Consumer acceptance of alternative proteins: A summary of Red to Green Season 3

by Neil_Dullaghan13 min read6th Jul 2021No comments

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Animal product alternativesCultured meat
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I’ve made a summary of season 3 of the Red to Green podcast, which focused on consumer acceptance of alternative proteins. In this post I just summarise the main debates. I add a few personal interjections but mostly try not to take a stance on whether I agree or disagree. Most of the guests come at the issue from the frame of sustainability and climate change, not farmed animal welfare. If people find this useful I will do the same for season 1 on cultivated meat.

Guests in this season

Communicate the technology or the mission?

The podcast sets up this dichotomy between whether the industry should just focus on communicating how the technology of alternative protein (especially cultivated meat) works to make sure the public understand it before it scales, or whether the industry should focus on the features of the product including the socio-political concerns the public have about the food system in general. However, I think this is a little bit of a straw man as only two of the episodes (Wolgensinger & Quinn) really make any strong defence of promoting the hi-tech nature of the industry and even they insert some caveats that industry should still message about the wider issues the technology can address. This argument is only made in the sense that some guests are wary of describing the mission as to displace the existing animal agriculture industry (see more on this debate below)

Most of the other guests defend the idea that the public is not this ignorant body that simply needs to be informed about the technical features to accept the product. Dr. Charlotte Biltekoff in particular claims the industry learned the wrong lesson from the resistance to GM foods in thinking that concerns were simply based out of fear of their wealth and health or lack of knowledge. Instead, the public had genuine legitimate concerns about how it would contribute to consolidation in agriculture, intellectual property rights, seed patents, and impacts on farmers (See Mohorčich, 2018 for a deeper dive into the GM foods case). While not pointing to anyone by name, Dr. Charlotte Biltekoff seems to take aim at infographics like those made by GFI that show the 3-step cultivation process and suggests some issues that should also be included, which are repeated by other guests. I’ve summarised this below. The host, Marina Schmidt, often pushes back by saying this is what the narratives around start-up founder stories are all about: the mission.

Communicating the risks and benefits

Related to the fears the industry has about public backlash to GM foods, many guests discuss how they think the industry should balance reassuring the public about safety versus communicating the benefits of the product. Many guests concede that it will be impossible to completely avoid conspiracy theories and resistance, especially for those who have some underlying belief structure that might oppose such technology (like those who think gene editing is God's job not man’s) or who already believe in other conspiracies.

Some guests argued that one strategy is to “pre-bunk” the myths, even having a website that counters all these issues, like McDonalds apparently did by providing a page with food ingredients before anyone was asking about it. Nobody actually visited the page, but knowing it was there was enough to reassure them (according to Jack A Bobo). Some guests argued that what really mattered was not debunking each possible risk, but rather whether the industry, the regulators, policymakers were trusted (Dr Gulbanu Kaptan), and whether trusted power sources spoke positively about the industry (Dr. Daniel Jolley). The industry should just communicate where the scientific consensus is, not debate individual studies (Irina Gerry). When talking about climate change, Prof. Kimberly Nicholas notes that the industry tried to refute each step of her simple message “it’s warming, it’s us, we sure, it’s bad, we can fix it” or argue that the industry was the solution. ( I can imagine something similar is happening with meat where the industry refutes claims about systematic animal cruelty, pollution, corruption, emissions, shifts the responsibility to the individual, and then tries to position itself as part of the solution with regenerative agriculture and cows genetically modified to emit less methane.) Chris Bryant noted that while more knowledge is typically correlated with more acceptance, only communicating technical refutations of drawbacks and not the benefits can just shine a spotlight on safety issues that may be related to things people have wider concerns about.

So what benefits to promote? Communicating the improved nutritional profile and product possibilities was a main benefit to emphasise but promoting any health benefits could actually just prime the “health gurus” online to target the industry, especially if the health claims turn out to be untrue. Others argue health and science conversations are not engaging, so the industry should just work within the clickbait system it finds itself and engage the public on fun humorous topics, through the involvement of celebrities and food bloggers. There was a disagreement about if the technology is likely to be viewed as so novel that it makes sense to push the communication back in the direction of familiarity or if the novelty was the main selling point. For Dr. Charlotte Biltekoff the messaging that cultured meat is just the same as farmed meat completely misses the point that this is a transformative technology. Furthermore, a few guests worried that comparing oneself to existing products creates expectations of taste and texture that will be hard to meet - instead it would be better to start on how this can be an improved product category or create products with no comparison such as meat chips instead of potato chips. One of the main benefits- replacing the animal agriculture industry- also drew direct debate so I’ve provided an entire section below.

