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Lab meat has 3 big problems. Is it time for a pivot?

The cellular agriculture could be revolutionary for the food sector, but only if it overcomes immense scalability, cost and biological challenges.

Meat in a test tube

Meat grown in a lab could create a product that vegans, meat eaters and climate change activists all can enjoy. Image via GreenBiz/Julia Vann.

Cultivated meat — meat grown in a lab — has got investors, entrepreneurs, meat eaters, plant eaters and climate advocates very excited. It is easy to see why. 

Livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gasses, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. What’s more, research from FAO and others suggests that almost 86 percent of land use change, such as deforestation, is due to agricultural expansion, much of which is used to grow feed for animals or clearing land for ranching. 

This begs the question: What if we could grow meat in large bioreactors the way we brew beer? After all, the process being used by lab meat companies is similar to the fermentation of yeast but instead works with mammalian cells taken from a small biopsy of the animal and combined with a growth media. 

The pitch from lab meat proponents: We could have a juicy, meaty hamburger without the guilt of animal slaughter or the carbon emissions. 

So the investments have come pouring in. According to Crunchbase, cellular agriculture (another name for lab-grown meat) garnered $1.2 billion from investors, and 2021 was on track for a similar amount.

At the end of last year, Future Meat raised $347 million from big food players Tyson and Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM). Just Eats, the Singapore-based company that actually has a cultivated chicken product on the market, raised $267 million in 2021. The company is working to open a large-scale cultivated meat plant in Qatar. And in November, Upside, the Berkeley, California-based cultivated meat producer, opened its $50 million EPIC (Engineering, Production and Innovation Center) facility in the East Bay across from San Francisco. 

But even with all the excitement and investment, the experts — both the scientists and the business people — know there are immense hurdles to surmount. These experts point to three big challenges when it comes to lab cultured meat. Those optimistic for the future of cultured meat think these challenges can be overcome with investment, technological innovation and time. The pessimists think these aren't just challenges but problems that make lots of cheap, guilt free meat a sci-fi fantasy. 

Challenge 1: High costs

Cultivated meat startups are pursuing the holy grail of the alternative protein sector: Price parity with traditionally livestock raised animal protein. Those within the sector know the only way to get consumers to take up alternative meats en masse — whether cultivated or plant-based — is for the products to be the same price as traditional ones. 

David Humbird, a chemical engineer who spent two years researching the industry, did a techno economic analysis of the cultured meat industry. Using cost models, potential technological innovations and future scaling, the lowest price he could calculate for lab cultured meat was between $17 and $23 per pound of meat product. In a grocery store with markups, that quickly rises to $40 per pound. In December, even with the current high rate of inflation, a pound of ground beef was a little under $5, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

But proponents of cultivated meat are quick to point to places where prices have fallen. The big one is for cell culture media — the slurry of nutrients needed for the cells to grow. According to Zak Weston, supply chain manager at the Good Food Institute, the costs of that input have come down "significantly" this year. And a plant-based option (media previously came from fetal bovine serum which costs about $1,684.00 for 1 liter if it is United States origin) is on the market. According to an industry survey by GFI, most cultivated meat companies expect to be paying below $10 per litter by 2022. Many companies are developing their own media including Mosa Meat which reported an 80x cost reduction in media for its in-house developed growth media.  

"Five years ago, you had to get growth factor from bovine serum, and it was an incredibly expensive part of the equation," said Rob Harris, an investor advisor at CULT food science, a Canadian investment group focusing on cultivated meat companies. "Today I can literally drive three hours north of me to Edmonton, and I can buy Future Fields’ growth factor that’s derived from fruit flies. That didn’t exist before. Those people who are saying that it can’t be done, well, you didn’t have that tool at your disposal when you were doing it." 

Upside, for one, is using a plant-based media that helped it reduce costs. It is targeting the price of an organic specialty chicken for its cultivated chicken product, produced in partnership with Dominique Crenn, the three-star Michelin chef and owner of restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.

Another place the sector is looking to potentially cut costs is on measures for sterility. According to Weston, a higher level of production sterility is expected and required of biopharmaceutical facilities than for traditional animal slaughter. (The processes for biopharma, the sector that synthesizes drugs from biological sources, are often compared to those for cultured food.) "Biopharma specifically for pharmaceutical applications is wildly overengineered for food purposes," he said.

Those people who are saying that it can’t be done, well, you didn’t have that tool at your disposal when you were doing it.

