PhD in physics (thermodynamics of ecosystems) and in moral philosophy (animal rights), master in economics, researcher in health and welfare economics at KULeuven, president of EABelgium, environmental footprint analyst at Ecolife

Wiki Contributions


The crux of the cultivated meat feasibility debate

Thanks for the question, had to think a while. About infeasibility of cultivated meat, best counterevidence for me would be seeing a massive disinvestment in cultivated meat R&D, a consensus among researchers openly saying that it is too difficult to make progress.

Another crucial thing that would change my mind, is evidence about the feasibility of plant-based meat, that substitution towards plant-based is faster than I would expect (faster than cultivated meat innovation). This would mean seeing a fast increase in the number of vegans, and especially conservative male meat identifiers switching to plant-based meats.

The crux of the cultivated meat feasibility debate

The more I think about it, the more I start to believe that cultivated meat is feasible, and that your examples offer some evidence.

So consider the function of flying. You may say that the function of flying with wings cannot be fulfilled with technology, that  imitating nature does not work . But your examples refer to humans flying with technologies that use wings. But humans are much heavier than birds. With airplanes, we can fly faster, over longer distances and carry heavier weights, things that biological organisms were never capable of doing. And we are talking about many orders of magnitude faster, further and heavier. Why would the functions necessary for muscle cell growth (e.g. oxygenation, nutrient production, waste removal,...) be any different? Why would these functions never be able to be fulfilled at least as efficiently with technologies than with organs?

Then you offer the example of ornithopters, and I conclude that even imitating nature is possible. The function of flying with wings can be imitated with technology. Those ornithopters are as heavy and large as birds. Some of those ornithopters even use artificial muscles (polymers that can contract like muscles). So the function of muscle contraction can also be replicated.  Some ornithopters have machine learning AI such that they can learn to fly, which means the function of brains can be replicated. So the complex combination of functions "learning to fly with wings using muscle contractions" can be replicated. What more evidence do you want that technology can build tools that fulfill complex functions that are fulfilled by biological organisms?

Cultured meat: A comparison of techno-economic analyses

One more addition to the cultivated meat feasibility discussion:

I argue why we have to make a distinction between the functions (e.g. taste, nutrition,...), the products (e.g. muscle-based meat, plant-based meat) and the production processes (e.g. animal-based meat, cell-based meat).  I expect that cell-based meat is feasible (can reach price parity with animal-based meat), but that we are uncertain about the time frames for innovation (of cell-based meat) versus substitution (towards plant-based meat). Given these considerations, cell-based meat research and development has to be considered more like an insurance policy.

New intuitions for cultured meat

I wrote a comment in a previous discussion about why I think cultivated meat can be expected to become at least as efficient/cheap as animal-based meat:

The basic idea is that animals were not evolved to maximize meat production. Just like horses were not evolved to maximize transport efficiency and hence were replaced by cars, plants were not evolved to maximize turning solar energy into electricity and are replaced by more efficient solar panels, pigs were not evolved to maximize insulin production and were replaced by recombinant-DNA yeast,...

Cultured meat: A comparison of techno-economic analyses

Concerning "it is a matter of time": the only worry that I see, is that it would take so long to develop cultivated meat that in the meantime we would have already abolished animal farming (or decreased it to such a degree that cultivated meat has little additional value) because of e.g. plant-based and fermentation-based protein. But I consider that unlikely (lower than 10% likelihood). Oh, and even if humans would be all plant-based vegans by then, then we still have the many carnivorous animals (pets,...) who may benefit from cultivated meat. Hence, I think speeding up cultivated meat R&D remains very effective (high risk high impact), especially for animal welfare. It may be less effective for e.g. climate change, because reductions of greenhouse gas emissions need to occur soon (within 30 years). But cultivated meat offers a cheap carbon capture and storage method (reforestation of agricultural land that was used for livestock). And I think carbon capture is still worthwhile even over 50 years.

I would say 30-50 years for whole tissue cultivated meat to reach price parity with animal-based meat. But I have no clue whether I'm good at forecasting.  

About the 50% consumption of resources: that was just an assumption, somewhere between 0 and 100%, close to what I think is the proportion of edible tissue mass to whole body mass.

Cultured meat: A comparison of techno-economic analyses

Please sure do! That would be very interesting.

