Consider the (Synthetic) Lobster

CONSIDER THE (SYNTHETIC) LOBSTER

What will it mean for the Maine lobsterman when there’s an alternative source for lobster meat?

 

“Meat grown in a lab.” It shows up in science fiction as often as the spaceship or the sarcastic computer. And like both those things, it’s fast becoming a reality.

There are restaurants today where you can get a meal made of chicken, beef, or pork that did not come from a chicken, a cow, or a pig. And you couldn’t tell the difference – because there isn’t one.

Synthetic meat – also called ‘lab-grown meat,’ ‘cultured meat,’ ‘in vitro meat,’ or ‘vat-grown meat’ (in descending order of deliciousness) – is real meat. Look under a microscope and it’s no different from chicken or steak. It’s grown in a lab, but it’s no different from what’s grown inside a pig or a cow. Or a duck. Or a tuna. Or, one day, a lobster.

When synth meat hits the shelves, it will significantly disrupt America’s meat industry. A lot of ranchers and animal farmers are going to be out of a job. The Maine lobsterman will be in the same boat. Synthetic lobster meat might be great for the consumer, but it will be devastating to the lobstering industry – and to the Maine towns that rely on it.

 

SYNTH MEAT TODAY

The synth meat industry is making incredible progress – and it’s just getting started.

In 2003, researchers grew a tiny piece of steak. It was a scientific triumph. Then they cooked it and ate it.

The first synthetic hamburger was served in 2013. It is reported to have cost one million dollars (funded in large part by Google’s Sergey Brin). Now there are multiple startups making discoveries every day, backed by billions of dollars from investors like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and hedge funds and venture capitalists across the country.

The problem isn’t edibility. It isn’t even flavor. It’s cost. Synth meat is here, it’s just expensive. Right now synth-meat startup Memphis Meats estimates the cost of production for synthetic steak at $2,000 a pound – which is ludicrous of course, but so is a new product whose production cost goes from $1,000,000 to $2,000 in just four years. It is only a matter of time before synth meat is as cheap as traditional meat – and most experts agree it will get cheaper. Much cheaper.

Lower prices at the meat (or seafood) counter is only one of the benefits. For example: vegetarians can eat it. This is meat – real meat – that is as cruelty-free as a veggie burger. When synth meat becomes widely available, there might be a whole lot fewer vegans – and a whole lot fewer slaughterhouses too.

Environmentalists note that this could dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of American farming. Cows produce unbelievable amounts of greenhouse gases – unbelievable unless you’ve ever smelled a cattle yard. And where there’s cowpats there’s cattle feed, and you can’t grow millions of tons of silage without millions of tons of oil. It then takes yet more oil to transport the cattle from ranches and slaughterhouses to the population centers where it will be consumed. Whereas synth meat can be grown in a lab on the same block as the supermarket that will sell it. It gives a whole new meaning to local meat.

Dietitians note that lab-grown meat could be free of the antibiotics and other chemicals that are such a turn-off to many would-be carnivores. They also note that lab-grown meat would more closely resemble grass-fed beef, which is generally thought to be lower in harmful fats and cholesterol. Public health experts note that this would pretty much eliminate the threat of mad cow disease, while dramatically reducing the threat of animal-born illnesses – even those illnesses which don’t affect people. That means that the animals on small farms, even backyard chickens or pet pot-bellied pigs, would be both safer to live and safer to eat.

Synth meat won’t replace traditional meat. But it could offer it stiff competition. ‘Animal-grown’ steak might become a luxury item, similar to the way prime aged or grass-fed beef commands a premium over the shrink-wrapped stuff in the market cooler. And in doing so it will disrupt the American economy.

It’s hard to predict how disruptive it will be. But think of it this way. There’s a new product that will be hitting shelves soon that is almost identical to the old product, except it’s cheaper, fresher, more ethical, and better for you. That product is going to be pretty disruptive. In the same way that the car was disruptive to the horse and buggy.

Right now there are around one million cattle operations in the United States. And most of those employ more than one person. And there are lots of adjuncts who make their living from this business, from the farmers who grow cattle feed, to the railways that bring cows to the slaughterhouses, to the other people in cattle country whose livelihoods depend on the money that beef brings into their towns. How many of these people will lose their jobs? It’s hard to say? Half of them? Most of them? All of them? A lot of people think the answer is closer to the latter.

