The Future

Lab-Grown Meat, the Idea That (almost) Changed the World

Cultured meat promised to revolutionise agriculture, but just like the science behind lab-grown meat itself, the path to our plates may be more complicated than expected.

Over a decade ago, a historical moment unfolded when a burger patty, developed over two years with a cost exceeding €250,000 and backed by Google’s co-founder made its debut on live TV. As the world tuned in, a food critic took a bite of the burger and remarked that it tasted “close to meat”. But actually, what she bit into was real meat, at least on a cellular level. The only difference was that it had been grown in a lab.1,2

After that on-air bite, major media platforms around the world ran features about how the quest to end animal agriculture, upend the meat industry, and redefine our diets had begun. Start-ups in Silicon Valley and beyond were popping up rapidly, all with exciting promises and backed by millions of dollars of venture capital. Between 2016 and 2022, investors poured almost €2.55 billion into cultivated meat and seafood companies, with Eat Just (Good Meat) and Upside Foods being the two leading startups of the more than 80 that exist today.3,4 And so, the race to scale up operations and commercialise began.

Despite the buzz and rapid investments flowing into research and development, companies working with lab-grown meat were still held back by the regulatory constraints that come with introducing a novel food product into public markets. Until in 2020, when Singapore took the defining leap, becoming the first nation to green-light the sale of lab-grown meat. It was Eat Just's cell-based meat branch (Good Meat) that received this historic approval. I vividly remember being confined to my bedroom during the COVID-19 pandemic and being inundated with news signalling what appeared to be the beginning of the end for meat as we know it.3

A slow launch

Despite an apparent world of momentum suggesting lab-grown meat was on its meteoric rise, the excitement was quickly overshadowed by an air of disappointment after products were slow to hit markets. Several years on, business is still far from booming. A colleague of mine returned from a trip to Singapore earlier this year with some rather underwhelming news on the progress of the industry. Despite the anticipation, lab-grown chicken was scarcely available; in fact it could only be found in one restaurant, Huber’s Butchery for $18 Singaporean Dollars (€12) for a very modest portion of a deep-fried cutlet, and even then only on Thursdays and in limited servings.5,6 And things haven’t improved since - at the start of this year, Eat Just announced a pause in its operations in Singapore, effectively rendering lab-grown meat unavailable on the island.7 

Interestingly, the main challenge for Eat Just was not only uncertainty around demand, but also constraints for supply due to the high costs involved with production. However, despite this setback, the company remains determined to resume production soon. Their focus is now on reducing expenses, particularly with each chicken nugget being sold at a price lower than its production costs, resulting in financial losses with every sale.3

The cultivation room at Upside Foods, a food technology company headquartered in Berkeley, California. The cultivation room provides an optimal environment for cultivated cells to thrive. Photo courtesy of Upside Foods.

Going global

In the last year, lab-grown meat producers finally began to venture into markets beyond Singapore. In the summer of 2023, the Netherlands became the first European country to allow the tasting of cultivated meat and seafood. While this didn’t mean cultured meat was open for public sale, the Dutch government's decision gave food scientists approval to conduct limited product trials with consumers.8 The U.S. Department of Agriculture also made history by approving cultured chicken produced by Good Meat and UPSIDE Foods. Already within the first month of its approval, two restaurants debuted the ‘meat’ on their menu for customers to experience firsthand.9

But yet again, what initially seemed like another groundbreaking leap forward in the advancement of lab-grown meat has hit a roadblock in recent months. UPSIDE Foods recently halted the expansion of a planned 17,000 m3 factory north of Chicago.10 Adding to the international setbacks, Italian MPs have voted to support a law that bans the production, sale, or import of cultivated meat — a move hailed by the right-wing government as a defence of Italian tradition.

In 2023, Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida declared that "Italy is the world's first country safe from the social and economic risks of synthetic food".11 While the move was more symbolic than practical, as I read about the news I felt that for every step forward, the cultivated meat revolution takes three steps back.

So, where are we heading next with the idea of cultured meat? To find out more about the scientific, economic, and environmental factors standing in the way of a more enthusiastic global uptake of this technology, the first place we should head is the lab.

Breeders and farmers from Coldiretti in front of Palazzo Chigi demonstrate their support for the law approved by Parliament which introduces a ban on the production and marketing of cell-based foods for food use or animal feed, on November 16, 2023 in Rome, Italy. Photo by Simona Granati via Getty Images.

How is cultured meat made?