Raising and slaughtering animals is inherently a messy process — fecal matter, blood, bacteria and inedible organs are involved, and processing facilities are beholden to certain sterilization requirements. The industry is banking on those practices being grandfathered into the new cultured meat sector, he said. 

"Your ability to scale, food-grade versus pharma-grade is much greater, because some of the specifications required are not to the same level of precision," said Josh Katz, an analyst at McKinsey, who authored an analysis of the cultivated meat market. "And that enables you to get bigger and move faster."  

Of course, the fastest way to reduce costs is to scale. Which brings us to challenge No. 2.

Challenge 2: An unprecedented scaling effort

Both optimists and pessimists know that for cultivated meat to have real significant impact, the industry will have to scale to a level previously unmatched by any biopharma, fermentation or biotechnology business in history. 

"The basic proof of concept on the science has been done," said Amy Chen, COO of Upside. "And now it is a scaling exercise. So many of the components that we are using don't necessarily exist at the scales that we would need to supply millions or billions of pounds."

According to that report on cultivated meat by McKinsey, to build out cultivated meat production to reach 1 percent of the protein market would need between 220 million to 440 million liters of fermentation capacity, or roughly 88 to 176 Olympic-size swimming pools. For perspective, the current biopharma industry has less than 10 swimming pools of capacity.  

"I can understand the concerns about reaching the scales that would be needed to produce tons of meat, because we would be talking about 10,000 liters, and that has never been done before," said Mariana Petronela Hanga, a lecturer in cell agriculture at University College London, who focuses on scaling. "The highest scale that I am aware of is 200 liters. So there’s definitely going to be a challenge there."

But Hanga and others working in cultivated meat don’t think that the scaling problem is insurmountable. In fact, they think the lack of scale currently in existence is an indictment of the biopharma industry.

"There’s no real incentive [for the biopharma industry]," said Valentin Fluga, co-founder of Cell Ag Tech, a company creating a cultivated white fish product. "Because it requires investments, it requires much more time and putting minds together into making something cheaper, rather than making something new for a different treatment."

Weston thinks that the cultivated meat sector can optimize every step in the value chain for the needed objectives in food — speed and scale — versus the ones that have been prioritized in biopharma — precision and safety.

Upside is testing that hypothesis. Its new 53,000-square-foot EPIC facility in the San Francisco Bay Area is scaling up cultivated meat production focusing on ground and whole cut cultivated chicken. The facility, with its thousand-liter bioreactors, has the ability to produce 50,000 pounds of meat annually with a future capacity of over 400,000 pounds and will pave the way for the company to develop the next-generation technology that will get it to millions of pounds. 

Weston believes many tweaks can be made to biopharma technology to allow for a more scaled-up and economic approach to cultivated meat. He outlined some of them, including figuring out ways to improve cellular metabolism so the cells are more efficient at converting feed, reducing the amount of nutrients needed; improving cell density so more cells can be grown in the same amount of space; and figuring out how to make cells grow faster. 

While Weston called these innovations low-hanging fruit, skeptics such as Ricardo San Martin, research director of the Alternative Meat Lab at UC Berkeley and a fermentation scientist, have another name for them: biological limitations, a.k.a. problem No. 3.  

Challenge 3: Biological limitations 

This is the question upon which the skeptics and believers really diverge: Is it actually possible to scale cellular agriculture to a point at which production is economical or are there biological and physical limitations that are impossible to innovate beyond? 

On the science side, the basic question is, how many cells can you pack in a fermenter without the cells dying in the growth process? And will that be enough cells for growing meat to be cost-effective? According to San Martin, the answer is no. 

San Martin’s big issue with the scaling is viscosity. According to him, above a cell certain limit, you can’t even stir the cells in the bioreactors because the density has become so high. The media between them stops acting like water and instead becomes more like a very thick soup. And if you can’t stir the slurry, you can’t keep an even temperature or keep it oxygenated. And then there are the byproducts and waste products that will suffocate the cells anyway. The result is that the cells will die in these large bioreactors instead of producing the scaling cellular agriculture companies are hoping for.

"So no matter how much you try to overcome that barrier, you are bound by the limits of biological cell growth," he said. "It’s just wishful thinking."

