David Burrows examines the cultivated meat industry and asks: is it as green as it claims?
The fifth of August is unofficially ‘international cultivated meat day’. On that day in 2013, Dutch food tech company Mosa Meat unveiled the first burger made from meat grown in a lab rather than reared on land; it cost €250,000 (£217,000). Nine years on, interest in cultivated meat (and seafood) has blossomed. Last year, companies secured US$1.4bn (£1.2bn) in investments, three times the figure in 2020 – a year that ended with Singapore becoming the first country to approve a lab-grown product (chicken nuggets).
Almost 7,000 miles away, in Scotland, a team of scientists is working on producing cells for a sector that promises so much – zero animal suffering, and considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use – but has yet to deliver a burger to British barbecues. “Singapore and the US are viewed as the fast track for cultivated meat,” admits John Clinkenbeard, chief operating officer at Roslin Technologies – but, he adds, there is an opportunity on the back of Brexit for the UK to “lead the way in foodtech”.
Roslin, situated on the outskirts of Edinburgh, right next to the world-famous Roslin Institute, is the first cultivated meat company to win a UK government grant (£1m from UK Research and Innovation in 2021). “We have really high-quality cells that live long, grow fast and are genetically stable, and those are key ingredients for cultivated meat,” explains CEO Ernst van Orsouw.
As we sit chewing the fat in the on-site café, van Orsouw, Clinkenbeard and chief scientific officer Jacqui Matthews deliver a strong pitch for cultivated meat – so strong that it’s hard not to be carried away by their enthusiasm for this concept. So how does it work, and is it a silver bullet, as some media and investors suggest? What’s more, how soon will it be available in our supermarkets and restaurants?
British brains (and cells)
Roslin sits at the start of the cultivated meat supply chain. A sample is taken to obtain cells from an animal, Matthews explains, and these are isolated and cultured in the lab. Specifically, Roslin is working with ‘pluripotent stem cells’ – cells that can be turned into any animal cell type, including muscle and fat cells, and which can self-replicate indefinitely without deterioration. These traits make them ideal for large-scale and more efficient production of cultivated meat, the company claims.
However, this facility won’t actually be making burgers, brisket or bacon. Rather than invest in all the downstream processing and infrastructure needed to become a producer, Roslin wanted to “concentrate on what we’re good at” by focusing on the cells and making them available to everybody in the industry, says van Orsouw. “We are the ‘intel inside’ of the cultivated burger,” adds Clinkenbeard.
The company has had success with pigs and is now working to perfect the process and replicate it for ruminants; it is “very, very close” with lamb. As we tour the facility, some of the researchers are adapting the feed used to grow the cells, while others are assessing the quality of cell batches under microscopes and monitoring their growth. Everything from carbon dioxide to lactate – the substance produced when you run – is assessed to ensure that the final, frozen package does exactly what it says on the vial.
“Those cells need special attention. You need to know how to feed them and how to grow them”
Indeed, the few millilitres (and couple of billion cells) in each vial delivered to companies in Europe, the US, Asia and Middle East could potentially produce massive amounts of meat in the future. However, just giving them the cells and saying ‘good luck’ doesn’t work. “Those cells need special attention,” explains van Oursouw. “You need to know how to feed them and how to grow them.” That’s why his team “does on a small scale what our customers will do at large scale”.
Pies and profitability
Forecasts suggest there could be 1.5m tonnes of cultivated meat being produced by 2030, by which time global meat supply is forecast to have hit 374m tonnes. Achieving that will require somewhere between 200m and 440m litres of fermentation capacity, according to consultants at McKinsey. That’s an awful lot of bioreactors in which to ‘grow’ the meat from the cells.
