The alternative protein industry is bringing its pitch for more federal funding to the highest levels of government. This week in Washington, D.C., the Good Food Institute hosted a panel discussion at the global AIM for Climate summit on the role alternative proteins can play in decarbonizing the food system. Just a few weeks prior, industry leaders like Eat Just and Finless Foods hosted a fly-in event on Capitol Hill. Three members of Congress were in attendance, reported FoodFix.
It’s a critical time, for the climate crisis and the cultivated meat industry. A new survey concludes that despite increasing funding, difficulties in hiring scientists and engineers are hindering research and development — the very key to cultivated protein startups reaching the market.
The survey was conducted by the Good Food Institute, an organization that aims to increase the accessibility of cultivated and plant-derived meats. More than half of respondents reported having trouble hiring “technical talent,” and of those, 94 percent saw those difficulties as presenting moderately-to-very-severe obstacles to the success of their company. Seventy-nine percent were seeking employees for research and development, the phase in which most cultivated meat startups remain, as attempts to scale production and reduce costs continue.
“As with any emerging technological field, ready-made talent streams are relatively sparse. That’s largely to be expected,” says Amy Huang, Associate Director of Scientific Ecosystems for the Good Food Institute. The startups involved are “essentially undertaking the project of building a new, interdisciplinary scientific field,” according to Huang, requiring “significant investments in the long arc of workforce development.”
While the survey warns of the industry’s urgent need for a larger scientific base, some startups believe their products will soon reach consumers, despite the hurdles they face.
Demand ‘Outpacing’ Production
According to other new data from the Good Food Institute, producers of cultivated meat and seafood have garnered an all-time total of $2.8 billion in funding — $896 million in 2022 alone.
Governments around the world are showing enthusiasm for this emerging market, and investing in its development. The Netherlands has provided $65 million in funding, while Israel has formed a Cultivated Meat Consortium composed of companies and academic institutions, in addition to investing in the industry.
Research shows that the U.S. accounts for over 62 percent of funding for cultivated meat, topping the list just ahead of Israel. In 2022, the state of California alone invested $5 million.
More promising news for the U.S. cultured protein market, though, may have come in the form of two approvals issued by the FDA. The federal agency has granted its “no questions” letter to GOOD Meats and UPSIDE Foods, clearing the way for the startups to sell their cultivated chicken.
Yet, despite the achievement of this first step in regulatory approval, the production capacity of cultivated meat continues to be “outpaced” by demand, according to the Good Food Institute.
Cost Challenges Ahead
If makers of cultivated meat are not able to scale their capacity and bring down costs, the viability of their products as accessible protein for the average consumer is questionable.
Good Food Institute data reveals that while 50 percent of consumers choose to buy plant-based proteins less often because they prefer conventional meat, 26 percent cited higher pricing as the reason they didn’t choose plant-based options. The majority of shoppers were willing to pay the same price, but no more, for alternative proteins.
While Beyond Meat has set its sights on pricing below conventional beef, that goal is still far from being a reality for makers of cultivated meat. As of 2022, the price of a lab-grown burger is estimated at $9.80. By the new report’s estimate, cultivated protein could be “cost-competitive” with some types of conventional meat at $2.92 per pound.
In order to achieve price parity and widespread consumer appeal, cultured meat producers will likely need to at least initially resort to blending cell-based ingredients with others sourced from animals and plants. .
Regardless, some startups believe that this year will bring major progress for their cultivated products.
Will 2023 Be the Year Cultivated Meat Reaches U.S. Consumers?
Believer Meats is building a “commercial-scale” plant in North Carolina that will reportedly be the world’s largest of its kind. In a state known for its many factory farms, and as the nation’s second-largest pork producer, the area in which the new facility will be located was partly chosen due to its proximity to multiple research universities. “There’s still a long road ahead,” writes Believer. “[B]ut breaking ground on our first U.S. lab-grown meat production facility was a critical first step.”
Other startups are aiming to release their versions of cultivated meat this year.
UPSIDE Foods, bolstered by its FDA letter, reportedly hopes its cultivated chicken will be sold in U.S. restaurants in 2023 and grocery retailers by 2028. The company also believes its California facility, part of a $50 million campus, is already capable of producing 50,000 pounds of cultivated meat annually, with the potential for 400,000 pounds. “It’s not science fiction. It’s reality today,” CEO Amy Chen told the San Francisco Chronicle.
However, the FDA’s approval is just one part of the regulatory approval process, with clearance from the USDA also required. GOOD Meats’ CEO says they arecurrently working on gaining acceptance from the latter federal agency, and the company plans to begin with a pilot launch of its cultured chicken at a Washington, D.C. restaurant owned by famed chef and GOOD Meats board member José Andrés.
In the end, The Good Food Institute believes that, although there is much work to be done if cultivated meat is to make its way to U.S. consumers, it is a necessary and achievable effort.
“In order to have a robust talent pipeline to power the future of meat production, cultivated meat companies should work with universities and other academic institutions, especially those located near the heart of their manufacturing operations, to co-develop training programs that prepare scientists, engineers, and technicians with industry-relevant skills for their organizations,” says Huang. “Investing in this foundational workforce scaffolding today will pay dividends as these organizations grow in sophistication and scale.”
What 2023 will bring in terms of innovative protein solutions largely remains to be seen, and once cultivated meat producers clear regulatory hurdles, they must then win over consumers.
“In order to compete with conventional products, alternative proteins must achieve levels of affordability that unlock the largest market—omnivores,” the Institute’s report reads.
The welfare of animals, the environment and human health hangs in this Herculian scientific effort. As GFI scientist Dr. Elliot Swartz has written, the “status quo” of conventional animal agriculture brings with it threats of climate change and other environmental impacts, as well as a risk of further pandemics and increased antibiotic resistance. “The future costs of each of these threats alone will amount to trillions of dollars and many human and animal lives,” writes Swartz. “Any technology that stands a chance at seriously mitigating these threats must be pursued.”
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.