Cultured meat predictions were overly optimistic

post by Neil_Dullaghan (Incogneilo18) · 2021-09-15T12:32:25.324Z · EA · GW · 14 comments

In a 2021 MotherJones article, Sinduja Rangarajan, Tom Philpott, Allison Esperanza, and Alexis Madrigal compiled and visualized 186 publicly available predictions about timelines for cultured meat (made primarily by cultured meat companies and a handful of researchers). I added 11 additional predictions ACE had collected, and 76 other predictions I found in the course of a forthcoming Rethink Priorities project. 

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Of the 273 predictions collected, 84 have resolved - nine resolving correctly, and 75 resolving incorrectly. Additionally, another 40 predictions should resolve at the end of the year and look to be resolving incorrectly. Overall, the state of these predictions suggest very systematic overconfidence. Cultured meat seems to have been perpetually just a few years away since as early as 2010 and this track record plausibly should make us skeptical of future claims from producers that cultured meat is just a few years away.

Here I am presenting the results of predictions that have resolved, keeping in mind they are probably not a representative sample of publicly available predictions, nor assembled from a systematic search. Many of these are so vaguely worded that it’s difficult to resolve them positively or negatively with high confidence. Few offer confidence ratings, so we can’t measure calibration. 

Below is the graphic made in the MotherJones article. It is interactive in the original article.

 

The first sale of a ~70% cultured meat chicken nugget occurred in a restaurant in Singapore on 2020 December 19th for S$23 (~$17 USD) for two nugget dishes at the 1880 private member's club, created by Eat Just at a loss to the company (Update 2021 Oct 15: 1880 do not serve the cultured nuggets in the restaurant anymore).

65 predictions made on cultured meat being available on the market or in supermarkets specifically can now be resolved. 56 were resolved negatively and in the same direction - overly optimistic (update: the original post said 52). None resolved negatively for being overly pessimistic. These could resolve differently depending on your exact interpretation but I don't think there is an order of magnitude difference in interpretations. The nine that plausibly resolved positively are listed below. 

Note that the companies above also made additional predictions that were incorrect. The predicted time ranges spanned a few days to 50 years and predicted cultured meat products on sale as early as 2008. The vast majority of the 113 outstanding predictions for cultured meat to come to market were only made in the last 3 years and refer to specific companies or non-chicken products. Basically, nobody in this dataset was correct at predicting cultured meat sales with a time horizon longer than seven years. Many with short time horizons were also wrong. Only 18 of these outstanding predictions have time horizons longer than 5 years, so the majority will be resolved by 2026.
 

Most of the other outstanding predictions concern market share, market size, production volume, unit prices, and producing specific types of meat. Three of the 28 predictions that cultured meat would reach price parity have resolved (negatively), with the majority of the rest predicting parity between 2024 and 2031. The other 20 predictions that resolved negatively expected mass production or various other meat types to be produced by now. 

In comparison, the community forecasts on Metaculus imply some partially cultured meat products (made of at least 20% cultured meat) will be sold at $3 per 100 grams or cheaper 2022-2027, but predict higher percentage cultured meat products being cost-competitive and sold in restaurants/supermarkets from 2024 (with wide and non-normal distributions).


A sample of Metaculus questions on cultured meat sales

Proportion. of QSRs with cultivated meat in 2026?
When will a restaurant first serve clean-meat products containing ≥20% clean meat, at $3 per 100 grams or cheaper?
When will a restaurant first serve clean-meat products containing ≥80% clean meat, at $3 per 100 grams or cheaper?
When will two or more supermarkets sell products made of ≥20% clean fish in their physical retail stores in at least 25 U.S. states?
When will a supermarket sell a product made of ≥20% clean meat, for $3 per 100 grams or cheaper?
When will a supermarket sell a product made of ≥80% clean meat, for $3 per 100 grams or cheaper?
Will at least one cultivated meat product be for sale in the US by 2023?
When will at least 5 cultivated meat products be approved by federal regulators for commercial sale in the US?




 Credits

This essay is a project of Rethink Priorities.

It was written by Neil Dullaghan. Thanks to Peter Wildeford and Linch Zhang for their extremely helpful feedback. Any mistakes are my own.

If you like our work, please consider subscribing to our newsletter. You can see more of our work here.

14 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Ramiro · 2021-09-16T14:47:29.415Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the post.
I am one of those who lost a bet about the availability of cultured meat in grocery stores by now :(

comment by kyle_fish · 2021-09-16T12:55:49.063Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As a former cultured meat scientist, I think these predictions have been off in large part because the core technical problems are way harder than most people know (or would care to admit). However, I also suspect that forecasts for many other deep tech sectors, even ones that have been quite successful (e.g. space), have not fared any better. I’d be curious to see how cultured meat predictions have done relative to plant-based meat, algal biofuels, rocketry, and maybe others.

