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.
Interesting, thanks. As a vegetarian these last 40 years I have to say I find even the likes of beyond meat already far too meat like for my taste, I suspect lab grown stuff will be even more realistic & even more unappealing. Beyond meat seem to have nr perfected the background taste of cooked blood something I always found most unappealing when I was a meat eater..
I think solutions like this are important to support not because of tender hearted people like you who have already stopped eating meat but for the bilions who do eat meat and aren’t about to give it up. BTW, sourcing milk products and eggs from animals also takes a big toll on animal’s lives and the environment. Some of the “easier” products to develop from cellular agriculture are lab produced milk (already existing) and eggs. Check out this TED Talk:
Diana Rodgers from Sacred Cow would be one to look into. I think it would be important to really dig into the sustainability of vegetable protein vs. regenerative agriculture and its benefits on the environment.
I second this recommendation….”It’s not the cow it’s the how”.
This is a film everyone should see, if for no other reason, but to understand how interconnected everything is.
In regards to lab meat, which I refer to as cultured stem cell proteins or CSCP, better references are Dr. Hanna Tuomisto at the University of Helsinki and Dr. Marrianne Ellis, at the University of Bath. Here’s a really good old lecture by Ellis on bioreactors. https://youtu.be/eIcobdy1PnQ
I am so on board with this. It is planet changing for the better in so many ways.
I work for a majorly successful international German company – Merck KGaA (MilliporeSigma in North America) – and cultured meat is one of their innovation center’s major projects.
You can check it out here. https://www.emdgroup.com/en/search.html?query:cultured%20meat
Lab-grown meat is an effort by Corporations to overcome the anti-vegetarian/vegan prejudices of the majority of the world’s modern population.
Examining the findings of the “Blue Zones” populations of the world suggests lower meat consumption will increase life span.
In less modern times, meat dominated meals were frequent in only the upper class (Europe — “Let them eat cake.”). The desire to eat more meat might stem, at least in part, from a desire of the general population to see themselves as more like the upper class.
Cultured meat brings with it the potential for alteration in making this food healthy, or at least less unhealthy, vs animal-grown meat. In addition, there is the potential for making lab-grown meat more environmentally friendly vs animal-grown meat.
Just some thoughts.
There’s a lot of mythology when it comes to Blue Zones especially regarding meat consumption. In four of the five Blue Zones, there’s a lot of pork consumption.
Take Okinawa for example. Traditionally pre-WW2 the Okinawa diet consisted of an “every day” diet and a “festival day” diet. During festivals, there was a lot more meat consumption esp. of pork and goat. But wasn’t that just on festival days? Well, there were around 120 festival days per year for ancestral spirits, Agricultural festivals, Festivals for Warding Off Evil Spirits, and Festivals of Foreign Gods as documented in this paper: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.695.3883&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Also noted in that paper Okinawan pigs introduced in 1392, Agu pigs are also lard pigs. So their fat was used extensively for cooking.
Now a lot of the misinformation and blue zone myths was promulgated by later authors to push their Okinawa diet plan. That plan contradicted research done by Japanese researchers in the 1990’s that noted Okinawan elderly people ate eight times more meat than other elderly populations in Japan. Other misconceptions were formed by 1949 dietary surveys after WW2 when Okinawans were not only devastated by the war but also had their entire livestock populations decimated. Before the war and the battle of Okinawa, the island had over 100,000 pigs used for food, fats, food waste, and manure for crop fertilization. These pig populations didn’t get started to be re-established until after 1952, when pigs were sent from Hawaii as noted in this old article: https://okinawa.stripes.com/community-news/little-tale-about-okinawa%E2%80%99s-pigs-sea
Again pigs were introduced to Okinawa in 1392 before sweet potatoes. So pork on these islands was not a new phenomena. Rice actually though was.
So what was the real anomaly were the surveys conducted in 1949 post WW2 when Okinawa was still devastated and the only food available was sweet potatoes. So this too is causing confusion as to dietary patterns. Starving Okinawans living in an occupied country were not that festive, and thus not also eating their traditional festival day diets. And again, Okinawans celebrated over 120 festival days a year. Not too mention, all their stir fires and other dishes were traditionally cooked with LARD.
I like meat. I like my ribeye about 1 1/2 thick with a little char on the outside and a juicy medium on the inside…
Coming to a grocery store near you. Watch this TED Talk:
Would love to see a chart/spreadsheet.
1. Grass fed organic ground meat.
2. Regular ground meat.
3. Impossible meat/ or equivalent.
1. Levels of Linoleic acids. Is this good or bad?
3. Glucose intolerance. Good or bad?
4. Other nutrients
Especially the OTHER nutrients. IMO, our diets have been short in preformed vitamin A, D3 and K2 for years.
I want to see these amounts *and* the actual ingredient used in both the process of producing this “meat” and in whatever products are made available before trying it.
I have serious doubts that a lab can produce anything comparable than the Mennonite down the road I buy from now.
I find this topic fascinating and would appreciate a deep dive (of course I could go rummaging thru the internet as well). IMO, veganism doesn’t work for most humans, and the way we manufacture meat is unethical, and broken, and not sustainable for a planet with billions. It’s a problem that needs a solution and I was really hoping for lab grown meat to be the viable solution. I hadn’t realized the extent of the engineering obstacles.
I agree with you wholeheartedly. Have you seen this TED Talk by Isha Datar of New Harvest?
Why is more emphasise placed on current levels of livestock than the 7+ billion humans and our machines of comfort?
