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From government approval to cultural pushback, here’s how 2023 looks to be shaping up for the cultivated meat industry.
Words by Björn Ólafsson
A second cultivated meat company has now obtained a ’no questions’ letter from the FDA, just four months after Berkeley-based UPSIDE Foods crossed the same regulatory hurdle. What remains now for both companies is USDA approval — primarily oversight of the production and processing.
This latest regulatory approval marks an important yet small step forward for an industry still facing plenty of challenges. From government approval to cultural pushback, here’s how 2023 looks to be shaping up for cultivated meat.
Cultured meat is, quite simply, just meat. “It’s not fake anything,” says Bruce Friedrich, president of the Good Food Institute, a global nonprofit that touts alternative proteins, including cultivated meat, as a food system solution. “You wouldn’t call solar energy fake energy. You wouldn’t call ice made in your freezer fake ice.”
Unlike plant-based meat like Impossible Burgers, which is made from soy beans or green peas, cultivated meat originates from animal cells grown in a lab. To start, a stem cell is taken from an animal, say a cow. The cells are then placed in a cultivator and fed a mixture of nutrients to grow — typically amino acids, salts and vitamins.
Growing something amorphous into a shape like a burger is easier than a steak, which requires structure and marbling. To cultivate meat into a cut like a chop, scientists use what’s called scaffolding to create structure out of materials like plant fibers or seaweed. For nuggets or patties, some companies mix in plant-based ingredients to add texture and keep costs down.
The path forward for the cultivated meat industry may not be certain, but the environmental impacts of animal agriculture have never been more clear.
Livestock farming is responsible for at least 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, if not more according to some researchers. Many of those figures don’t include opportunity costs, says Friedrich. “The massive amount of land used for animal agriculture, if it were to be rewilded,” he says, “could sequester 26 gigatonnes of carbon on an annual basis.”
Cultivated meat could reduce these numbers. A variety of studies — some funded by cultivated meat companies and some not — have compared predicted emissions for cultivated meat to farmed meat and found that cultivated is much better for climate emissions than conventional beef, with at least one study showing emissions even lower than pork or chicken when facilities use renewable energy. So far, the research looks promising but there are still plenty of unknowns — like what the environmental impacts of the feed amount to, for instance.
Beyond emissions, a mass shift to cultivated meat could also reduce water use by up to 96 percent and land use by 99 percent. And it could significantly reduce if not eliminate animal agriculture’s antibiotic resistance problem, which public health experts say is increasing our global pandemic risk. Plus, the switch would be a much better outcome for the cows, pigs, chickens and other animals slaughtered in the billions by our current food system.
In other words, it’s easy to see the hype, even if it’s not a silver bullet for the food system. What solution is? “Renewable energy isn’t a silver bullet for fossil fuels and electric vehicles are not a silver bullet for transportation,” says Friedrich. “But it does solve an awful lot of problems.”
Yet there are still several hurdles ahead for the industry. Chief among them: government regulation.
A number of companies are actively working towards regulatory approval. Last month, Good Meat received the greenlight in Singapore to sell cultivated meat without animal serums directly to consumers. The company had already been selling cultivated meat since 2020 there, but with fetal bovine serum to trigger the cells to grow — an expensive process that still sources from slaughterhouses.
In the U.S. meeting the FDA’s GRAS or ‘generally recognized as safe’ standard is also only half the battle. UPSIDE believes they’ll nab certification from the USDA within a year. Meanwhile, in Europe, one or more cultivated meat companies will likely receive regulatory approval within three years. In China, it may take less than one.
But getting the regulatory greenlight isn’t worth much if the company doesn’t have the capital to stay afloat.
The business of cultivated meat has come a long way since the first public tasting — a burger lacking salt or seasoning that made its debut in a London television studio in 2013. According to the Good Food Institute’s 2021 report, the industry now consists of more than 100 companies that raised $1.38 billion in funding that year.
Boosters for the field were much more bullish in the early days — predicting a 2018 market launch that never came to be. These days alt protein startups are facing a tougher market — on March 27, New Age Eats announced it would soon shutter the business, and year-over-year fundraising efforts decreased 42 percent last year — but the need for meat alternatives remains.
The U.S. government is also starting to invest. While it’s a fraction of the subsidies that goes to industrial meat, federal agencies are setting aside funds — including $10 million to UC Davis and Tufts in 2021.
