The Uncanny Valley of Fake Meat

Updated: Sep 14

And what it might mean for climate change

Animal agriculture is widely recognised for having a considerable impact on the earth’s climate. It accounts for 13–18% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is greater than those coming from all the world’s industrial activity. A growing realisation that climate change and agriculture are inextricably linked has birthed an activist movement dedicated to eating less meat, or adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Part of this movement involves producing and consuming substitute meats that are made to look, feel, smell and taste like the real thing. Fake meat products have been popularised by Beyond Meats, Impossible Foods, JUST, and other companies capitalising on a globally growing vegan market. While these products have been backed by economic, nutritional, ethical and environmental interests, little consideration has been paid to how our psychological response to them might limit their uptake, preventing them from reaping the benefits that some people think they could bring for tackling climate change, animal welfare issues, and public health. Indeed, plant-based and lab-grown meats have often been met with backlash, and therefore run the risk of alienating vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Such backlash can be explained, at least in part, by a psychological theory called “the uncanny valley”. In short, the theory suggests that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual humans provoke uncanny, eerie and uncomfortable feelings. With the above in mind, we unpack the uncanny valley, why it applies to fake meat, what such a response might mean for the future of food, and, ultimately, what this means for global climate action.

Meat substitutes: definitions, processing, benefits, and prospects

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have pioneered plant-based burger patties that imitate the taste, smell, texture, and nutritional profile of animal-derived meat, often to an indistinguishable degree. Both burger patties ‘bleed’ when bitten into, thanks to beetroot extracts, and the addition of a nifty little molecule called ‘heme’ in the Impossible Burger. Heme is found in both animal muscle and plant cells. It is what gives meat its meaty, or umami, taste. Impossible Foods produces their plant-based heme via genetically engineered yeast that is extracted from the DNA of soy plants. Cultured meat, on the other hand, which is currently being researched and developed by JUST, involves an intricate process of cultivating meat from harvested animal stem cells. A scaffolding structure, usually made from cellulose or collagen, acts as the fibre that shapes and directs the stem cells as they are moulded into traditional cuts of meat like pork chops, chicken breasts, ribeye steaks, or fish fillets. Together, these substitutes have been touted as a panacea for global warming and animal welfare, allowing us to eat as much meat as we like without causing ecological harm and animal death.

Animal agriculture is responsible for a large share of the world’s GHG emissions, freshwater use, soil erosion, land-use change, deforestation and biodiversity loss. In comparison to animal-derived meat burgers, however, a Beyond Burger requires 99% less water, 93% less land, 46% less energy, and accounts for 90% fewer GHG emissions. Meat substitutes hold economic promise, too. In 2018, the global market for plant-based meat substitutes was valued at US$4.6 billion and is expected to reach US$6.4 billion by 2023. While far off from today’s US$90 billion global meat market, this is a promising start. Despite this, while meat substitutes are certainly making their mark economically, for now they inevitably form part of the capitalist system of industrial agriculture and its associated problems. Without larger changes to the economic system, meat substitutes risk engraining a range of social inequalities.

The environmental and economic impacts of cultured meat, however, are currently less certain, causing problems to do with certification and marketisation. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the mainstream meat industry harnesses regulatory capture or PR power to prevent substitute meat producers from calling their products ‘meat’, which has impacts for how those products are perceived and consumed. With the science and technology largely in place in many countries, public adoption and regulation are the main barriers to the uptake of ‘fake meats’. While substitute meats – with the exception of cultured meat – are now widely available in many franchise restaurants, fast food chains and supermarkets, they still account for a negligible proportion of the global meat market. Tight regulation, market nascence, and a slowly evolving culture around food can account for this, which brings us to the uncanny valley.

Psychological framework: into the uncanny valley

The graph below offers a visual representation of the uncanny valley. The x-axis is a measure of human likeness, or how human something looks, and the y-axis depicts our collective affinity or familiarity towards the thing in question. As the graph shows, as things look more human, we tend to have a higher affinity towards them. However, when we encounter an entity that is almost, but not quite, human, we experience a sharp dip in our affinity; we don’t know what to do within this narrow window between human and non-human, so we start to feel uneasy and uncomfortable. This psychological response falls into the uncanny valley, and some suggest it is the reason why people are scared of clowns, repulsed by the new Cats movie, and repelled by robots. The theory was first hypothesised in 1970 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who suggested that as robots become more human-like, people would find them to be more appealing than their mechanical counterparts. But, as is apparent from Figure 1, this only holds true up to a certain point.