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We should turn Brexit Britain into a Lab Meat Superpower
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I like to think of myself as a cold-hearted rationalist.
After seeing Interstellar, a film where humanity is saved because the hero’s love for his daughter transcends space and time1, I remember gazing into my partner’s eyes and telling her that I know my love for her is just a neurological delusion2.
But for some reason, my Vulcan-like pursuit of logic and reason are easily short-circuited by animals.
I can’t bear to watch heart-warming YouTube videos about rescued dogs that end with them happily re-homed, because of the sad bit at the start3. I’d rather spend an hour capturing and releasing a spider, than kill it in an instant. And when Twitter was baying for the blood of Geronimo, the supposedly TB-riddled alpaca, even though my rational brain knew the public health arguments were pretty sound, I couldn’t admit to myself that it was probably right that the state execute the animal4.
Unsurprisingly, I’m also a vegetarian. Ideologically, I’d obviously like to be a vegan, but for various complex medical reasons I’m not quite there yet5.
So simply put, and I realise this won’t make me popular, I really don’t like to think about animals suffering or being killed6.
And this is why I was so excited to see a tweet from famous bioethicist Peter Singer, about a trip to Singapore where he was served what proponents euphemistically call “cultivated” meat. And what everyone else calls “lab-grown meat” – animal cells that have been grown in a tank in a laboratory.
Unlike existing plant-based meat substitutes, like Beyond Burgers, Quorn and the like, this really is real meat – but without any animals having been killed to get it to the plate.
And maybe I’d just not been paying enough attention, but I had no idea this was actually something that had already been invented and already existed in the world.
Obviously I was aware of the idea in principle. It’s something that has long been a staple of science fiction7 and future-gazing think-pieces. But the idea that the technology is already mature enough to make food that is actually served and eaten in restaurants? That blew my mind.
Learning this sent me down a bit of a rabbit-hole. And it led to lots of big thoughts about how this incredible technology could reduce the amount of suffering in the world. Not the suffering of animals though, but the suffering of the British people since 2016.
As I think lab meat could be an enormous opportunity to actually – I can scarcely believe I’m typing this – take advantage of Brexit. Seriously.
That’s right folks, I’m now such a Substack Contrarian that I think I’ve actually found the long-elusive ‘Brexit dividend’. Well, maybe. In any case, if you value my writing, please consider subscribing. This is a free post, but it still took a few days to put together. And if you subscribe, you can get an essay on a big topic (Brexit, woke stuff, housing, electric cars, bins and so on) in your inbox every single week.
Lab meat at scale
To be clear, the lab meat industry is in a relatively, er, embryonic phase. Though there are a tonne of start-ups working in the space, we’re still some way away from a lab-grown Big Mac at every Drive Thru. Take GoodMeat, for example, which fed Peter Singer above.
At the moment, its ‘cultivated’ chicken is only available at two rather high-end restaurants in New York and Singapore8. And according to its website, it rations reservations, which suggests there is some way to go in terms of scaling up the manufacturing of lab meat.
Similarly, according to this 2021 Social Market Foundation paper, production costs for lab meat are currently between one hundred and ten thousand times higher than comparable animal meat products.
But what I think is striking about this, and I can’t emphasise it enough, is that the fundamental technology breakthrough has already been achieved. We can already fabricate ‘real’ chicken meat, apparently with a process that involves growing cells in a fermentation-like process, followed by some clever 3D printing to make it look appetising.
This is why I think the lab meat opportunity is so massive: Because, for chicken at least, the problem isn’t a potentially impossible question of biology or physics, but is more of an economics problem of manufacturing at scale.
And scale is a problem that humans are good at solving when we know something is going to be particularly useful. Take the cost of sequencing a human genome, which cost $100m to sequence one person’s DNA when the technology was first pioneered around the turn of the millennium. Today it can be done for as little as $6009.
Or look at the cost of the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars. As the industry has scaled production (and the science has slowly improved), the cost of batteries has absolutely collapsed, meaning that today we are very close to having electric cars that are competitive with the price and range of petrol vehicles.
I’m sure scaling the lab meat industry is a hard problem in itself. I’m obviously not an expert in the field. But again, crucially it is not a question of science, but of marshalling the resources, cash and political will to do it at scale. With the right support, we could collapse the cost of lab meat too.
