The roof of the University of Wyoming’s Animal Science/Molecular Biology Building provided protection from any lightning strikes from heaven while Jim Kinder from The Ohio State University stood in front of the class.
The words “synthetic meat” had just come from his lips, while visiting a state that welcomes travelers with “Forever West” signs on busy Interstate 80, and the horse Steamboat bucking to dislodge Guy Holt in 1903 is the university’s iconic symbol.
Acquaintance and UW Professor Emeritus Gary Moss had invited the animal science professor to lecture to his and fellow Professor Emeritus Mark Stayton’s 4000-level “Topics and Issues” animal science students.
Kinder would later talk about 3D printing meat (and other methods) and ground his talk in reality by telling them agribusiness giants like Cargill and Tyson are investing millions in synthetic biology startups.
Kinder has traveled numerous times to Australia, where recently its red meat levy board reviewed 3D-printed meat and declared the new product could open new markets by increasing demand for red meat.
Synthetic meat could also satisfy personalized tastes and wants in texture and nutrients.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to talk about it or even be interested in talking about it,” said Kinder, a long-time faculty member in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences in Columbus. He specializes in beef and reproduction research.
“I find it a fascinating area to wonder and think about,” he noted. “It could be a societal change. It will evolve, and it’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s happening quicker than I ever thought it could.”
Synthetic biology blends engineering with genetics and genomic biology. At a very basic level, stem cells, defined by their ability to self-renew or change into another cell type, are used to create meat. Companies are attempting to create synthetic meat with the taste and texture of raised animals.
The industry thinks synthetic biology meats is serious, Kinder said, and noted the multi-million dollar investments by Cargill and Tyson, among other companies. They want to ensure they don’t become irrelevant.
“They are fearful they don’t want to be like the horse and buggy and the motorcar and ignore getting into the business,” he said. “Because they don’t know (what will happen).”
Whether or not consumers will socially accept syn-bio meat is unknown. Kinder pointed out articles about synthetic meat issues written as recently as February.
Red meat industry and media response is divided: some are dismissive, some are thoughtful and some have taken direct action. The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking the words “beef” and “meat” be used only on products made from slaughtered animals, not cell-cultured meat. No decision has yet been made. Syn-bio meats are being called “clean meat.” The war of words is somewhat like the dairy industry and manufacturers of soy, almond or coconut “milk.”
Kinder said the thoughtful side of the discussion appears more prevalent.
“I’m encouraged by that but discouraged by the other,” he said. “I think it’s very narrow in our thinking, and if you look at historically when people in societal groups are affected and function that way, they end up in places they don’t want to be. They end up being marginalized.”
Vast rangelands and pastures are not required for producing cell-cultured meat. That lack of inputs has caught the attention of environmentalists, who state the process removes the need for large amounts of land and water. That also appeals to countries in which both are scarce.
But, “The point is, are people going to socially accept syn-bio meats?” Kinder asked.
Meanwhile, the cell-cultured meat issue sits on the far horizon for ranchers like those in Wyoming. The expanses of rangelands would not be needed for meat production.
“The question ‘what are we going to do with all this land we’ve used for food production’ always comes up,” Kinder said. “I think (ranchers) need to be considering this as a possibility that will have tremendous impact on their abilities to do business and maybe not that far off in the future.”