Is Anyone Right About the Future of Cultivated Meat? Does It Matter?
What is cultivated meat?
For the uninitiated, a brief, oversimplified sciencelesson: cultivated meat is animal meat, but no animals are slaughtered toproduce it (except, some are—more on that in a bit). It is not a Beyond Burgeror Impossible Nuggets made with plants to mimic the taste and texture of meat.It is, at a cellular level, meat; it is the same meat in nutrition, taste, andtexture as animal meat. Only, it’s grown from a small tissue sample taken froma live animal—almost like getting one of those up-the-nose Covid tests—insteadof needing to breed and kill billions of animals every year to do it.
Scientists have been growing all manner of tissuesamples this way for decades. That part isn’t exactly new. But taking a fewcells from a cow, pig, chicken, or fish and feeding them a liquid diet thatkeeps them alive and multiplying, producing meat that is for all intents andpurposes indistinguishable from slaughtered meat, is very new. It’s also veryexpensive meat. And for the industry booming around it: very exciting meat.
It is, of course, far more complicated than that, butto understand its potential and its challenges, it’s enough of a baseline tomove forward in considering whether or not cultivated meat can replace animalmeat, and, perhaps, most significantly, whether or not it should.
Explaining the cultivated meat technology and itspotential impact on our food system isn’t just fodder for interesting dinnerparty conversations, though. Cultivated meat (also known as lab-grown meat,cell-based meat, cultured meat, and once upon a time, clean meat) is bigbusiness—life purposes for some, even—with companies around the world securingbillions in investments, groundbreaking regulatory approvals for the noveltech, and a growing roster of interest from the world’s top chefs, foodscientists, and curious consumers. In Israel, the first country to offertastings of the tech, two heads of state have tried it. In the US, the USDA isgetting in on the action, most recently funding a Tufts University researchfacility with a $10 million grant. Traditional meat producers, like Cargill,are investing in it, too.
But is the technology ever going to truly displaceanimal meat? We raise 55 billion land animals and pull trillions of fish out ofthe oceans every year. Can bioreactors replicate all of that? In an articlepublished by The Counter in September, the answer was: probably not, but itprobably should.
For proponents of the tech, it’s not so black andwhite.
Science: past, present, and future
“First, this is science,” Bruce Friedrich, founder andexecutive director of the Good Food Institute (GFI) told Green Queen via email.“Doing what was previously considered impossible is (a big part of) the entirebusiness of science. See electric vehicles, cheap solar panels, cheap windenergy, the Human Genome Project, semiconductors, and so much more.Breakthroughs and moonshots are tough, but they’re (of course) not impossible.In all these cases, while a lot of people couldn’t see the path and decidedthat meant there wasn’t one, others happily charged forward and created thepossibilities they had envisioned.”
His examples are sound. Need a more relatable example?Try explaining a Walkman to an eight-year-old. Or why phones had to be tetheredto walls for a century. Or why films were once black and white. GeorgeJetson-esque technology is all around in ways most of us only dreamed ofrealizing a few decades ago. And all of them were deemed impossible at onepoint. But so were those relic technologies that preceded them, too.
At the center of The Counter’s article was a recentreport published by GFI. As one of the biggest supporters of alternativeproteins, be it via plants or labs, GFI says that commercial-scale productionof cultivated meat is indeed on its way, and it will eventually reach priceparity with animal meat.
According to The Counter, though, that’s a lot harderto make possible than it sounds. A consultant formerly with Pfizer mentioned inThe Counter’s article said the GFI report left out key costs related toproduction and underestimated the expense and complexity of building facilitiescapable of producing cultivated meat at scale.
Data sets compiled by the Effective Altruism Forumshow that only nine out of 273 predictions on the market timelines forcultivated meat were resolved correctly. Seventy-five have resolvedincorrectly, and another 40, which are expected to resolve by the end of theyear, are also expected to resolve incorrectly.
“Overall, the state of these predictions suggest verysystematic overconfidence,” writes Neil Dullaghan, a senior staff researcher atRethink Priorities. “Cultured meat seems to have been perpetually just a fewyears away since as early as 2010 and this track record plausibly should makeus skeptical of future claims from producers that cultured meat is just a fewyears away.”
Cultivated meat investing
Investors see a different outcome. More than $366million was raised by cultivated protein companies in 2020, alone, an increaseof more than six times over 2019’s numbers, according to GFI’s report. Thenumber of companies in the space is now near 100.
Funding is making it possible for these companies toget off the ground and focus on the various aspects of the technology,including efforts to bring the price down.
Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed, founder and CEO of KBWVentures, has invested in plant-based, cultivated meat, and other food tech. Hewas an investor in TurtleTree’s $30 million Series A earlier this month—it usescell-based technology to create dairy. He says we have to look at the progressthat’s been made already to gauge where the technology is going.
“The timeline to delivering cultivated meats to themarket at scale seems daunting to some, but if you consider the leaps we’vealready made in terms of the scientific landscape and the business landscapeit’s actually not,” he told Green Queen.
“This year alone we’ve seen a few different productionfacilities launch, some very significant deals signed on the mass distributionfront including BlueNalu and European giant Nomad Foods, and we’ve seen a fewfuture-forward governments not only acknowledge but actually move forward withcell-based meat companies,” Prince Khaled says.
Michal Klar, an investor who’s backed Upside Foods andChina’s CellX, says he believes it’s a viable technology and will continueinvesting in the space.
“But I am a realist,” he told Green Queen. “I do notthink we will see cultivated ribeye steak with taste, texture and price parityvs. conventional one any time soon. My view is that this tech will come tomarket in stages. Starting from small batch, high-end products and hybrids,where small amount of cultivated tissue or fat will be added to plant-based orbiomass-based products.”
Klar says these efforts might not be disrupting theprotein market at large, but, he says they will be important milestones for thesector.
“And companies that can figure out the tech and bringthose first products to market over the next decade, will be positioned tobecome very impactful in subsequent years, as they solve scale up challengesand drive the price down,” Klar says.
Prince Khaled says we’re just at the beginning interms of funding for cultivated meat, and as more money comes in, the tech willadvance. “Between plant-based proteins and fermentation, this sectorspecifically is the least capitalized now with a lot of room for growth,” hesays. “I see ample investment dollars rolling in from institutional investorsand traditional meat companies alike in the coming months; this type of capitalfuels development.”
At a panel discussion at the Future InvestmentInitiative in Riyadh last month, the Prince urged governments to work withentrepreneurs to solve the number of crises facing the planet, namely thosearound food security and climate change.
“Governments see the problem, but now they need toadopt the innovative technologies to solve the problem,” Prince Khaled said.
He told Green Queen that he expects to see cultivatedmeat in new markets “very soon.” It’s one of the reasons his KBW Ventures hasinvested and re-invested in companies, as in the case of TurtleTree. “We’re goingto market alongside these future-makers,” he says.
Cultivated meat’s future
That future Prince Khaled speaks of hinges a bit on anethos not dissimilar to Walt Disney’s famous quote: “it’s kind of fun to do theimpossible.” There are overlaps here. Disney was a visionary who was repeatedlytold his dreams were either ridiculous or untenable—often both. But he thrivedin the corner and pushed through most successfully; first in feature-lengthcartoon films (kicked off with the grossly over-budget 1937 release of SnowWhite and the Seven Dwarfs), and in the realization of a character-based themepark hosted by a giant mouse and his giant friends.
We often forget that technology is first and foremostan idea—a human idea. To think it’s a limited resource pool points us towardthe gates of Camp Luddite, no matter how much we embrace past or currenttechnologies.
Technology has and will always get better, and,crucially, in ways we can’t imagine. Albert Einstein frequently dismissed hisgenius, saying the secret to his success was simply staying with problemslonger than his contemporaries. And in this ADHD-fueled world (indeed abyproduct of technology, too), that can seem like the impasse on the road.We’re so keen to just move on—or in some cases, turn back. But for those wholinger a little longer, they’ll eventually find a way through those roadblocks.
If the biggest roadblock to taking cultivated meatmainstream is cost, then that’s what the industry’s most determined expertswill focus on fixing first. They already have. In Singapore, where SanFrancisco’s Eat Just received the world’s first regulatory approval to sell itscultivated chicken, which it did for a limited time through the restaurant1880, it took a loss on the chicken nuggets, even though they weren’t cheap;they cost about $17 USD for just two of the lab-grown nuggets. This is way downfrom the price of the first lab-grown burger, which was cooked in 2013 and costan estimated €250,000 to produce.
The only real problem with price, though, is that thetrue cost of meat isn’t reflected at retail. It’s far more abstract andcomplicated. That’s due primarily to monstrous subsidies that keep meat (andegg and dairy) prices unrealistically low. Friedrich has long been advocatingfor government funding and support of cultivated meat—just like the governmentprops up the conventional meat and dairy industries. If there’s going to be ameaningful shift in our food system—including Biden’s new methane targets—it’sgoing to have to include the same assistance offered to the protein industriesat large.