Cultured meat: A comparison of techno-economic analyses

I would expect that cultivated meat can reach price parity with animal-based meat, based on 'first principles'. Assume that all biological functions in an organism can be replicated with technologies, and that these technologies can reach the same efficiency as the biological functions that reached high efficiency due to evolution and natural selection. That is a realistic assumption, because no laws of nature have to be violated. To grow muscle tissue, we need oxygenation, so we invent a technology, call it 'lungs'. We need nutrients (amino-acids, sugars,...), so we invent a technology called 'intestines' to produce nutrients (e.g. from plant-based sources). If these new technologies are as efficient in doing what they have to do as their organic counterparts in animals, the production costs of cultivated meat and animal-based meat will be the same. However, using animals to produce muscle tissue is not maximally efficient, because of two reasons.

  1. The animal wastes resources (nutrients, energy) on unnecessary organs, tissues and body parts, such as brains, eyes, ears, tails, feathers, pain receptor cells, reproductive organs, hooves,... All these things are not necessary to grow muscle cells. Assume that these unnecessary body parts use 10% of nutrients and energy. Then a production unit (e.g. bioreactor) that does not use these body parts can be 10% more efficient and hence 10% less costly. 
  2. Using an animal to harvest muscle cells, the many other body parts that are necessary for muscle growth, such as the lungs (for oxygenation), intestines (for production of the growth medium), skin (for thermal isolation and protection),... need frequent replacement when the muscle cells are harvested, because these body parts are destroyed (in the slaughterhouse). It is like using a bioreactor to grow cultivated meat, and after each batch, we destroy the whole equipment, including all sensors, tubes,... And then we built a new bioreactor (using a factory we call 'uterus'). That is not efficient, and very costly. I expect not having to construct a new production unit after each production cycle, will make cultivated meat production much more efficient (and hence less costly) than animal-based meat. Assume the production unit for animal-based meat (the necessary body parts, such as the lungs, intestines,... of the animal) consumes 50% of resources for its construction (growth), not having to construct so many production units could save almost 50% of resource use and hence costs. 

So I expect with sufficient research, it is only a matter of time when cell-based meat reaches price parity, and it can perhaps drop to 50% of the price of animal-based meat. Plus, I consider it unlikely that none of the technologies can become more efficient than their organic counterparts, because it is unlikely that the current design of an animal is optimal (meaning that the current animal would have reached the final stage of evolution and that none of its organs can be improved).

Cultured meat: A comparison of techno-economic analyses

What is the packing density of muscle cells in muscle tissue (meat)? Why not use that packing density as an estimate for the maximum possible packing density of muscle cells in a bioreactor?

The problem of possible populations: animal farming, sustainability, extinction and the repugnant conclusion

Yes, my theory favours B, assuming that those 100 billion additional people have on expectation a welfare higher than the threshold, that the higher X-risk in world A does not on expectation decrease the welfare of existing people, and that  the negative welfare in absolute terms of having a miserable life is less than ten times higher than the positive welfare of currently existing people in world A. In that case, the added welfare of those additional people is higher than  the loss of welfare of the current people. In other words: if there are so many extra future people who are so happy, we really should sacrifice a lot in order to generate that outcome. 

However, the question is whether we would set the threshold lower than the welfare of those future people. It is possible that most current people are die-hard person-affecting utilitarians who care only about making people happy instead of making happy people. In that case, when facing a choice between worlds A and B, people may democratically decide to set a very high threshold, which means they prefer world A

The problem of possible populations: animal farming, sustainability, extinction and the repugnant conclusion

Hi Kevin,

thanks for the comment.  My theory mostly violates that neutrality principle: all else equal, adding a person to the world who has a  negative welfare is bad, adding a person who has a welfare higher than treshold T is good, and in its lexical extension, adding a person with welfare between 0 and threshold T, is good (the lexical extension says that if two states are equally good when it comes to the total welfare excluding the welfare of possible people between 0 and T, then the state that has the highest total welfare, including that of all possible people, is the best).

There is indeed an apparent intransitivity in my theory, which is not a real or serious intransitivity, as it is avoided in the same way as that dynamic inconsistency is avoided, namely by considering the choise sets. So, worlds A, B and C are equally good when you consider the full choice set {A,B,C}, but once that extra person is added, the choice set reduces to  {B,C}, and then C is better than B (the extra person becomes a necessary person in choice set {B,C}). The crucial thing is that the 'better than' relationship depends on the choice set, the set of all available states. This excludes the serious 'money pump' intransitivities. In the full choice set {A,B,C}, I am indifferent between A and B, so I'm willing to switch from A to B. Now I prefer C over B (because that extra person has a higher welfare in C), and hence I'm willing to pay to switch from B to C. But as the choice set is now reduced to {B,C},  after choosing C, I can no longer switch back to A, even if I was initially indifferent between C and A. In the lexical extension of my theory, I would end up with world C.

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