Cultured meat promises to change the way we eat and help solve some of the big problems of a crowded planet. When will it be on our plate and how will this technology impact the world?
As you eat your next meal, take a moment to consider that in a couple years, your food might be served with meat that has not been taken from an animal. During the past couple of years, the field of cultured meat has evolved from just a few pioneers to a growing number of players working towards the common goal of making meat derived from animals a thing of the past.
We are now at a point where the arrival of cultured meat seems inevitable. To prepare for its arrival, it’s important to start thinking about the impact the technology will make, how it will be regulated and whether people will actually want to eat it.
Why eat cultured meat?
“In time, I believe that cultured meat could fundamentally change the way the majority of meat is produced in Europe,” Peter Verstrate, CEO of the Dutch company Mosa Meat, told me. Founded by Mark Post, the scientist behind the world’s first lab-grown burger, his company might be one of the first to sell cultured meat at restaurants and supermarkets in Europe.
“We will see a shift in the way production is organized from feedlots and slaughterhouses to cultured meat ‘factories,’” Verstrate explained. “Moving to this more efficient method of production would have many potential benefits for Europe, such as helping to reduce emissions of methane that contribute substantially to climate change.”
The shift to cultured meat could not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also decrease significantly the use of water and land by over 95%. Growing meat without the animal would eliminate the need for antibiotics and hormones in the final product, too.
“Cultured meat is going to change the world,” said Daan Luining. Having worked in the development of the first cultured burger, he’s now CTO of Meatable, a Dutch cultured meat company. “It’s going to change how we view meat, how food is produced, what type of food is being produced, where it’s going to be produced, and what people will demand of it — on quality, on texture, on taste, on nutrients.”
When will it be on our plate?
Many companies working on cultured meat — including Mosa Meat and US-based Memphis Meats, the two startups with the most funding — have a similar time in mind to launch their first product: 2021.
There is an exception, though. The American company Just says their first product — cultured chicken — has been market ready since 2018, but they are waiting for the regulatory requirements of cultured meat to be more clearly established in the US before launching commercially.
“There’s a big hype, there is a race happening,” Mercedes Vila, co-founder of the Spanish company Biotech Foods, told me. “In the past few months new players have appeared, we’ve counted almost 20 companies in Europe, all of them of very recent creation. But I think we don’t compete between us, we are rather ambassadors for a new concept and it’s better not to be alone.”
When we’ll actually see the impact of cultured meat, however, might take a bit longer.
“We have billions of animals that are being raised and are being eaten,” said Luining. “If you can just reduce that 10%, 20% it would be massive on the environment, but we don’t expect that to be done within 10 years. The only thing that is now on our horizon is just stopping the growth of animal consumption. If we can just do that it will be a huge win.”
Will it be affordable?
The first products will likely be released at a small scale and with a premium price in select restaurants or retail sellers. However, that might vary a lot depending on the type of meat and the technology used by each company.
Most companies are trying to produce their own versions of beef. “Cattle are the least efficient links in production — pigs are twice as efficient, and chickens are four times more efficient,” said Verstrate. “Cattle also contribute the most greenhouses gases, including methane which is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas. And, cattle require the most natural resources, causing mass deforestation and loss of biodiversity.”
Beef is also one of the priciest meats. “Beef sells at 2 to 3 times the price of pork and poultry. With beef it will be easier to break even,” said Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, the first company to create a cultured steak — a feat much more complex than producing processed forms of meat like most other players.
Companies like US-based Finless Foods and Blue Nalu, working on cultured fish, might have lower costs given that culturing fish cells requires lower temperatures and therefore less energy to be produced.
For its part, Biotech Foods focuses on processed forms of food, such as sausages and ham. “In the short term we want to focus on the market that has more traction in Europe, which is pork and poultry,” said Vila. She expects the company to, unlike its peers, launch its first cultured meat products in 2021 at a price that can compete with conventional meat.
The trick to driving costs down is scaling up production. “The challenge is the same for all of us,” said Vila. “Making tissues in vitro has been around for a long time in regenerative medicine, what hasn’t been done before is at large scale and at a price that a consumer can afford. It’s not the same to grow skin for a burn unit, which can allow for a higher price, than grow meat to eat a sausage, for which no one wants to pay that much money.”
Eventually, as cultured meat producers scale up, all predictions seem to agree that the price will be the same or even lower than that of conventional meat.
“Overall the cost of clean meat will continue to fall, just as it has since 2013,” said Matt Ball, Media Relations Specialist at the Good Food Institute, a US non-profit supporting alternatives to animal meat. “This is relatively standard for new technologies. Today, you can buy an iPhone for a few hundred dollars, but the first one cost $2.6 billion.”
“Thick, complex cuts of meat such as prime rib will probably be more expensive than minced products like ground beef, at least for a while,” said Ball. “Once processes have matured, premium Kobe beef could be produced just as inexpensively as ‘generic’ beef. Bluefin tuna could theoretically be as affordable as carp or catfish.”
