The availability of cost-competitive cultured animal products has the potential to cause a massive decrease in the demand for non-cultured animal products. For this reason, estimates of when cultured alternatives1 will be available at similar prices to farmed animal products meaningfully affect the prioritization of animal advocacy interventions. For instance, while we currently think that corporate outreach is a very promising intervention, credible evidence suggesting that cost-competitive cultured alternatives to all animal products was five years away would result in a significant update to our beliefs about the effectiveness of corporate outreach. In that case, we would expect that at least some welfare reform advocacy would impact significantly fewer animals than if cost-competitive cultured alternatives were estimated to be much further in the future.
Despite the strategic importance of this information, thus far there has been a limited amount of analysis pertaining to what timelines should be expected.2 Furthermore, information relating to the timelines for cost-competitive cultured animal products is often poorly reported3 or reported timelines are themselves so vague that they border on uselessness.4 Given that further analysis on this topic appears to have the potential to meaningfully affect our evaluations, ACE recently completed a write-up that compiled informed estimates of the timelines for cultured animal products and discussed important reasons to trust or distrust them. The write-up also stated our core impressions of other key pieces of evidence, offered our own timeline estimates, and provided some brief thoughts on how our evaluations might update in light of our newly projected timelines.
Before completing this write-up, we already knew of some estimates about the timelines for cultured alternatives. This knowledge came from the general research we had completed over the past few years, as well as from conversations we had with leaders in the field of cellular agriculture. Whilst completing the research required for the write-up, we became aware of other estimates through a moderate search of news articles, websites of leading groups, and grey and academic literature.
Interesting points from the full write-up include:
- It seems that to achieve cost-competitiveness, cultured acellular animal products (e.g., dairy products, egg proteins, and gelatin) may only need to replicate the current production costs achieved for similar molecules that are produced through similar processes, rather than achieve production costs that are lower.
- Recent predictions from leaders in the field seem to be that some cultured ground meat products will be on the market by around 2021 and will be cost-competitive by around 2026.
- At least two estimates from other scientists suggest that the estimated timelines of cultured meat proponents may be too optimistic. Those two estimates are an experienced tissue engineering scientist’s estimated timeline and Van der Weele & Tramper’s cost estimate.
- Organizations promoting cell cultured products seem to have strong incentives to report optimistic timelines, as this is likely to result in more media coverage and be more compelling to prospective funders.
In the conclusion of the write-up we gave a series of probabilistic forecasts to communicate our own estimated timelines for when some different types of cultured animal products will become cost-competitive. One of the types of forecasts we gave were a range of years that represented our 90% subjective confidence intervals5 about when most broad animal product types within a specified animal product category would have at least one cost-competitive cultured alternative. Our 90% subjective confidence intervals of these timelines were:6
- More than half of the main broad types7 of conventional acellular animal products will have at least one cost-competitive cultured alternative in 2.5–30 years.
- More than half of the main broad types8 of conventional ground meats will have at least one cost-competitive cultured alternative in 4–50 years.
- More than half of the main broad types9 of conventional whole pieces of farmed animal muscle tissue will have at least one cost-competitive cultured alternative in 10–70 years.
After giving those subjective confidence intervals—and in order to give a better sense of our subjective probability distributions for each of the timelines—we also provided a series of approximate point estimates of the probability we assigned to each of these cost-competitive scenarios occurring within certain timeframes.
From completing this write-up we gained a better overall understanding of cultured animal product timelines and became more certain about them. However, we still have a very large amount of uncertainty about these timelines and do not have a strong understanding of the challenges involved with producing cost-competitive cultured animal products. Our current estimates of the timelines are tentative and could significantly update in light of further information.
Readers are encouraged to refer to the full write-up to further understand ACE’s current views and reasoning about the timelines for cost-competitive cultured alternatives.
Cultured animal products are grown via cellular agriculture rather than the industrial agriculture of animals.
The only other analysis that we are aware of that directly examines the timelines for cost-competitive cultured animal products is the Open Philanthropy Project’s report on Animal Product Alternatives.
For instance, a number of popular media articles inaccurately reported on a piece from the MIT Technology Review. These articles incorrectly cited the original piece as claiming that by 2030 we will be eating cultured turkey rather than we may be eating cultured turkey. Four such articles can be found in: The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, Vice Munchies, and The Huffington Post.
For instance, in 2008, The Globe And Mail reported that “the In Vitro Meat Consortium still hopes to produce processed meats within a few years…” Note that the crucial word “hopes” gives no information about how likely it is for this to happen. Another example is Reuters’ 2013 reporting that “While Monday’s fry-up will be a world first and only an initial proof-of-concept, the Dutch scientist reckons commercial production of cultured beef could begin within the next 20 years.” Again, note that “could begin within the next 20 years” gives little indication of how likely the event is, just that it is possible.
In a 90% subjective confidence interval, we would expect the true value to be within the range given in 90% of cases. We estimate there is a 5% chance that the cost-competitive alternatives will become available before the lower bound of our range and a 5% chance that the cost-competitive alternatives will not yet be available by the upper bound of our range.
The project leader estimated 90% subjective confidence intervals for when there will be cost-competitive cultured alternatives for most of the animal products in each of the three broad animal product groups. He completed this on several occasions over a two week period, with a few days between each occasion. On each of these occasions his estimate was based on all of the information that he was aware of, including his previous estimate(s). The project leader then aggregated his estimates and submitted a draft of the piece for review from the rest of the research team. The research team was then asked to evaluate the aggregated estimates, and they were discussed until an estimate was reached with which each ACE research team member felt comfortable.
In this context we would say the main broad types of conventional ground meat products are: a product mainly composed of ground beef, a product mainly composed of ground chicken, and a product mainly composed of ground pork.
In this context we would say the main broad types of conventional whole pieces of muscle tissue are: a product that is a whole piece of muscle tissue from a chicken, a product that is a whole piece of muscle tissue from a cow, a product that is a whole piece of muscle tissue from a pig, and a product that is a whole piece of muscle tissue from a fish.