interview.

Personally, Morais-da-Silva suspects meaningful change could occur faster, perhaps in 20 years, as production costs fall. His bullishness is based in part on the fact that big players in the traditional meat industry, such as JBS of Brazil and Cargill Meat Solutions of the U.S., are investing heavily in alternative meat.

At least one global management consultancy shares that view. Kearny has forecast conventional meat's market share to fall from 90% in 2025 to 40% by 2040, with cultured meat making up 35% of the market by then, and plant-based meat the remaining 25%.

"This is not set. It depends on choices," said Molento, noting that policy decisions by governments may be a swing factor. In a positive sign for alternative meat, for instance, the Biden administration in September signed an executive order advancing research into the development of alternative protein sources in the U.S., including cultured meat. By contrast, Italy's government in March backed a draft bill to ban the production and sale of cultured meat, with the aim of protecting the country's conventional meat industry. The ban is pending approval in Parliament.

No matter the political nuances, Molento reckons it's a matter of when, not if, alternative meat relegates traditional meat to runner-up status, perhaps even niche status. That's because many meat eaters, she maintains, aren't necessarily happy that animals die but eat meat anyway because they don't want to give it up.

"For most people, I believe, if they can eat meat without killing an animal, they will go for that — if it's the same price, the same quality," she said. "Try talking to someone eating meat and asking, 'Have you seen an animal being killed? Have you been to an abattoir?' And they will say, 'Whoa, I don't want to talk about this.' So, it's highly dissonant for people."

In Africa, a veterinarian turns cultured meat entrepreneur

At least one practitioner already has transitioned to a career opportunity offered by alternative meat.

Dr. Paul Bartels is a wildlife veterinarian in Pretoria, South Africa, with more than 25 years of experience in biobanking (the storage of biological samples for use in research), cell culture and assisted reproduction technologies.

In 2020, he founded the cultured meat company Mogale Meat with the aim of feeding the African continent. Bartels also was inspired by conservationism. So much food will be needed to feed Africa's fast-growing population, he's concerned about the amount of land that would need to be cleared to accommodate more livestock and crops.

"We'd turn central Africa into this one big maize field because we're going to have to produce much more animal fodder, which has a massive effect on our wildlife," Bartels said in an interview.

Mogale Meat, while producing cultivated chicken and beef, also brings a certain African flavor to its product offering. The company has collected stem cells from African antelope, including impala, eland, hartebeest and wildebeest, as well as zebra to make "bushmeat" enjoyed by locals without undermining biodiversity.

Photo courtesy of Mogale Meat
Dr. Paul Bartels, a wildlife veterinarian and founder of South African cultured meat company Mogale Meat, fears further land clearing to make way for more traditional meat could devastate native habitats in central Africa.

Bartels says the cost of producing cultured meat has fallen "tremendously," noting the first cultured hamburger was given a €250,000 (US$276,000) price tag when it was served in London in 2013 by its inventor, Mark Post, a professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. "We're probably now sitting at about $50 per pound," Bartels said.

Still, the veterinarian has a relatively conservative view of how quickly the alternative meat sector might grow. For one, at $50 per pound, cultured meat still is expensive compared with traditional meat. Ground beef in the U.S., for example, currently sells for about one-tenth of that price (though prime cuts of grass-fed beef can wholesale for upwards of $40 per pound).

To drive prices lower, producers will have to scale up. And to do that, they will need much bigger bioreactors. "The largest cell-culture bioreactor is just 2,000 liters, and it was made for drug discovery, not mass production, so there are some technical challenges the industry has to overcome," Bartels said.

Certain consumer tastes, he adds, will die hard. "There will be people that will not eat cultivated meat because they'll say they want the bone, they want ribs, they want the chops from a lamb and stuff like that."

For those reasons, Bartels predicts that demand for traditional meat will continue rising for at least another decade before moderating, at which point alternative meat will increasingly take up the slack. Overall, he expects it could take 20 to 30 years, perhaps longer, for alternative meat to have a profound impact on traditional industries. Moves by the likes of JBS, Cargill and Tyson Foods to invest in alternative meet, he posits, don't necessarily mean they're banking on major disruption happening soon.

