UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Tony Rice, a senior agribusiness management student in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, studied “meat” made in the lab and not from animals, and grew increasingly committed to understanding its potential to enhance agricultural production.
The innovation holds some potential to augment livestock production in the long term, provided that scaled production costs are able to compete with traditionally produced beef, Rice concluded. As more people move into the middle class in developing nations, global meat demand is expected to grow rapidly, indicating that the debate over lab-cultured meat will be focused less on market share and more on labeling and regulatory issues, Rice wrote.
Lab-grown meat means protein not from the flesh of animals but cultured in the lab from stem or stem-like animal cells to mimic their meat.
Rice was one of seven U.S. students named as Farm Foundation Cultivators and invited to present to about 250 leaders from the food and agricultural value chain gathered for the Farm Foundation Round Table, an invitation-only meeting held earlier this year in San Mateo, California.
“Tony’s work and presentation drew high praise from our group,” said Tim Brennan, vice president of external relations, Farm Foundation. “Many folks were particularly pleased to hear from a young Pennsylvania dairy farmer concerning recent troubles the industry has had in the Keystone State.”
Deans of Land Grant universities from around the country nominated a large pool of students to attend and present at the Farm Foundation event, which meets twice a year to discuss the most pressing issues facing agriculture.
Rice also hosted discussions among smaller groups around his poster during the meeting, and spent a day touring ag-focused startups in San Francisco such as Granular, Just, which is one of the companies working to bring lab-cultured meat to market, Inc and Trace Genomics.
Rice, who grew up on a family dairy farm in Snyder County, views lab-cultured protein as a supplemental offering to conventional meat and livestock production.
He predicts issues and controversy over lab-cultured meat, in particular how it will be labeled, won’t reach the forefront for about five years, possibly even decades, in part because the state of the technology and present production cost is very expensive.
But when that issue arises, he expects farmers and much of the agricultural industry to be interested — just as the dairy industry was engaged in controversy over whether “milk” could be used in on labels of soy and almond milk products.
“Someone will pursue this market opportunity,” said Rice, a political science minor, who is interested in the social, political and environmental aspects of agricultural policy and labeling. “It’s important to understand and acknowledge the potential ways it will impact the industry,” he said.
Just, a startup, has claimed it has developed a process cost-effective enough to introduce a lab-grown meat to the market. Rice noted it was interesting to learn how Just is working through the challenges of introducing the new product, in particular how the company is working to manage costs as it scales production.
Lab-grown meat has the potential to have reduced environmental impact because it requires far fewer animals — a small piece of animal meat in theory can be used to manufacture an unlimited amount — and is eyed as a more humane, environmentally friendly method of meat production than industrial livestock production. A cow can consume about 7,300 gallons of water per year. Worldwide, livestock production accounts for between 14.5 and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
But one study found it would take more energy to produce lab-grown meat than from cows, according to WIRED magazine.
And developing the process and the growing medium has proved very expensive for companies.
Rice first learned about lab-grown meat during a summer internship in Washington, D.C., working on trade policy at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, where he worked in the Agricultural Affairs and Commodity Policy Department.
Rice researched lab-cultured meat for a class project in Agribusiness Management 460. His paper was a comprehensive review of available literature and market research about lab-cultivated meat.
“Students like Tony inspire me because they take initiative and enrich their field of opportunity through course projects,” said Rice’s professor, Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Scholar and Entrepreneurship Coordinator at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“Tony has the entrepreneurial mindset that is so important to student success,” said Gagnon. “He sees the opportunity, and takes action, which leads to more opportunities.”
“His review of cellular agriculture and engagement with the Farm Cultivator Program opens doors to the future that will certainly benefit all Penn State students,” said Gagnon.