One of the strongest selling points of plant-based and clean meat is the efficiency of production: the conversion of inputs to outputs is vastly more streamlined than cycling calories through an animal. Lesser appreciated, but perhaps more economically compelling, is also the improved market efficiency: far less time and waste and far greater responsiveness to consumer demand for a range of products and species.
1. Supercharged timesaver: No pregnancy, no birth, no raising, no slaughter
Imagine the predicament of a cattle rancher trying to decide how many cows to impregnate this season. Current market conditions—the price of beef or feed—do him no good. He’s forced to look into a crystal ball and predict demand fully two or three years into the future, after his heifers’ nine-month pregnancies and the 16 to 24 months it will take to raise his calves from birth to slaughter. Since overall supply will affect prices, he must also somehow anticipate every other rancher’s possible calculations.
Liz Specht, Ph.D., is the associate director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute.
It’s little wonder that the livestock industry has historically been riddled with boom and bust cycles. While more sophisticated prediction models are being developed, this market inefficiency is not circumventable; it’s inherent in the biology of the animals.
Even the fast-maturing chicken is subject to these relentless cycles. Today’s chickens reach slaughter weight about six weeks after hatching, but the lag also needs to account for time in the shell and the hens’ laying rate, meaning the broiler supply must be predicted 18 to 24 months in advance.
In the animal agriculture industry, once the production clock starts ticking, it can’t be stopped. You can’t put a barn full of chickens on pause at five weeks of age until the price of chicken rebounds, and you can’t ask your hens to temporarily stop laying. This ingrained volatility has also powered the consolidation of the meat industry: Only the biggest companies could weather the troughs, and these companies quickly bought up competitors who didn’t have enough financial buffer in hard times.
Compare this years-long lead time with that for plant-based or clean meat, where a manufacturing facility can have finished product rolling off the line in hours or days. For plant-based meat, the raw materials (protein isolates, flours, flavorings, etc.) are typically dry powders with high stability and can be stored inexpensively for extended periods of time, ready at a moment’s notice for on-demand use. The entire process from pre-treatment (soaking) of the dry ingredients to finished product takes only a few hours. Even products with more complex post-processing like smoking or marination will be ready to ship to retailers within just a few days of starting the production line.
The same will be true for clean meat (created by growing meat outside of an animal from a small cell sample, also called cultured meat or cell-based meat) once it is available through large-scale production, which many analysts expect will happen within the next decade or so. The main raw materials are also dry powdered nutrients that can be stored for relatively long periods of time. Vials of frozen cells used to produce the meat can be thawed and begin dividing within hours. Most industry insiders estimate that producing a batch of thousands of kilograms of meat will require three to five weeks start to finish. If production facilities are operating the seed train continuously, they could harvest the finished product within a week.
Both plant-and cell-based meat face far less formidable forecasting challenges. Manufacturers can rev up production lines in essentially real-time response to demand, meaning the system has far less waste and greater profitability because manufacturers aren’t contending with flooded markets driving down prices.
2. Solving the carcass balancing problem
In the meat industry, the carcass balancing problem describes how animal bodies are not proportioned to the ratios of products that humans actually demand. In fact, our culinary traditions have evolved to make disproportionate use of undesirable parts of the animal.
Chicken breasts, for example, are the most versatile and meaty parts of a chicken, but we’ve developed cultural traditions around chicken wings, even though they entail much greater inconvenience to obtain a relatively small amount of meat. Likewise, while most consumers would likely prefer a sirloin to a burger, nearly 50 percent of a cow’s carcass weight makes its way into ground beef, which comprises odds and ends after the finer cuts are trimmed away. Wings and burgers have become such an integral part of American cuisine that many would argue for their inherent value, rather than see them as acquired tastes by virtue of their abundance.
You can’t put a barn full of chickens on pause at five weeks of age until the price of chicken rebounds, and you can’t ask your hens to temporarily stop laying.
But even with this cultural adaptation, millions of tons of meat, organs, bone, and other undesired carcass fractions are forced into extremely low-value sectors, such as animal feed and the chemicals industry (gums, glues, etc.). Some edible carcass parts can be matched with receptive buyers overseas (containers full of chicken feet from U.S. slaughterhouses are shipped to China), but this leaves the industry vulnerable to geopolitics and trade disputes.
Simultaneously, several of these parallel industries are innovating away from animal-origin materials and finding much higher-performing alternatives. For example, Geltor has commercialized animal-free gelatin, and an increasing number of pet food brands are now offering plant-based formulas.
Imagine how cuisine would change over time if consumers were at liberty to make their meat product selections based purely on the cuts they truly demand. The slaughter of a single cow produces only about 28 T-bone steaks, ten sirloins, and eight filet mignon. So the order of the 29th T-bone or ninth filet would drive the slaughter of an entire additional cow. But plant- or cell-based meat manufacturers can produce meats in the exact ratios at which they are selling; there is no carcass to balance.
3. Adapting swiftly to shifting demand across species
Meat companies large and small typically specialize in one to three species (chicken, cows, and pigs). This lack of diversity is due in large part to the fact that the production and rendering process for each of these species is radically different. Everything from feed composition and barn layout to transport vehicle configuration, slaughterhouse equipment, and staffing is different for chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs. A single barn or slaughterhouse cannot switch from one species to another, not at the scale at which the meat industry currently operates. Even for a fishing fleet, the navigational capacity and range of the vessel, the types of nets and hauling machinery on board, and the downstream processing look quite different when harvesting salmon versus tuna versus anchovies. Those who control the meat and fish industries have a vested interest in maintaining consumer demand for the particular species in which they have specialized, and in ratios that match their current facilities and infrastructure.
But for plant-based and clean meat, the difference between producing beef or pork or even salmon is comparatively minuscule. For plant-based meats, the major ingredients are likely to be quite similar or even identical in some cases, while the differences will come down to subtle changes in the flavorings and production equipment settings that dictate qualities like firmness and juiciness. A single production line can switch from a shredded chicken product to a flaked tuna product with relatively little adaptation or downtime. This allows for a wider product range from a single company and, yet again, much greater responsiveness to consumers. If there’s a spike in plant-based ground beef for Fourth of July barbecues, facilities can increase the number of lines cranking out this product for just a few weeks before. Cell-based meat is designed to be similarly nimble.
The potential flexibility of plant- and cell-based meat producers to switch from one product to another within a species category (from loin to spare rib) or between species much more fluidly and inexpensively than conventional meat producers translates to substantial market advantages. Add to this a shorter production cycle that facilitates real-time response to demand, and it becomes clear that plant-based and clean meat producers are well-equipped to make judicious use of their production lines and to operate more consistently within their ideal profit margin. While the planet arguably benefits the most from these meats’ higher production efficiencies, the market efficiency gains will be hugely beneficial for the bottom line.