Remember there was a time when an estimated 60 million bison and millions of other large herbivores roamed the plains of the US possibly for 10’s of thousands of years.
I must state that I do believe in the humane treatment of all animals.
I think anything that attempts to reduce the prevalence of industrialized animal agriculture is worthwhile for several reasons. What I would be more interested in hearing you speak about is what role animal based products should play in an optimal diet. Even if these meat alternatives are a viable substitute (including of the plant based variety), there appears to be growing evidence that an increase in whole plant based foods as a percentage of total consumption results in improved health outcomes (even in combination with animal products). Can you provide a framework for how to think about animal product consumption through the lens of existing scientific literature?
Get in touch with Jim Mellon and Agronomics
It took me a while to figure out that the “job” for most engineers is to fix the thing with duct tape and get it going – not to build utopia. An engineer may leave school thinking about utopia, but they quickly learn that the job to be done is much more boring. Judgment, pragmatism, austerity – these are the driving constraints.
Outside of the skeptic quoted here, I don’t hear that voice much these days in the conversation around sustainability. Too few on the “good” side seem to be pushing boring ideas like developing world waste collection or restored nuclear power. Helping traditional farms learn a bit more about soil chemistry and long-term planning. Convincing the traditional meat industry to be a bit more interested in animal health. Backing out the old, out-moded subsidies. Figuring out a way to reverse some of the conglomeration that’s captured agriculture, driving out local agriculture and the concomitant innovation and local economic activity. These are boring things.
Further, there’s little potential for a step-change in market cap associated with boring changes, so they don’t attract foolish investment dollars.
But if I were interested in this topic, I would focus more on these boring things, because I would want to actually make a difference, in a very boring way.
I’ve researched and written about this topic of lab “meat” at length before. Though I refer lab”meat”as cultured stem cell protein or CSCP. Fortunately, I knew (and still know) some people working on CSCP in the UK and they tend to be a little more forthcoming and honest since the research mindset isn’t (or wasn’t) as driven by protecting intellectual property [IP]. Being able to control markets through patented IP is the main driver for CSCP. All the other environmental or animal welfare reasons given are really just subterfuges to green-wash CSCP and gain market acceptance.
Anyway, and FWIW, here’s the first article I wrote on the subject from 2018 entitled “Lab Meat: More hype than substance?”:
Here was a response I wrote for public comment that I also made a blog post in August of 2018 entitled “More on Cultured Stem Cell Proteins”:
And a more recent article from February of 2021 entitled “The romance versus the reality of cultured stem cell proteins”:
I’ve also written a couple blogs on plant based alternative proteins (and have another one in my head coming soon….though I’ve been more pre-occupied with immunology and virology as of late) that you might find interesting:
From March of 2018, A Tale of Two Expos:
From May of 2019, The ecocide burger:
Anyway, hope you don’t mind me sharing these posts.
It will happen. Just maybe in the far distant future. Maybe more like the matrix with pods or something. Reminds me of cloning hair follicles for hair replacement. We are always a few years from curing baldness.
If just 10% of the industrialized world had any first hand knowledge of where there food comes from this conversation would be a nonstarter. Community supported agriculture (CSA) for anyone who really cares is a great place to start. I do not think there is a major city in the USA that does not have access to CSA. Oh, and by the way, always visit the meat farmer when you go to a farmers market!
Is there anything inherently unhealthy about eating immortal animal cell lines grown in a bioreactor, besides the yucky-ness factor? It seems like that’s what the cultured meat companies are essentially trying to trick the cells to behave like cancer cells?
Do we learn nothing? How many highly processed Frankenstein foods has the food industry touted as “healthy” that later turned out to ruin our health? This is right up there with seed oils, Crisco, high fructose corn syrup, cyclamates, processed cheese, artificial preservatives, and emulsifiers. No thanks.
Although I am an ardent vegan and would love to see lab grown meat industry flourish, it is abundantly clear that lab grown meat is never ever going to scale. The fundamental issue is that the tissue does not have an immune system to protect itself from infection. The energy costs involved in producing a sufficiently sterile environment will never be able to outcompete the incumbent industry. In fact it is not to far of a stretch to say that the fundamental barrier is not just technological but actually the second law of thermodynamics! The strategy adopted by Impossible Foods, create a plant based burger that meat eaters prefer the taste of over that of normal meat, does seem like a winning strategy, especially once one appreciates how heavily cost of production is in their favor once they reach the economies of scale.
It’s a shame, if all this money to research this would have been put into extending regenerative agriculture in the world, the positive effects would be 100x stronger and most importantly immediate.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger could use cultured fat or blood to substitute in their products, and maybe the taste could be as close as possible to the ‘real thing’, for those who enjoy it. (I am vegetarian)
This is not an area I have looked into so I am completely ignorant: This article is high level and doesn’t mention any specifics as to why cultured meats won’t work. I dug a little with some of the links in the comments. I found one of the original articles referenced. I couldn’t find compelling reasons why this technology won’t take off. Only challenges that need to be overcome. When the detractors are using the argument that dirty or intermittent energy may be used to manufacture this product, it raises a red flag. That is not part of the argument or issue at hand.
For an industry finding it’s legs that has already gone from $330K for a burger to a mfg cost of $4 for chicken breast, I expect there is plenty of room for cost reductions.
The experts have said we couldn’t fly, travel to space, etc. In this case, I would bet on human ingenuity and capitalism to resolve issues for this product.