Book review: Paul Shapiro (2018) Clean Meat (Gallery Books: New York)

Price: ***
Ease of use: **
Value for EAA beginners: ****
Value for EAA pros: **

Shapiro explains the concept of clean meat (also known as in vitro meat, cultured meat or cellular agriculture, i.e. real meat which is grown in a fermenter, or brewery, rather than in an animal), its advantages, and the history of its development in this book. He explains these ideas from a personal perspective, leading with experience and anecdotes, and the stories of the key players in the development of clean meat. This is a book intended to engage the reader and convince them of the importance and worthiness of clean meat more than it is about trying to create a reference work for those whose work or advocacy requires a deep understanding of clean meat.

The book does explain some of the technological basics, and does refer to various studies relating to likely consumer acceptance of clean meat. Shapiro points out the contrasting results of these, and suggests that the phrasing of the less optimistic studies, such as the 2005 European Commission poll which saw that “more than half of the respondents said they’d “never” approve of it” renders them less informative than some of the more positive studies. A 2017 survey published in the PLoS One journal saw two-thirds of respondents probably or definitely willing to try clean meat, for example. (This is a sentiment echoed and developed by Bruce Friedrich of GFI in his 80,000 Hours podcast. Friedrich argues that similar surveys which tested for consumer acceptance of chickens raised in factory farmed conditions would likely be similarly negative, and yet consumption of such products is both high and rising.)

Combining the results of multiple surveys, studies and polls into one book is helpful, but they are dotted throughout the book. From an advocate’s perspective, the organisation of the book is slightly frustrating, with topics and issues abandoned and revisited later, as and when they relate to the various stories that Shapiro is telling. This does make the book engaging to read, as it has natural and flowing prose, rather than a dry, informative tone, but makes it harder to use as a reference for specific topics or issues. There are no footnotes or references, which makes the ideas and reports harder to follow up on. The chapter titles are also confusing; combined with the lack of an index, this does make it harder to look up or revisit useful information discovered. For those who do want to use the book as a reference, here is a rough explanation of the contents:

  1. “The Second Domestication” – introduction and overview
  2. “Science To The Rescue” – early scientific development; comparison to some previous scientific developments
  3. “(Google) Searching For A Solution” – more of the same as the previous chapter, but brings the science a bit more up-to-date
  4. “Leading With Leather” – development of leather through cellular agriculture
  5. “Clean Meat Coming To America” – overlaps with chapters 2 and 3, nut slightly more specific to US developments
  6. “Project Jake” – the story of Hampton Creek; consideration of how clean meat intersects with plant-based meat; comparison of clean meat chicken to clean meat beef
  7. “Brewing Food (And Controversy) – acellular agriculture, i.e. growing dairy products, egg products, and gelatine without (much) use of animals
  8. “Tasting The Future” – conclusion and epilogue

For me, the book’s main use was to help me to become more familiar with the various stakeholders in the field; what each company does, and the roles of various investors, incubators and supporting non-profits (especially learning about New Harvest, which I knew relatively little about before). This is picked up gradually; it would have been helpful if the book had a short table as an appendix summarising what each company does. Open Philanthropy Project did something along these lines here (see the section on “private companies”), but this is now relatively out of date, having been published in December 2015. Indeed, one of the book’s main advantages is that it is currently the most up to date, comprehensive survey of the field.

An additional advantage was the numerous historical comparisons to previous new technologies, to understand how consumers, businesses and regulators responded to them. These ideas will be addressed more fully in another blog post, with reference to Sentience Institute’s more detailed technology adoption study.

The book also convinced me that some products may be more immediately marketable to the public (and quicker to develop) than others, from gelatin, which is already on the market, to leather, to foie gras – this last one chiefly because it will become cost competitive with conventional foie gras more quickly, and its welfare advantages will be even more apparent.

One mild criticism of the book is that it seems to slightly downplay the barriers to development. Although Shapiro regularly poses the question of whether consumers will accept clean meat, he slightly brushes the scientific and developmental difficulties aside by noting the beliefs of those working in the field that progress is inevitable. Open Philanthropy Project’s 2015 report into clean meat concluded that “we currently see developing cost-competitive cultured muscle tissue products as extremely challenging, and we have been unable to find any concrete paths forward that seem likely to achieve that goal”. The report provides a clear list of the barriers going forwards.  A more recent talk from EA Global (especially 8:15 to 24:27) notes the same difficulties, but maps out some potentially solutions. For an analysis of the estimates of when clean meat will be available by – significantly less optimistic than those of some of the individuals considered in the book – see ACE’s report here. It seems odd that Geltor is largely excluded from ACE’s analysis, however, given that they already began selling their cultured gelatine to other businesses in mid-2017.  Indeed, Bruce Friedrich of GFI is also much more optimistic than ACE, as you can hear here.

The book also serves as a great advert for careers in technology start-ups, especially as a co-founder. The book certainly makes this seem glamorous and exciting, through its personal stories and anecdotes; at several point, you are hooked waiting for the verdict of a large investor or a taste test. This career path has high potential, but wouldn’t work for everyone. Those interested should read as a starting point 80,000 Hours’ review of that career path and their review of being an early employee in a start-up. Also relevant is Friedrich’s 80,000 Hours podcast, where he encourages ambitious people interested in this area to aim to become CEOs of such start-ups, or conduct the relevant scientific research and work as CTOs.

The book is a really enjoyable, easy-going read. It’s a great introduction to the topic if you’re looking for something quite casual. For those already somewhat knowledgeable on the topic, the book may help you to feel more familiar with the history and current landscape of the field (although I suspect that it may become slightly out of date quite quickly). Costing between £13 to £20 in the UK, it’s unlikely to break the bank, but isn’t too cheap either.

For those looking for a shorter (free) introduction to clean meat, I’d recommend New Harvest’s “about” page and Sentience Politics’ 2016 report (although note that there has already been progress in eliminating the use of foetal bovine serum).

For those interested in relevant research and surveys (either so far, or upcoming), I would advise that people read the blogs and research libraries of the following groups, and sign up to their newsletters:

  • New Harvest – original research and advocacy to support the development of clean meat / cellular agriculture
  • The Good Food Institute – some original research, otherwise supporting and coordinating the development of clean meat / cellular agriculture and plant-based meat
  • Faunalytics – summaries of relevant research on their research library, some original research. and a “bibliography for cultured meat research” here
  • Animal Charity Evaluators – reviews of the non-profits working in the space, and occasional research relating to the development of cellular agriculture
  • My own blog, butcantheysuffer.wordpress.com – I will be publishing relevant reviews, reflections and updates over the next few weeks and months

4 thoughts on “Book review: Paul Shapiro (2018) Clean Meat (Gallery Books: New York)

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