Lab-grown meat: the new agricultural revolution

Vegan alternatives are taking off, but the future of food technology lies in lab-grown meat – cultivating steaks and burgers from animal cells, says Alex Rankine. This is a market full of bold visions and ambitious promises.

In 1931 Winston Churchill was asked by The Strand Magazine to imagine the world 50 years hence. “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately,” he wrote. Churchill might have got his timing wrong, but a future where the meat on our plates has been cultured rather than butchered is finally coming into view. 

A new wave of alternative meat start-ups in California, Europe and Israel is intent on disrupting the $1trn global meat industry. Today 77% of farmland worldwide is dedicated to raising and feeding livestock. Mike Selden of Finless Foods, a fishmeat-replacement start-up, envisions the day when meat production moves off the farm and into gigantic “1,000-litre bioreactors” that churn out new batches of cell-cultured products. It would be, as Jessica Glenza in The Guardian puts it, “like a brewery for meat”.

If it bleeds, it leads

Meat alternatives are hardly new. Quorn, a British invention, dates back to the 1980s. Seitan, a protein-rich wheat gluten product that has recently become popular online, has roots in sixth-century China. Tofu, made from coagulated soy milk, is more ancient still. 

Yet in recent years new technology, changing eating habits and sheer market exuberance have turbocharged the sector. Shares in Beyond Meat, the US maker of a burger that “bleeds” a beetroot juice extract, have doubled since listing in 2019. Impossible Foods, another American burger maker, has found a way to ferment soybeans to produce heme, a compound responsible for the characteristic “meaty” taste of a burger. It is reportedly set to float soon.

The number of retailers selling Impossible Food’s products has risen 113-fold over the last year. Plant-based alternatives are being marketed to meat eaters. They are even being sold alongside chicken breasts and pork chops. Fast food is next. The firm is working on a new “McPlant” line of plant-based burgers with McDonald’s. Greggs’ best-selling vegan sausage roll uses Quorn.

These businesses are tapping into a genuine trend. UK sales of meat substitutes shot up by 40% in the five years to 2019 and are forecast to top £1.1bn in 2024, says consumption-research firm Mintel. Pollster Ipsos MORI reports that the number of vegans in Britain quadrupled in the four years up to 2018, but they still make up just 1% of the adult population. 

Far more significant has been the rise of “flexitarianism”. A shopper browsing the meat aisle might sometimes opt for a plant-based burger without forswearing steak altogether. Mintel says that 41% of Britons are reducing the amount of meat they eat. That number has fallen from 51% before the virus; lockdowns have made people reach for comfort foods, with bacon sales up by 18% last year. 

Yet that should prove a “temporary setback” as attitudes are changing fast. In 2018, 25% of Britons said they thought that “eating less meat is better for the environment”. By 2020, 42% agreed. Health is the most common reason given for reducing meat consumption. Yet among younger people environmental concerns also loom large. Around 23% of meat-reducing Americans aged 18-29 cited the climate as a reason to cut back, says The Economist. Just 5% cited animal welfare.

The steaks are high 

Meat alternatives are still a niche industry. US grocery store sales of plant-based products totalled $475m last year, a fraction of the $82.5bn market for refrigerated meat, says Jordan Strickler in Forbes. But Barclays predicts 1,000% growth over ten years, with the global market worth $140bn in 2029. Management consultancy AT Kearney projects that by 2040 cultured and plant-based foods will have a 60% market share, surpassing meat produced the traditional way. 

Prices for meat substitutes are coming down as economies of scale kick in. Impossible Foods recently slashed its suggested retail price by 20%, reports Amelia Lucas for CNBC. In America a shopper can now expect to pay about $6.99 for a 0.35kg, or 0.75lb, pack of Impossible “meat”, still more than twice as much as conventional equivalents. Yet while Western markets have passed “peak meat”, global meat consumption is still rising as populations increase and emerging markets grow. In the 1960s the average Chinese person consumed 5kg, or 11lb, of meat annually, notes Crystal Reid in The Guardian. By 2015 that number had hit 48kg (105 lbs). Today the country accounts for half of all global pork consumption. Yet, in the home of tofu, plant-based alternatives are also “slowly carving” out a place for themselves, with sales hitting £675m in 2018 and forecast to grow by 20%-25% annually.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation projects that global demand for animal products will increase by 45% by 2050, putting huge pressure on the world’s farmland. A more efficient food-production method is needed and plant-based alternatives seem to offer a way forward – by cutting out animals altogether. For many environmental, social and governance (ESG) investors, a sector that says it can help us lower carbon emissions while eradicating factory farming is an opportunity too good to miss.

The result has been a mini-boom in meat-replacement and vegan-product start-ups. Beyond Meat’s frothy stockmarket valuation may have grabbed the headlines, but behind the scenes much venture capital is being deployed too. Funding hit $3.1bn last year, a 200% rise on the previous year, says America’s the Good Food Institute, which promotes meat alternatives. Almost $300m of that went to Oatly, the Swedish oat-drink maker. The firm is eyeing an initial public offering (IPO) with a $5bn valuation. Plant-based and cultivated meat firms have raised $6bn over the past decade. As Emiko Terazono puts it in the Financial Times, the race is on for “the new Tesla of food tech”. 

The meat alternatives currently on offer are plant-based. The Beyond Burger, for example, is a mixture of (among other things) peas, rice and mung-bean protein plus coconut oil. Yet an entirely different approach – cell-cultured meat – could take us much closer to Churchill’s vision of real animal flesh grown in a lab. 

The recipe is deceptively simple, writes Chase Purdy in his book, Billion Dollar Burger. You need three things: animal cells, a “nutrient-dense liquid medium to feed the cells; and a sterile bioreactor that provides the right conditions to grow them”. The cell part doesn’t require any animal slaughter – you can take a biopsy from a living one. The tricky part is the liquid medium, which must be what Purdy calls a “witch’s brew of macromolecular ‘growth factors’ such as amino acids, sugars, lipids and hormones” to get the cells to grow. 

A pretty penny for a patty

The method first made headlines in 2013 when Dutch food-tech business Mosa Meat unveiled a lab-grown hamburger. The snag was that it cost €250,000 per burger. Since then, economies of scale and cheaper growth fluid have seen prices fall sharply. Mosa says its burgers could cost €9 each in a couple of years’ time. 

US start-up Future Meat Technologies has vowed to offer lab meat for $10/lb by next year. The creators of such products argue that they are not making alternative meat at all. What comes out of their bioreactors is simply meat, just made more efficiently than the traditional method.

While plant-based products such as the Beyond Burger are likely to dominate in the near-term, AT Kearney thinks that the more authentic taste of cultured meat will eventually bring it to the fore. By 2040 it could account for some 35% of all meat consumed, compared with 25% for “vegan replacements”. But not everyone is convinced by such bold predictions. Some think the technology is not ready for prime time, says Elie Dolgin in Nature. It’s one thing to make a “splashy demonstration” of a very pricey piece of lab-grown meat, quite another to scale up production enough to offer it affordably to the mass market. By the time the Silicon Valley tech industry got going it had decades of university expertise and research into computer science to draw on. 

Yet there is little such “basic science” about how to grow meat at scale. We still don’t know much about how to source the best animal cells, what makes a good nutrient medium, or how to build bioreactors on an industrial scale. That may leave these start-ups facing an insurmountable – and prohibitively expensive –- learning curve. 

Another issue is moving from burgers to steak. Current technologies tend to yield “unstructured products” that resemble mince. Finding a decent way to imitate a real steak’s complex structure of fat and muscle is another ball game. But maybe we shouldn’t bet against the boffins. 

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