Are petri dishes the beef farms of the future? A growing number of startups are promising that sustainable, lab-grown meat will hit grocery stores by the end of the decade, and investors have been eating it up. But are these “meats of the future” really viable? Today, we take a closer look at how prospects for these meat alternatives stack up.
What is Cultured Meat?
Lab-grown meat – also called cultured meat – is created from culturing animal-sourced muscle and fat cells in vitro. It is the most well-known example of the burgeoning field of “cellular agriculture,” which received hundreds of millions of dollars in global investments just in 2020 alone. Advocates praise lab-grown meat for its potential benefits for the environment and animal rights, as well as for improving global access to quality, protein-rich food. Over the last few years, dozens of cultured meat start-ups have announced that they are very close to bringing their products to market, suggesting that it’s only a matter of time before cultured meat starts flooding grocery store shelves.
Or is it?
Challenges with Cultured Meat
As this article in The Counter lays out, several analysts and industry insiders are skeptical that cultured meat is imminent and inevitable. The science and technology currently available cannot produce cost-competitive cell-cultured meat products, but some groups claim that they can be competitive within the next 10 years by addressing several technical and economic barriers.
However, chemical engineer David Humbird, who has researched the technology and economics of cell-cultured meat, told The Counter that it was “hard to find an angle that wasn’t a ludicrous dead end.”
Humbird likened the process of researching the report to encountering an impenetrable “Wall of No”—his term for the barriers in thermodynamics, cell metabolism, bioreactor design, ingredient costs, facility construction, and other factors that will need to be overcome before cultivated protein can be produced cheaply enough to displace traditional meat.
“And it’s a fractal no,” he told me. “You see the big no, but every big no is made up of a hundred little nos.”
So whom should we believe? The cellular agriculture industry, which insists that marketable products are just around the corner, or the skeptics who point to the current roadblocks? There’s probably some level of truth in both sides of the debate. It’s possible that breakthroughs or discoveries will lead to a future of affordable and abundant cultured meat, but there are consequences to putting so many eggs into one basket. And since any one breakthrough isn’t likely to solve all of the problems currently facing the cultured meat industry, the product timelines that these start-ups have set for themselves seem little more than fantasy.
For cultured meat to move the needle on climate, a sequence of as-yet-unforeseen breakthroughs will still be necessary. We’ll need to train cells to behave in ways that no cells have behaved before. We’ll need to engineer bioreactors that defy widely accepted principles of chemistry and physics. We’ll need to build an entirely new nutrient supply chain using sustainable agricultural practices, inventing forms of bulk amino acid production that are cheap, precise, and safe. Investors will need to care less about money. Germs will have to more or less behave. It will be work worthy of many Nobel prizes—certainly for science, possibly for peace. And this expensive, fragile, infinitely complex puzzle will need to come together in the next 10 years.
On the other hand, none of that could happen.
Cultured meat start-ups claim that marketable products are just on the horizon. If we consider the fact that horizons are distant lines that can never be attained, then I agree with this assessment. The number of revolutionary breakthroughs that would be needed to overcome all of the current roadblocks simply seems insurmountable, at least within a 10-year timeline. For now, we can only hope that the investments being poured into these startups yields research with more widespread applications.
Meanwhile, as lab-grown meat struggles to get off the ground, plant-based “meats” – produced by companies like Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods – have already proven their viability and popularity. Keep an eye out for a future post in which I plan to revisit these particular meat alternatives and their implications for health.
What do you think? Will lab-grown meats eventually take the place of traditional animal agriculture? If you’re interested in a more thorough conversation on this topic, I’d love to hear your recommendations for experts on both sides of the argument.
Mosa Meat wrote a thoughtful response to Fassler’s article from The Counter that is worth reviewing (https://mosameat.com/blog/cultivated-meat-progress).