Even better, what I think is obvious is that surely – surely – if the technology was scaled and commercialised, the demand would clearly be there? Given that 70 billion (yes, billion) chickens are reportedly slaughtered every single year, that’s a lot of potential customers who could be persuaded to make the switch10.
Once scale has been achieved, this will presumably create more of a virtuous cycle of investment, and further rapid iteration and refinement, just like how the camera inside an iPhone 15 is almost incomprehensibly better than the camera found inside the original 2007 iPhone.
And of course, though there is some expert disagreement, it seems obvious to me that lab meat could also make a big climate impact too. Though there is some controversy over the carbon emissions, from my lay-persons perspective I’m very unconvinced by the counter arguments11.
So now you’re sold on the idea, the obvious question is: What can the government actually do? Luckily, you don’t need me to bullshit my way through this, as actual experts have actually thought about this before me.
For example, GFI Europe, the lobbying group for the ‘cultivated’ meat industry have published a bunch of recommendations, which includes the suggestion that the government increase research and development funding for lab meat to at least £49m/year – or to £78m/year to “truly compete internationally”. Which honestly doesn’t sound like that much money, given the government is happy to drop a million on a whim, to pay for some chess boards in a handful of parks.
The more substantial thing to fix though appears to be around regulation, which is currently weirdly onerous.
Last month Israeli company Aleph Farms submitted an application to sell ‘cultured’ beef in the UK. Great! But the expectation is apparently that it will take between 12 and 24 months before they get the green light to start serving. That feels like a long time to wait12, and they’re not the only company bogged down by the regulator.
I strongly recommend reading this great piece by Tali Fraser in The House, which talks about how a similar British company, Hoxton Farms, is currently planning to scale up from “bench scale” manufacturing, with table-spoon-sized samples, to full-sized factory manufacturing. But the company is now looking at moving abroad, to the US or Singapore, because the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is just too slow to deal with.
The only good news is that the FSA is at least aware of this. Earlier this year, the agency itself published its own report on options for regulating ‘novel’ food products which basically boil down to a menu of choices for the government that range between some minor tweaks, to a more laissez-faire environment where the onus would be on consumers to judge the risks for themselves.
But clearly, there is more that can be done by politicians13. And this is where I think, despite being a hardcore Remainer, that if we absolutely must make the best of a shitty Brextuation, that there is an opportunity here for Brexit Britain.
The Brexit dividend
From a regulatory perspective, lab meat is in a broadly similar position to another bleeding-edge new technology: Generative AI.
Over the last year, the current Tory government has leant into the emerging technology, making a big show of how OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, is opening its first international office in London. In November, we’ll be hosting an International AI Summit at Bletchley Park. And of course, there has been plenty of briefing about how the Prime Minister himself has a special interest in all matters AI.
Maybe this is true. Rishi went to Stanford and is often characterised as a California tech-bro. But I’d cynically speculate that part of the reason for the government’s focus is because AI can give Rishi’s inevitably short Premiership something of a legacy.
This is because it is so new, it’s an issue that isn’t heavily weighed down by the interests of incumbent stakeholders, and nor are there (yet) contentious dividing lines both inside the Tory Party nor between the Tories and Labour. So there’s a real chance that Rishi could codify the AI rules that define the future of the industry14.
But Westminster palace intrigue aside, there is also a substantive case for why Britain should particularly care about AI, beyond it being an obviously important technology of the future. Because we’re arguably uniquely placed. And this is where you’ll see the connection with lab meat.
On the one hand, we’re a large-ish country with tens of millions of consumers and a great universities sector that pumps out high-skilled STEM graduates. But crucially, we’re not too large. Unlike the regulatory superpowers of the United States and the European Union, we’re basically easier to lobby. Not least because we’re desperate for growth and investment.
So when AI companies talk about wanting regulation (to both stabilise the industry and to make it harder for new entrants to jump in), from a structural perspective our regulators will be slightly easier to push around to write the rules more in the AI firms’ favour.
So for an emerging technology that will inevitably attract regulatory scrutiny as it scales up, we might luck out as the ‘just right’, warm bowl of porridge on the table. A big enough market to sell to, a small enough market to push around15.
And this brings me back to lab meat, where the parallels are clear.
From a regulatory perspective, the EU is typically fairly cautious, and though as the Chlorinated Chicken taught us, regulators are more freewheeling in the United States16, it does have a politics where farming interests play a very powerful role17, so you can imagine how pitching a technology that literally does away with traditional farming might go down badly.
