by Insa Mohr
figures by Jovana Andrejevic
Reading about cultured meat can be confusing. While many major companies claim to have found the holy grail, some academic experts go to the lengths of calling it a scam. But what does the science and market reality really tell us about the progress and potential of cultured meat? A review.
It has been almost 10 years since the last article about lab-grown meat was published on Science in the News. Back then, the lack of funding and attention was named as one of the main bottlenecks for progress. This has changed drastically. More than $1bn was poured into the industry by investors in 2020 alone, and not a month passes by without a media release on another alleged scientific breakthrough (see for example here, here, and here).
So, how much has lab-grown meat advanced and how close is it to being available in grocery stores and restaurants? This is not a trivial question! While some sources claim that cultured meat will have its breakthrough and finally land on our plates in 2022, others call it a myth or even a scam. Both factions backup their claims with numerous, extensive studies. Who is right? Let’s take a closer look!
Understanding the hype around cultured meat
Lab-grown meat (also called: cultured meat, clean meat, or in-vitro meat) is actual meat grown from cells harvested from an animal without the need to slaughter or otherwise harm it. Besides improving animal welfare, the environmental impact of having less livestock could be massive. Emissions of meat production could be reduced by more than 90% together with lower land and water usage and reduced fine particulate matter (Figure 1).
Lab-grown is not to be confused with other alternative meats such as from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat that are purely plant-based. Even though such meat substitutes also have environmental and even health benefits, their potential is more limited, as too many consumers try plant-based meat products once or twice but then return to conventional meat. Therefore, market growth for plant-based meat substitutes is already slowing down, further raising hopes for lab-grown meat.
Borrowing from biopharma
Let’s take a brief look at how cultured meat is produced. First, a tissue sample is taken from a donor animal and stem cells are isolated from it. These cells are then placed in a bioreactor– a large tank in which biological reactions happen. The cells are then fed with serums rich in oxygen and nutrients in the bioreactor. These serums are called growth media. By adding different proteins to the cells, they are differentiated into fat and muscle cells. This process takes about 2-8 weeks, depending on the type of meat cells. If whole cuts are produced (as compared to ground meat products), the process includes extra steps for adding texture (Figure 2).
Once fully developed, the manufacturing process is incredibly high-yielding; as one tissue sample can create up to 10,000kg of meat, only 150 cows (or other animals) could one day hypothetically feed the world population.
Sounds futuristic? Actually, similar processes have been used in medicine and food production for decades. In fact, everyone who has been vaccinated or drank a beer has consumed a cultured product before.
Three reasons for “beef”
Getting straight to the controversy: critics and advocates for cultured meat tend to focus on three areas.
1: Making growth media cheaper and animal friendly
In 2018, the growth media for a single burger patty averaged a whopping $2,500. But cost isn’t the only issue here. Sadly, the most effective, flexible, and cost-efficient media right now is an animal welfare nightmare. The media, Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), is obtained from a living cow fetuses’ blood. For early experiments, hundreds of fetuses were needed to produce just one burger patty.
Fortunately, many major companies such as Mosa Meat already openly declared themselves against the use of FBS. Thus, a major part of their research effort focuses on the development of affordable synthetic alternatives, with remarkable progress so far.
2: Creating whole meat cuts
Good news first: the taste of cultured meat is in no way inferior to that of traditional meat. The bad news is that the texture still needs improvement. Unlike in nature, the cells in the bioreactor don’t grow around tissue, so it’s still missing the authentic mouthfeel we expect. This means that ground meat products like burger patties or sausages can already be produced, while producing whole cuts such as steaks remains the holy grail. Whole cuts are needed to justify the higher price point of clean meat versus conventional meat. Interestingly, this can be overcome with 3D printing. Companies are currently working on producing plant-based scaffolds to overcome this texture problem. Further down the line, like-for-like pieces of meat will be replicated by 3D printing a blood vessel system and connective tissues around the cells.
3: Increasing scalability overall
Several other challenges can be best summarized by the term “scalability”. One difficulty remaining for culture-grown meat is the need for large, expensive equipment. For example, to process only 1 kilogram of muscle protein a 5,000 liter bioreactor is needed– for reference, more than 500 crates of beer can be produced simultaneously in a reactor of this size.
Another difficulty comes with the general stability and speed of the process. As we all know, animals have an immune system, while cells in the bioreactor don’t, making the manufacturing process hypersensitive to contamination. Again, while there is progress being made, these problems make production at scale a challenge.
Scientific feasibility will advance economic feasibility
While the problem of growth media costs and tissue engineering may be solved through near-term breakthroughs, the overall scalability and cost issues will take more time to overcome. Nevertheless, prices have already rapidly decreased from 250,000€ in 2013 to an estimated 9€ in 2025 (per cultured burger patty, estimated by Mosa Meat). This price is likely still too high to replace major parts of today’s meat consumption, but will still attract significant interest from the growing group of sustainability-conscious consumers in high income countries (Figure 3).
From (large) niche to mass market
This drop in prices would create a multi-billion-dollar market big enough to justify investors’ immense interest, but would leave the industry still too small to make the much needed significant impact on the environment. The sheer size of the global meat market ($USD 1.3 Trillion!) makes it currently impossible for a novel technology to replace a significant share of the market. Moving from a high-end niche to an affordable mass-market product is a normal phenomenon that many new technologies face. For instance, the first microwaves used to cost as much as a brand new car.
Confirming this suspicion, some of the first factories currently being built have small volumes of less than 200 lbs of meat production per day. Many market launches are announced for 1-3 years from now, with the caveat that regulatory approval might be delayed or that launch dates may be further postponed (Figure 4).
With all this controversy about cultured meat, one thing can be said: while its viability may remain under scrutiny until proven, no one contests the necessity of cultured meat for animal welfare and the planet. This should be motivation enough to prove critics wrong.
Insa Mohr is Co-Founder of Mooji Meats – a Harvard spin-off enabling the cultured meat revolution. Before founding Mooji Meats, she worked as an Associate Director for Merck (an early mover in cultured meat). She was a visiting student at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and holds a master’s degree in Extension Studies / Information Technologies from Harvard FAS.
Jovana Andrejevic is a sixth-year Applied Physics Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University.
For more information:
- Read this article for an overview on the advantages, progress, and science of cultured meat
- Check out this article about the challenges of using Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) for cultured meat, and how to overcome the use of FBS
- If you want to apply to be among the first people in the world to try lab-grown chicken produced without FBS, click here.