Replies from: NunoSempere, Dario Citrini
comment by NunoSempere · 2021-09-16T14:22:48.371Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There is also the interesting thing that, as far as I can tell, New Harvest, founded in 2004, basically failed, and we had to wait until the Good Food Institute came to push things along in 2016.

(as a point of comparison, New Harvest claims to have raised ~$7.5M in its frontpage (presumably during the whole of its existence), whereas the GFI spent $8.9M in 2019 alone)

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-09-16T16:38:44.664Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This could be in part because GFI got more financial support from the EA community, both from Open Phil and due to ACE.

  • 2012: ACE was founded.
  • 2014: ACE did an exploratory review of New Harvest.
  • 2015: Lewis Bollard joined Open Phil in September to start its grantmaking in animal welfare. New Harvest was named a standout charity by ACE at the end of 2015.
  • 2016: GFI is founded. Open Phil made its first animal welfare grants. GFI received its first grant from Open Phil, of $1M. GFI become an ACE top charity at the end of the year.
  • 2017: Open Phil made another grant to GFI, of $1.5M. New Harvest was no longer recommended by ACE at the end of the year.
  • 2019: Open Phil made another grant to GFI, of $4M.

New Harvest never received any grants from Open Phil.

Basically, it's possible New Harvest failed because it was never really given much of a chance.

That being said, that doesn't mean there weren't reasons to support GFI over New Harvest in the first place. Some are discussed here.

comment by Dario Citrini · 2021-09-16T14:01:07.155Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've also wondered what reasons there might be for the apparent discrepancy between these predictions and reality. I feel like the point re technical problems you emphasised is probably among the most important ones.  My first thought was a different one, though:  wishful thinking. Perhaps wishful thinking re clean meat timelines is an important factor for explaining the apparently bad track record of pertinent predictions. My rationale for wishful thinking potentially being an important explanation is that, in my impression, clean meat, even more so than many other technologies, is tied very closely/viscerally to something – factory farming – a considerable share (I'd guess?) of people working on it deem a moral catastrophe.

Replies from: Incogneilo18
comment by Neil_Dullaghan (Incogneilo18) · 2021-09-16T14:28:59.275Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think Anders Sandberg uses the EA Forum, so I'll just repost what Anders wrote in reaction to this on Twitter:

"I suspect we have a "publication bias" of tech predictions where the pessimists don't make predictions (think the tech impossible or irrelevant, hence don't respond to queries, or find their long timescales so uncertain they are loath to state them).

In this case it is fairly clear that progress is being made but it is slower than hoped for: predictions as a whole made a rate mistake, but perhaps not an eventual outcome mistake (we will see). I think this is is[sic] a case of Amara’s law.

Amara’s law (that we overestimate the magnitude of short-term change and underestimate long-term change) can be explained by exponential-blindness, but also hype cycles, and integrating a technology in society is a slow process"

Fwiw, I broadly agree. I think those in the industry making public predictions have plausibly "good" reasons to skew optimistic. Attracting the funding, media attention, talent necessary to make progress might simply require generating buzz and optimism- even if the progress it generates is at a slower rate that implied by their public predictions. So it would actually be odd if overall the majority of predictions by these actors don't resolve negatively and overly optimistic (they aren't trying to rank high on the Metaculus leaderboard). 

So those who are shocked by the results presented here may have cause to update and put less weight on predictions from cultured media companies and the media repeating them, and rely on something else. For those who aren't surprised by these results, then they probably already placed an appropriate weight on how seriously to take public predictions from the industry.

On how this industry's predictions compare to others', I too would like to see that and identify  the right reference class(es).

 

Replies from: oagr
comment by Ozzie Gooen (oagr) · 2021-09-16T16:20:36.856Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it should be pretty clear that there are a ton of biases going on. In Expert Political Judgement, there was a much earlier study on expert/pundit forecasting ability, and the results were very poor. I don't see reasons why we should have expected different here.

One thing that might help would be "meta-forecasting". We could later have some expert forecasters predict the accuracy of average statements made by different groups in different domains. I'd predict that they would have given pretty poor scores to most of these groups, especially "companies making public claims about their own technologies", and "magazines and public media" (which also seem just as biased).

Replies from: Pablo_Stafforini
comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2021-09-17T20:45:10.734Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

One thing that might help would be "meta-forecasting". We could later have some expert forecasters predict the accuracy of average statements made by different groups in different domains. I'd predict that they would have given pretty poor scores to most of these groups.

I agree with your meta-meta-forecast.

comment by BenMillwood · 2021-09-19T23:47:25.136Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

While I think it's useful to have concrete records like this, I would caution against drawing conclusions about the cultured meat community specifically unless we draw a comparison with other fields and find that forecast accuracy is better anywhere else. I'd expect that overoptimistic forecasts are just very common when people evaluate their own work in any field.

comment by GreenByrdhouse · 2021-09-22T19:49:22.362Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This isn't totally surprising to me, but it also strikes me as pretty big news. I've been involved in the animal welfare side of EA for a while now, including running a local chapter, and in my experience, the people interested in AW almost always are interested in cultivated meat. More importantly, they are interested in it because of the perception that it is on its way and is basically inevitable. They deserve to know that things are a bit more complicated than the hyperoptimisim of the field often implies. This news should give folks some pause, even if it's not that surprising. I don't think we should just be content with being this wrong because other fields may also often be wrong. 

