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Thursday, September 29th, 2022

We need innovations to save the world

Interview with Prof Nick Lin-Hi

Nick Lin-Hi, Full Professor of Business and Ethics at the University of Vechta in Germany, talks to ProVeg about his work on how to move society to a sustainable path. If the topic of sustainability has gained much relevance over the last few years, we are yet still very far from achieving the goal of real sustainable development. The planet’s existence is at serious risk and the time window for appropriate measures is shrinking. Which is why cellular agriculture represents one of the biggest chances we have to realise sustainable development in the global food system.

Lin-Hi has centred his work on “radical innovations for sustainable development”. As part of this research focus, he came across cultured meat quite by chance a few years ago. According to Lin-Hi, cultured meat presents one of the biggest opportunities we have to realise sustainable development in the global food system. 

Lin-Hi has established a working group on the social acceptance of cultured meat at the University of Vechta, investigating the influence of organisational factors, such as company size, product portfolio, sustainability heritage, and country of origin on the social acceptance of cultured meat.

ProVeg: Do you expect consumers to accept cultured meat? What activities companies and organisations can do to encourage future consumer acceptance?

Nick Lin-Hi: It is generally the case that innovations can only succeed if members of society accept them. At present, the acceptance of cultured meat might be actually a greater hurdle than the technical challenges that need to be overcome on the way to its large-scale production. We have to keep in mind that we are dealing with an innovation that completely breaks with the millennia-old logic of how our meat is produced. This implies that we have to thoroughly and patiently educate people about what cultured meat is and how it is relevant for sustainable development. 

To this end, we have to understand the drivers of and barriers to its acceptance, including existing concerns and fears. Importantly, we need to do this now and not when the product has been already introduced to the market. In my experience, a majority of the traditional meat industry players perceive cultured meat mainly as a threat and therefore, I believe that the industry will not make particular efforts to explain the advantages of the new way of meat production. 

Therefore, we need actors like ProVeg who can reach many people and explain the science behind cultured meat and highlight its sustainability potential. Compared to for-profit organisations, actors like ProVeg are typically perceived as especially trustworthy, which might help to strengthen the social acceptance of this innovation.

ProVeg: How has the meat industry in Germany reacted towards the concept of cultured meat?

Nick Lin-Hi: First of all, I would like to mention that Vechta is one of Germany’s hotspots for agribusiness. This means that I am in a real-world lab here, observing first-hand how cellular agriculture is poised to transform entire industries. In general, the German industry is aware of cultured meat. There are also first companies that are exploring different business models in the context of this innovation. However, for most incumbent market players in Germany, cultured meat is something in the distant future – and sometimes it is seen as just science fiction. 

Accordingly, many players do not even bother with cultured meat in the first place. In light of the fact that cultured meat will change the entire meat industry, including upstream and downstream value chains, I find it remarkable to see how little attention the traditional food industry devotes to this innovation. 

Regardless of the innovation itself, companies are usually well advised to pursue ambidextrous strategies in order to secure their future business success. That is, on the one hand, they continue to exploit their current business models. On the other hand, they start to explore the markets of tomorrow. Ambidextrous strategies, of course, presume that the industry is aware of the fact that cultured meat has enormous disruptive potential. In order to promote this insight, I would like to put it somewhat provocatively: The last decade of livestock farming for meat production has possibly already begun.

ProVeg: How do you see the role of farmers and local communities in the cellular agriculture space?

Nick Lin-Hi: Farmers play an important role in the future of cultured meat. They have a huge amount of know-how and possess valuable networks, which they can bring in at different points in the value chain. For example, traditional agriculture could be involved in the production of raw materials for culturing mediums. 

However, one must also be realistic at this point. It is not very likely that all farmers will operate bioreactors in the future, simply because this is not their core competence. Likewise, it can be assumed that not all of today’s farmers will have a place in the cultured-meat market. What we need, therefore, are new business models for farmers. Accordingly, the question arises as to where farmers can usefully contribute their land. Renewable energy generation is a possibility here. In addition, there is the potential for landscape conservation and biologic carbon capture. 

Ultimately, this is also about being bold and thinking out of the box about how farmers’ can utilise their core competencies in innovative ways. Identifying such ways could also be an important contribution of the cellular agriculture community. Ultimately, farmers are important voices when it comes to the acceptance of cultured meat. Farmers’ support of cultured meat would probably be a big driver for its social acceptance. It is easy to imagine that farmers are more likely to support cultured meat if their economic future does not depend on producing meat from animals.

ProVeg: Unlike the UK, Belgium, Spain, or the Netherlands, the German government has not yet funded any research on cellular agriculture. Government support is crucial to driving innovation, so what could be done in Germany to gain government support?

Nick Lin-Hi: Absolutely. The issue of cultured meat must reach the political arena around the globe and yes, there is a need for publicly funded research that helps to reap the potential of cultured meat for the well-being of society. Cultured meat does not only allow for a sustainable meat consumption but also helps to secure the global supply of animal protein in times of climate change. In addition, meat can become healthier and animal welfare is taken to a new level.

In view of the great societal potential of cultured meat, it is a pity that it is not really on politicians’ agenda in Germany yet. If this does not change, Germany is once again in danger of missing the boat on a technology of the future. The hesitation to deal with cultured meat in Germany might be the result of a lack of knowledge about this innovation and the huge potential it has. Politicians might also be ignoring cultured meat because they see it as a threat and not as an opportunity for traditional agriculture. In general, we need a positive narrative for cultured meat, a publicly visible social vision. But before we can spread the social vision, we must raise awareness in the political sphere. In order to do so, I would actually like to go on a delegation trip with politicians to visit cultured meat start-ups on site, for example, in the Netherlands or Israel. Seeing how cultured meat is produced with your own eyes makes it more tangible and less of science fiction. And it would be great if politicians could try cultured meat themselves. After all, the way to the heart is through the stomach.

ProVeg: What is your take on blended or hybrid products, combining plant-based and cell-based technology?

Nick Lin-Hi: It is likely that these products will hit the market first, especially due to advantages in terms of price and availability. Economically, this makes perfect sense as demand is likely to exceed supply at the beginning. In addition, this should put selling prices at a competitive level. Thus, blended or hybrid products will help the market diffusion of cultured meat. It would be interesting to know how the acceptance of cultured meat is affected by blended or hybrid products. At least, I am not aware of any study that has examined this question. Notably, the production of the plant part for blended or hybrid products could also be an opportunity for farmers to become part of the cultured-meat value chain. It would be great if we had agronomic research that would look at the specific requirements for appropriate plants in this respect. By the way, this would also be a great field for public research.

About Nick Lin-Hi

Nick Lin-Hi is Full Professor of Business and Ethics at the University of Vechta, Germany. For almost 20 years, he has been working on the question of how to bring business and society on a sustainable path. In recent years, he has specialised in sociotechnical research on radical innovations for sustainable development. Nick’s central interest lies in the study of social acceptance of cultured meat and he is leading the largest research group on this topic in Europe. With more than 100 media contributions and public presentations on cultured meat, Nick is strongly engaged in the promotion of public awareness of this innovation. He also cooperates with players from business, politics, and the non-profit sector to effectively prepare society for the “meat of tomorrow”.

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