The need for that shift is becoming increasinglyurgent. Livestock production and fishing are wreaking havoc on, well,everything. Traditional protein production is destroying ecosystems, poisoningair and waterways, overconsuming resources, and linked to some of the biggesthealth and labor crises in history.
Do we need cultivated meat?
“When I started working on GFI six years ago, Iassumed what was the consensus: We’re way too early for cultivated meat to gocommercial—it’s decades away if it’s possible at all,” Friedrich says. “Thefirst thing GFI did was to hire scientists, including our current VP forscience and technology, Dr. Liz Specht, and my first question to them was, ‘cancultivated meat be cost-competitive with commodity meat?’ I made it clear (andI still make it clear) that our goal is to find out what’s true and to proceedaccordingly,” he says.
“If cultivated meat were not promising, we’d justfocus more or entirely on plant-based meat and fermentation,” Friedrich says.The group is agnostic in its efforts to displace animal agriculture. There willlikely be other solutions we’ve yet to imagine that GFI will also lend itssupport to in the not-too-distant future.
“It’s because we think cultivated meat has a strongchance of viability that we include it in our strategy,” Friedrich says. “Themore GFI’s scientists and partners within life sciences and biomanufacturingcompanies and academia (all over the world) delve into this field, the moreconvinced they become that it can be done at costs below that of conventionalmeat.”
Friedrich’s clear that there’s good reason to keepsteering toward that goal. Pivoting into plant-based is easy. That industryalso continues to innovate. Plant-based has not plateaued—quite the opposite.Impossible Foods, one of the leading producers of plant-based meat, has raisedmore than $1.5 billion since 2011. As it gears up to IPO, it’s valued at closeto $10 billion.
By comparison, the largest cultivated meat producer byinvestment total, Upside Foods (formerly Memphis Meats), has raised just over$200 million over the last five years.
The technology isn’t just focusing just on supermarketmeat, though. And for Henri Kunz, co-founder of Furoid, the Dutch startupworking to produce another type of cultivated animal product—fur–there’s evenmore opportunity outside of the supermarket. At least, when it comes toreaching price parity sooner.
Kunz says the Techno Economic Analyses like thosereferenced in The Counter’s article are all based on “what has been done before,”not necessarily what “can be done.” He argues that’s an important distinction.
One of the key parallels The Counter draws tocultivated meat is achievements and challenges in pharma tech. But according toKunz, “neither of the TEAs provides useful suggestions on how to beat the aminoacid prices of the fermentation industry, nor how to design bioreactor systemsthat can reduce the costs of contamination at scale.”
Kunz also points to the luxury market as an importanttarget because there, he says, it’s easier to achieve price parity with saycultivated mink fur, foie gras, or caviar than it is to compete with a 99¢fast-food burger.
“We believe smaller-scale luxury foods and clothingmaterials are better candidates as the first cultivated products that wouldusher in this new era of bio-identical sustainability,” he says.
There’s certainly a need. While demand for fur hasdropped in recent years, other animal-based textiles, such as cashmere, are onthe uptick. Across Mongolia, the world’s second-largest cashmere producingnation behind China, goatherds have risen dramatically in recent years, up fivetimes what they were in 1990.
While there are a growing number of initiatives inplace angled at making the wool and cashmere industries more sustainable, thefarming boom is putting pressure on local ecosystems, threatening species likethe elusive snow leopard as a result.
It’s also easy to argue in favor of plant-based meatinstead of cultivated meat if for no other reason than our health. While abioreactor reduces the need to raise and slaughter a cow, it doesn’t reduce therisk of heart disease and cholesterol the same way a fiber-rich meal does. Itis meat, after all, not kale.
According to George Peppou, founder of Australiancultivated meat company Vow, it’s about seeing cultivated meat as its owncategory. In a recent op-ed, he says that while he agrees with much of what TheCounter suggests, the goal of cultivated meat isn’t about replacing animal meat1:1—it’s about creating an entirely new category, “we create new foods thatindustrial animal agriculture can’t,” he said. “In the very long term, as ourability to engineer biology improves, I believe cultured meat will become thecheapest way to make protein, but it will take decades to reach this point.”
