Dec 19, 2020 - Technology

Meat grown from cells moves out of the lab

Illustration of a steak served on a Petri dish with a knife and fork
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The making of food is getting an overhaul with promising new technologies.

Why it matters: What we eat and how we make it has enormous implications for the health of humanity and the planet we live on. Meat and fish grown from cells could make for a more sustainable food supply, but they still face scientific, regulatory and consumer challenges.

What's happening: Earlier this week, the San Francisco-based startup Eat Just made the first-ever commercial sale of a cultured chicken product to a restaurant in Singapore, which became the first government to approve cultured meat for human consumption.

The big picture: Eat Just is one of a number of startups that produces animal protein not by slaughtering animals or using plant-based ingredients that mimic the taste of meat, but by growing animal cells.

  • Winston Churchill predicted in 1931 that within 50 years "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."
  • Churchill was off by 32 years — the Dutch pharmacologist Mark Post made the world's first cell-based hamburger in 2013.

Fast forward: Post co-founded his own cell-based meat startup, Mosa Meats, which earlier this month announced a $75 million financing round that will go in part to launch an industrial-scale production line for its cultured ground beef product.

  • There are at least 60 cell-based meat startups around the world, according to the consultancy Lux Research, and VC funding for the sector hit $314 million in 2020 — more than 100 times greater than when Post made his burger in 2013.
  • At least eight startups are building or operating pilot production plants to try to drive the price of production down. Cultured meat still costs $400 to $2,000 a kilogram to produce versus the current consumer price tag of $4 a pound for conventional ground beef in the U.S.

Context: The case for cultured animal protein rests on two pillars: reducing animal cruelty and taking pressure off the planet.

  • Approximately 70 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, 550 million sheep, 460 million goats and 300 million cattle are killed every year to meet the world's growing demand for meat, while global fisheries are under extreme pressure.
  • Animal meat products have by far the biggest impact on the planet and the climate per calorie, compared to other food sources.

Yes, but: There are hundreds of millions of people around the world who manage to mostly meet their nutritional needs without meat. They're called vegetarians, and many of them question the necessity of cell-based meat in a world with plenty of plants.

  • It's a fair point, but there's no denying that as incomes rise in the developing world, "people in general tend to gravitate toward meat whether we want them to or not," says Kate Krueger, the technical expert for XPRIZE's new Feeding the Next Billion innovation contest on alternative meat and seafood.

The catch: Producing a proper cut of cell-based meat — like a T-bone steak — requires building a 3D scaffolding for the cells, which remains tricky, and companies need to move beyond the fetal bovine serum initially used as a growth factor.

  • "I just don't think that will happen in the next five years," says Ryan Pandya, the CEO of Perfect Day, a startup that uses fermentation to produce animal-free milk proteins.
  • One study concluded that because of the energy consumption needed to scale up cultured meat, its carbon footprint could be several times that of conventional chicken, though that assumes companies won't use cleaner energy sources.
  • Labeling will be key to future consumer acceptance — as the ongoing saga over GMO labeling shows — and some in the conventional meat industry have pushed the government to prevent cell-based companies from using the terms "meat" or "poultry."
  • "It's important that consumers know what [labels] mean and that they don't confuse the product with what it's not," says Lou Cooperhouse, the CEO of BlueNalu, which is developing cell-based seafood.

The bottom line: We're still years away from fully achieving Churchill's vision, but cell-based meat remains the most promising kind of sustainable technology, one that potentially lets us have our cake — or cultured hamburger in this case — and eat it too.

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