"They're hedging their bets," he said. "They know alternative meat is going to get bigger. But at the same time, JBS is still chopping down more forest in the Amazon to have more cattle ranches.

"As far as veterinarians are concerned — and we've managed to convince our veterinary council of this here in South Africa — we don't need to panic. There's not going to be drastic change in your lifetime. It'll be more in your kid's lifetime, and by then, it'll be a whole new society."

The lowdown for food veterinarians

However long change takes to play out, within the veterinary profession, large animal practitioners would seem to be the most vulnerable in an alt-meat world.

Perhaps understandably then, veterinarians are trepidatious about the rise of cultured meat, according to research published in 2020, conducted by Molento and colleagues. When practitioners in Brazil were asked about cell-based meat in the context of its impact on the profession, 65 out of 110 respondents (59%) expressed an "unfavorable" view of it, 23 (21%) a "neutral" view and 22 (20%) a "favorable" view.

Molento, an animal welfare advocate, is among cultured meat's cheerleaders, in part because it could end a lot of animal suffering. She hopes veterinarians opposed to its development will drop their resistance for the benefit of animals, the environment and, as far as she's concerned, the veterinary profession.

"We may be at a turning point in terms of that big paradox in veterinary medicine, which is that society wants us to be a profession that saves animals, but society also wants good and cheap meat, dairy and eggs," she said.

Those seemingly contradictory aims, Molento added, could be contributing to the mental-health problems plaguing the profession — and the acute shortages of food veterinarians experienced by many rural communities.

"Most people say they want to become a vet because they love animals," Molento said. "It's a very difficult psychological environment to be in."

Jones, the veterinarian and historian, isn't so sure that a switch to alternative meat will do much to improve veterinarians' mental health. For one, she said, practitioners face multiple stressors, such as heavy workloads and grumpy clients. And she notes that companion animal veterinarians see death, too, through the regular euthanizing of animals. "I think the good that comes out of alternative meat is to animal welfare, but it's also to the environment and the climate change issue," she said.

Jones is optimistic that food animal veterinarians will be able to cope with change, pointing out they already "retooled" over the 1960s, '70s and '80s. "They were doing the, what I would call, James Herriot work, where you'd go out and treat the individual animal," she said, referencing the pen name of famed British veterinarian and author James Alfred Wight. "Now, they've become herd-health experts and experts in preventative medicine, nutrition and things like that. They're more likely to be sitting behind a computer than have a syringe in their hand."

She and others agree alternative meat could create new employment opportunities, if veterinarians want to take them.

"Biosecurity is a massive thing," said Mogale Meat's Bartels. "Who plays the biggest role in biosecurity in the world? It's veterinarians. They are at the coalface of that meat production that comes off the field, that goes to abattoirs, that goes to meat distributors. We'll still need veterinarians to assess the safety and quality of cultivated meat."

Even if alternative meat comes to dominate, Bartels notes some animals still will be around to provide stem cells, or a niche product to meat lovers. "But I don't see conventional meat dropping at all from today's levels, at least not soon," he said. "The whole idea is, how do we produce more meat than we're currently producing without buggering up the environment?"

The 55 students in Molento's elective course are learning that mastering a knowledge of genetics, histology (the understanding of animal tissues), cell metabolism and the hormonal control of cell development will be needed to produce high-quality cultured meat. And although such knowledge might overlap with other disciplines, such as biotechnology, she said that who gets to claim alternative meat as their vocational domain is very much up for grabs. "This is all so new and strange that everybody's thinking it's somebody else's activity," she said.

Molento notes that veterinary medicine isn't the only profession facing disruption due to the development of new technology, citing artificial intelligence as an obvious example.

 all going to be in a very different working world in 10 years," she said. "And if professions want to survive, they need to reinvent themselves in many ways. People tend to be connected to what has always been, and we as veterinarians have to be careful because if we are very strict on that, we're going to be losing room in this professional field."

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