Cultured Meat: Moving Towards Griddle Parity
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Interest in cultured meat is rapidly growing, driven by the need to provide a more sustainable source of meat to the world’s population, while addressing environmental and animal welfare concerns associated with intensive agricultural practices. In 2013, the first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten, developed by Professor Mark Post, at a cost of £215,000. Since then, developments in cellular agriculture have led to a dramatic reduction in the cost of creating cultured meat, to the point where it may soon match that of conventional meat.
Technology Networks recently spoke with Jim Mellon, a British investor and entrepreneur, and author of Moo’s Law: An Investor’s Guide to the New Agrarian Revolution, to learn more about the potential of cultured meat. In this interview, Jim also discusses some of the challenges that companies in the cultured meat sector face, how they are responding and what could be in store for the field over the next few years.
Anna MacDonald (AM): What have been the major driving forces behind the interest in and development of cultured meat?
Jim Mellon (JM): While writing this book, I had the opportunity to interview many entrepreneurs and thought leaders in the cellular agriculture space. I was struck by the degree to which they were motivated above everything else by idealism and a desire to improve the world.
Intensive farming, which is the dominant method of meat production, is damaging the planet. In fact, agriculture is one of the biggest anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases and thus a major contributor to global warming. Not to mention the astonishing amounts of land and water needed to sustain livestock. Cultured meat, on the other hand, will be produced in relatively energy-efficient factories, requiring a fraction of the resources required for conventional meat, so its environmental impact will be much smaller.
Animal welfare is the biggest issue with farming for me personally. I am a pescatarian because of the horrendous treatment of livestock in industrial farming. These animals can often live short, painful lives, crammed together in sheds, never to see the sun before the day they go to the slaughterhouse. Often these animals have been selectively bred for food production, despite the consequences on their health: chickens’ legs often buckle under their own weight, for example. I look forward to the day where everyone can obtain all their protein without cruelty to animals.
There’s also a human health factor. Almost every major pandemic, possibly including COVID-19, arose as a result of agricultural malpractice. Keeping different species closely packed in unhygienic conditions dramatically increases the probability of a virus crossing into humans: it’s a recipe for disaster. Moreover, animal agriculture is exacerbating the problem of antibiotic resistance, approximately 70 per cent of antibiotics used globally are for livestock. If antibiotics become ineffective, humanity will again face the spectre of bacterial (not viral) pandemics such as the Black Death.
AM: How does cultured meat compare to plant-based alternatives? Will there be a place for both?
JM: Great question. Plant-based meat alternatives have become a big industry – the majority of households are now familiar with the likes of Quorn and Beyond Meat – but I think we have reached “peak veganism”. The problem for plant-based meat alternatives is that everyone enjoys eating meat, and no matter how much plant-based products improve, the taste and texture will never be totally realistic. Becoming a vegan or vegetarian is still a sacrifice, which most people are not willing to make.
On the other hand, cultivated meat is real meat. It tastes, cooks and smells just like animal-derived meat does, but is grown in a much more efficient manner. Once cultivated meat reaches “Griddle Parity” (that is, an equivalent or lower price than conventional meat), it will rapidly take market share in the global meat market.
AM: Can you explain the basics of how cultured meat is produced?
JM: Sure. Say you want to produce cultured beef: stem cells are isolated from a biopsy from a cow and fed nutrients (a “growth media”) in bioreactors – temperature-controlled stainless steel containers. This is not dissimilar to fermenting beer in vats. The cells begin to multiply and differentiate into the various cell types that comprise meat (muscle, fat and connective tissue). The entire process takes about 40 days. At this point you have genuine meat tissue, including mature muscle fibres, ready to be formed into burgers, sausages or anything else.
Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that in reality! There are many different approaches to cell line selection, bioreactor design and growth media composition, among other things. Indeed, these differences are one of the most exciting parts of the sector from an investor’s point of view because it means companies can claim their different technologies as defensible intellectual property, unlike manufacturers of plant-based meats.
AM: What are the major challenges that companies in this sector face? How are they working to overcome them?
JM: The first challenge is the cost of production. The cost is falling rapidly (a cultivated burger patty in 2013 cost €250,000, whereas today it can be produced for around €9) but it’s still significantly higher than animal-derived meat. The growth media is one reason for the high cost: two inputs common in the growth media (the naturally occurring hormones called TGF-𝛽 and FGF-2) are particularly expensive, costing US $80 million and US $2 million per gram respectively. It is largely accepted in the sector that the costs of these inputs will come down in the next few years.
Another challenge is public perception. The meat lobby, particularly in the US, has put a lot of effort into tarnishing the image of cultured products, by calling them “Frankenfoods” or pushing legislation to ban these products from being labeled with certain words (e.g. “meat”, “dairy”, etc). To overcome this, companies in this sector have put a lot of effort into presenting their products positively, and also fighting the meat lobby’s legislative shenanigans. The Good Food Institute has been particularly effective at this: they recently supported an action by Tofurky in Arkansas to overturn a restrictive labeling law.
AM: Are cultured meats/seafood nutritionally equivalent to their traditionally farmed counterparts? How does this affect labeling and regulation? What about enhanced products that have been engineered with non-native features, such as beef cells that can produce phytonutrients?
JM: Cultured meat and cell-based seafood products will be nutritionally equivalent to conventional meat and seafood, but they will be able to have the added benefit of removing undesirable traits, such as absence of cholesterol or microplastics.
Regulators want to see nutritional equivalency to approve the products, and the focus for companies is to commercialize cultured meat that is the same as the conventional product.
Engineering products to have non-native features is plausible, but I think it’s some way down the pike. Genetic engineering adds an extra layer of complexity to the production process and opens a regulatory can of worms. That’s why cultivated meat is not “GM” and genetic modification is not used in the process.
AM: How are the technologies and products being received by regulatory agencies and consumers? Does this vary globally? Has it changed over time?
JM: Yes, it certainly varies globally. The most supportive countries tend to be food-insecure, since they see cellular agriculture as a solution to depending on food imports. It’s no surprise that Singapore was the first country to approve a cultured product for sale (Eat Just’s cultured chicken nuggets were approved in December 2020), because a cornerstone of their government’s policy is the “30 by 30” vision (i.e. producing 30% of their own food supply by 2030). Many Middle Eastern countries are investigating the sector for similar reasons of food security.
Over time, I think every country will have to accept these products once they see how early adopters like Singapore are reaping the benefits.
AM: Where do you see the future of cultured meat headed?
JM: The sky’s the limit for cultured meat in my opinion. Once cultured meat can reach “Griddle Parity”, then these companies will rapidly displace the legacy animal meat market. The rewards on offer for disruptors are enormous, because the global meat industry is the same size as the Spanish economy.
Jim Mellon was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.