Interview with an Innovator

Food Futures Lab’s Max Elder: ‘You really can’t think about the future of food unless you’re thinking about the future of technology’

The research director explains the benefits of cultured meat, the technological innovations that could make new products possible and how to overcome consumer queasiness.

25 October 2019
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Elder on Paper – CV

  • Has been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics since 2012, researching and writing about the relationship between food systems, animals and sustainability
  • Joined the Institute for the Future in May 2017, working in its Food Futures Lab
  • Worked with global food companies like Campbell’s Soup and Barilla, as well as charitable institutions like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

It may still seem to some like a pipedream, but Max Elder thinks that the way cultured meat is talked about today underestimates its potential to change the world.

As part of his role as Food Futures Lab research director at the non-profit Institute for the Future (IFTF), Elder does independent research and consults with everyone from a global packaging company in Asia to 38,000 dairy farmers in the US. In one of his previous projects, he worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to show companies that they could make affordable, appealing, nutritional food for lower-income families and still turn a profit.

He believes it’s this broader view that helps him to see the bigger picture of how the food industry is changing – and could potentially change a lot further.

“You really can’t think about the future of food unless you’re thinking about the future of technology, the future of health and wellbeing, the future of working and learning [and] the future of communications technologies,” he says, emphasising the joined-up approach that the IFTF specialises in.

Elder will be speaking at this year’s Cultured Meat Symposium, an event dedicated to exploring the technology, benefits and overall future of cell-cultured meat. Taking place in San Francisco on November 14 and 15, speakers include some of the leaders in the field, including Israeli Aleph Farms and US-based Memphis Meats.

“The discourse around cultured meat totally underestimates its potential to change the world,” according to Elder. “If we step back and look farther out, this really does posit a potentially new revolution in food at the cellular level. It really may have vast implications for our planet, for who inhabits the planet, for food access and entirely new food verticals, entirely new food form factors.”

For instance, when we are no longer limited by the structure of an animal’s body, what new kinds of food could be introduced? The potential, as Elder explains, goes much further than simply creating new versions of old cuts.

There’s a lot of hype around cultured meat in the short run, and largely the way people are thinking about it and talking about it is the way we’re going to be able to replace a hamburger with a totally different production process behind it… Basically, we’re just thinking we’re going to replace existing products, but I actually think when you step back and take a much larger, broader and more long-term perspective, there is much greater potential.

Meat today comes from bodies, and bodies have natural limits. Cuts of meats are just cuts of bodies. That form factor is really limited as a contingency to the body of the species we’re consuming. So we have pork chop, ribs, T-bone steaks… When you decouple meat production from the natural limits of bodies, all of a sudden the platform for food innovation explodes, and you can make meat products in all kinds of form factors.

People are looking increasingly to the plant world. They’re looking at decellularised lettuces, they’re looking at fungi as providing some plant-based and edible scaffolding for muscle tissue culture. If we, for example, take the cell walls and the structural nature of the plant and we grow muscle tissue inside it, and we leave the plant cells there, what is that product? Is it a plant? Is it an animal? It’s not plant-based meat, is it meat-based plants? It’s an entirely new category.

Some researchers are even using the form factor of different plants to support the growth of meats, which means we might see things that look, for example, like a spinach leaf, but may actually be structurally filled with muscle. There is some research in Poland that took a decellularised spinach leaf and embedded it with chicken – this research was led at the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw. What you get is this pink-looking spinach leaf, but it’s all muscle. What would a salad look like where it all looks like spinach, just maybe a different colour, but the lettuce is meat? It’s very wild, and perhaps not very familiar to people, and this is the much longer-term future where we can get more creative and experimental with form factors once people are adopted and bought into [cultured meat].

I think this trend towards blended products we’re already seeing today. In the United States, Dairy Farmers of America just launched a new milk that’s half cow’s milk, half plant-based nut milk. Tyson this past year just launched a Raised & Rooted brand that has a series of blended burgers that combine plant and animal-based proteins.

There are a couple of reasons for these blended products. One is some companies have legacy supply chains, distribution channels, existing legacy assets in animal-based meat, and if you’re trying to think through how to transition, it’s much easier to add some plant-based proteins and try and make it seem innovative and sexy and fun, than to just completely convert. The other is I think there is a general concern that consumers don’t, today at least, necessarily want to go out and eat just a veggie burger. And so one attempt is to achieve a broader market, really try and tap into the consumer that’s interested in reducing but not interested in eliminating.

The historical food identities have been so polarised – you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, you either eat meat or you don’t eat meat – but that doesn’t create a lot of space for people who say, ‘I love meat, my favourite recipes involve meat, the food my grandmother used to cook for me when I was a kid had meat, meat is important for me culturally, in a familial way, a social way, but I also appreciate that eating a lot of meat maybe isn’t good for my health, or that eating a lot of meat definitely isn’t good for the planet. So how do I create those experiences that I still want but make me feel a little bit better about doing so?’ Those types of consumers I think you can get with a blended product.