Replacing animal agriculture

How much of the communication should be about highlighting the flaws with the current food system? Guests Scott Weathers, Lou Cooperhouse, and Jack A Bobo highlighted that in many cases the corporations were actually partners, investors, and future acquirers of the alt protein companies, even rebranding themselves as “protein companies” not “meat companies”. Scott Weathers pointed to examples of Just Eat partnering with Wagyu beef in Japan for cell lines or California legislators providing incentives for farmers to transition from growing meat and animal feed to growing alternative protein inputs. Lou Cooperoouse notes that with rising demand for protein, especially from aquatic animals there is just no way alternative proteins can compete for majority market share right now so it doesn’t make sense to bash them, and additionally they are only competing with importers to the USA not domestic producers. Jack A Bobo cited a World Resources Institute “menu of change” report (which might be this or this) that apparently says “61% of the improvements to our food system that must occur to get to a sustainable future are already baked into their assessment based on historic trends in traditional agriculture” so it doesn't make sense to deny the improvements the industry is making. He also argues that producing alternatives to ground beef doesn't replace ground beef so long as we are still making the same amount of steak, it just displaces it to another market. Bobo argues that for the next 10-20 years most of the alt protein market share will be small because protein demand is growing so much and will just involve eating the market share of other competitor alt protein companies, not from replacing existing demand for animal agriculture. So it doesn’t make sense to make enemies, especially when in the near term you aren’t going to be able to actually fulfil your brand promise to replace animal ag. Furthermore, Jack A Bobo argues if the goal of alternative proteins is to become “Big Food” it doesn’t make sense to build your brand on the basis that Big Food is the problem.

On the other side of the debate Prof. Kimberly Nicholas and Irina Gerry worry that a lot of this apparent support from meat companies is just a form of humane washing. Irina Gerry cites examples from regenerative agriculture, recycling plastics and fossil fuel efficiencies that were only trying to mitigate risks from a disruption that was coming but not actually trying to disrupt themselves. None of these companies are talking about reducing the number of animals they farm or the size of their business for example. Irina Gerry doesn’t buy the argument that it would have been better if the renewables sector had avoided bashing the fossil fuel industry and just focused on the benefits, mostly because early on those benefits are not deliverable. There is a 10-20 year period where the technology is not undeniably better, it’s not yet scaled, cheap, and requires investment so people won’t be interested if there is a cheaper alternative available with no downsides. Prof. Kimberly Nicholas in particular has a book “Under the Sky We Make” which takes issue with “toxic positivity” in the climate movement, which only communicates win-win scenarios ignoring the fact that we’ve already used up the carbon budget so we can’t simply scale up alternatives without also reducing emissions from the existing industries. The guests cite work from Naomi Oreskes at Harvard and Richard Bruhl showing how the fossil fuel industry intentionally covered up what they knew about climate change and funded disinformation campaigns (similar to what Sigal Samuel covered in a recent Vox Future Perfect article).

Target market

The guests discuss the gap between the die-hard early adopters and the more sceptical mainstream public, but a number of them (Isha Datar, Dr Charlotte Biletkoff, and Jack A Bobo) doubt that traditional consumer research tools will be useful here given the novelty of the products. Nicky Quinn was more willing to defend being polarizing and have half people hate you and half love you than for nobody to have heard of you. The consensus across the episodes seems to be that a science and mission message is fine for the early adopters but the industry needs to transition to messages about taste and price for the mainstream. A problem arises in the discussions of how a “cheap meat” message can backfire if it degrades the quality perception of cultured meat and transforms the equally cheap conventional hamburger into a premium product, but the only solution offered is to market alternative proteins as affordable high quality products. Chris Bryant cites some research that suggests early adopters of cultured meat will likely be men, heavier meat eaters, younger, urban, educated, left leaning - different than the plant-based early adopters who are female, vegan/flexitarian, again suggesting that marketing to vegans is not going to be a successful mainstream message. None of the guests have a great solution for how to seamlessly bridge the gap between the premium product early adopters stage and the high-quality but affordable mass market product.

