Metameat Inc: a vision for 2050
Through telling the story of Metameat Inc, we show how changes in policy, technology and culture help America transition to a bug-based diet
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Lead Applicant Organization Type
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Our team is made up of four graduate students from Harvard University’s Master in Design Engineering (MDE) program: Hyemin Bae, Ed Bayes, Barbara Alonso and Nick Collins.
The MDE is a collaborative degree between Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences that takes a systems focused and design thinking approach to tackling multiscale, real-world challenges.
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Nebraska, a State in the United States of America, covers a total area of 200,356 km^2.
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
The team currently lives and studies in Cambridge, MA, USA and half the team are US citizens. We selected the USA not just because of this personal link but also because of the specific dimension of the American industrial meat industry and Nebraska’s link to it.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
It wouldn’t be a Holiday season in the USA without the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. While the image of the President issuing a "pardon" to a turkey, sparing its life, might seem a lighthearted, if not slightly idiosyncratic, custom to an outsider, it belies a deeper cultural value and is the tip of the iceberg for America’s obsession with meat.
Meat consumption has been at the heart of America’s food culture for centuries and is closely tied to its identity as a nation. Early settlers were able to hunt pigs and other animals freely thanks to North America’s abundant climate and topography, and living off the land became a core part of American frontier identity.
By the American Revolution in the 18th century, Americans were eating between 150 and 200 pounds of meat annually. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as the country became more urbanized, food production became more industrialized, and meat became even more accessible and affordable to the average American, especially previously expensive meats like beef. The Great Depression and World War II accelerated consumption and led to cheaper and more processed forms of meat like hot dogs and hamburgers as the government started to subsidize farmers to stabilize production.
By the 21st century, meat production had increased from around 10m tonnes in 1961 to 50m in 2017. Today, UN figures show the US (only tied with Australia) is the country that eats the most meat per person globally, at 220 pounds per person. That’s the equivalent of half a cow each!
While consumers are waking up to the health and environmental consequences outlined below, the United States Department for Agriculture (USDA) data suggests meat consumption is not abating and has actually increased in recent years.
Currently, the meat production industry takes up to $7.5 billion in Nebraska; therefore the state's economy would be in great danger if the meat industry is eliminated outright. This ties to why we chose Nebraska for starting the regulated edible insect industry to substitute the existing beef industry. Not only do we envision insect agriculture supplementing this shift in the labor force, we see how it can better distribute wealth among more farmers in the market. The resources to raise insects are substantially lower than, for example, cattle farming, and we can increase business ownership in the region.
Looking forward to 2050, significant and vital changes will be needed in policy, technology, and culture to change the economics of the industry and diets of Americans. Nothing less than the future of the world is at stake.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
We are only recently waking up to the full scale of the impact of meat production on the environment, largely due to the conversion of land to agriculture, water use and associated greenhouse gas emissions such as methane. In the US alone, the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that beef production accounts for 15% of the country’s total greenhouse emissions.The US population is predicted to grow from around 330 million to around 440 million in 2050. Globally, UN figures show the current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030 and 9.8 billion in 2050. To accommodate this, current food production will need to almost double. The projected increase in meat consumption will lead to unprecedented levels of emissions.
The current rate of consumption of meat has been linked to health issues. For example, in the 1970s, the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs’ Dietary Goals Studies linked red and processed meat with diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer. This, and America’s unhealthy relationship with diet and portion size, is leading to a national crisis. Recent studies show around 40% of Americans are obese and this is likely rise to 50% within 10 years. Currently one in ten Americans have diabetes, projected to rise to as many as one in three 3 by 2050 if current trends continue.
The meat industry accounts for the largest portion of U.S. agriculture, totalling around 5.6% of GDP, and is responsible for over 5 million jobs. Nebraska specifically is known as the Beef State where the production of beef is foundational to its agricultural economy.
As outlined elsewhere, meat consumption has been at the heart of America’s food culture for centuries and is closely tied to its identity as a nation. In addition, eating insects is a taboo in the USA, making a transition to a bug-based diet more difficult.
Due to a lack in demand for edible insects, there is a lack of supply, meaning farming technology is not yet efficient, putting technological limits on the amount of protein that can be produced from insect farming compared to traditional agriculture. Current technology in the meat industry is highly efficient creating high barriers to market for new entrants.
As a result of the importance of beef and other meat to the American diet and economy, the industry receives billions of subsidies from the American government and hold big sway among policymakers at Capitol Hill. At the same time, there is no formal regulatory pathway forward to farm insects for consumption.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
The current trajectory of meat production is unsustainable. To tackle this, the UN and others have called for a shift towards eating insects as a way to reduce pollution. Edible insects need significantly less land, water and feed to farm them and emit much less GHG emissions.
Two billion people in the world already regularly eat insects and there are also associated health benefits, including a high protein content. Due to cultural barriers to eating bugs discussed elsewhere, initially Metameat releases ‘Cricket Powder’ to tackle immediate disgust. Through a range of interventions, by 2050 Metameat will release its ‘Mixed Bugs’ range, reflecting the demand for simple, natural bug-based products.
Currently, the economics of insect farming are small compared to beef and other meat production and most insect farms are small and family owned. There is huge economic potential due to a number of advantages farming insects has over meat production such as a faster reproduction and growth rate, more efficient feed conversion and fewer ethical concerns. Plant-based meat alternatives such as the Impossible Burger are already taking off. A large portion of employment in Nebraska is devoted to agriculture. With a demand shift away from conventional meat production in NE, the labor landscape will have to shift as well.
Metameat’s interventions are targeted specifically at changing cultural norms. These include a public information campaign coopting social media stars. To demonstrate this change, we have mapped out a user journey tracking levels of disgust and enjoyment over time. There is precedent for such cultural norms changing. Lobsters were historically seen as a cheap source of protein and were even given to prisoners. Even relatively recently, sushi has undergone a similar transformation.
To tackle head on the taboos associated with eating insects, we predicted that Metameat would use augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to help change psychological behaviors. Such technologies are already being used to change tastes and habits. Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab has developed VR platforms for psychology and mental health, with a focus on treating patients with eating disorders. We also analyzed the most commonly consumed insects and developed new utensils for eating them, drawing on inspiration from the introduction of chopsticks to America.
There are currently few specific regulations for rearing edible insects creating a legal grey area under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. For example, there’s a law that meat, poultry and egg establishments need to be inspected by the USDA, but insects fall outside of these categories. This hampers the supply of edible insect products. We envisage that Congress would pass a new Act, paving the way for industrial farming. We have also redesigned the USDA’s food pyramid, reflecting the move towards a more bug-based diet.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
See attached video, presentation, and images
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
See attached video, presentation, and images
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?