Yet it’s not the cashflow we’re seeing elsewhere in the world. Countries investing hundreds of millions into cultivated meat research and development include Israel, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, the U.K., New Zealand, Japan, China and Australia.
Once the funds have been raised, the facilities still need to be constructed, often from the ground up.
Producers need large bioreactors capable of storing up to hundreds of liters to brew enough cultivated protein to feed the masses. Good Meat is currently building the first large-scale cultivated meat facility in the U.S., and it’s unclear when construction will be completed. Meanwhile, in Singapore, Eat Just will launch their facility within a few months.
Then there’s the cell culture media. The amino acid goop that enables the meat to grow is estimated to be between 55 and 95 percent of total production costs — and companies need to find a scalable and cheap supply to keep the price of their product down to eventually match conventional meat.
Going serum-free has helped — Mosa Meat removed fetal bovine serum in 2020 and achieved an 80x cost reduction, for instance. But long-term, the industry needs cheap, low-emission and reliable sources for the remaining ingredients — coconut, soy, and pea protein, if these will be part of the mix, not to mention the glucose and whatever else goes into the serum-free growth medium.
Last but definitely not least is the challenge of winning over the public. Changing the way people eat is no simple proposition — Americans like their beef. It’s a matter of culture, tradition and personal identity. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.
Yet this form alternative protein might have an advantage. The taste and texture of cultivated meat is far closer to traditional slaughtered meat — it is just meat, after all.
Market research reveals other advantages too. Cultivated meat nabs a surprising demographic that plant-based meat hasn’t been able to crack: men, especially men who are heavy meat eaters.
Plus, alternative proteins — both plant-based and cultivated alike — are most enticing to younger generations, especially Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans, who are each about 50 percent more likely to be open to trying these new foods. Studies also find people who are highly-educated and happy to be more amenable.
But as one barrier falls, another rises. Some critics dislike cultivated meat because they see it as unnatural, conjuring up images of pink sludge sloshing in tubes or green cubes from Soylent Green or Snowpiercer.
Lab-grown fare has joined the ranks of mRNA vaccines, gas stoves and GMO foods as fodder for the culture wars. The perceived abnormality of cultured meat seems to be sprouting a whole new crop of false conspiracy theories — some food system critics dub it “biotech meat.”
To combat this perceived “yuck” factor, UPSIDE Foods intends to launch their products in expensive, high-end restaurants, hoping that elite chefs can whip up a good first impression for the American public. GOOD Meat has revealed plans with celebrity chef José Andrés, for instance. It’s a similar strategy to the one deployed by Impossible Foods, whose retail sales have been steadier than that of Beyond Meat, which jumped to supermarkets as quickly as possible, perhaps before products (or consumers) were ready.
Much of the “yuck” factor may just come down to neophobia — the fear of new things — which is especially prevalent when humans encounter new foods. We’re far more likely to push a plate of “future food” away from us than the latest cell phone. But novelty does fade, and cultivated meat brands hope to be in this for the long haul.
Despite the challenges, Friedrich remains hopeful if aware of the potential for setbacks. “Jimmy Carter put solar panels in the White House in 1979. Ronald Reagan took them off in 1986.”
Food isn’t the same as solar panels. It’s deeply personal and closely bound up with our ideals, traditions and values. It’s also a choice made three times a day, not once in a while. The slightest dip in consistency or quality could set the industry back decades.
Between the hype and media scrutiny, what remains is opportunity. For the average person, cultivated meat still isn’t on their radar. Yet according to a 2020 survey conducted by ProVeg International, 62 percent of respondents were willing to at least try cultivated meat, with over 36 percent saying they would likely purchase it regularly when it eventually comes to market. “It’s not something I would have predicted.” says Friedrich, who of course remains bullish about its prospects: “The worst polls for cultivated meat are many times that of plant-based meat,” he says.
Within the next two decades, the global cultivated meat industry is projected to reach 14 billion dollars. Government support — both regulatory approval and funding — could provide a critical boost to that timeline. One day soon, cultivated meat could be as common on dinner plates as Teslas are on the road. Given the current climate crisis, it can’t come soon enough.
This piece has been updated to note that New Age Meats announced it is closing its doors.
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