This next stage is often likened to brewing, with a series of ‘cultivators’ mimicking what happens inside an animal. The cells are fed an oxygen-rich cell culture medium made up of basic nutrients such as amino acids, glucose, vitamins and inorganic salts, and supplemented with proteins and other growth factors. This is where the immature cells are triggered to “differentiate into the skeletal muscle, fat, and connective tissues that make up meat”, notes the Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit that promotes cell and plant-based protein alternatives. The differentiated cells are then harvested, prepared and packaged into final products. According to the GFI, this process is expected to take two to eight weeks, depending on the type of meat being cultivated.
This is efficient, but also eye-wateringly expensive – and not without ethical questions. Most of the media include foetal bovine serum (FBS), for example, which presents an issue for claims that cultivated meat is ‘meat without slaughter’. Recent research published by Mosa Meat shows promise for FBS-free cultivated meat, but it’s not easy to wean cells off the serum. Roslin hasn’t used FBS “for several years”, but does use some animal-derived products in its media.
This ‘feed’ for the cells doesn’t come cheap, but it’s getting cheaper. As the industry scales and processes are optimised, prices could fall – although how far is hotly debated. Some companies are making bold claims about their route to price parity with conventional meat. The figures in the press are “amazing” says Illtud Dunsford, CEO and co-founder at Cellular Agriculture, but his own modelling suggests it will be “10 to 15 years before we get anywhere near a maturity where we’re looking at some form of parity”.
Dunsford is developing bioreactors. His fibre membrane technology is 1/200th of the scale of existing industrial technology, and operational costs are 70% lower. The route to market is a marathon, not a sprint, he says: “We’re probably another four years away from us having the technology on the market, but our focus is very much on scale and not on immediate access to market.”
McKinsey has said the focus of the next decade “will likely be on proving commercial viability, with modest market penetration” and that “tens of billions of dollars” need to be spent to take even that 1% sliver of the market.
Is it worth it? “It’s impossible for the UK to reach net zero by 2050 without addressing emissions from our food system,” GFI Europe policy manager Ellie Walden told MPs and government officials at a UK parliamentary event in May. Exact figures on the environmental benefits of cultivated meat are hard to come by and much debated. Research by think tank Chatham House and the University of Oxford suggests cultivated meat is not, prima facie, climatically superior to meat. Much depends on the energy used to feed those bioreactors.
“There are some huge technological challenges for us to overcome to produce something comparable to meat at a significantly reduced impact”
Netherlands-based consultancy CE Delft’s 2021 lifecycle assessment of cultivated meat, using industry data and involving Singapore’s agency for science, technology and research, modelled how cultivated meat may be produced by the year 2030. The result: the products beat beef on a single environmental score spanning global warming, land use, water consumption, fine particulate matter formation and human toxicity. However, they do not beat chicken or pork – or plant-based alternatives such as tofu.
Switch to sustainable energy, though, and cultivated meat beats all of its traditional counterparts. It also competes with pork and chicken on greenhouse gases alone if over 30% of the energy comes from sustainable sources. “There are some huge technological challenges for us to overcome to produce something that is comparable to meat at a significantly reduced impact,” says Dunsford. “We’ll get there, it just takes time.”
Winning people over
The mindset shift needed to take us to a world in which (some) meat is lab-reared will also take time. Only 30% of UK consumers feel it is safe to eat, according to research by the Food Standards Agency in January. For insects it’s 50%, while for plant-based proteins it’s 77%. Still, more were more willing to try cultivated meat than crickets (34% versus 26%).
“This business is not for the faint of heart,” Josh Tetrick told Politico earlier this year. “It requires a ton of upfront capital before you see revenue. Tetrick is the co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, the company behind those nuggets, which is attracting huge investment. In June it announced Asia’s largest plant for producing lab-grown meat.
Back at Roslin we reach the ‘kitchen’, where products such as sausages made from a mix of cultivated meat and vegetables have been cooked up. The investors “love” this part of the lab, says Matthews. Due to food safety regulations, the goodies can’t be eaten yet. That won’t have changed by August 5, but we’re unlikely to have to wait another nine years for that first bite.