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The promise of cultivated meat
A guest post by Joshua March.
I’ve long been interested in the question of how humanity can transition away from animal farming, which I view as morally barbaric. I’m a complete hypocrite on this point — I still eat meat, even though I think it’s morally wrong. So I don’t expect the world to go vegetarian anytime soon. That’s why the promise of cultivated meat — also known as lab-grown meat or tissue-culture meat — is so alluring to me. Of course, moral improvement is only one of the benefits we might derive from growing our meat in vats instead of growing it on live animals; we’d also free up a lot of land for human use or wilderness, and potentially reduce greenhouse emissions a lot as well.
Of course not everyone is as excited about this possibility, as evidenced by this recent tweet from U.S. House candidate Ronny Jackson:
So I suppose there’s a potential political angle here as well.
Anyway, I’m not much of an expert on this technology, but my friend Joshua March definitely is. He’s the co-founder and CEO of SCiFi Foods, a cultivated meat startup. So I asked him to write me a post about the current state of cultivated meat technology. Obviously he is not a neutral observer, but his post is highly informative and leaves me more optimistic about the future.
Financial disclosure: I have no financial interest of any kind in SCiFi Foods, and no plans to initiate one.
May 2nd, 2019, was a landmark date for meat alternatives: it was the day Beyond Meat went public. With a market capitalization of just under $1.5bn, the public offering made headlines globally, drawing the attention of Wall Street investors and millions of ordinary people who had for the most part been ignorant of the burgeoning alt-meat market. In the months following, the stock went crazy as enthusiasm for meat alternatives became contagious, driving up Beyond's market cap to staggering $14B.
In the last year, however, Beyond has seen a dramatic reversal of fortunes, with their market cap slumping to just $860m. Their fall from favor has called the fate of the entire meat alternative meat market into question, with Deloitte recently writing that the whole plant-based meat sector is stagnating.
What happened? And what’s next?
Why Do Meat Alternatives Even Matter?
Conventional meat has a dirty little secret: it is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, emissions from livestock account for a startling 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (compared to just 3.5% for aviation). And while energy production is rapidly making a transition to renewables, conventional meat consumption is only increasing (as the world’s population gets wealthier, people eat more meat)—and with it, the associated greenhouse gas emissions. Even if all energy production switched to 100% renewable power today the emissions from animal agriculture alone would still push us past the 2 degree celsius warming threshold.
Beef is by far the worst culprit, with cattle responsible for a whopping 65% of all livestock emissions. That’s because beef is the least efficient of all meats in terms of calories in to calories out (as low as 3% according to some recent studies). Beef is also responsible for a staggering amount of methane emissions (a greenhouse gas 30x more potent than CO2) and for a huge amount of land use change as trees are cut down to make way for either pasture land or to grow crops for animal feed—in fact, 80% of all rainforest deforestation is related to the cattle industry in some way.
This information isn’t news—we’ve known about the impact of beef for decades. But unfortunately trying to reason people into eating less meat just hasn’t been working. If you want proof, look no further than the fact that the percentage of vegans and vegetarians in the US population hasn’t really changed since the 1970's (it’s around 5%). The bottom line is that people like eating meat. Even if they philosophically agree that eating less meat is better, when it comes down to it they still reach for that conventional beef burger.
Meat alternatives offer a more effective strategy than reason alone. Instead of arguing for an end to conventional meat consumption, why not figure out a way to make meat without the problems? Any wide-scale decrease in conventional beef consumption we can accomplish is worth it because of the major impact on climate change, and our ability to prevent the most catastrophic outcomes. And that’s even before you consider all the other problems with intensive factory farming.
The Achilles Heel of Plant-Based Meat
Plant-based meat seemed like it could be the answer: if we make meat-like products from plants, and sell them to meat eaters, then hey presto, problem solved!
This seemed to be working, at least for a while. The Impossible Burger, which has a heme protein that makes it ‘bleed’ like real meat, came on to the restaurant scene with a bang. It appealed to the significant (and growing) fraction of meat eaters who consider themselves ‘flexitarian’: people who are interested in eating less meat, and who will eat alternatives if they’re given easy access to tasty options.
