Carving space in the future for farmers and fishers

The future of ranchers.
The future of ranchers.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Cullen
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The rise of any industry is a tacit implication of the possible decline of another. In the case of cell-cultured meat, one glaring question is whether cell-cultured meats and fish will one day put farmers and fishers out of business.

It’s a question that Mike Selden, the co-founder and CEO of Bay Area-based startup Finless Foods, is very focused on. Selden, a committed democratic socialist, is a rare breed. He operates within a Silicon Valley ecosystem marinated in new-age capitalism, a playground for eager venture capitalists looking to feed the next tech unicorn, but which comes up short when it comes to workers.

Problems at Uber and Lyft pushed California to pass a controversial labor protection bill into law. Amazon has repeatedly been dinged for being tough on employees. And Apple’s supply chain workforce has been criticized.

Selden doesn’t want to see the same issue befall his own industry, and he’s one of a small handful of voices in cell-cultured meat who’s eager to talk about how this new food technology fits into a green new deal for agriculture.

“Silicon Valley has a history of running over what’s existed before,” he says. “We don’t want to do this. We want to make sure we’re listening to [farmers] as we prepare to go to market.”

Finless Foods takes cells from fish—it’s currently working on bluefin tuna—and grows those cells into actual cuts of tuna without ever having to catch or kill a living fish. The idea that this new technology can provide safe and familiar foods while making a serious dent in humans’ environmental footprint has plenty of appeal. But Selden says part of a green new deal includes being thoughtful about the people who already comprise the food production system, and being conscientious about changes in labor use.

“If that ever were to happen, it wouldn’t be for a really long time,” Selden says, noting that there are no cell-cultured products on the market yet. “Would this change out people’s jobs? Is that something we need to pay attention to? I would say yeah.”

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Being blunt

In October 2017, at a conference held in New York by the non-profit researcher New Harvest, a panel was convened between working farmers and the makers of cell-cultured meat—a sort-of clash of cultures to work through the realities facing both industries. The panel included Mark Post, the founder of Netherlands-based Mosa Meat; David Kay, the head of mission at Bay Area-based Memphis Meats; Richard Fowler, a dairy farmer from New Zealand; and Iltud Dunsford, a Welsh farmer and owner of a specialty meats business.

The tension in the room was palpable. Even two years later, it’s not often cell-cultured meat conferences feature tough conversations that include voices from established animal farmers alongside the food technologists working to push this new meat to the market.

The two farmers expressed a leeriness of the new technology, but acknowledged they have an optimistic view of the future, albeit one not widely shared within their own communities.

“Ultimately, if there’s a better way to do it than with animals, then we’ve got to be open to that,” said Fowler. “If it’s economically more viable to do it or if the market resists animal farmers, then who are we to stand in the way? I’m open-minded, but I think the jury is still out until products are on the market.”

Post was blunt in his opinion.

“I don’t have any illusion that smallholder farms are safe,” he said. “I look now at the future of farmers, they are basically my students. And they are attracted to this field. This is a potential future for farmers.”

It’s a stark point of view, unrelenting in its honesty about the potential long-term effects of cellular agriculture. And as Selden ponders how his business might impact the real lives of people who’ve been making food for decades, he can’t help but feel an ingrained sense of responsibility.

“We need to make sure we aren’t screwing these people,” he says. “If you don’t have that then you have people really pissed off. If we’re legislating against unsustainable agricultural practices, that means people will need to be training for new careers.”

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Fork in the road

Part of answering this big question about labor boils down to how cell-cultured meat makers involve farmers. In terms of production, there are two modes of thinking.

One, which is supported by Selden, is that the making of cell-cultured meat should be highly localized. The cultured meat and fish being eaten in Chicago or Louisville, Kentucky should be grown in or around Chicago and Louisville. This is a view that is shared by Ira van Eelen, a Dutch woman committed to carrying out the legacy of her late-father, Willem van Eelen, who is regarded as the godfather of cell-cultured meat.

In her estimation, cell-cultured meat makers should be approaching farmers and presenting cell-culturing as a way for them to diversify the way they supply food. They don’t have to totally change their operations, she says, but explore the possibility of making cell-cultured meat a percentage of their businesses.

Future Meat Technologies in Israel is developing a distributive manufacturing system, made possible by the companies innovative bioreactors and higher yields, says the company’s founder, Yaakov Nahmias. The system would even allow farmers to quickly change what they are growing to adapt to shifting market demands.

It’s unclear how that will look, realistically. But as van Eelen has explained it, this path is a far better, more inclusive reality to imagine than the alternative.

In the second mode of thinking, cell-cultured meat companies could have centralized production facilities—perhaps in partnership with a major meat company such as Tyson Foods—and produce a lot of meat in one place that would then be shipped nationally or internationally.

When you ask most cell-cultured meat companies what future they’d like to see, they usually mention the benefits of including farmers. Bay Area-based JUST, for instance, says farmers are critical partners.

“We could not make our products without them,” said JUST CEO Josh Tetrick in a statement. “Farmers, like the Toriyama family in Japan, skillfully breed and raise high-quality animals whose cells are the building blocks of our meat. Farmers have always adapted to the changing demand for different crops and species of livestock, and they will continue to as our food system transforms.”

It’s still early days for this small industry, so seeing exactly how cooperation with farmers would look in practice and at scale remains elusive. The startups continue to issue press releases, though, for every major round of fundraising, which often include substantial investments from established meat companies—some of which may one day be interested in licensing the technology and know-how required to make lots of meat.

Even so, Selden remains optimistic.

“For me, I think we can hold the idea that the world should look different than what it is and shift it to something that’s more equitable,” he says.