Beef producers hear they have a role in the future

With plant-based meat substitutes and lab-grown meat, traditional beef producers will still be needed to feed world’s growing population, says Cargill executive

Beef industry leaders from across the country shared a look into the future during the recent third annual Canadian Beef Industry Conference (CBIC). They were assured there’s a place for them in that future.

“People still crave meat,” said Sonya Roberts, president of Growth Ventures and Strategic Pricing for Kansas-based Cargill Proteins at the conference held in London, Ont.

Why it matters: Roberts told an audience of about 400 attendees that with global population projected to rise from seven billion to nine billion and with millions of people adding more meat to their diets as their income levels rise, “there’s going to be a lot of protein needed to feed the world.”

During on-stage interview with Farm Credit Canada’s Marty Seymour, Roberts spoke to the issue of alternative protein markets, including burgers made from plant-based proteins and steaks grown in a laboratory.

“That’s why, for us, traditional proteins are so important,” she said at the Aug. 14-16 conference. “Don’t underestimate the job you have.”

She reminded those in attendance that “you guys aren’t doing farming the way your fathers did it or your mothers did it.”

The world changes, she stressed, and it’s the same in the way people eat. So-called alternative proteins will become more popular and innovations will gradually make them more affordable, she said.

Roberts said meat-eaters can generally tell the difference between meat and plant-based protein products meant to mimic meat.

But that’s not the case with the not-yet-commercialized cultured meats, she said.

Roberts’s employer Cargill recently became a key investor, along with well-known billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson, in California-based start-up Memphis Meats.

“It tasted like duck,” she said. “You would not have been able to tell the difference.”

The main factor keeping cultured meat out of the marketplace is cost of production. A recent report in the United States business publication Inc., suggested the company would need to charge $3,800 per pound of meat to break even. But it’s only a matter of time, Roberts said.

“I don’t know what the timing is. It’s a long way out. But is it going to happen? Yes.”

And when it does, it will be difficult from ecological or animal welfare standpoints to argue against the perceived benefits of cultured meat versus farm-raised or wild-caught livestock and seafood.

But in reiterating her assertion that there will still be a place for beef farmers, she noted Memphis Meats co-founder Dr. Uma Valeti was originally “pretty militant” against the meat industry but has since softened his stance and now “understands it takes all of us to feed that nine billion.”

Roberts confirmed the global movement to perfect the artificial manufacturing of meat cells is well-funded, both through corporate, personal and vegetarian activist donations.

Dr. Nicholas Genovese, a stem cell biologist who joined Valeti in co-founding Memphis Meats in August 2015, was previously funded by the controversial People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for research into cultured meat.

Roberts was questioned about the label of “clean meat,” a term that has been attached to cultured meat, and she informed the audience she’s no fan of the term.

“I’d love it if somebody could come up with something so we can change the name from clean meat, but we just don’t have the vernacular yet that suits everyone,” she said.

One audience member questioned whether future purveyors of lab-grown products should even be allowed to use the word “meat” (manufacturers of burgers made from plant-based proteins are not allowed) but she countered that under United States Department of Agriculture guidelines, cultured meat does fall into that category.

“But I would certainly like a qualifier in front of that word so people are aware of what they’re purchasing,” she said.

About the author

Contributor

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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