The pandemic accelerated the growth of meat alternatives. As COVID tore through huge meat packing plants with their close-quarter working conditions, disrupting the supply chain for conventional meat, the price of conventional meat skyrocketed—if you could even find it on the shelves. Consumers who had never considered plant-based meats before began to purchase these products and sales jumped from $1 billion in 2019 to $1.4 billion in 2020.
But by 2021, sales growth unexpectedly flattened off. Nielsen found that the vast majority of people who buy plant-based meat don't continue to buy it regularly. When consumers are asked, the vast majority of people say that plant-based meat just doesn’t taste good enough, especially considering its premium price point (by this point conventional meat prices have come back down from peak Covid). When it comes down to it, purchasing decisions for food are based primarily on taste, price, and health, depending on the context. And unfortunately the vast majority of plant-based meat costs more than conventional meat, while tasting worse, with no clear health benefits.
There was a brief moment where people were excited about plant-based meat for health reasons, but that quickly gave way to a consumer backlash over the processed nature of plant-based meat. The reality of the situation is complicated—plant-based meat is primarily made of purified plant-proteins, so from a health perspective it’s largely equivalent to drinking a protein shake. Sure, steamed broccoli might be healthier in some respects—but it definitely has less protein, and few people would argue that a burger is a health food. Regardless, the controversy over processing has cast a shadow over the plant-based meat category for many consumers.
The meat of the matter is that plant-based meat alternatives taste like… plants! However the majority of people like the taste of meat, want to eat meat, and want alternative products that taste like real meat.
Consumers say that taste is the biggest driver for deciding to buy alternative meat products
The Promise of Cultivated Meat
Cultivated meat refers to real meat that is cultivated from animal cells in bioreactors (essentially big steel tanks with carefully controlled conditions) instead of through conventional animal agriculture. People have been envisioning this possibility for a long time—in 1931 Winston Churchill wrote that:
“[In] Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”
He was correct, although his timing was a bit off. It wasn’t until 80 years later, in 2013, that the first cultivated meat was officially sampled: a beef burger produced by Dr. Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University for the royal cost of €250,000! A couple of years later, the first major cultivated meat startup, Memphis Meats (now Upside Foods) was founded in the US. Fast forward to today, and there are more than one-hundred companies working in the cultivated meat space, which together have raised more than $1.3B of funding.
Cultivated meat is the holy grail of meat alternatives, enabling the same taste, texture, and nutrition of conventional meat, because fundamentally it is real meat, just produced in a better way, without the negative impact on climate or animal welfare.
However, commercializing cultivated meat has proven to be significantly more difficult than its plant-based predecessors. Today, there is only one place in the world where you can get cultivated meat: a single restaurant in Singapore that sells cultivated chicken nuggets from the company Good Meat (a subsidiary of Eat Just) at a volume that is more symbolic than commercial. Good Meat doesn’t share their numbers but they have admitted this is still a money-losing process and that they haven’t solved some of the biggest challenges for scale, like using fetal bovine serum (also known as fetal cow blood) in the manufacturing process.
In fact, when you look over the history of cultivated meat startups, there is a pretty depressing picture: everyone always projects that they’ll have products on the market in a couple of years, everytime you ask them.
15 years of claims for when cultivated meat will reach the market
You can explore the interactive graph of promises here.
What makes cultivated meat so challenging?
The Structure Problem
The biopharmaceutical industry has been growing animal cells in bioreactors for decades. Various mammalian cell lines like CHO (Chinese Hamster Ovary) are used to manufacture complex and expensive molecules which can’t be produced in bacterial or yeast cells. Over time, biopharma learned how to grow the cells in high density suspension cultures to maximize the productivity of the process.
Cultivated meat can use essentially the same approach and technology to grow animal cells for food. However, the output of this process is just a bunch of individual cells, essentially meat paste. While those cells can have the fats and proteins that create the flavor of meat, they don’t have any structure. Making a steak requires those cells to arrange together to form muscle fibers and other tissues that have 3D structure—a much more complex and resource intensive process. The technology to do this kind of tissue engineering comes out of regenerative medicine labs, where scientists are trying to figure out how to control the behavior of human cells in order to grow organs that can be transplanted back into a person. This is insanely exciting science, although we still haven’t figured out how to do this effectively for medicine, despite the fact that someone would pay virtually any price to regenerate an organ when they need it.