Cultivated meat challenges
One of the biggest challenges is the use of FBS—fetalbovine serum—the main source of food for the cells. It’s a controversialpractice; the serum is sourced from cow fetuses. It poses ethical questions,certainly, but it also puts a roadblock in the sustainability mantra touted bythe industry at large. To access the fetal tissue, cows must be impregnated andthen slaughtered to produce it. This keeps livestock fully tethered to thecultivated meat production chain. If a cow must be raised, impregnated, andkilled to grow meat in a bioreactor, doesn’t it make more sense to just eatthat slaughtered cow? Through a sustainability lens, that would seem to be thecase.
Companies are working on more ethical, sustainable,and affordable solutions, though. A recent article in The Spoon highlightedseveral startups in the space working to produce alternatives to FBS. MosaMeats, the cultivated meat pioneer behind that €250,000 burger, said itswitched to a new growth medium last year that was able to bring down costs 88percent.
“What we have done is pretty breathtaking,” LauraJackisch, the head of the Fat Team for Mosa Meats told Time Magazine earlier thismonth. “Figuring out how to make a replacement [for FBS] that’s also affordablemeans that we can actually sell this product to the masses.”
Food systems expert Errol Schweizer, former VP ofGrocery at Whole Foods, has questions around other issues with cultivated meat.He says we have to look at all possibilities, certainly the common practices inconventional livestock production.
“Will growth hormones be involved in the cultivationof these products, and if so, would the final consumer-facing product containhormone traces or residue?” he asked recently in Forbes.
“What are the types of molecular scaffolds that suchproducts will be built on and will such ingredients be transparent toconsumers?” Schweizer asks. “Will they be animal-derived,GMO-derived/plant-based or plastic/synthetic? How will they influence theallergenicity of the final product if derived from common allergens such assoy, corn, crustaceans, fungi or insects? How will insect or crustacean-derivedscaffolding affect Kosher or halal certification?”
In an interview with Green Queen earlier this year,Schweizer also questioned the monies coming into the cultivated meat industry.He also pointed out that placing our food system under the purview of nascenttechnology is risky, especially if that comes at the expense of other foodsystem solutions.
“I think folks who are advocates for [cultivated meat]should be very wary of the type of money that’s coming into that space, andwhat not only the returns that will be asked for, but the potential ownership,governance and control of those technologies will be within the next two tothree or four to five years,” Schweizer said.
“Once you know those investors, and they’reaccountable to their limited partners, they’re accountable to theirshareholders, you know, they need to show that return, and then also the factthat it’s high risk money and that not all those companies will make it. Butthen, it’s also investment that’s not going into other aspects of the foodsystem.”
There are other challenges that put cultivated meat’sviability further into question, such as the risk of contamination inherentwith working with live cells. Just as we’re all too familiar with how quickly avirus can spread amongst humans, so too could it infect lab environments. Thebigger the cultivated meat factory, the more difficult it is to ensure secureenvironments. But compare that to the challenge of keeping more than 55 billionland animals relatively disease-free before slaughter—foodborne illnesses arenot uncommon, the result often of sick animals in a supply chain designed forspeed, not precision. If we can say our animal-based food system, for all ofits risks, is mostly safe, it would seem sterilized food labs would be evensafer, even at their worst.
‘Code Red’ for humanity
But this isn’t about acing your next physical. This isabout animal agriculture and what it has done and will continue to do to theplanet. And if humans can have their steak and eat it, too, even if thetimeline for that dinner is still a tad bit fuzzy, shouldn’t we at least try?
“We’re at ‘code red for humanity’ on climate change.The U.N. says that on our current trajectory, we’ll need to produce 70 to 100percent more meat by 2050, the vast majority of that in developing countries,”Friedrich says.
“Literally no one has a plausible solution for how westem that tide, other than alternative meat production methods; simplyeducating people for the past 50 years hasn’t even cut meat production in theU.S. and Europe (it’s way, way up in both places),” he says.
It seems the door is too wide open to turn back now,at any rate. Comparing lentils to lab-grown meat doesn’t just miss the point,it derails progress. Maybe cultivated meat isn’t the end goal, but it’scertainly an important route toward a food system better angled at meeting theneeds of our changing planet. To borrow from an ironically appropriate adage:there are many ways to skin a cat. And in the case of cultivated meat, itdoesn’t have to involve the cat at all.
“Maybe plant-based and whole biomass fermentationoffer all the food tech we need, but GFI’s scientists think that cultivatedmeat (like so many tech innovations before) is promising,” Friedrich says.“Climate NGOs, governments, and the science community should go all-in onmaking it happen.”
Source: ByJill Ettinger, 10NOV2021 https://www.greenqueen.com.hk/cultivated-meat-future/
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