Monday, September 14, 2009

More Public Funding for Test Tube Food

A few months back, I argued in the Foreign Policy website that public cash needs to be put behind in vitro meat. Recently, I read a piece in Seed magazine, in which the director of a nonprofit (called New Harvest) that supports in vitro meat was interviewed. In it, the director, Jason Matheny, explains the recent evolutions and details of the process of developing cultured meat as an alternative to livestock-derived meat.

The interview is interesting, but one thing Mateny said is particularly important: "The Oxford economic feasibility study I mentioned earlier suggests that, at an industrial scale, the cultured meat cost should be quite competitive with conventional meat, but we’re not there yet. It’s five to 10 years away, not two or three."

Later, he reiterates the "10 years off" line. This is significant because it means that investors won't take big risks on this technology right now since it probably won't be profitable for another decade. But in a year when the next climate deal is supposed to be struck at Copenhagen, this technology is too good to let it simmer below market signals. Given the amount of carbon that the livestock industry contributes to the climate, a massive revolution of in vitro meat could be a significant component of the new international climate pact. (As Mateny mentions, culture meat produces 80% less carbon than current livestock.) This is especially true because much of the future increases in carbon from livestock will come from countries who have yet to produce a lot of livestock carbon, like India or China. Through public investment, the structure should be put in place now for a large in vitro meat industry in developing countries -- it's easier to change the trajectory of an industry now than to try to change a large livestock industry in the future.

For countries like the US that already have a massive livestock industry, the political will be more difficult to find. Not only is the meat industry huge and influential, but there is so much concern over public investment right now (i.e. the economic stimulus and health care) that further climate measures might get overshadowed.

However, if China were to catapult ahead of the United States regarding in vitro meat technology and business, then it wouldn't be the first time in the past year that China had taken bolder steps than the US to do what needed to be done in terms of public investment. China already might be the future leader in electric cars, wind tech, solar tech, or just any "green tech", all of which are likely to be the cash cows of the next half-century.

Of course, that raises interesting questions about the trade-off between democracy and government efficacy. For another day...