As a ‘pescatarian’ I have tried both Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger and I must admit from a ‘mouth feel’ and taste point of view they are impressive. On the other hand they can in no way be confused with ‘real food’ as a brief review of the ingredient list will confirm. If there is an ‘Attia Deep Dive’ on this topic in the near future one question I would have is the amount of Glyphosate (Round-up) in these products as I have heard it is significant and, frankly, the reason I stopped buying them.
Talk to Ali Khademhosseini at Omeat
They specifically claim to have solved at least some of the issues in the article
I was in the feed business for 35 years. One of my companies processed soybeans. Soy isolates and soy protein concentrates are amazing and mixed with grains can replace meat-based diets and have been doing so for years.
I’m with Matt P and his comment about boring solutions. There is a third way that all too often is overlooked – it doesn’t have to be 100% feedlots or 100% bioreactors. Raising animals in environments that allow them to express their full range of instincts and providing them feed their adapted to goes a long way to solving the problems in modern agriculture. Shifting food production to models that don’t degrade soil health, water quality, animal instincts, and human lives is possible. But it’s not flashy and new. It’s boring and a little bit more expensive than the current model which externalizes any and every cost possible.
I think the solution to good meat is to raise animals humanely and responsibly (full disclosure I do this for a living). But there’s no big windfall for a venture capitalist in agriculture. The margins stink. The oligopolies that control the beef, pork, and chicken markets would be hard to displace without a sea change of regulation or market disruption from labs. Though I raise cows and pigs, honestly, I’d like to see lab meat succeed because of the sheer number of sentient lives it would spare from CAFO’s of one sort or another.
I read that article in the Counter a few weeks ago. The marketing around lab-grown reminds me of the hype about cellulosic biofuels from 10-15 years ago. Sober minded engineers said things along the lines of, “turning woodchips into gasoline is chemically possible, but very difficult – doing it cost effectively will require some very significant technological breakthroughs”. Venture capital poured into the space and exited just as fast when it became clear there wasn’t an endless font cash ready for the taking (for some reason Vinod Kohsla’s firm sticks in my head as one of the funders of an ambitious project that went bust within 2 years after burning a lot of public and private money).
I’m all for venture capitalists taking big risks and reaping the rewards of successful bets, but I don’t appreciate the marketing hullabaloo when there are still substantial hurdles to clear. I actually think the ease with which digital products can scale has distorted our cultural mindset about what is possible. The miraculous advances in many digital domains over the last 40 years has emboldened a tranche of wealthy investors who believe virtually any technical problem can be solved with enough money and grit, but it just isn’t so. Many a process works great in a laboratory setting but fails in diverse ways when scaled up to industry level output.
I’m on the board of a cellular ag company, Vow.
I think the most thoughtful response to the article you cite was written by one of the founders:
Would love to connect you if you’d like to explore more.
The company that makes Impossible burgers already is a producer of lab meats. Impossible foods are not plant-based like Beyond Meat.but heme-based. This article claims otherwise.
Lab-grown meat is actual meat, not a structured mixture of plant ingredients. Impossible meat substitutes contain one ingredient (heme) that we think of as being an animal ingredient, but it’s actually soy heme produced at scale using bioengineered yeast, which is then carefully assembled with a mixture of other plant-based simple ingredients into a final product meant to mimic the taste and mouth feel meat: that isn’t at all the same as growing actual beef myocytes and adipocytes into the structured form of steaks or burgers.
Peter, if you could address in your next blog post how do lab and plant-based meats compare for their phytonutrient status to regenerative agriculture grown pastured meat products? REVIEW article
Front. Sustain. Food Syst., 01 February 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.555426
Health-Promoting Phytonutrients Are Higher in Grass-Fed Meat and Milk
Peter, when you revisit the ‘plant-based meat’, bring to the equation of the rational those findings about the various types of microRNA in plants and animals. In nature these signaling molecules (also identified in exosomes) seem to interact among and inter cells (maybe through exosomes).
Some studies make the hypotheses that they can be found in mammalian tissues.
