Murphy: The Real Fake Meat Story

January 29, 2018 08:00 AM
 
Want to pull back the curtain on the motivation of Bill Gates and the other high-profile investors who’ve ponied up the cash that’s fueling alt-meat R&D? It’s not as difficult as you might think.

By now, much of the mainstream media has devoted plenty of ink and even more bandwidth to coverage of the alt-meat sector, running breathless stories about the celebrity investors (Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Leonardo DiCaprio) and simply accepting in total the claims that production of shamburgers will create 87% fewer greenhouse gases, require minimal energy inputs and will halt the (alleged) degradation of the 80% of the world’s arable acreage the UN claims is devoted to livestock production.

And the end product is as good or better than the real deal.

For example: A recent Reuters story quoted Samir Kaul, the founder and general partner at the investment firm Khosla Ventures, which along with Gates has invested millions in Impossible Foods, as saying that this new wave of faux foods are products that “taste, smell, feel, look and cost the same as ground beef.”

Then again, what do you expect a venture capitalist aiming to cash in on an emerging product category to say, “Gee, I’m not sure this fake meat launch is gonna fly; better hang onto your money”?

Instead, the venture capitalists love to tout projections that characterize these factory-fresh faux foods as the greatest breakthrough in protein production since boxed beef, quoting sources such as the research firm Markets and Markets, which estimated that by 2020, the alt-meat category will be racking up sales of nearly $6 billion.

And practically shouting to any reporters who might be interested that “heavyweights” in the meat industry are all in with Gates, et al: In December, multiple news sources reported, Beyond Meat received an investment of $55 million from Tyson Foods and Cleveland Avenue, a venture capital firm run by the ex-McDonalds CEO Don Thompson.

You know what McDonald’s calls $55 million, don’t you?

Thursday . . . morning.

A Low-Risk Investment
Despite the overheated hype about how cultured proteins will revolutionize agriculture and foodservice, as well as planetary lifestyles, industry analysts are less sanguine.

In noting that 98% of Americans eat meat at least once a week, Darren Seifer, a food analyst for market researcher NPD, told Reuters that, “What we eat and drink is culturally based and very habitual. It might take as long as a decade to see if there is any moving the needle.”

Others are less convinced that the stated rationale of the celebrity capitalists funding the alt-meat movement — saving the world from global collapse due to the cattle industry — is really their main motivation.

“Venture capitalists have pinpointed a growth area, and the only thing they are looking for is a return,” Simeon Van der Molen of Moving Mountains, a shamburger manufacturer based in Great Britain, told Reuters. “For me, venture capitalists are only after their pound of flesh.”

That, and a double-digit ROI for throwing what amounts to pocket change at an entrepreneurial sector with undeniably positive press.

In the years to come, there will be more buzz and more revenue generated by the various players in this new alt-meat sector. Maybe, just maybe, the technology can begin to bring prices within range of upper middle-class consumers. And maybe the competition with conventional animal foods might pressure the rest of the world to upgrade its livestock production methods to ensure greater efficiency and reduced consumption of resources, the way that North American producers have succeeded in doing since the 1970s.

All that would represent positive progress, a development to be lauded by pundits and politicians alike.

But should shamburgers someday carve out significant space in the retail and foodservice categories, base, I’ll still be convinced that the motive behind their development was the same one fueling every other food-industry: innovation.

Making money, and lots of it.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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