avacyn

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The crux of the cultivated meat feasibility debate

Not to over-emphasize this part of the debate, but I don't think future cultured meat systems will be that analogous to how they look in animals. For example, modern bioreactor systems often employ a "sterile boundary" approach to sterility, which is pretty different than using antibodies to attack foreign  particles. Depending on what bioreactor system you use, there are lots of things that look pretty different than what happens inside an animal.

Early career EA's should consider joining fast-growing startups in emerging technologies

Completely agree! I'll also point out that there's tons of promising fast growing startups in the alternative protein space.

New intuitions for cultured meat

I think this is a bit of a straw-person. It may be true that some commentators overstate the immediate relevance of this consideration, as well as how close companies are to reaping the benefits of this efficiency. However, a more charitable interpretation of the argument is that at scale, support systems will be amortized over a much larger amount of desired output. To give two examples:

  • Animals expend a substantial amount of calories thinking with their brain. This processing will be centralized, and paired down in scope in the computers that run the bioreactors.
  • Animals spend a lot of energy regulating body temperature. Given that bioreactors will be much bigger than animals, they will have a much lower surface area for heat transfer.

(To be clear, I don’t think this category of argument is a major consideration in favor nor against the feasibility of cultured meat. There are arguments pointed in both direction. One disadvantage of bioreactors is that they have to be designed to last decades, have modular components that can be swapped out, etc.)


 

Some Thoughts on Cultured Meat Feasibility

Thanks Linch! Apologies for the things I misunderstood / misrepresented about your report. Any sloppiness was the result of being rushed. I hope it’s clear that I was trying to engage in good faith :).

I agree with your characterization of the Altruist’s goals. Indeed, I think one of the biggest reasons to be bearish on cultured is if you’re super bullish on plant-based!

Re my theory of change, one other area that we may take lessons from is AI. I’m hesitant to speak too much about that since folks here know way more about it than me, but if AGI ends up being possible, it seems like it would have been important that domain-specific AIs were highly economically useful at various levels of sophistication. 

Re the crux you identified - I agree that imagining such scenarios is important to thinking about the possible outcomes of cultured meat. I’m not sure I understand your distinction in the last paragraph of your comment. However, a couple of related thoughts:

  • I don’t imagine it’s a good use of EA resources to devote tons of money directly to cultured meat R&D. Instead, it seems better to identify high leverage ways to increase funding, e.g. GFI’s work to hire lobbyists to get governments to invest huge sums and provide great incentives for research (like they have for solar).
  • It doesn’t seem particularly optimistic to think that there will be on the order of tens of billions of dollars of investment over the next 10-20 years (even potentially with minimal EA intervention). I’d have to think a bit more about the different scenarios, but there are lots of worlds where there are impressive milestones reached, lots of private funding, funding by incumbent food companies, governments, etc in which we’d see that kind of investment. Tesla alone has an R&D budget of around 1.5B / year.
Career Guide for Ending Factory Farming

In particular, there is a talent bottleneck for science and engineering roles.

As someone with experience hiring in the alternative protein sector, I have a few thoughts about this:

  • The current talent bottlenecks in the industry may not be a great guide for a young professional's career, at least in the alternative protein sector. Things in these industries change extremely quickly. Given that it could take 5+ years to get educated in one of these technical fields, the landscape by the time you finish your degree may look pretty different. Product improvement is a major focus now, but in the future I can see a major emphasis on policy (government funding for technical research can be a massive resource for public-good focused industries), management, operations, and marketing / PR (e.g. once the competition with conventional meat gets a bit dirtier).
  • In my experience, the talent bottleneck for food science is greater than for other technical fields. Plant-based, cultivated, and fermented alt-proteins all need food scientists, and the explosion in plant-based meat (which is 10x bigger than cultivated and fermented) has put a lot of strain on that labor market. I also think it may be somewhat faster to get trained in food science than in e.g. bioengineering.

Very thorough writeup :)

Some Scattered Thoughts on Operations

Agree!

Another possible difference between the startup world and the EA world is that startups have access to much stronger direct feedback loops than non-profits, i.e. trying to sell to customers and seeing what happens. This means that startups don't have to think through everything super carefully before executing.

Some Scattered Thoughts on Operations

I remember being surprised by the differing mindsets about operations when I transitioned to being more involved in the tech startup world after already being involved in EA. In the startup world you often hear things like "Ideas are cheap; execution is everything" which likely leads to operations feeling less low status. This is a major contrast to the EA world where many are highly intellectual, and place a high value on ideas. Given that startups tend to have more skin in the game than non-profits, perhaps EA non-profits could benefit from shifting more towards this mindset.

The Conflicted Omnivore

[Separating from my other comment, since it's a separate idea]

There's a fifth idea that  activists might consider when taking conflicted omnivores seriously, although it's a bit ickier. Activists may be able to take whatever feeling is underlying the answers to these polls, and combine it with peoples' general lack of education around factory farming, and garner broad support for something that seems much less radical than it is. For example, imagine a ballot initiative that aimed to "ban artificial insemination" in the dairy industry. Given polls like these, people may be inclined to support it, despite being unaware that it could cripple the dairy industry.

The Conflicted Omnivore

Thank you for bringing attention to this phenomenon!  I've seen a number of polls like this now, which makes me confident that this isn't a fluke, and actually points to something extremely important for the movement. Another cool study from Psychology Today shows animal rights was the least controversial of six causes considered, including sustainability. 

It's a shame that in my experience, many activist are convinced that broader society doesn't care about animals at all.  I think this is a major sort of disillusionment and burnout in the movement. According to polls like this, there's an important way in which this mindset is misguided.

I've also thought a bit about why we haven't already abolished factory farms given polls like these. Adding on to the points you've already brought up:

  • Cass Sunstein has done some awesome work on how "societal beliefs" can be slow to change in response to changes in the beliefs of the individual in that society (I like this 80K podcast episode on it). This is a reason for optimism that we may see abrupt change in favor of animal rights in the future.
  • I think many people don't actually have "beliefs" about whether animals have rights / feel pain / are conscious, etc . Beliefs are an abstraction over ways they might act in various scenarios (the map is not the territory). People can answer polls like this yet still not have the ascribed belief, because in reality their answer is a different type of behavior (e.g.  an emotional response, signaling of group identity, etc). For me, this makes it less paradoxical how people can answer polls like this, yet still eat meat.
What foundational science would help produce clean meat?
Answer by avacynNov 13, 202012

In the abstract, the highest impact scientific research you can do outside industry should focus on things that are important to long-term success, but are not necessary in the short term. 

Companies already have a strong incentive to find alternatives to the largest cost-drivers so that they can begin to produce regularly at smaller scales without going bankrupt. For example, companies are likely already working on alternatives to using the most expensive growth factors, since at current costs, they can make even small scale production cost-prohibitive.

However, the long term success of cultivated meat will require innovation and cost reduction across the entire value chain. Many of these innovations aren't important for the short-term goals of the industry, so will likely get pushed off until later. This is where academic research can currently provide value.

One great candidate for this is developing ways to create dirt-cheap basal media from plants, e.g. using hydrolysates. Currently, basal media components are all sourced separately, and are often produced in inefficient ways. For example, individual amino acids are often produced via fermentation and then combined in a single media formulation. This is a much less efficient process compared to current meat production, where amino acids are sourced from soybeans and fed to animals. In the long term, it's likely that cultivated meat will need to move to a system where the main basal media components are grown via agriculture as opposed to biotech. However, it's likely difficult for companies to justify spending a lot of time on this, since basal media is not currently a major cost driver.

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