Initially, the concept of lab-grown meat might seem reminiscent of familiar scientific processes encountered in high school classrooms. It typically begins with scientists extracting a small sample from an animal or a component derived from an animal, like an egg or a feather - each yielding specific types of cells. Under carefully controlled conditions these cells undergo replication and growth outside of an animal's body, typically within large vessels known as bioreactors. While the concept of culturing cells in bioreactors isn't anything new – having been utilised for pharmaceutical production and alcohol fermentation for years – growing cells for meat presents additional layers of complexity.

The issue with creating realistic meat from cells is that regular meat consists of intricate tissue structures - giving it the textures and appearance we’re used to. Replicating this demands innovative (and often expensive) approaches to transforming cultivated cells, initially resembling a mush, into meat analogs like chicken breasts or steaks. However, the specifics of this transformation remain proprietary within the cultivated meat industry, with companies adopting a wide range of methodologies to create their own unique product. For example, some companies utilise extrusion machines to form fibrous bundles from the cell mixture, while others incorporate "scaffolding" to facilitate cells forming muscle-like structures. Additionally, advancements in 3D printing are being explored to replicate the organised structure of meat tissue.12

But despite the diversity in approaches, the crucial distinction lies in the fact that the resulting (cultivated) meat—whether chicken, beef, or tuna—originates from animal cells that have replicated and matured outside of the animal's body and away from the farm.

An ethical and public health case

While there are still plenty of objections to the industry, cultivated meat offers notable benefits for animal welfare compared to traditional meat production methods. Animals are only minimally involved, usually limited to the initial sampling phase, which doesn't typically result in harm or death. However, developing cultivated meat does require a growth agent to support cell growth. Generally, the growth media for lab grown meat contains foetal bovine serum (FBS), which can only be obtained from the blood of pregnant cows during slaughter, presents both ethical concerns and cost barriers, hindering the goal of creating affordable, slaughter-free cultivated meat. Fortunately, some startups, like Mosa Meat, are working on more low-impact alternatives that would extract proteins from the blood plasma of living cows continually, using the animals as a renewable source of basal media and hence avoiding slaughter.13, 14

Foetal Bovine Serum: Lab-grown meat relies heavily on animal serum, particularly foetal bovine serum (FBS), sourced from slaughtered pregnant cows. FBS is a versatile option compared to other serums, as it contains an array of proteins suitable for growing and duplicating different types of animal cells. This serum is essential in the process of creating lab-grown meat, where cells extracted from living animals are nurtured in a nutrient-rich liquid containing the serum and other vital elements. With proper care, these cells multiply and can be cultivated to resemble real animal tissue. Eventually, they can be harvested, prepared, and consumed as different meat alternatives.13

The cost of FBS, ranging from €300 to €700 per litre, still poses a significant challenge to producers - it is estimated that 50L of FBS are needed for a single beef burger. Additionally, the industry lacks infrastructure to meet the demand from clean meat startups, as most suppliers cater to biomedical research, where smaller quantities suffice.13

From a food safety standpoint, advocates of cultured meat also see its potential to enhance food safety for consumers when compared to traditional meat. Produced in controlled environments free from contamination and pathogens, cultured meat reduces the risks of chemical contamination and food-borne diseases and zoonosis compared to conventional meat.15

The environmental footprint of lab-grown meat

Cultivating meat has always been reported to hold promise for mitigating certain environmental challenges associated with traditional livestock farming - like greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss caused by habitat destruction. At least theoretically. But to my surprise after researching further, the environmental benefits of cultivated meat over conventionally-produced meat are not guaranteed.

While cultured meat is likely to require less land and water (one study calculated a 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water use compared to conventional European meat), estimates around greenhouse gas emissions remain far less certain.16 Some sources claim it could have a global warming potential 55-98% lower than conventional beef production. However, when compared to conventional pork and chicken production, the difference in emissions is not as remarkable, and in some estimates, emissions are even higher for cultivated meat.17 This variability stems from differences in production methods among companies, whether the growth media needs to be purified to pharmaceutical levels (which would be a very energy-intensive process), sources of energy running the bioreactors, and the scale at which cultivated meat would need to be produced to be a viable alternative. And given the size of the meat market today, replacing even a small fraction of the global meat supply would require cultivated meat production to scale up significantly.

