WhatisCultivatedMeat.com is peer-reviewed by a team of academic and industry experts who serve as technical advisors for the website's content. Margaret Hegwood, MS, is PhD student in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Here Hegwood discusses her experiences with alternative proteins including cultivated meat and sheds light on its future.
When did you first hear about cultivated meat?
I can’t remember exactly the first time I heard about cultivated meat, but I imagine I first learned about it while I was studying biological engineering at Purdue University. My classes and research focused a lot on food processing and design - ranging from fermentation to extrusion technology. Many of the processing methods I learned about are really important for a variety of alternative proteins, including cultivated meat. So, I think I naturally came to hear and learn about cultivated meat during that time.
How did you end up working with cultivated meat? What drew you to this field?
I first became interested in food technology while I was an engineering student and realized that the right technology has the power to change the world. But as I continued to research and work with food technology myself, I saw more and more the impact that policy and society can have on either promoting or inhibiting its adoption. I realized I could design an amazing piece of technology, but if it wasn’t affordable, scalable, or culturally acceptable that it would fail. This is what led me to transition from designing food technology to studying its broader environmental and socio-economic effects.
What does it mean to be a PhD student studying food technology?
Annually, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) gives out grants through the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA). At CU Boulder, there are three fellows funded by a USDA NIFA fellowship- myself, Hilary Brumberg, and Waverly Eichhorst - to study food and agriculture with a focus on key issues related to food technology. We work closely with various faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Environmental studies to research questions related to this focus area.
What projects are you working on?
Right now, I have three major research projects I’m working on with various co-authors. The first project focuses on the market dynamics of avoided food waste and loss. The second project is focused on identifying priority actions to scale up plant-based meat production and consumption in Brazil. The third project - recently published in Nature Sustainability - looks at tradeoffs in environmental systems and why win-win outcomes are rare.
What is the most interesting or exciting project you’ve been involved with?
I feel like I am very lucky to be working on a number of amazing projects right now, but the project on tradeoffs and why win-win scenarios are rare has been one of my favorites so far. Not only is it the first paper I published during my PhD, but it has a really important message: the findings of high-profile modeling studies often overlook real-world complexity. This doesn’t mean that those modeling studies are bad. Rather, I see it as an opportunity to improve the communication between on-the-ground scientists and environmental managers with researchers to improve our positive impact on the environment overall.
What unique or valuable opportunities or experiences does the University of Colorado offer students in your field?
The University of Colorado is a great place to learn, research, and positively impact sustainability and the environment. Personally, I feel the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder and my advisors have provided me with so many amazing opportunities. As a graduate student, I’ve worked with international NGOs, attended workshops to improve my research skills, collaborated with top food systems researchers, met with Colorado state congress representatives, and more.
What are your future career goals?
My goal is to advise governments and organizations on key issues and opportunities related to food technology. I’m not sure exactly what that role looks like yet - it could be within academia, with the USDA, for a private company, or even with an international organization like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The opportunities are endless!
What do you see in the near future for cultivated meat and alternative proteins in general?
Right now, I think the near future for cultivated meat and alternative proteins lies in the hands of the next country that approves cultivated meat for consumption. Singapore was the first country to approve cultivated meat for consumption in 2020. I’m curious to see which country(ies) could be next. Of course, many advocates for alternative proteins have their eyes on the United States and the European Union, but smaller countries like Israel have also invested millions of dollars in cultivated meat. I think it's possible that they could be front runners to approve the next cultivated meat product for consumption.
What have you learned about our food security? Is this a real issue for countries like the United States? How can cultivated meat help?
Food insecurity is a major global challenge. Of course, it looks different everywhere - in the U.S. we often see food insecurity as “hidden hunger”. For example, more than 10% of American households were food insecure at some point in 2020. The best way cultivated meat - or really any alternative protein- could help is by becoming less costly for consumers and more widely available.
How has the pandemic affected alternative proteins like cultivated meat?
I think the pandemic revealed the weak points in the global supply chain, especially livestock agriculture. For example, some research published on exposures to COVID-19 in meat processing facilities across the U.S. reinvigorated discussions about labor rights and animal cruelty in animal agriculture. Plant closures led to sparsely filled grocery aisles and higher prices. Also, because COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease (passed from animals to humans), consumers became more concerned about the safety of their food, especially meat products. To me, the pandemic showed us that we need to create a more robust and diverse protein supply chain. Alternative proteins could be one option to help address that. You can find more about this in a piece I wrote for the Chicago Council in April 2020.
What do you see as some of the biggest road bumps or blocks in bringing cultivated meat to the dinner table?
There are a variety of roadblocks for cultivated meat. I think the biggest challenges are price, scalability, and consumer acceptance. Cultivated meat needs to be affordable for consumers. There are also technical barriers that might make cultivated meat difficult to produce in large quantities. Finally, consumers are still wary about cultivated meat for a variety of reasons - including concerns related to safety, health, and nutrition.
What can the average person do to support the future of cultivated meat?
If you can afford them and feel that they support your healthy diet, purchasing and consuming alternative proteins is the best way to provide your support. And, once you taste how amazing they are, make sure you tell your friends about it!
What advice do you have for students interested in working with cultivated meat and other alternative proteins as a career?
My best advice for students interested in working in cultivated meat and other alternative proteins as a career is to pursue a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). A degree in any STEM field - especially engineering, food science, or biochemistry - opens the door for working with alternative protein companies. Students who are already studying at universities should also join (or start) their campus’s Alternative Protein Project.
- Margaret Hegwood, MS
USDA Food Technology and Food Security Fellow
PhD Student, Environmental Studies, University of Colorado Boulder
See Hegwood's bio, podcasts, and publications here.