Beyond the impossible: Meat grown from cells is better for the planet -- if you'll eat it
Cultured meat could be better for the environment, but whether you'll want to eat it is another issue. And don't expect vegans and vegetarians to get on board.
Brian CooleyEditor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
ExpertiseAutomotive technology, smart home, digital health.Credentials
Today that prospect nears, but is still so new it doesn't have a widely agreed-upon name: cultured meat, clean meat, cultivated meat or, to the irritation of some companies developing it, lab-grown meat. "The products that consumers purchase will be produced in facilities similar to beer breweries, not labs," says Audrey Taylor of Memphis Meats. "While it is true that labs are involved during our research and development phase, that is also true for virtually all packaged products available today."
All those terms denote meat grown from animal cells, rather than from a living, sentient animal. I'll call it cultured meat, but regardless of name, it may start arriving at small scale in 2022 from companies such as Mosa Meat, Memphis Meats, Aleph Farms, and Meatable. It will be positioned as a more sustainable, environmentally friendly option for meat eaters. But who it will appeal to and at what price remains a different story.
Cultured meat doesn't require grazing land or tons of feed. Instead it's grown in bioreactors like those already used to produce pharmaceuticals and ethanol. A few animal cells are chosen for the type of meat desired, and placed on a biological scaffold to grow into the right shape and structure in a bioreactor that turbocharges cell growth from a speck to a serving.
In many ways, the process is old news: "We already grow animal cells at scale," says Ryan Bethencourt, co-founder of venture capital firm IndieBio, an early investor in cultured meat startup Memphis Meats. "All the big pharma companies essentially have big protein factories" for the development of biologic drugs, he says. The first cultured meat hamburger was unveiled (and eaten) in 2013.
But if the basic technology for growing cultured meat is relatively clear, how much energy will be required at scale is less so.
"Cultured meat production will likely require more industrial energy than do livestock to produce equivalent quantities of meat," says Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, in a presentation to the 2019 Range Beef Cow Symposium.
Even if substantial energy is needed to produce clean meat, there could still be large environmental rewards. A 2018 paper by Hanna Tuomisto of University of Helsinki calculates a potentially large reduction in greenhouse gases with cultured meat compared to raising cows and sheep for meat.
Traditional animal meat advocates counter that their production typically uses non-arable land as well as feed that isn't considered edible by humans. But the Good Food Institute claims that most of the crops that animals eat end up as 1.1 billion pounds of manure, exuding vast amounts of methane that the Environmental Defense Fund says is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Some of this may be settled over the next five years at University of California, Davis, one of the nation's foremost animal agriculture institutes that in September received a landmark $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore cultured meat. It will assess its nutrition, taste and texture, less expensive paths to scale, and life cycle analysis.
Whether cultured meat tech is creating fish or franks, the process revolves around five common aspects, creating a level of synergy that doesn't currently exist between land and water-based animal processors today.
Viewed another way, Good Food Institute estimates that for every 25 to 30 calories fed to a cow, just one edible calorie of food energy is produced, resulting in a conversion rate of 3 to 4%.
"Feeding animal cells is far more efficient than feeding the whole animal because you're just growing the tissue that will end up being consumed," says Liz Specht, associate director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute. "There is still a conversion step, but the pragmatist in me looks at plant-based and cultured meat and sees both as orders of magnitude improvement over the conventional system."
Will it work in the grocery aisle?
The idea of cultured meat is still too new to accurately predict its eventual price, and using the plant-based meat sector popularized by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods as a model is likely flawed, since they differ vastly in ingredients, process and era of market entry.
Clean meat is also new tech, and will cost like it for years. Even established plant-based meats from Beyond and Impossible still cost more than their slaughtered competition. Cultured meat must achieve price parity or run the risk that its promised big picture benefits be hobbled by small market share.
"Cost is the hurdle," says Karl O'Donovan, global R&D director of food development company Kerry. "There's a great story here about sustainability and animal husbandry, but everything comes down to the cost. People will be willing to pay a premium, but there's a limit."
There's also the issue of getting buy-in from the general public. "Even if we solve all our technical hurdles and we start using these technologies for space exploration and vegans, I think there's still going to be a large portion of our population that will not participate," says Denneal Jamison-McClung, director of the University of California, Davis biotechnology program.
If cultured meat succeeds, its story will be one for marketing textbooks, having walked a fine line between boasting about technology but not so much that it invokes an "ick" factor of sterility or banks too much on people being motivated by sustainability rather than their pocketbooks and palates.
"Even if you're thrilled about being able to get your bioreactor up and running, you need to really understand whether the guy down the street who doesn't know what you know about stem cells even wants to eat that," says UC Davis' Jamison-McClung.
"The cultured meat fraternity has come at it from a science perspective, as opposed to food being created using science and technology," says TC Chaterjee, CEO of food development company Griffith Foods. "And from the consumer's point of view, there is a difference."
Cultured meat isn't targeted at the vegan and vegetarian markets, since those people tend to have no interest in eating meat in the first place, says Kris Wadrop, General Manager of Biotechnology at Centre for Process Innovation in the UK. "The challenge is around the carnivores and flexitarians and whether they would shift or switch," he adds.
Another issue: Without a widely accepted name, these products could become branded as a "frankenmeat," says Kerry's O'Donovan. "If the major players could come up with a consumer-friendly name and all stick to it, it would be a huge help," he adds.
But CPI's Kris Wadrop argues "the name is already there: Beef. Chicken. Pork. They aren't trying to mimic them, they're actually recreating those products." Cultured meat fits neatly as a premium version of a traditional food, he adds, not unlike organic, free-range or GMO-free products.
Meat in the age of COVID-19
Another name for cultured meat is "clean meat," a term that few of its advocates could have predicted the increased appeal of before 2020.
It reasons that cultured meat will find its first audience among consumers who are open to new things, favor innovation in the abstract, and want to be seen with the Tesla of food on their plate. The next wave might be reflected in a recent Gallup survey of people eating less meat that found that most were doing so for their own health, followed by concern about the environment, food safety, and then animal welfare.
In a major 2017 report on future products of biotechnology, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine identified cultured meat as "having high growth potential." While there are few products to compare it to and many challenges to widespread regulation and adoption, there are also well-established approaches to assessing its risk on the market.
Cultured meat will have to pass through the same fine sieve as all "next big things": Can it sustain investor and early adopter belief that it's truly a better option long enough to get to the point that it is? We've seen this happen in electronic technology many times, but food isn't a phone -- it comes with consumer traditions and lizard-brain reactions that don't always make sense.
"Most consumers really want to know three things: Does it taste good, is it safe to eat, and can I afford to buy it," says UC Davis' Jamison-McClung. "I prefer to take a really big tent approach and say that global nutrition and food security needs are so immense that there's probably room for the new things. There's definitely tension, but that makes it exciting."
But cultured meat could follow the same path as many other innovations.
"I don't see anything that would keep this technology from doing what technology always does," says Bethencourt, the investor. "Faster, cheaper, better."
Watch this: Impossible Foods CEO talks pork and the future of plant-based meat