Synthetic meat will make food cheaper to the American consumer, but those profits will be going to Silicon Valley startups, not farmers, and not anyone else who currently profits from the animal meat supply chain. The money won’t be going to China, but it won’t be going to China, Maine either. It will create jobs, but they’ll be for people in cities wearing white lab coats – and it will certainly destroy the jobs of farmers and ranchers across the country. It will remove one of the primary sources of rural employment – one of the last remaining economic reasons for there to be a rural America. And it seems likely that the value of farmhouses and ranch land, so tied to the economic viability of raising animals, will disappear all but overnight.

This will affect Mainers. It will affect Maine ranchers, pig farmers, and poultry farmers, and beyond – earlier this year Memphis Meats made a duck breast, and venison and even moose-meat is just a matter of time. But as inevitably as the tide, one day some bright scientist is going to turn her attentions to synthetic seafood. Soon we’ll have lab-grown shellfish. Soon we will be able to buy synthetic lobster, and that will have profound effects on Maine.

 

THE TRAP

The lobster industry is unusual in the modern world. There are very few industries left which are based on the harvesting of wild animals. One by one, creatures and crops have been domesticated. Farmed salmon is only the most recent subjugation of nature. A lobsterman less resembles a rancher or a farmer than he does a hunter or a whaler. To harvest lobsters on the scale we do, as sustainably as we do, is a truly incredible accomplishment; is based on deep understanding, anticipation, and respect, one part science and one part art – and ten parts tradition – and a hundred parts hard work.

As with so many other industries in American and human history, this leaves the industry extremely vulnerable – to changing circumstances, to changing tastes and needs, and to competition from domestication, alternatives, or other sources of production. Synthetic lobster meat will provide all three of those forms of competition.

It’s hard to say how much this competition will affect the lobstering industry. But the answer is probably “enough” – to undercut the market for lobster, to make the profession of lobsterman unprofitable, and to devastate the small towns of Downeast Maine.

It all comes down to prices. If a pound of ground beef costs four dollars, to compete with that you’re gonna have to charge three. If a pound of lobster meat costs twenty dollars, you’ve only got to charge nineteen. The lobster market has a lower barrier of entry for competition.

The reason that lobster is more expensive than hamburger is that the beef industry is scaleable. It can basically produce as much meat as people want. Whereas lobster is – notoriously – limited. You can’t catch more bugs than Mother Nature provides (or science and regulation allow). But that is about to change. Synthetic lobster will be infinitely scaleable. The lobster supply will go from limited to limitless. Lobster prices will no longer be inflated due to scarcity. Lobster will become just like hamburger. A pound of lobster meat won’t cost nineteen dollars – it will cost three.

That price won’t be seasonal, or subject to the quality of the harvest or any other external factors. It will be permanent. The price of synth lobster meat won’t be the floor; it will be the ceiling. Losbtermen will not be able to get more for their catch. Period.

Even worse, it’s not an even playing field. The synth meat industry, by its very nature, cuts out middlemen. They grow the meat, wrap it up, and deliver it to the restaurant or grocery store (if not right to your front door) – and they do so from much closer to their customers than Thomaston or Machias or Castine. With synth lobster, the price paid by the consumer will be close to the price realized by the producer.

Whereas any lobsterman will tell you that the price they get for their catch is a mere fraction of what the consumer pays – a difference which widens the farther one gets from the source. A person in Boston – Los Angeles – or Paris or Cape Town or Beijing – will pay triple or more for a lobster what a person will pay on the docks in Harpswell or Camden or Beals Island.

To be competitive, the producer of synth lobster doesn’t have to match prices with the producer of lobsters – lobstermen. They only have to match prices with the retailers. As a result, the price of synth lobster could be four times the dock price of live lobster, and this would still significantly impact the Maine lobstering industry. Well before the synth price gets down to the dock price, the lobstermen of Maine will be unable to make a living. So will the other people whose jobs and livelihoods rely on them. So will all the Maine towns that were built on lobstering.

 

THE COST

Everyone knows that Maine is synonymous with lobster. But a lot of Mainers don’t appreciate how big a part they play in our economy. There are six thousand licensed lobstermen and women in Maine. That’s almost one percent of the entire Maine labor force. Last year they produced three hundred and eighty-two million dollars in gross exports, accounting for over thirteen percent of Maine’s entire export market – to say nothing of millions of dollars in domestic sales, licensure fees, and sales and income taxes. And that’s not counting sales by those further down the distribution chain – such as restaurants, markets, lobster pounds, and the lobster roll food truck at Portland Head Light.

And the people licensed as lobstermen represent only a part of the lobstering industry. Those six thousand people don’t include those who repair traps, who repair boats, who sell boats, who make boats, who sell diesel fuel, who drive delivery trucks large and small, people involved in fisheries science, state inspectors and regulators.