Policy

Scott Weathers outlined the distinction between defensive legislation (preventing meat label censorship laws) and offensive legislation (providing public funding to open access alt protein research). Ronja Bertholdt discussed a proposal in the European Union to ban certain meat and dairy labels for alternative proteins, but the proposals were rejected/dropped after the podcast was recorded. Both note that often legislators are suffering from a real lack of knowledge not knowing the difference between plant-based and cultured meat or the actual impacts of amendments to meat labelling regulations, and that the decisions taken on plant-based meat will shape what happens to cellular agriculture in the future (though it might be easier for cultured meat to meet the definition of meat). Prof. Kimberly Nicholas noted the need to reform subsidies to animal agriculture in the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, but other guests didn’t bring up reforming subsidies. Scott Weathers suggests those concerned should be contacting legislators to talk about how the sector can create jobs, provide leadership mantles for legislators/executives,a nd combat climate change. Scott Weathers noted that legislators admit the support restrictions to protect domestic ag industry and Prof. Kimberly Nicholas argues that we can’t expect legislators to budge without a groundswell of support.

Nomenclature

Scott Weathers argued that laws preventing alternative proteins from being called meat, burgers, milk, etc. were the biggest threat. Most who spoke about it thought that the use of “lab-grown” to describe cultured meat was an unfortunate development (except Nicky who wanted them to own the lab the same way farmers should have to own factory farms). Jack A Bobo argued both that nomenclature wasn’t important because people will look for the brand not the label, and at the same time claims he was an important part in persuading the Good Food Institute to drop the “clean meat” term they had settled on. In the fermentation space Irina Gerry said it was still too early for a settled name but agreed companies needed to streamline and collaborate on this and get media on the same page. While it might not be important for consumers, Lou Cooperhouse noted that getting the terminology right can help or hinder the regulatory process .

What would you do with $50 Million?

  • Since the industry lacks public infrastructure, building pilot plant facilities where several companies can test things before they build their own mid range facility (Isha Datar).
  • Food technology. especially alternative proteins (plant-based, cultivated, fermentation) (Chris Bryant).
  • Wants to help counter conspiracy theories via studies (acknowledges self interested bias) (Dr. Daniel Jolley).
  • Solutions for food waste, psychedelics, invest in women and minorities (if not Aleph and alternative meat) (Nicky Quinn).
  • Invest in cellular agriculture and quantum biology for solar panels (Raffael Wolgensinger)
  • Education on the connection between food, health, & ecosystems including a media campaign connecting dots. Give people choices by creating a McDonalds of sustainable food (a QSR chain serving these foods).( Irina Gerry).
  • Help farmers transition to from animal to plant-based farming (Ronja Bertholdt)
  • Invest in cultivated meat companies and indoor farming (but doesn’t know much about the latter) (Scott Weathers)
  • Creating spaces and places and creative methods of co-conjuring, co-design of food futures, a fusion of art and science synergies, engaging the public on what food can look like. (Dr. Charlotte Biltekoff)

Things I learned

  • Isha Datar raised an idea that was supported by other guests that it might be a useful to introduce cultured meat as a snack product first (like a meat chip), since snacks are not a “make or break” meal like dinner, they are already accepted as a processed food, and there is no “real” meat chip to compare it to.
  • The space is split on whether to combat or tolerate existing animal agriculture, but to the extent they don't come to a consensus it seems that neither strategy will work (unless they pull off the delicate good cop, bad cop routine)
  • Dr. Daniel Jolley raised the idea that young people today are the market for mainstream cultured meat in the future and age 14 is peak time to believe in conspiracies, so what they believe now will shape what they are willing to buy in when they are in their 20s (2030s)
  • BP invented the idea of the personal carbon footprint to shift responsibility from the corporate to the individual - this reminds me of a similar move from the plastics industry.
  • Lots of other nuggets of information about how the products are made and how the companies view themselves which aren't worth writing a paragraph about.

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