Artificial meat could significantly improve the world. It offers a way to drastically cut greenhouse emissions, save energy and water, feed the world’s growing population, and eat meat without killing animals. However it may be appealing, though, there is good reason to suspect that artificial meat will be met with great resistance and be slowly adopted.
Artificial meat enthusiasts tend to overestimate how strongly global-ethical advantages will factor in consumer purchasing behavior, as well as how agile most people are when it comes to food preference, and underestimate the significance of various cultural and aesthetic obstacles. Barriers include deeply engrained cultural traditions, rising concern regarding the safety of biotechnology, and the seriously unfortunate associations people might have with the meat and its production.
It is important that manufacturers, as well as those wishing to influence public opinion on the matter, realistically confront the topic of artificial meat adoption, and adequately consider the difficulties. This article details the major obstacles, and discusses five ways in which they may be overcome.
1. Education: What is it?
The identification of artificial meat as “real tissue” is important, and without basic education on the matter, it is likely that many people will view it as somehow distinct. Many do not know what stem cells are, or how they work, and so the notion that artificial tissue is identical to natural tissue in terms of physical composition may not be widely understood. If people are not able to shake the feeling that artificial meat is of a different composition, somehow synthetic, their perception of the product will likely be influenced in a negative way.
Also requiring scientific knowledge to grasp is how artificial meat can be safe while other “engineered” foods are not. Increasingly, the general public is becoming fearful of science’s hand in food production, as made evident by increasing avoidance of GMO, additives, and “toxins”. Without understanding the mechanisms of a particular technology, such as GMO, people have a tendency to generalize its danger, and mistakenly project the threat of the specific technology onto a broader class of technologies. If some GMO foods are unsafe, it does not follow that all GMO foods are unsafe, nor does it follow that other kinds of biotechnology, or biotechnology in general is unsafe. But without sufficient understanding of the relevant science, many cannot help, however implicitly or casually, but make these inductions. Artificial meat, a highly engineered product, will struggle to be regarded as “safe” in the face of the mounting biases against biotechnology. The most useful way to prevent false identifications is through scientific education.
But the most salient justification for increasing the general public’s knowledge of artificial meat is the utilization of education as a risk-reducing mechanism. Rickard Enström, PhD University of Alberta and Assistant Professor of Business at MacEwan University, explains, “There is overwhelming evidence that consumers are risk adverse in the sense that they shy away from product alternatives where the future outcomes of product attribute levels are perceived as being ‘uncertain’” (Enström, 2012) If a product appears ambiguous, (which is often the case when novel), it can implicate risk-averse behavior. Since artificial meat is highly novel, in particular concerning how it is made, increasing consumer knowledge will be efficacious in ensuring consumers at least give the product a chance.
2. Inverting the Yuck Factor?
The aesthetic appeal of the meat is highly relevant to its adoption. Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil, two prominent futurists addressing barriers to artificial meat adoption, argue that the issue of appeal is in fact “a marketing problem”, one that will require “a marketing genius” to overcome.
The most evocative aspect of artificial meat is its relation to laboratories. At present, the idea of food in, and of laboratories is quite negative. Most immediately, laboratories suggest chemicals and germs, and at present, conceptually, “food” and “laboratory” rarely coexist in a positive manner. The association with laboratories factors large in producing what is called the “yuck factor”. And unfortunately, the more one learns about the laboratory aspects, the more “yucky” it might seem. For instance, scientists are using, and plan to use, many novel techniques in engineering the meat, such as engineered antibiotics from peptides of donating animals and applying them to the growing meat in order to prevent infection. And in the beginning, before they have mastered the process, they will also likely need to flavor the meat with artificial flavor. That it grows on living scaffolds land is “exercised” may also be off-putting.
Both Diamandis, and Kurzweil; however, believe that when the processes of real meat, including, but not limited to, the practices of factory farming (using growth hormones, antibiotics etc.), the components of hot dogs and fast food meat, or the very notion of slaughter in general, are compared with laboratory meat, that laboratory meat will appear cleaner, healthier and safer, and the “yuck factor” will be inverted.
Perhaps they are correct, but such an inversion will take time. Meat is associated, and in some instances highly integrated with, many practices and traditions that are significant and rich in meaning. It is intricately tied to religious celebration, social events such as exhibitions, holidays, festivals and sporting events. And many of these events, such as pig roasts, and turkey at Thanksgiving, serve to naturalize, or make positive, the relation between “dead animal” and “food”. In U.S. society meat is tied to modalities such as “the hunter”, figures of historical significance such as Davie Crocket, and historic groups, such as cowboys; which are symbols of valiance. The Christian religion, the dominant faith of U.S. citizens, gives, via ideology, meaning and justification to slaughter.