From a taste, texture and mouthfeel sort of perspective, I think some people are just concerned that the best way to come up with the most analogous product is to keep meat in [the product] as much as possible and just supplement.

It’s not clear why people think that different meat products taste like meat. There’s been a long history of blended beef burgers with mushrooms, and one of the reasons people started doing this is that there was research done that found that… in blind taste tests, consumers have said that the blended burger in their mind tastes more like meat than the non-blended burger… Some plants and fungi can help meat taste more like meat.

All of this needs to be about consumer preferences and demand, and it’s not at all obvious that consumers will want to eat any kind of cultured meat, let alone a cultured meat salad!

The other side of that coin is that it’s not at all obvious that they won’t. If we look towards any sort of historical analysis of innovation, we always thought people would never want people to sleep in their spare bedrooms for an extra few bucks, and now there’s a multibillion-dollar industry on strangers sleeping in their homes!

I think a lot of this comes down to the value proposition and risk tolerance. I think consumers’ preferences and attitudes are going to have to be radically rewritten in the face of our climate crisis, in so far as traditional animal-based products are a major contributor to that. We’re going to be seeking new avenues to continue to have the things that we like to consume, like meat products, with a much more environmentally friendly way – and that might just mean having a normal burger that’s cultured. But once people start eating cultured meat and once people start playing with the form factor, I do think there is an interest in experimentation. The culinary arts have always been about experimentation.

Familiarity is certainly a key driver of food consumption, but a lot of the research that I’ve been looking at on this topic, particularly out of the International Food Information Council, suggests that familiarity is much more of a guiding principal for older consumers. When you ask younger consumers what their criteria are, familiarity falls on the list. I think younger generations are much more interested in fast-paced experimentation, something that seems more personalised to them than something that seems familiar to everyone. The broader set of values that guide their purchasing is radically different.

A lot of the challenges with meat production over the long-term future is it requires a lot of land, it requires a lot of access to land. As we’re industrialising and consolidating these types of farms, there are huge environmental problems that have emerged… Cultured meat offers a new type of distributed manufacturing platform for meat products that involves much less land; that could be in a basement or a rooftop in a way that a feed lot cannot be; can be embedded into cities and that can be hyperlocal. Imagine going to your local cultured seafood farm and getting freshly caught seafood daily, in the middle of a totally landlocked part of the world that is nowhere near a body of water where a fish might have been caught that day.

Today, about 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species – that’s kind of insane and somewhat arbitrary! If we decouple meat production from animal bodies, we could explode the number of different animal species that people are eating. Quite frankly, the fact that we only have 12 plants and five animals supplying 75% of the world’s food, it’s a horrible thing, it’s led to all kinds of problems, in particular a massive collapse in biological diversity.

We kill over 56bn farmed animals a year, and when you add fish to that, it’s well over a trillion. These numbers I think are very hard to fathom, but we kill more animals every year to eat than the total number of humans to have ever been born and walked this Earth, which is a mind-boggling thing.

Something that is often overlooked but is an increasing issue is antibiotics. I’m largely concerned about this rise of drug-resistant superbugs…. The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance has found that in 2050, 10m people a year could be killed by antimicrobial-resistant bugs – that’s more than everyone who is killed by cancer today. And largely the main driver of this is animal agriculture and medicine. Without viable antibiotic options, we face at best a potential reduction in the efficiency of farmed animals, and at worst a massive increase in mortality rates globally from simple infections. Cultured meat offers an alternative system that isn’t so antibiotic reliant and that’s a huge benefit.

Most experts that I talk to who are building [cultured meat] facilities say that it doesn’t make sense to use [antibiotics] in the way that it makes sense for animal farming. People do use them, but people don’t have to use them, and there are certain unique characteristics about culturing meat that doesn’t require them in the way that animal bodies do.

No one knows when we’ll be seeing cultured meat products on the shelves, and we’re setting ourselves up for failure if we think we know… If you look to the start-ups who are focused on cultured meat, they claim that anywhere between two to three years to upwards of 10 years and beyond is the time horizon. It’s going to be longer than we need, it’s going to be longer than we want, it’s not going to be evenly distributed and it’s going to be quite expensive.

I think it’s important to note that the price parity question [between traditional meat and cultured meat] is not in a vacuum. We often ask the question ‘when will cultured meat drop its prices?’ I think the more provocative and challenging question is ‘when will animal-based meat actually have a price that reflects its true cost, and when will that price point be much higher than it is today?’ I actually think that when you look both at the falling cost of cultured meat production and the potential rising cost of animal-based meat, the price parity might happen sooner than we think.

We are already seeing propositions of sin taxes, of meat taxes…There are a whole host of signals across the edges of our food system that point to a very real and possible future over the next few years where meat becomes a lot more expensive.

There’s an opportunity for us to design products that people want… The question is really up to folks who are working on innovation or entrepreneurs in the space to find their markets and to build products that meet consumer values where they are.

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