The concept of growing animal stem cells into edible chunks of meat was announced in part 1 of this series. The 2nd part described the inevitable conclusion that the world is simply too small to produce enough cattle feed required to meet the world’s demand for meat. This 3rd part will describe the alternatives; from 100% plant-based burgers to in-vitro grown steaks. A new industry is emerging that will change meat production in the next decades.
Besides the unsustainable numbers in the current meat production, there are a few tell-tale signs that this shift is going to happen:
- high profile investors are backing start-ups in this field (e.g. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Sergey Brin), which is now followed by class A venture capital firms or even IPO’s.
- large meat producers are lobbying for legislative road blocks to stifle these startups (always a sure sign the established order fears the disruption)
- recent scientific breakthroughs that will drop production prices with orders of magnitude
- a shift in public attitude in favour of animal welfare.
I’ve always been interested in food technology and whenever something really new hits the shelves I try it. So when the first meat replacements were appearing in the late nineties I bought a package of 100% plant-based sausages, but it tasted like cardboard and I passed these experiments for more then 10 years. In 2010 the VegetarianButcher (what’s in a name?) opened its first shop in the Netherlands and this tasted more promising. Food trucks on pop festivals were a favourite launch site for start ups, testing consumer acceptance. A big step forward was the development of an extrusion technology that gave meat-like texture to a product that was based on soybean. Nowadays you see the main developments are further improvements on taste, textures and color, sourcing different plant materials, algae or weeds. Examples are ImpossibleFoods, DutchWeedburger, the VegetarianButcher and BeyondMeat. This last company just announced they will list on Nasdaq and intend to raise 100 M$ for expansion. Sizeable factories are emerging and production levels are high enough to supply supermarkets. In the fierce competition for shelve space, this is one of the fastest growing sections in the supermarket. Try one if you see them in the fridge or on a restaurant menu, they have become really good and affordable.
But it is not meat…
Ever since the in vitro culture of stem cells could differentiate into muscle cells, the idea was planted that this could be used to grow meat in a “bottle” rather than in an animal. In line with Apple’s most famous advertisement, “it is the crazy ones that change the world”, and even though the roadmap was stacked high with all imaginable hurdles, a few persevered ever since the first patent application in 1997 by Willem van Eelen. Fast forward 20 years and a number of companies are gearing up for large scale production. Examples are MosaMeat, MemphisMeat, JustForAll, AlephFarms and Meatable (all links below).
There have been significant developments in growing different cell types (muscle and fat cells) to enhance the taste and texture, as well as improvements in culture yields. It is still far from a cheap process; the cells have to grow under sterile conditions and require a very balanced mix of nutrients. But one of the main technical hurdles have been taken: the replacement of foetal calf serum as an essential medium component with a mixture of 100% plant based components. This milestone can not be overestimated. Not only is fetal calf serum very expensive (500 ml would easily set you back $1000), but biochemically extremely complex. It was the golden standard to grow both animal and human cells and research scientists have tried for decades to identify the components that made this such a suitable medium. Finding a plant-based alternative is key to bring this to an industrial size production. And not only for the prize, but it now allows marketing as free from any animal nutrients, which may be important for vegetarians, vegans or religious groups. With advances in the medical field to grow bones on suitable scaffolds, it is not far fetched to envision a completely in vitro grown T-bone steak, but it is more likely that such high class products will remain the field of the traditional meat industry.
Production prices have dropped from the prototype hamburger pattie of $ 300,000 (see part 1) to currently circa $100 and this price will drop much further once the economy of scale really makes its way through the production. This will be in contrast to traditional meat production which may expect a price increase in the future for the high levels of CO2 and methane production, the price for land use, fresh water consumption, disease control, etc etc, all factors that will be taxed sooner rather than later to meet climate change restrictions.
Make no mistake, food production is a high tech industry. A small elite may be shopping at the farmers market and buy some locally produced “organic” items, or small scale family farms may eat what they grow, but the bulk of the food we eat is produced by companies who have done some serious R&D to come to the point where we are now. The world is producing an incredible amount of high quality food that in general is safe, tasty and diverse, delivered round the world in an efficient way. And we have to, there are simply too many people alive to do this on a small scale. To suddenly shy away from in vitro meat because it is too much technology for your taste, is denying that most of what you eat is the product of an industrial process. In every step of the chain, from molecular breeding methods to intelligent packaging materials, all steps involve advanced technology.
So remember this when the first cultured meat is on your plate; except for a few starting stem cells, there was no animal involved in producing this, no animal got killed and the environmental impact is very low. You no longer have to feel guilty when eating this meat, even as a vegetarian.
Enjoy your meal !