I know that in my future EA syllabi I will be including this information along with more optimistic views to create a more balanced perspective.

comment by Neil_Dullaghan (Incogneilo18) · 2021-09-16T22:40:38.491Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My colleague Linch asked me “to include a random sample of 9 predictions that resolved negatively.” I numbered the incorrect market/supermarket predictions and then randomised the list of numbers, and used an online random number generator to select nine numbers.
 

  • March 2019 "JUST, the San Francisco-based company racing to be the first to bring cell-based meat to market, announced in a CBS San Francisco interview last month that they would debut their first product — a cultured chicken nugget — in Asia sometime this year"
  • February 2018 "Tetrick claims his startup has finally made the process cost-effective enough to take to market: At the end of this year, he says, Just will officially introduce an as yet undisclosed lab-grown meat, the first time the stuff will hit shelves.”
  • March 2018 "Memphis Meats is trying to bring its products to high-end restaurant menus by next year, and, by 2021, bring production costs down to equal grocery store meat products at $3 to $4 per pound."
  • December 2018 "The steak product is expected to be ready to sell within two years." - Aleph Farms
  • January 2018 "It [Supermeat] reckons it is still up to three years away from putting SuperMeat products on supermarket shelves."
  • ACE reported that in February 2017 Mark Post predicted “​​For small-scale, somewhat expensive products, most companies will have cultured meat products on the market in 3–4 years (i.e., 2020–2021). It will probably take another 3–4 years (i.e., 2023–2025) for the price to come down to the level where it’s acceptable for the broader public.”
  • June 2006 Scientist Paul Kosnik: "We believe the goal of a processed meat product is attainable in the next five years if funding is available and the R&D is pursued aggressively."
  • January 2016 (no hyperlink was given in the MotherJones article but they credit GFI as the source and you can see it copy-pasted into at least two media articles on Google Search) ”Memphis Meats is already growing real meat in small quantities using cells from cows, pigs, and chickens. The company’s first products—hot dogs, sausages, burgers, and meatballs—will be developed using recipes perfected over a half century by award-winning chefs. The founders expect to have products to market within five years.”
  • August 2009 Jason Matheny of New Harvest said “We think that a technology to produce cultured ground meats -- burgers, sausages, nuggets, and so forth -- could be commercialized within ten years,"
Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-09-17T06:13:16.209Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

EDIT: Woops, got my COVID dates mixed up; I was thinking March 2020.

March 2019 "JUST, the San Francisco-based company racing to be the first to bring cell-based meat to market, announced in a CBS San Francisco interview last month that they would debut their first product — a cultured chicken nugget — in Asia sometime this year"

I think it's reasonably likely this was delayed by COVID-19, given they made this prediction when it wasn't clear how bad things would be, they debuted in a restaurant in Singapore at the end of 2020, and restaurants where they were looking to debut might have been closed (or they preferred an in-person debut, rather than take-out).

I wouldn't be surprised if COVID caused some other delays, not just for JUST, but basically all of these companies, as long as their deadlines were in 2020 or later. Some lab and manufacturing work might not have been allowed or was impeded for extended periods due to lockdowns. I'm not sure how much delay we should allow for these lockdowns, though.

Replies from: Incogneilo18
comment by Neil_Dullaghan (Incogneilo18) · 2021-09-17T08:24:48.767Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think it's reasonably likely this particular prediction was delayed by COVID-19, given they made this prediction in early 2019 about a product being on offer *in 2019*. I don't think there is much to suggest any impediments to a  product roll-out in 2019  from the pandemic since it only started having major impacts/reactions in 2020. 

For other predictions in this dataset made by companies, research institutes, and reported in the media it seems likely the pandemic threw up an unexpected obstacle and delay. However, that would presumably also be true for whatever other tools or sources we might alternatively rely on for cultured meat timelines and so I don't think it changes the overall conclusion on how much stock to put into the types of predictions/predictors represented in this dataset.

 

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-09-17T14:52:26.570Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Woops, ya, I got my dates mixed up for COVID and JUST.

However, that would presumably also be true for whatever other tools or sources we might alternatively rely on for cultured meat timelines and so I don't think it changes the overall conclusion on how much stock to put into the types of predictions/predictors represented in this dataset.

I'm not sure what you mean by this. My point is that COVID might have made some of these predictions false, when they would have otherwise ended up true without COVID, so these groups just got very unlucky, and we shouldn't count these particular inaccurate predictions against them.

It also looks like about half or more of the predictions had dates ending in 2020 or later based on the two graphs in the post, so this could affect many of them.