Two polls have been circulating that, at first glance, seem to cast doubt on consumer acceptance of a promising new food technology.
A few years back, Pew Research asked just over 1,000 adults in the United States, “Would you eat meat that was grown in a lab?” Twenty percent of respondents said yes, 78 percent said no, and 2 percent were not sure.
Similarly, a poll by the European Commission (EC) asked whether more than 12,000 Europeans “approve of … growing meat from cell cultures...” Just 24 percent said yes, with 12 percent agreeing in exceptional circumstances and 54 percent saying never.
These two polls have been consistently misused to argue that “clean meat” (meat grown through cellular agriculture) is unlikely to displace conventionally grown meat any time soon. I see them cited in newspaper articles, academic papers, and even due diligence investor reports as indications that consumers are opposed to clean meat.
The problems with these two polls are at least three-fold:
- First, they use unappealing and/or inaccurate terminology.
- Second, they don’t test clean meat against conventional meat.
- Third, they ask the question without any context at all and as one among dozens of other questions about future technology.
The Pew poll framed the “lab meat” question with the prefatory statement: “Here are some things that people might be able to do in the next 50 years.” “Lab meat” was one from among dozens of other questions. Similarly, the EC poll offers no context at all, and frames clean meat as one of 22 future-tech options to consider within a single question.
The other two reputable and oft-cited polls are from the UK and Belgium, and they have their own problems. A 2012 YouGov survey of 1,729 British adults framed the question this way: “Scientists are currently developing artificial meat that can be grown in a laboratory. Imagine artificial meat was available commercially; do you think you would eat it?”
It shouldn’t be surprising that 62 percent said no, with just 19 percent saying yes and 19 percent who had not made up their mind. A few problems are obvious: Clean meat is not artificial, and once commercialized, it won’t be grown in a lab, so asking if consumers will eat “artificial lab meat” is doubly wrong.
Beyond the fact that these polls are framed inaccurately, they also offer no context at all; they simply present a foreign concept – lab-grown meat – and ask what consumers think.
Two polls conducted more recently show what can happen when consumers are given some context. A 2015 poll of 180 Belgians explained that with “cultured meat … it may be possible to cultivate basically one million tons of meat muscle tissue by using stem cells from one animal. This could be an alternative to traditional meat as we know it nowadays.”
Before the study, only 13 percent of study participants had heard of cellular agriculture and clean meat. Once participants were educated about its environmental benefits, more than half changed their willingness to try it. With this framing, more than 90 percent were surely or maybe willing to try it.
Similarly, a 2013 poll of more that 1,000 people in The Netherlands stated: “Imagine that you have tried cultured meat and you find the flavor, texture and nutritional values the same as traditional meat. Would you like to buy cultured meat more often?”
Here, the poll solved for an obvious bias; we don’t know for sure, but it would have been reasonable for participants in previous polls to assume that “lab grown” or “artificial” meat might not taste or be nutritionally the same as conventional meat, which is likely to explain a good portion of negative results.
And sure enough, once consumers understood that clean meat was the same as conventional, seventy-one percent wanted to buy it, 25 percent said maybe, and only four percent said “probably not,” with zero percent in the “definitely not” category.
I should step back for a moment and mention online polls, which can sometimes entice the unwary web news consumer (and, oddly enough, some actual social scientists). There are a lot of news websites that have asked their visitors what they think of clean meat, but these are basically worthless, since they are so easily manipulated.
For example, a Guardian poll asked the question, “would you eat lab grown meat to save the environment?” Only 37 percent said yes. Does that make you think that only 37 percent of respondents would eat lab grown meat to save the environment? That’s what it sounds like, but in fact, 9 percent said “yes, with extra cheese and insects,” 14 percent said “I’ll just give up meat,” and 36 percent were already vegetarian. Only 4 percent were happy with conventional meat.
That said, Sam Harris’ Twitter poll is worth mentioning, just because his Twitter following is probably well-educated and science-based, and the poll is so simple. Harris asked, “If cultured meat is molecularly identical to beef, pork, etc., and tastes the same, will you switch to eating it?” 83 percent of ~14,614 said they would switch. Note that of “no” votes, 27 percent were already vegetarian.
Special opprobrium is warranted for a 2015 paper with the title, “Educated consumers don’t believe artificial meat is the solution to the problems with the meat industry.” The authors polled almost 2,000 educated consumers, asking them how the problems of the meat industry should be solved. Participants could make only one selection, and less than 10 percent picked the development of clean meat as their first choice, instead selecting eating less meat and eating no meat.
The problem with this should be obvious: The fact that someone selects “eat less meat” as their first choice says literally nothing at all about whether they support cellular agriculture as another solution that could satisfy the portion of the population with no interest in eating less meat. That this study was published and continues to be cited for the completely inaccurate proposition of its title is really quite remarkable.
Note that even if the numbers were as low as the worst polls indicate, 20 percent, that would still represent a massive market for clean meat. Recall that the entire plant-based meat market in the U.S. right now—Boca, Beyond Meat, Gardein, Tofurky, and all the rest—represents just one quarter of one percent of the meat market, and yet these companies are thriving.
The numbers represented in these early consumer-acceptance studies are actually quite positive when put into context. Intuitively, this makes sense: Consumers today eat meat despite how it’s produced, not because of how it’s produced. And cellular agriculture is a chance to radically improve that process, paying significant dividends with regard to sustainability, the environment, global health, and animal protection.
Once clean meat is commercially available and is offered alongside conventional meat—and consumers are thereby informed of all its advantages—we at GFI have no doubt that consumers will opt for the former.
Editor’s Note: This reflection is based on a presentation delivered at the Second International Conference on Cultured Meat in Maastricht, The Netherlands.
To read more about The Good Food Institute's work to promote new alternatives to conventional animal agriculture, visit our website.
visit cleanmeat.org for info on the who, what, and why of clean meat.