Meat. No meal is complete without it, right? Vegetarians and vegans keep claiming they’ve found a better way, but you’re always left disappointed. For you, nothing comes close to the real thing. If you feel this way, you’re not alone, and thankfully for you, not every food scientist is giving up on good old-fashioned meat.
Cultured, in-vitro, or cultivated meat, among other names, is a fairly new idea for how to use a not-so-new invention called the bioreactor. For several decades now, biologists and medical professionals have been using tanks of amino acids, nutrients, and growth regulators to grow animal parts from samples of the animal’s cells. More recent bioreactors can even grow replacement kidneys and livers for humans, and if it can create something as complex as a human organ, why not use it to make tonight’s dinner, too?
This was the question asked by innovators like Mirai Foods, a Swiss start-up whose patent-pending “rocket” bioreactor can serve up prime cuts of beef in only 5-10 days. Cultured meat in general uses the equivalent of around 4-6 barrels of oil to produce 1’000 kilograms of meat and contributes only half the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions required to grow the same amount from actual cows, all while requiring 10 times less water and land and eliminating the necessity of antibiotics. What’s more, you don’t even have to kill the animal to get it. So what’s the catch? Why aren’t we all already enjoying test tube bacon on our petri dish ground beef burgers?
The catch – pricing
Well, there are the usual barriers to entry for any new food – suspicion, politicization, the need for approval from local health inspection bureaucracies, etc, but the main problems for cell-based meat concern cost and supply. Though the highly expensive Fetal Bovine Serum first used to stimulate growth in cultured meat has mostly been phased out in favor of cheaper plant-based alternatives, the cost of the manufacturing plants required to produce cultured meat on a commercial scale are still a massive investment of up to USD $1.8 trillion. With a lot of the same apparent investment risks as a nuclear power plant like frequent product delivery date delays, mixed public receptiveness and limited precedence for success, there is some fear that cultivated meat won’t be able to stand the test of time.
The advantages of cultivated meat
By all accounts, cell-based meat is superior to farm-based meat in almost every aspect, assuming that sustainable power sources are used in the process of its creation. Furthermore, the existing meat market is highly subsidized around the world, in the US and here in Switzerland especially, making the real price gap between the cost of farmed versus cell-based meat smaller than it appears at first glance. Despite the cost of building one, even small factories like the one owned by Upside Foods in Finland is capable of producing over 181’400 kilograms of cell-based chicken every year. That’s the equivalent of around 90’700 whole chickens, all without the need to kill a single one. The increased efficiency and long-term benefits of funding cultured meat appear to greatly outweigh the immediate cost of the funding itself.
On the supply side, finding proper cell lines to engineer and produce cultivated meat remains a problem. Due to a lack of specialized suppliers, most cells for cultured meat production are still sourced from dead animals, which besides limiting the amount of options available for cell research also means that the death of animals is still a necessary component in the process. There has already been some effort to solve this problem: Extracellular in the UK is providing a license-free cell bank to help with research on cultivated meat. However, this is far from enough to support an industry expected to be worth USD $19.3 billion by 2043, which means that there is ample opportunity for entrepreneurs who want a piece of the alternative protein market to start stepping up.
Upside Foods and Good Meat were both cleared on June 21st by the USDA and FDA to sell their cultivated chicken in the United States, and here in Switzerland, the aforementioned Mirai foods and the Israel-based SuperMeats expect to clear regulatory hurdles for local sale of their cell-based meats in 2024 and 2025 respectively. Cultivated meat will be hitting the market very soon, and off-the-shelf cell lines would drastically increase its ability to compete with the traditional meat industry, as well as the plant-based meat industry.
Wave of innovations
Despite being much older than cell-based meat, plant-based foods have seen a wave of recent innovations thanks to AI-based research and the use of precision fermentation. The other week, Solar Foods announced that it had managed to gain Singapore’s approval for the sale of a gelato made using Solein, an alternative protein made from molecules taken directly from the air mixed with select nutrients. Rather than a threat, these breakthroughs in one of cultured meat’s main competitors highlight a distinct advantage that it has over traditional meat: the ability to use the very same technology to create innovations in its own products. Traditional meat is limited to what you can do to a cow or a chicken, but cell-based meat offers direct control over the growth of the cells without genetically modifying them, allowing for access to more varied forms of research in areas such as precision fermentation.
Future of cultured meat
The future for cultured meat is, as with anything, uncertain. The demand for meat is expected to double by 2050, and the growth of the traditional meat industry is expected to lag behind. Right now, cultivated meat seems to be the best available way to meet this increase in demand, but its future as an option is still being decided. As a meat-lover in Switzerland, the choice seems clear to me. After all, no meal is complete without meat, right?
Innovation Time Genève
Last modified: 16 janvier 2024