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Beyond the impossible: Lab-grown meat 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.

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This story is part of Tech for a Better World, stories about the diverse teams creating products, apps and services to improve our lives and society.

Winston Churchill foresaw the biggest food innovation of the 21st century back in 1931: "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."

Today that prospect nears, but is still so new it doesn't have a widely agreed-upon name: cultured meat, clean meat, lab-grown meat, cultivated meat or, by its detractors, test tube meat

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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.

More food, fewer resources

Meat production's footprint on natural resources is an accepted issue. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the livestock sector "is increasing pressure on ecosystems and natural resources" and "in some cases its impact on ecosystems is out of proportion with the economic significance of the sector." The FAO also estimates that 26% of the earth's land that isn't covered in ice is used for livestock grazing, and that 33% of all crop lands are used to grow crops to feed to livestock that are fed to people in a sort of nutritional bucket brigade.

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.

A bioreactor

A bioreactor that could grow cultured meat.

Xcellerex

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

A paper from Arizona State University, which is cited by both clean meat doubters and backers, suggests cultured meat "could require smaller quantities of agricultural inputs and land than livestock," but at a potentially higher energy demand. The reason? It doesn't use animals whose bodies provide temperature regulation, waste elimination and other functions that will have to be replaced by industrial equivalents. But the Good Food Institute, a leading connector of cultured meat innovators and investors, says that clean energy will develop alongside the cultured meat sector to "reduce the life cycle emissions of a clean meat facility by 40% to 80%." 

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.

Cultured meat: Energy vs. environment

University of Helsinki researcher Hanna Tuomisto cites findings that even if cultured meat has high specific energy demands, its greenhouse gas and land use footprints would remain very low.

Science & Society

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. 

Far from the vast feedlots and poultry sheds are the oceans, where over 50% of stocks are being fished at full exploitation level and over 33% are being overfished, according to the most recent estimate by the UN FAO

Cultured seafood from Blue Nalu

Blue Nalu is pursuing cultured seafood. In many parts of the world, it's the primary source of animal agriculture problems.

Blue Nalu

Shiok Meats in Singapore is focused on creating cultured shrimp meat due to its popularity in that region, while San Diego startup BlueNalu is planning production facilities about the size of a Target store that it believes can produce enough cultured seafood to meet the demand of a metro area with 10 million residents. San Francisco Bay Area startup Finless Foods is developing cultured bluefin tuna meat, an alt-seafood holy grail.

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.

Clean meat industry map

Whether its beef, pork, chicken or seafood, five main areas underlie cultured meat.

Good Food Institute

Feeding more people who want more meat

The World Health Organization reports "a strong relationship between the level of income and the consumption of animal protein" as the world's population grows and urbanizes. This puts intense pressure on animals like the cow, which can be seen as an amazing machine for turning a lot of food into a little food. 

Cultured meat advocates estimate it takes as much as 20 pounds of plant-based feed to create one pound of beef, though the cattle industry argues that number is a vast mischaracterization because it fails to credit the pounds of other outputs like leather, bone, manure and organs that the feed also underlies. Still, even the Beef Cattle Clearinghouse industry group estimates that a pound of red meat from a cow requires nearly 5 pounds of corn feed. South Dakota State University estimates that only about 500 pounds of meat are derived from a 1,200 pound steer

Meat derived from a cow carcass

A 1,200 pound beef steer yields a 750 pound carcass that is trimmed and deboned to 500 pounds of wrapped meat.

University of Tennessee

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.

Traditional meat from slaughtered animals enjoys a centuries-long head start over cultured meat, as well as the perception of being natural, normal and necessary. It has had its cost driven down by scale, decades of industrial experience and, often, indirect government subsidies in the form of predator control programs, artificially low fees to graze animals on public lands, and a host of assistance programs that can cover unexpected costs incurred by businesses raising animals for meat. 

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."

Cultured chicken

Cultured meat development will quickly expand the consumers' imagination of alt protein beyond burgers and sausages

Memphis Meats

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. 

Cultured meat's biggest ace in the hole is that it is more sustainable -- an important proposition to Gen Z consumers -- but it's also still meat. Regardless of demographic wokeness trends, the USDA expects US meat consumption to increase between 2016 and 2025. Plant-based meats alone may not be able to flatten that curve amidst a vast number of consumers that still expect animal muscle at the center of their plate.

Is it food or is it tech?

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."

Mosa Meat cultured burger

A cultured hamburger patty from Mosa Meat.

Mosa Meat

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. 

Meat from slaughter may look less appetizing as coronavirus-era consumers are increasingly aware it's largely the result of an antibiotic victory over the conditions in which it's produced. For many of us it's become second nature to reach for a bottle of disinfectant after handling raw meat. 

The pandemic has also reminded us that slaughtered meat is the product of American's grisliest place to work. Cultured meat would be a 180-degree turn away from those perceptions and, if anything, risks coming across as almost too clean to people who are charmed by the illusion that their food comes from rustic ranches tended by homespun families in Pendleton shirts.

What's next for cultured meat

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."

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.