When I visit a “functional” food industry and I smell the stored powdered ingredients… all those big powder bags waiting for being put together in form of food… I wonder about the vesicle/exosome-medited RNA trafficking properties in them. I wonder about the mechanisms in the long run, considering all the biomas on us.
Then, there are all those masking ingredients in the formulas. Amino acids’ aromas can be tough on the palate by themselves. Have you tried pea protein without masking ingredients? “Natural” colors, flavors and sweeteners are a huge business now. But when you see those bags of refined “natural” ingredients that the food industry uses to fabricate their formulated meat/food, I question if we not fooling ourselves again… By taking things apart; refining them; synthesizing sweeteners like xylitol and stevia (it is not that natural when you see the production of them), or fibers from cereals; separating phytochemicals/macro and micronutrients; obtaining ingredients through fermentation in labs; storages; transportation; added artificial or polemic ingredients (e.g., MSG), etc…. , aren’t we forgetting nutrients’ contexts… I don’t know… but maybe a feeling that we are repeating ourselves in different hats… (?) And if so, Why, after so many scientific findings and learnings?
Rambling now: Why real fresh food became such a problem? Is it really true the food scarcity narrative, or a problem on inequality/distribution, excessive urbanization, lack of food/health education?
The more we learn that sedentary life goes against a healthy longevity, the more humans walk towards ‘easy food’. I mean, for example, meatless meat is a formulation of ingredients that aims to mimic the texture, aroma, flavor and protein content of an animal meat, that comes in an almost ready-to-eat state, yes? You read the easy instructions on the packaging and your mess-free plant-based meat will be ready in… around 10 minutes?
Such a complex theme. So many mergings between pharmaceutical and food companies and lobbyists work… Labs becoming our soils and water. Standardization of food that in a way goes in parallel to the standardization during the development of modern medicine (1800-). Let me stop rambling! Thank you for your work.
I like your „rambling“ question about the problem of fresh, if possible unpolluted food. I volunteer in perma culture projects and there is FOR SURE potential to grow fresh and healthy , less polluted food & and grow soil on a big scale. But as pointed out here there is no „digital“ solution for that, it takes time and big venture capital is not on the horizon regarding this type of agriculture to help to compete against current market & production structures and frustrating local and global agriculture politics. I admire every local, smaller scale farmer who tackles that with new productions methods!
Reality is we need ruminants for good soil. and we need good soil to capture carbon (which just happens to be the largest carbon reservoir). Modern agriculture with its soil degradation practices of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and mono-crops have badly degraded the soil and caused massive losses in soil carbon. In addition we have the unnatural feeding of livestock with grains that have resulted in meats that are i) not as healthy for us (an example being the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio) and ii) The excess letting off, of Methane from grain fed cattle, causing more problems. A further issue is that modern ways of growing crops give us nutrient depleted farm produce which may be reflected in our declining health (In Australia in 2017/18 about 89% of all death were Chronic illness related according to the Government funded Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. And Chronic illnesses are mainly lifestyle related with diet playing a huge part. There is a massive difference between eating a nutrient rich, wholesome avocado and a pesticide infested, nutrient poor avocado. So the real issues facing us include how to get our soils to be restored to capture more carbon, how to lessen our carbon foot print and how to grow better quality food so that we can become healthier.
I share the assessment that it will take more YEARS until the whole supply & production is set up to be environmentally sustainable, safe – and the end product is healthy.
Although I personally do not care for meat and would like to advocate for eating predominantly plants and having meat as a condiment only I would be happy if the horrible, disgusting mass production of meat could be replaced by new methods. This Israeli company is another one with a successful cost reduction – after YEARS- but who knows if that is sustainable at the moment and later on a mass production scale.
Hi Peter, I just read “Defending Beef” by Nicolette Hahn Niman. A quote from her book “faux meats are not progress, they are a distraction”, which in my opinion is a spot on remark. Perhaps she could be a subject for a Podcast on beef in general.