And while some lobstering towns are economically diversified, many are not – and the farther Downeast one goes, the more the towns become as single-industry as any mill town. That means that the livelihood of everyone in that town is closely tied to the success of the lobstering industry. A bad year on the boats means a bad year on the docks, a bad year in the stores, and, most likely, a rough year for school budgets and town expenditures. But we’re not talking about a bad year. We’re talking about catastrophe.

Of those six thousand lobstermen, how many will be able to keep working? Fewer than six thousand. Fewer than six hundred? For each lobstermen, each boat, each set of traps, how many other Mainers derive some or all of their livelihood from the needs of the lobstering industry and the profits that it generates? How many of them will be able to keep their jobs or their businesses? How many of them will want to remain in their towns – how many will be able to?

We can imagine what this will look like for our Downeast towns. They will follow the archetype of the single-industry town when that single industry disappears. Jonesport will look like Dexter when it stopped making shoes. Machias will look like Millinockett when it stopped making paper. Downeast Maine, already suffering from unacceptable poverty, will follow the path of Detroit when it stopped making cars and West Virginia as it stops mining coal. It will be devastating. Maine will be devastated.

 

THE FUTURE

Perhaps scientists will never be able to synthesize lobster meat. I wouldn’t bet on it. I would bet that they will be able to do it within half a decade, and that it will have driven traditional lobster meat off the shelves within ten years’ time. Just about the same time that cars start driving themselves and packages get delivered by drone – two things that, as we speak, have already begun.

Perhaps scientists will never be able to synthesize lobster meat efficiently enough to get the price down, thus that it will never be able to compete with live lobsters brought in from the sea. Again, all I can say is: I wouldn’t bet on it. Not my money. Not the future of my state and of thousands and thousands of my fellow Mainers.

Perhaps people will prefer live lobsters, even to the point where they are willing to pay considerably more for them. Perhaps they’ll do it out of charity to Maine. Perhaps people will pay three times the price for the joy of dealing with that red lobster shell. But this won’t be like people paying a premium for local grass-fed dry-aged steak instead of Wal-Mart beef. Synth lobster and off-the-dock lobster will be identical. This will be like people paying more for wild venison instead of farmed venison: most people won’t, and the premium they’ll be willing to pay will be small. It will not be enough to support lobster prices at their current levels. I would not wager on it being enough to support more than a handful of full-time lobstermen, let alone the industry as we know it.

Perhaps there will be jobs in the ‘new lobstering industry’ for those currently working as lobstermen. I do not think that this is likely. The skills necessary to captain a boat or set a trap are not skills that translate well into the modern workplace. There will be other people, with science backgrounds and lab experience, waiting to take these jobs. Nor do I expect that most lobstermen, as they stand on their boats or on the docks that their great-great-grandfathers built, dream with longing about doing 9 to 5 at a workbench in a laboratory – no more than a fourth-generation auto worker dreams about becoming an Uber driver.

And even if they were willing to go from the life of a lobsterman to the life of a lab tech – from owner to employee – from captain to cog – it’s unlikely they’d be able to stay in Downeast Maine to do it. When synth lobster hits the shelves, the ‘new lobstermen’ of Maine won’t be in Lincolnville; they’ll be in Lewiston. And there won’t be nearly as many lobstermen in Maine as there will be in other places. The new ‘lobster industry’ will be situated based solely on its proximity to consumer populations. Maine will no longer be a place people come for lobster, it will just be another small regional market for a widely-available, locally-produced commodity. There will be more ‘lobstermen’ in Chicago than in Cutler.

The port towns of Downeast Maine will have to fight hard not to become ghost towns. They will either have to develop telecommuting industries, or center their economies around seasonal tourism. In the former case they will be in the same position that vast majority of small American towns are already in. In the latter case they will have to be like Venice – and worse, they will be competing with it. They will be like Millinockett, forced to balance their pride with their desire to survive. I don’t envy them the decision – not the least because they won’t have Katahdin, and the beaches of southern Maine are closer to the summer folk.

I don’t know how long it will be before synthetic lobster-meat arrives, and begins to displace harvested Maine lobster in the market. But it’s coming. All I can say is, I hope that this article prepares the lobstermen and women of Maine – and the people and the communities which rely on them – for what is to come, that they can begin to prepare for the coming disruption.

 

David Axel Kurtz is a lawyer and management consultant with a background in economics and biology. A native of Kennebunkport, he now lives in NYC.

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~ by davekov on 8 December 2017.

One Response to “Consider the (Synthetic) Lobster”

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