Friday, August 26, 2016

Lab meats: winners and losers

Via @CoreycoreScience has a good article up discussing the regulatory angle of our steady march towards lab-gown meat, a perspective that often gets downplayed in favor of banal hot takes on values and ethics.

For the most part, early regulation of lab meat is playing out similar to many other new technologies: interest groups are positioning themselves for influence, and relevant government institutions are jockeying for turf and budget dollars. So far, research and development continues under a light regulatory touch, speeding up progress and encouraging new entrants into the game. Let's hope this continues--it would be a shame to see the potential of lab meat be curbed the way commercial drone technology has been in the US.

As a general approach, regulation should err on the side of 'permissionless innovation': allowing new technologies by default and placing the burden of demonstrating harm on regulators. The opposite is something like the precautionary principle: regulate proactively and force innovators to show that they are not causing harm.

In the Big Picture, a precautionary principle is incoherent. But in a practical, day-to-day policy sense, it's also misguided. A permissionless innovation bias will speed up the pace and quantity of new technology, whose benefits are often underappreciated by virtue of being hidden, diffuse and long-term. Costs, on the other hand, are typically upfront and concentrated among certain groups. Humans are actually quite good at adapting their norms and behaviors to new technologies, very often proving anti-technology doomsayers wrong.

All that said, in anticipation of the seemingly inevitable development of low-cost no-kill meat, let's speculate about its potential effects.


The most obvious effect of a big lab meat economy would be to dramatically reduce the population of animals being raised for slaughter. Most utilitarians would view this as an overwhelmingly positive development--the total amount of animal suffering is really quite appalling.

It is possible that during or after a transition period, remaining farm-raised livestock animals will have higher-suffering existences due to market pressure on legacy farmers (forcing them to trade away humanness in exchange for profits) and reduced public/private oversight. But it is equally likely that smaller total animal populations will attract increased attention per animal, reducing suffering and establishing a higher-end market niche.


If lab meat arrives in a big way, the overall benefit to eaters will be positive by definition (or else nobody would buy it!). Its effects on specific consumer groups, however, will depend largely on how the technology arrives. Perhaps it will be an extreme upscale product fashionable only to tech elites. Or it could easily end up as a mildly upscale product, akin to artisanal or organic produce today. Maybe it will be an accessible but niche thing aimed at vegetarians. Perhaps its production process will enable novel consumption uses we can scarcely imagine, like multi-food blending or 3d-printed meat architecture.

Ideally, it will be a downscale, low-cost alternative to livestock meat (but with internal quality differentiation enabling appeal to all market segments). Lowering the price of meat will raise real incomes for people with sticky diet preferences. That's good. For others, increasing the affordability of meat will increase its demand. People in rich- and middle-income countries who increase meat consumption should naturally decrease their carbohydrate consumption. That would be a massive health win, and bring huge economic and social benefits.

Depending on how cheap lab meat really gets, and how its production process enables economies of scale, low-income populations could also stand to gain tremendously. People enjoy meat, and so would be happier about its wider availability. Increased meat consumption would also have nutritional benefits, especially among malnourished children. This would be good for its own sake, but might also speed economic development and improve intelligence--helping us all.


The flipside to consumer gains are producer losses. While it's possible that certain lab meat scenarios would result in social and cultural effects that end up increasing total demand for livestock meat, the most likely outcome is a competitive decline in total farmed meat production.

Depending on the speed and market scope of the demand shock caused by lab meat, different sets of farmers will be affected.

  • If lab meat arrives quickly and is downscale, big factory farms will be unable to reposition to higher-end markets and will struggle, while small artisanal farmers might survive. 
  • If lab meat arrives slowly and is downscale, big factory farms will probably adapt and crush small farmers.
  • If lab meat arrives quickly and is upscale, big factory farmers will survive, while small artisanal farmers will be obliterated. 
  • If lab meat arrives slowly and is upscale, big factory farmers will survive, while small artisanal farmers will still get crushed--but more slowly.

If lab meat hits every market segment, agriculture in the developed world will change. In rich countries, huge government subsidies already prop up most smallholder farmers, ostensibly for cultural and political reasons. Big Lab Meats' likely production process--more akin to industrial manufacturing than even current Big Ag farming--will irreversibly solidify the centralization of meat production, and push existing producers either out of the market or into copycat reform/acquisition.

Rural farming employment is already on the decline in most of the rich world, and lab meat should amplify this trend. Perhaps a new set of blue-collar jobs will be born, but needless to say big social and cultural changes will occur.

In the developing world, a lab meat explosion scenario would have uncertain effects on farmers. Livestock rearing is a big employment center in some places, but not in others. Much would depend on locals' adaptability.


In a scenario where lab meat puts most livestock farmers out of business, huge areas of land will depreciate in value. Some might be repurposed for lower-yielding plant crops, but probably much of it will become unused rangeland.

The decreased footprint of meat production, combined with its disconnection from physical location factors like weather and topography, will amplify existing demographic and land-use trends favoring big cities. Lab meat jobs, however numerous, will probably follow the capital mobility patterns of the manufacturing industry and locate around economic clusters. The employment structure of industrialized lab meat firms will track worldwide trends in favoring knowledge-intensive workers. These workers tend to like walkable cities and other urban amenities, and the arrival of ag firms in cities should place further pressure on artificial housing supply constraints like zoning, height restrictions, parking minimums, setback requirements, etc.

The environment

Big time lab meat should have many positive environmental effects. A decline in the livestock population would dramatically reduce methane emissions, helping a bit (maybe a lot?) with global warming. Poisonous waste lagoons--infested with years of bioaccumulative toxins--would go away.

Most of the supply chain that fuels livestock--corral and physical infrastructure, feed growing (itself massive), water use, transportation, various processing businesses-- would all go away.

Lab meat would of course still require inputs, but it's difficult to overstate how environmentally damaging and and inefficient our modern industrial meat economy is. Much of its nominal efficiency and low production cost stems from externalizing massive environmental costs--onto governments, random citizens' health bills, lost economic opportunity, private institutions, etc.

Poor countries--who have much less industrialized meat production systems--often paradoxically have worse environmental degradation caused by livestock, due to inefficient land, labor and capital use/allocation. These places would likely see the largest environmental gains.

The abandonment of intensive use over wide swaths of rural rangeland territory would also be a huge win for ecosystem health, diversity, historical fidelity, resilience--any way you measure it. The economists who try and add up the value of ecosystem services would have to build brand-new models, such would be the scale of environmental revitalization.

Geographic shifts among farm employees would also have positive environmental effects--shifting people from rural high-impact lifestyles to more urban, low-use environmental footprints. This would possibly have significant non-linear effects, as fixed infrastructure and cultural mores supporting rural populations become unsustainable and fall away.

Countervailing negative effects caused by lab meat might include higher total economic growth--especially among developing countries--which would cause higher total levels of greenhouse gas emissions, resource use and environmental degradation. Although the growth rate might be sped up, the inevitability of an equivalent level of growth seems undeniable. Because this new growth would occur in the context of structural environmental gains caused by lab meat, a proper counterfactual comparison might plausibly argue that a good chunk of its environmental cost is actually a mirage--it's merely time-shifted. But no matter how you tally it, the net environmental benefit of switching to industrialized lab-grown meat is gargantuan. Please don't let government regulation screw it up.

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