What will be the next big thing that becomes a flop? Cell-cultured meat is a prime candidate.
Interest in meat alternatives mushroomed following the 2019 IPO of Beyond Meat. Last year, over $3 billion poured into startups producing meat alternatives. This includes hundreds of millions into startups that produce cell-cultured, or lab-grown, meat.
Unlike “plant-based” meat, which uses a variety of additives mixed with plant protein to mimic the taste and texture of real meat, cell-cultured meat aims to grow real animal cells in giant metal vats called bioreactors--without the need for livestock.
To date, the primary question has been whether consumers will accept lab-grown meat, with surveys showing a wide range of appetite. But a better question is whether the technology will ever really come to market at all.
According to the industry’s cheerleaders, cell-cultured meat is just around the corner after it was approved for sale in Singapore this year.
“Scaled up production could [make] cultivated meat competitive with some forms of conventional meat and seafood by 2030,” said the Good Food Institute, an association that promotes meat alternatives. At the recent Good Food Conference hosted by GFI, one presenter predicted that cultured meat could capture 10% of the meat market by 2030 and 35% by 2040. McKinsey predicts it could be a $25 billion industry by 2030.
In reality, it may be a nothingburger.
A new report from The Counter dives into the micro-details of trying to produce meat from stem cells. The report examines a recent analysis, funded by a foundation that supports cell-cultured meat, questioning whether lab-grown meat will ever be commercially viable.
Scientists are confronted with a conundrum. Growing cells is an extremely delicate process. The right amounts of growth factors (such as hormones) must be used. The cells must be nurtured at the right temperature. Cell waste, which can inhibit growth, must be managed. And facilities must be kept sterile to prevent bacterial contamination. Even a single speck of bacteria can shut down a factory.
Companies need to be able to produce mass quantities of cell-cultured meat to compete with natural meat. But in order to do so, keeping larger facilities sterile creates skyrocketing costs. Then there’s the sky-high cost of growth factors, which can run hundreds of dollars a gram, or higher.
Considering all the factors, there may simply be no economically feasible way to do it for a mass market.
It should be a red flag that cell-cultured meat companies have already missed self-announced dates for when this product will be widely available. A number of companies and research institutes predicted cell-cultured meat would be hitting the marketplace last year--or even earlier.
Despite these very serious practical concerns, advocates continue to put forth starry-eyed hype to promote it.
“Eventually we see a world where the majority of meat made doesn’t require killing a single animal,” says the CEO of JUST Foods, which released an expensive prototype of lab-grown chicken on a limited, below-cost basis in Singapore this year. But he has also admitted the tech may not work out. “We understand what the challenges are, and if we’re successful in handling these challenges, we’ll put ourselves in a place where we can do this. And if we don’t, then we won’t.”
Cell-cultured meat may use less land than raising livestock, but it requires enormous amounts of electricity to operate the bioreactors--so much so that an industry analysis found that cell-cultured meat has a higher environmental impact footprint than both chicken and pork.
Advocates of fake meat are committed to their vision. Now, they are pushing the Biden administration to spend taxpayer dollars to boost industry research. And they may see taxes on meat (on climate change grounds) as an opportunity to raise the cost of their competition.
But if they can’t solve the problem of making their product remotely cost-effective, then lab-grown meat may become like flying cars: Possible to build, but so costly that they’re best left for the movies.