How will it be regulated?
In order to sell cultured meat, the companies developing the technology need to comply with regulations around it. Regulations for cultured meat, however, are something still very new and remain a challenge for all players.
“We all have to comply with the regulatory requirements, but no company you can come across has achieved that yet,” said Vila.
“We are fortunate in Europe that the regulatory pathway is much clearer than in the US,” explained Verstrate. “The EU’s novel food regulations have sped up the process so it may be faster than in the US, although we will have to see what happens.”
The European Food Safety Authority’s regulation on novel foods, which specifically includes cultured meat, establishes a process of around 18 months in which a company has to prove the product is safe.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Luining. “There will be strict tests that you have to go through to prove that the product is safe. But I subscribe to that method because the thing that you should always keep in mind is public safety.”
In the US, the situation is still not as clear, but the FDA and the USDA have been actively discussing cultured meat. They recently announced the technology will not require any additional regulations to what it’s already in place. Given the engagement that they’ve shown, some believe the regulatory path will be quicker in the US than in Europe, but that remains to be confirmed in the coming months.
In other locations, the technology is not as advanced and neither are regulations surrounding it. But some regions do accept products approved abroad, such as China, which will accept European regulatory approvals to commercialize certain products.
Will people want to eat it?
“Acceptance of clean meat seems to vary an awful lot between surveys. Some have shown as many as two-thirds of consumers saying they would eat clean meat, while others have shown as few as 16%,” Chris Bryant, who researches acceptance of cultured meat at the University of Bath, told me.
The wording used to conduct the polls seems to have a huge influence on poll results, but the concerns of respondents are the same. “Some people think clean meat won’t be as tasty as conventional meat, and others are concerned that it will be very expensive,” said Bryant.
“A lot of people are worried that meat grown from cells is unnatural, and could have negative consequences as a result. Of course, people rarely consider that today’s meat is far from natural! Animals are bred to grow unnaturally fast and large, and are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics to make them grow faster. Clean meat can actually avoid these practices.”
“In a study I did at the Maastricht University with Mark Post, not published yet, the main concern of the participants was the price,” corroborated Nathalie Rolland, Cellular Agriculture Specialist at the non-profit ProVeg. “Safety was another concern in this study.”
People, however, seem to be increasingly aware of the issues with traditional farming. According to Rolland, the more people are aware about cultured meat and its advantages over farming, the more they are willing to buy and eat cultured meat.
“People are certainly interested in the possibility of avoiding the antibiotics, hormones, and diseases found in conventional meat,” said Bryant. “Consumers across Europe are also increasingly conscious of the environmental harm caused by meat production and animal cruelty is also becoming an important concern for many.”
Despite the unclear statistics — though still clearly higher than for eating insects in Western countries — most developers of cultured meat are confident that their product is wanted, and that acceptance will increase as cultured meat is no longer a novelty. Bryant believes just seeing the product in stores will make many people lean towards eating it.
“Many things which are widely accepted today once seemed unfamiliar and strange; people were once wary of ice produced in freezers!” said Bryant. “Some data suggests that European consumers are a little more skeptical of the concept than Americans, but on the whole it seems that there will be solid demand for clean meat in European and American markets.”
“Clean meat has an easier path to wide acceptance than many technologies have had,” agreed Ball. “Think of in vitro fertilization! When faced with the possibility of ‘test tube babies,’ James Watson, Nobel-Prize-winning co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, stated unequivocally that ‘all hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world.’ Now, 40 years later, no one gives it a second thought.”
“I am personally not especially concerned about consumer acceptance,” said Verstrate. “It will most likely take decades for production to be scaled and for the price to become competitive with livestock meat, but once it does I think that most consumers will prefer a product that is better for the environment, animals and their own health.”
“The most important things for producers to get right are product quality and price,” said Bryant. “Many consumers are excited about this technology and will go out of their way to eat clean meat — but for the average person, they will not be willing to compromise on taste or pay more for clean meat.”
What’s beyond cultured meat?
“Cultured meat is so new, it’s made in a way that people could only imagine just 5 years ago,” said Luining. “I always like to challenge people on thinking beyond when we have cultured meat. When we have created a thing that is indistinguishable from the real thing, what’s next?”
One whole market that cultured meat could unlock is that of ‘personalized nutrition.’ Once we are able to fine-tune our ability to control the growth of meat, we could easily customize the nutrients of meat to a specific group of people, based on age, location or health conditions.
“For example, here in the Netherlands, where it’s always dark, we could add vitamin D in your meat to supplement it,” explained Luining. He also envisions a future where meat is grown inside big cities, removing the need to transport it and making it easier to tailor to the needs of the people that live there.
These are long-term visions, but Luining believes it’s not too late to start working towards the future we want. A future where people are hungry for cultured meat.
Cover illustration by Elena Resko. Images via Mosa Meat, Aleph Farms, Meatable, and David Parry. This article was first published in December 2018; it has since been updated and republished.