Audio of the week: The Future of Meat on Freakonomics

I've been thinking a lot about routine this week and would like  experiment with adding some elements of routine in my writing. I will try my best to make Thursdays Audio of the week day and post podcasts, songs or other audio content (shout out to Fred Wilson).

Cight's inaugural audio recommendation is this week's episode of Freakonomics, which looks at the economics of the meat industry and the transformations we may see in the coming decades.

As a vegan, I stand by the idea there is a moral argument to reducing one's consumption of meat – with an important asterisk – if one's social and economical situation permits it. I don't advocate for the poor and oppressed to reduce their meat consumption, and would never condone animal product consumption in those circumstances. But as a society increases its wealth, it should recognize the moral and environmental disaster which are meat production technologies, and seek alternatives.

Not surprisingly, we see the very opposite. According to the research of Jayson Lusk, Professor and Head of Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, meat consumption increases with GDP growth. One look at China and the US clearly demonstrates this trend.

I've become convinced the moral argument does not work and may even have a negative effect with certain people. Increasingly, I believe that if anything is to curve global meat consumption, it will be economics.

In spite of the ecological impact, the meat industry has become very efficient at producing meat from cattle, pigs and poultry. Indeed the supply side is doing quite well, which has driven prices down and demand up.

But as the podcast points out, technology can have a big impact on what we eat. Case and point, when was the last time you ate mutton? Before the Second World War, mutton was a staple of the American diet. But when synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester were invented in the mid-twentieth century, US demand for wool shrank drastically, and so did the demand for sheep – from over 50 million animals in 1942 to only 5 million in 2019. Looking back further in time, the replacement of whale blubber by kerosene is a similar example.

This is where alternatives to meat play a big role in changing consumer behavior. The days of the stale, cardboard-tasting veggie burger will soon be behind us. Companies like Impossible Foods are inventing plant-based products which look, smell, feel, taste, and sound (when it hits the grills) like meat, and meat eaters love them.

I recently added ‘Beyond Meat’ option to my burger at Hank's Burger, a French vegan burger chain, and was absolutely blown away by the progress the industry is making.

And this is plant-based ‘meat’. A more nascent technology (and I presume one which will soon catch up), is the process of creating meat from animal stem cells. Here there is a potential to create the real thing, indistinguishable from farmed meat.

We're about to witness a tremendous change in the meat industry, where consumers have more choices. I predict that more than moral judgment, what will drive down demand for farmed meat, is access to healthy, sustainable and affordable alternatives which offer the same pleasures as the real thing.



Host of The Interop and Epicenter. Founder of Interop Ventures.