Cultivating change: From today’s labs to tomorrow’s supermarket shelves
- Modern meat production entails a series of costs, risks and environmental challenges – with rising demand it will be hard to sustain
- Growing meat in vitro could be the solution, and it’s already being pioneered by business leaders like Upside Foods
- When the challenges of consumer adoption and scalability are overcome, the potential for cultivated meat to revolutionise the food industry is huge
Imagine eating a steak that didn’t require slaughtering an animal. A real steak, not a plant-based alternative, and with the same delicious taste and texture as the classic farm-reared product.
The global meat market is a $1tn annual business. In 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that global demand would double by 2050, driven by population growth and greater spending power in developing economies. But with traditional farming come environmental and societal costs and challenges.
Meat cultivation – growing animal cells in vitro, meaning outside of a living organism – offers a solution. Industry frontrunners such as Upside Foods are on track to deliver consumer-ready products within a few years.
The advantages go beyond preventing the death of millions of animals. Cultivated meat could eliminate the rising risk of animal-borne diseases and antimicrobial resistance – which reduces the effectiveness of treatments for infections. It should also significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the use of land and water – all while saving on costs.
How does it work?
Cultivated meat is often referred to as being ‘lab-grown’. But it will not be grown in laboratories by the time you can buy it in a supermarket.
The technology involved can be compared with harvesting crops, hence the term ‘cultivated’. But rather than wheat, corn or soybeans, it is growing animal cells in bioreactors – steel vessels where raw materials are turned into a product via a chemical process. That can be applied to all types of meat, as well as seafood.
How is it made?
There are four key technological areas in the process:
Why do we need cultivated meat?
Modern meat production is driving the climate crisis. If the global livestock industry were its own country, it would be the world’s third-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, falling behind China and the US but before India.
These emissions relate to every step of the production process, with methane gas expelled by cows and sheep being a major cause.
That’s not to mention the associated drain on the earth’s vital natural resources. More than a quarter of our ‘fresh water footprint’ – the amount of safe and clean water used to produce consumer goods – goes towards the meat and dairy industries, which require an incredible amount to produce animal feed.
Livestock farming is also driving unprecedented levels of deforestation to make way for grazing and feed crops. That, inevitably, causes biodiversity loss.
We currently slaughter more than 70 billion animals annually – about 200 million every day. Do we even have space on the planet to double that by 2050? Using today’s farming techniques, it would require nearly twice the landmass of the US and Canada combined.
Perhaps more to the point, can we afford it? A Big Mac could cost as much as $11 without subsidies funded by consumer tax dollars. That’s about three times its current price, according to calculations by David Robinson Simon, author of Meatonomics.
In terms of caloric conversion, rearing animals is an incredibly inefficient mechanism to produce edible protein. So why spend the energy growing the complete animal, with its bones, vital organs and inedible parts, when we can grow only the parts we want to eat?
Winston Churchill recognised this problem in 1931, saying: “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 […] The new foods from the outset will be practically indistinguishable from the natural products.”
Almost a century later, this solution is within reach.
5 facts about Upside Foods
- Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats, was the world’s only lab-grown meat company when it announced its intention to feed the world with cellular agriculture in 2015. It aspires to be one of the three or four companies globally that will capture the business opportunity early on.
- The company’s CEO and founder is Uma Valeti, a cardiologist and adjunct professor at Stanford University School of Medicine who also serves on the advisory council of the Good Food Institute.
- In the last seven years, the company has raised more than $600m dollars in funding. Its backers include the celebrity investors Richard Branson and Bill Gates, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. Multinational meatpackers Tyson Foods and Cargill are also involved.
- Upside Foods is already a frontrunner in moving cultivated meat from the research and development phase it has been in for the past decade into commercialisation phase. Last year it had two ground-breaking developments:
(a) moving away from Foetal Bovine Serum and dramatically reducing its input media cost
(b) opening (in Emeryville, California) its Engineering, Production and Innovation Centre, currently the leading and largest cultivated meat pilot production facility in the US at 53,000 sq ft.
- The company is planning to open its first commercial facility in 2024 and start selling its products to restaurants and grocery stores later that year.
Though Upside Foods is a frontrunner in this emerging sector, it’s not the only player in the game.
We have also been impressed by innovators such as US-based Wildtype, which is cultivating sushi-grade salmon, and Israeli company Future Meat, which is focused on producing chicken, lamb and beef.
According to Wildtype, cell-cultivated seafood provides the same nutritional benefits without the mercury, microplastics, antibiotics and other contaminants commonly found in wild-caught and farmed fish. Its pilot plant in San Francisco became operational last year.
Both companies have raised considerable amounts of capital too.
Future Meat, which is currently operating in Rehovot, raised $347m in a funding round late last year and is now planning for a production ramp in the US. And since it was founded in 2016, Wildtype has raised more than $120m.
What are the challenges?
Taste is likely to be the biggest determining factor, followed by cost. So, the goal is to get cultivated meat products to consumers with the flavours and textures they are used to at an affordable price.
The size and speed of the scale-up will need to be huge and rapid if cultivated meat is to become mainstream within the next decade. Limits to bioreactor capacity and amino acids are among the issues that the food industry will have to address.
The bioreactors involved will need to be considerably larger than today’s models. And because cells grow slowly, if the volume of the bioreactor becomes too high there are potential contamination issues as it will be more difficult to maintain a sterile environment.
Besides, global production rates for both amino acids and other growth factors are currently far too low and are costly.
Marketing will also be important. An anti-scientific mindset lingers in food related-matters, undoubtedly related to past arguments about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Many consumers are likely to be uncomfortable with this new product, so the industry must find a way to make it attractive through labelling, endorsements and so on.
We can’t be sure people will want to eat cultivated meat until it hits the shelves. But considering how detached we are from conventional meat production – we buy beef and pork, not cow and pig – it is not unreasonable to suggest that with carefully crafted messaging, cultured meat could overcome this resistance.
Conveying the environmental benefits could be key too. But given that cultured meat is not yet commercially available, there’s uncertainty about the precise extent of its environmental benefits. Estimates range from roughly 15 per cent lower emissions compared to chicken, to 90 per cent lower emissions compared to beef.
Reasons for optimism
There are potential teething problems with cultivated meat – but not insurmountable ones. For example, we might not be able to forecast its climate-related benefits precisely, but we are sure it will use significantly less land and water than farming livestock.
Furthermore, because it will take place in a controlled environment it should be more predictable and efficient. Lack of bacteria in the bioreactors is another major benefit, which could double the shelf life of cultivated meat products, thus reducing waste.
Prominent cultivated meat and seafood companies, spearheaded by Upside Foods, are already speaking to regulators and consumer groups to tackle problems before they arise and share their vision.
As the challenge of sustainably feeding the world becomes ever more pressing, we expect further companies to embrace the endeavour of revolutionising the way we eat.
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This communication was produced and approved in August 2022 and has not been updated subsequently. It represents views held at the time of writing and may not reflect current thinking.
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