So I think you can imagine a similar ‘just right’ role for Britain here. At the moment, our food standards are de-facto aligned with the EU. But if the government does diverge in the future, then surely there is more space for us to offer a more permissive environment for lab-grown meat?18
We could fast-track regulatory processes (no Brussels bureaucrats!), and help start-ups get their products from the lab and on to plates more quickly. Lab meat firms could use British graduates to scale their operations and British stomachs to grow into viable businesses.
We’d obviously be much more attractive than tiny Singapore. And as a nation of animal lovers that notoriously prioritised saving dogs from the Taliban over the people who literally helped our troops, I suspect many millions of us would be enthusiastic early-adopters too19.
So forget Singapore-on-Thames, let’s cook Singapore Fried Chicken instead. It’s not a neurological delusion, it’s the rational thing to do.
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Spoiler alert, I guess. Though it came out almost a decade ago now, so really it’s your fault at this point if you don’t know how it ends.
Luckily she is just as much of a cold-hearted rationalist as I am, so she actually found this very romantic.
One of the weird thing about having my brain configured like this is experiencing the weirdness of TV regulation. Obviously swearing, nudity and violence before 9pm was a no-no, but I remember seeing an actual kids TV show growing up, some sort of desert-island-survival thing, that showed the presenter on screen learning how to slaughter a chicken, with the chicken dying on screen. No thanks.
Though I love our cats, the one compromise we had to make was obviously that they eat meat. So when we feed them, I do find it weirdly quite distressing when I catch a glimpse on the packaging and it reminds me what animal it used to be. (Lab meat cat-food seems like a potentially lucrative early market. No need to worry about consumers finding it a bit gross, as cats won’t know the difference anyway.)
I was actually raised as a vegetarian by my parents, so I can’t even comprehend a lot of things that meat-eaters like. For example, what’s the deal with putting cartoony-pictures of the animal that has been slaughtered on the packaging? Surely you don’t want to be reminded of that? And the soft-focus M&S adverts about how well-treated cattle is? I guess it’s better than battery farming, but I still can’t get past the fact that those lovely cows in the lovely field end their lives with a bolt through the brain.
We all remember the episode of Torchwood with the whale, sadly.
Though as far as I can tell, Singer didn’t eat the restaurant, but at the company’s office on a special visit, because he’s an important man.
We surely can’t be too far away from everyone having their genomes sequenced at birth, which will be a fun one for privacy people to argue about.
Even if you wouldn’t personally, there probably more wavering, vegetarian-curious people who would. And hey, you don’t have to switch all of your meat consumption. How about saving the real dead animals for special occasions, if it means so much to you? And stick to lab-grown chicken for eating at your desk on your lunch break.
Obviously I am a non-expert, but if you click through to that MIT article about the carbon impact, you’ll see that it mostly refers to the problem being the amount of ‘energy’ being used, and so lab meat isn’t good for the climate because fossil fuels are used to generate energy. What a mad assumption to make! Even if growing lab meat is more energy intensive, we could plug in renewable energy sources! Certainly it doesn’t sound like, say, industrial processes like pouring concrete, where CO2 is part of the chemical reaction that actually makes concrete.
Especially for a small company that is presumably living off of the good-will of venture capitalists.
Another problem I read about somewhere was that it is apparently pretty unclear which bits of government and the regulatory state are in charge of setting the rules, with responsibilities for various policies that impact lab meat firms fall across FSA, DEFRA, and DSIT, and not in one single place.
It’ll be like how we remember Richard Nixon primarily as a great environmentalist, as he founded the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Plus we’ve got – despite everything – stable democracy, a fair legal system, good institutions and even a relatively stable economy.
In fact the USDA has already approved lab meat – hence how GoodMeat can sell their chicken in New York.
Interestingly the Democrats have now moved their first primary from Iowa to South Carolina for 2028, but the problem is obviously more broad than just the one Caucus.
One very specific post-Brexit example pitched by GFI Europe is changing the rules of food labelling so that lab-based and plant-based products can use terms like “meat” without any qualification. At the moment, under EU rules, we have things like plant-based milk alternatives unable to brand itself as "milk”.
I’m not sure how closely vaccine enthusiasm maps to ‘novel’ food enthusiasm – but it suggests that as a population we may not be entirely averse to it compared to, say, the United States.