The way fermentation works with yeast in alcohol brewing or even in a fungi, such as the mechanism used by company Quorn, which makes mushroom-based meat products, does not work the same way in mammalian cells. The yeast process is anaerobic, meaning it doesn’t need oxygen. According to Celia Homyak, program manager of the Alternative Meat Lab at UC Berkeley, mammalian cells are more sensitive to high cell density, low nutrient needs and high waste products than fungi and thus die much more easily during the cultivation process. 

All the patience, resources and brains in the world can’t create a technological breakthrough that isn’t possible.

While the experts in cultivated meat acknowledge these limitations, they see overcoming them as a technological challenge.

"There’s a lot of technologies that are very well established in food fermentation and also in the pharma world that give us confidence that that’s not going to be an issue," Upside’s Chen said. "We have no reason to believe they won’t. We don't view that as a sort of biological or physical limitation, per se. It’s part of the journey towards scale."

When asked to go into more detail on what technologies, Upside responded via email that EPIC "is also an innovation center that will allow us to develop our next-generation production technologies as we prepare for larger scale. Large scale mammalian cell culture is well-established and has already successfully addressed many of the challenges you have identified. We have designed EPIC’s equipment to allow us to simulate much larger cultivation vessels in terms of pressure, gas exchange, shear stress and other factors to understand how cells are likely to react and what solutions are necessary to ensure robust cell growth." The company did not provide specifics. 

Startups by nature have to be positive and hopeful and upbeat, sure that the answer is getting smart people with enough resources to work on finding the solutions to tough problems. Katz, who wrote the analysis on the cultivated meat market for McKinsey, told me that he thinks there’s enough motivation and enough smart people working on the problem that they will find a solution. GFI’s Weston said the industry has yet to face a barrier that is "truly insurmountable."

Josh Pollock, Fluga’s cofounder at Cell Ag Tech, is a bit more measured. 

"There isn’t an idea that’s a game changer," he said. "It is a lot of little things coming together over time with huge investments of capital. So I think what’s needed rather than a silver bullet is investment in the industry and patience." 

But if San Martin is correct that these biological limitations can’t innovate around, the future of cultivated meat is in need of a significant pivot. All the patience, resources and brains in the world can’t create a technological breakthrough that isn’t possible.  

The pivot: An ingredient for plant-based options?

So cellular agriculture has a scaling problem. And a cost problem. And, depending on who you talk to, an unsolvable biological problem. But what if the solution isn’t to try to create an entire meat replacement industry in a lab but to use the small quantities of the cultured cells to make plant-based meats indistinguishable from the original? 

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This is a crossover strategy some lab meat companies have already started to embrace. Impossible Foods, for one, uses a plant-based yeast-fermented heme to give its ground beef a more meaty and, for lack of a better word, bloody, flavor. Cell Ag Tech uses a plant-based starch as the structure for the lab-grown white fish cells in nigiri sushi prototype so the final product is more like a traditional filet than just a slurry of fish cells.

Using real — albeit cultivated — meat cells in plant-based products could potentially attract non-vegetarians to the alternative protein market, a group that desperately needs to get onboard with moving away from animal meat products if the world is to make an impact on reducing the emissions from livestock. This technique could also dramatically improve the flavor, mouthfeel and overall experience of plant-based products that sometimes have strange aftertastes or textures dissimilar to the meat they are trying to emulate. It could also make the prices of cultivated meat more accessible to the average consumer. 

“I wonder, have the economics ever been done on the ratio of using 10 percent [cultivated] animal cells and X percent plant cells to form a virtually indifferent product from animal products?” UC Berkeley’s Homyak said. “And would the economics work out there?”

These startups could shift to becoming ingredient companies instead of a meat company. But the cultivated meat companies I spoke with are still focusing on creating a cultivated meat product that uses 100 percent real cells. They don’t see themselves as ingredient companies. They see themselves as meat producers of the future. Cell Ag Tech is still chasing a full-fledged fish filet using only cell-based materials and sees its nigiri prototype as just a step in the process.

Media coverage of cultivated meat has ping-ponged back and forth between reporting that the era of lab grown meat will soon be upon us (see Wired in 2018, Bloomberg in 2019) and others that are calling into question the timeline, cost and overall feasibility

When asked about a Counter article by food author Joe Fassler that outlines the objections to scalability for cultivated meats, Pollack of Cell Ag Tech told me:

“I just really think that the future is going to be extremely unkind to that article. It's questioning the timeline, I think that's absolutely appropriate. But in the end, it's going to happen, and that article is going to look like a relic.”

Hopefully this one will as well.

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