And yet, many cultivated meat companies are trying to borrow the techniques of regenerative medicine to make 100% cultivated meat that could be sold at commodity prices. This often involves using 3D printing to deposit living cells precisely exactly onto some kind of scaffold where these cells can then differentiate into tissue. Unfortunately, there are some major challenges with this approach. First and foremost, 3D printing is slow and expensive. Secondly, animal cells will only attach to very specific substrates, or substrates coated in animal proteins like collagen. But making a scaffold out of recombinant collagen is very expensive. So is coating a plant-based scaffold with the recombinant animal proteins needed to get cells to attach.
Once those cells have managed to attach to a scaffold, they need to be kept alive while they are differentiating into tissues. This isn’t straightforward—cells need to be fed with a constant mix of appropriate cell culture media that includes sugar, amino acids, growth factors etc, and to be bathed in oxygen, or they will die. Unfortunately cell culture media can’t perfuse more than a couple of cells deep through a 3D block of tissue, which means that the scaffold needs to include vasculature (blood vessels) to enable the media to perfuse throughout the tissue. Needless to say, the technology to scale such a complicated process does not exist, not even in the context of regenerative medicine.
All of this means that creating 100% cultivated meat today can only be done in small scale, bench-top processes that are very slow and expensive, and that no one really knows how to scale-up. It’s exciting that many people are working on solving these problems, but today there is nothing that would enable us to produce these kinds of products at any kind of meaningful scale or at a price point that is even vaguely affordable.
Blended Products Will Be The First Products on Market
Luckily we can solve the biggest challenges of plant-based meat (taste) and cultivated meat (structure) by taking a blended approach: using cultivated cells as a flavor ingredient but relying on the plant-based ingredients for texture.
This is a really promising approach because cultivated cells, with their complement of fats and proteins, have a big impact on taste. A significant amount of the flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel of meat comes from the specific fatty acid profile in animal fat, which generally only makes up 5-20% of a ground meat product like beef. We can recapitulate all this flavor by blending in a similar amount of cultivated cells—with the potential to drastically increase consumer adoption for meat alternatives by making products that actually taste like meat (they do—I eat them regularly!).
I expect some of the first blended cultivated meat products to start hitting shelves in the US in the next 12 months (for real this time), with more following over the next couple of years. I also expect these products to have a huge impact on the meat alternative market. There are many restaurants today, especially in the fast casual category, like Shake Shack, In-N-Out, Five Guys, etc., who don’t offer any kind of plant-based meat options today because they just don’t think any of them taste good enough. By tasting better, blended products will convince a lot more chefs and consumers, opening up whole new distribution channels for meat alternatives.
Overcoming the Cost Challenges of Cultivated Meat
The reality is that even with a blended approach, the cost of cell culture is still prohibitively expensive. This is due to a number of factors but is mostly driven by the particular growth requirements of animal cells (preferring to grow attached to a surface) and the high cost of cell culture media which requires fetal bovine serum or recombinant growth factors. However, it’s possible to use genetic engineering—enabled by CRISPR technology, which has made editing the DNA of animal cells dramatically easier—to engineer cell lines that overcome many of these challenges (this is the approach we favor at my company, SCiFi Foods). There are also startups working on other solutions, like lower cost supply chains for expensive ingredients like growth factors, or novel bioreactors that reduce the CAPEX required to grow cells to higher densities. I expect some combination of these approaches will help bring blended products to market in a meaningful way in the next few years.
Eventually all of these innovations in bioreactor design, cell line engineering, and supply chain will come together to make 100% cultivated, structured meat products like steak a commercial possibility. In the meantime, the cost of cultivated products will keep coming down, while climate change will keep driving up the cost of conventional meat. This will keep shifting the balance until cultivated meat will be the more affordable, accessible, and healthier option than conventional meat. At that point, we will look back on today and think that it was just insane that we were cutting down the rainforest and throwing billions of animals into the factory farming machine. I can’t wait.