Being an intricate part of U.S. history, as well as a major component of individual and cultural resonance, gives meat resilience in the face of negative associations (including factory farming), growing concerns regarding sustainability and animal welfare, links with heart disease and stroke, and competing products. Should artificial meat gain market share, the meat industry will retaliate, predictably. Artificial meat is an easy target of aggressive contra-branding. Already, it has been painted highly negatively; characterized as boundary-crossing science, and referred to as “Brave New Meat”, “Frankenmeat” and “Shmeat”. Thus it will be quite easy to portray artificial meat as “really gross” should a special interest group wish to do so.
It is difficult to predict how artificial meat will be perceived, but one can be confident that real meat has aesthetic resilience, and thus far appears to have an upper hand in the yuck factor inversion battle.
3. High Society’s Engagement with Artificial Meat
A countless number of arbitrary, unappealing, or outright negative things have become exclusively re-identified as highly positive via determination of “high status”. Motivations for status can distort our rational, perceptual and intuitive faculties, and thus an object’s appeal can be highly contextual. What is considered “high status” is frequently associated with that which is scarce and inaccessible. Artificial meat, however, is largely intended for mass-production, and as a source of nourishing food for developing nations, making it difficult to see how the item could simultaneously, in developed nations, be regarded as high status. Celebrity endorsement is one means of elevating the item’s appeal. If it becomes fashionable to indicate preference for artificial meat it could help negate the laboratory “yuck factor” and perhaps make less relevant any sensory drawbacks. Another is for artificial meat, in at least one form, to be incorporated into fine dinning tradition. Artificial meat is more flexible in terms of appearance, taste and texture, making it synergistic with practices such as molecular gastronomy, which combine art and science to produce elegant consumables. James King holds the conviction that a culinary presentation of artificial meat enhances the product’s appeal—His exhibit Dressing the Meat of Tomorrow, contrasts “designed” and “undesigned” meat, aiming to draw attention at the difference design can make to the appeal of artificial meat.
4. Branding and Transparency
“Branding” is another way to improve a product’s appeal. Enström writes: “To cope with the psychological discomfort when faced with perceptions of uncertainty, customers often apply various risk-reducing strategies, such as searching for more information, buying brand name products or becoming brand loyal. If the new product—such as artificial meat—is framed as a response to consumers’ concern regarding the sustainability of society, then that could serve as a risk-reducing mechanism too; customers could perceive the company as going out of their way to think about the society at large and since they are willing to do that, it must mean that they put equal effort into creating a high-quality product. In other words, they infer the quality of the product from the levels of the other product attributes” (Enström, 2012). Therefore, the perception and adoption of artificial meat could be significantly improved via considered branding.
Another means of reducing perceived risk is through corporate and manufacturing transparency. When corporations behave secretively, or act in novel ways, consumers can get a bit scared. Transparency, the consumer’s ability to have an “inside view”, can serve as a provision for the reduction of consumer anxiety: enabling each such consumer to actually become familiarized with the meat’s production as well as the scientists and companies that develop it. Unfortunately, as discussed in section two, increasing awareness of how artificial meat is produced may make one more sensitive to the “yuck factor”.
6. Leveraging Big Data and Neuroscience
Not too long ago, off-putting, synthetic, and highly processed products were rapidly adopted into American culture. U.S. consumers of the 1950s and 60s adopted foods with “yuck” factors introduced by highly processed products like Cheez Wiz. They purchased TV dinners in spite of their (initial) bland taste and distorted textures, and rapidly supplanted long held food traditions with synthetic alternatives. Rapid adoption can be largely attributed to the timing of their introduction. Coming out of World War II, during the Post-World War II economic expansion, value increasingly lie in that which enabled workers to maximize productivity and efficiency. During this period, low-wage farmers migrated to towns and cities and women further integrated with the workforce. Processed and microwavable foods facilitated these transitions, and more generally, served the ends of productivity and efficiency, by increasing dietary flexibility and providing freedom from domestic constraints.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to envision a similarly strong, or broad motivating force that would enable a fluid and high-paced adoption of artificial meat. There is a growing market for meat that is ethically sound, does not have antibiotics or growth hormones, and is not vulnerable to prions. There is also a growing market for products thought to facilitate ecological sustainability. However the market for these products is still quite small, making up roughly less than 10% of the population.
There are a number of ways in which artificial meat producers can use emerging technologies to broaden the appeal of the product and enhance their marketing platform. Given that artificial meat, by virtue of its very nature, faces many adoption challenges one would hope that initial movers take extra care in product design to prevent a further burdening of the product. As costs of scanning technology come down it becomes increasingly feasible for companies to utilize MRI machines in product design and market research. As Professor Edmund Rolls, an Oxford-based neuroscientist points out, “Cognitive inputs, such as packaging and marketing, can have a large effect on flavour”. And as the cost of computing more generally continues to fall, it becomes more and more feasible to utilize “Big Data” in market research.
It is difficult to predict how artificial meat will be received. And should the first artificial chicken breast be wobbly and flavorless, this may further hinder the integration of the product overall. Either way, it is likely that many will find the product off-putting, or, not be strongly motivated to choose it over real meat. Nevertheless, there are potent ways in which to influence the outcome, which should be attentively considered.