Scaling up: Eat Just’s initial production was limited to ~2kg-3kg per week of lab-grown meat. Compared to the 4,000kg - 5,000kg of conventional chicken sold every week at Huber's, the challenge of matching the size (not to mention price) of conventional chicken is significant.19 While advances in manufacturing have helped several companies cut production costs by as much as 90% since 2018, more research is needed to reduce costs of certain proteins and growth factors used in production.12

The outlook for white meats is also not convincing. In a study carried out last year, researchers explored cultured meat alongside various alternatives like plant-based, mycoprotein-based, and dairy-based options, along with chicken, considered one of the less environmentally taxing conventional meats. Their analysis revealed that while cultured meat performed relatively better in terms of land use and ecotoxicity, it generally showed the highest environmental impact due to its significant energy requirements. Overall, while cultured meat might have a lower environmental impact compared to beef and possibly pork, it could still exceed that of chicken and plant-based proteins.17

Right product for the right market

Currently, the cost of cultivated meat is far higher than that of conventional meat (by a significant margin). This disparity would need to decrease substantially before cultivated meat becomes accessible to consumers. Ultimately, while cultivated meat shows promise, numerous obstacles must be overcome for it to become a viable alternative to traditional meat production.18

An important question to keep in mind when discussing the potential advantages of cultured meat is the specific type of meat or consumption pattern it aims to substitute. If the target demographic for cultured meat is environmentally-conscious consumers who are willing to pay premium prices, and already consume minimal quantities of meat, the impact may be limited, or even negative if cultured meat displaces plant-based alternatives. However, if cultured meat were to replace a portion of the meat churned out by factory farming and fast-food industries (think hot dogs, burgers, nuggets...), which are also comparatively easier to replicate in terms of flavour and texture, the ethical and environmental benefits of switching to the lab-grown alternative could be significantly greater.

No silver bullet to success

As we navigate the realm of cultivated meat, we're bound to encounter obstacles. It's essential to address these challenges head-on by tackling technical issues and reimagining our approach to funding. The industry, led by major players like Upside Foods and Eat Just, rushed into costly facilities with uncertain processes, untested products, and a lack of clear markets to sell their products. Their business was also boldly built on the assumption that government approval would be ready and waiting to wave them through to our supermarkets and restaurants. To cap it off, the early enthusiasm to build first and address issues later meant production was rolled out before the companies could fully address a few fundamental technological hurdles that lay in the way of success.

Transitioning cultured meat from the laboratory to our kitchens at any meaningful scale will require huge efforts to improve the product, scale up production, reproduce meat’s diverse array of textures, and secure wider regulatory approval and public acceptance. This process takes time and should be paralleled with efforts to enhance conventional meat produced by more environmentally friendly livestock practices, and meat substitutes made from plant proteins, mycoproteins, and insect proteins.3

To address these technical challenges effectively, we must confront perhaps the most fundamental barrier: our economic system, specifically the consumption patterns and funding landscape that come with it. Cultivated meat companies require substantial upfront investments to develop and establish the skilled labour force, technology, and facilities needed to even start the process of producing lab-grown meat. However, this often leads to a familiar risk: overpromising and under delivering. Investors, enticed by the promise of high returns, may not fully comprehend the time needed for effective technology development and scaling, especially when relying solely on venture capital and with no former industry to build off. While public funding for lab-grown meat remains relatively limited, some governments have initiated investments in the technology, recognising its potential for enhancing food security. And frankly, it makes sense for governments to invest in this. After all, government subsidies are a large part of why industrial meat is so cheap in the first place.20

A hybrid limbo

To truly revolutionise the food industry, cultivated meat must be affordable enough to compete with conventional factory-farmed meat. However, prominent engineers and biomanufacturing experts express scepticism, doubting that cultivated meat can ever reach a cost competitive with conventional meat - at least not in our lifetimes. Yet, there may be a solution: blending plant-based meat ingredients with cultivated meat to create hybrid products, akin to how hybrid vehicles bridged the gap between early electric vehicles and today's widespread adoption. By using cultivated cells as flavouring agents rather than the primary ingredient, these hybrid meat products could pave the way for cultivated meat's commercial viability.20

In fact, some of the cultivated chicken that’s being served in restaurants today contains nearly 40% plant-based material. Since lab-grown meat companies are constantly balancing against the costs of production, the capacity to yield more products using the same amount of lab-grown meat significantly reduces expenses. And, while lab-grown meat is very futuristic, humans have been using conventional meat as a flavour ingredient for a very long time.1

Ultimately, the future of meat we choose will hold massive implications for our food system's sustainability and resilience in the face of a changing climate. As environmental concerns mount in large part due to unsustainable agricultural practices, the need for transformative societal shifts becomes increasingly urgent and the allure of a quick fix is strong. Cultivated meat offers more than just technological innovation; it represents wishful thinking for meaningful change without disrupting familiar consumption habits. However, true progress toward a more future-proof food system will require a profound reevaluation of our relationship with food and the environment. This includes policy changes to promote sustainable practices and assist small-scale farmers in shifting from traditional livestock farming, prioritising regenerative agricultural methods to restore soil health and biodiversity, and rethinking our support for farmers, acknowledging their vital role in sustainable food production. Achieving an environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and economically viable food system for future generations demands many ingredients, of which only a few, if any, might be grown in a lab.

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