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The cultured meat sector is ignoring farmers' perspectives

Article-The cultured meat sector is ignoring farmers' perspectives

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Farmers' voices are often lost in conversations on cultured meat but should be included in new product development, according to research exploring the technology in the UK farming sector.

In December 2023, UK researchers published their study, Threat or opportunity? An analysis of perceptions of cultured meat in the UK farming sector. The two-year Cultured Meat & Farmers study, published in the Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems journal calls for greater stakeholder inclusion in new product developments (NPD).

Marking the first project phase, the study explores farmers’ attitudes to cultured meat, including its technology, along with potential opportunities, challenges and how it could affect UK agriculture if production scales. Researchers summarise discussions with 75 farmers from six focus groups that represent various sectors.

As farmers’ perspectives are often missing from the discourse on cultured meat, the researchers hope its study engages UK farmer perspectives to start the comprehensive process of improving stakeholder inclusion in cultured meat production pathways, providing a foundation for responsible technology transitions in agriculture.

Cultured meat’s impact on agriculture

Amid increasing environmental consciousness, the ongoing shift towards plant-based diets prompted researchers to explore how cultured meat affects farmers. “Most people agree that meeting climate targets will mean changing our diets and eating less meat overall, but how we achieve this is still up for debate,” Dr John Dooley, project manager for the Cultured Meat & Farmers project at the Royal Agricultural University told Fi Global Insights. 

Cultured or lab-grown meat is one option to support the globe’s shift to plant-based diets. A favourable prospect for many in the industry, meat-mimicking developments are sought after for their capabilities to replicate the same taste and texture as conventional meat. Subsequently, the move to cultured meat could make the transition easier for committed carnivores.

There has been extensive research into the technology. “The ethical, health, economic and ecological impacts have been closely examined, but very few people have asked how it might affect agriculture,” says Dooley. “The impact on farmers has been left out of the picture.”

With their study, the researchers wanted to address the omission of farmers in the cultured meat landscape. “We think farmers' voices have been left out of the discussion,” says Dooley.

The researchers are unaware of anyone looking at the wide-ranging impacts of cultured meat across UK agriculture as a whole. “There have been a few studies looking at farming, but against the whole body of research into cultured meat, it is a tiny fraction.”

Although the researchers recognise there could be many reasons for this, at present, “cultured meat production is only small-scale, so it’s very divorced from farming”, Dooley says. “It’s being developed in laboratories by people in white coats, not muddy wellies! If it were to be scaled up, that’s when we’d see the impact on farming.”

What cultured meat means for farmers

In gathering their findings, the researchers were surprised by the breadth of impacts the farmer groups identified cultured meat may have. Some were obvious, like direct competition for livestock production. But there were other, more subtle effects that the researchers say they would not have guessed without speaking directly with farmers.

Farmers raised the question of whether buyers will only want prime cuts of meat from farmers if cultured meat replaces the cheaper cuts of meat used in processing, and if so, what they would do with the rest of the carcass. How cultured meat would affect landscapes if fewer animals graze them was also a consideration and how rural life would change if lots of livestock farmers went out of business.

The second phase of the researchers’ study is modelling what a future with cultured meat could look like. Decisions are being made across the globe about whether it will become part of our diets.

“When they are made in the UK, we want policymakers to be able to take the impact on farming into account,” says Dooley. For example, one risk is that the wealth and power of producing food is consolidated into the hands of a few multinational companies.

The research prompts questions about whether there is a way it could be done differently.

For example, whether in the future, on-farm cultured meat production could be similar to having an on-site microbrewery “That’s the kind of discussion we’re hoping to inform.”

Increased competition and cost concerns

Farmers’ fears over competition concerns and that cultured meat will lead to a premium for pasture-reared meat are among the issues under close scrutiny. “There are so many questions still to be answered, but continuing to listen to farmers and their concerns is really important,” says Dooley.

Instead of a threat, one of the study’s groups identified paying a premium for pasture-fed meat as a potential opportunity. If people are willing to pay more for the ‘real stuff’, then as long as those profits are passed on to the farmers, it could mean they can use it as a unique selling point (USP) to market their products and get a better deal, particularly farmers with less intensive systems.

“That’s why it is so important that if we adopt cultured meat, it is in a way that benefits everyone,” Dooley adds.

Main image: © iStock/deimagine