No matter which restaurant you visit today, the vast majority will offer a variety of options to appease dietary preferences. Most now offer gluten-free foods, and even more have vegetarian and vegan offerings as well. On the one hand, this highlights the level of sophistication both diners and restaurants have achieved. But at the same time, it also provides hope that alternative foods could be the answer for food scarcity of the future. By 2050, more than nine billion people are projected to exist on the planet. And it’s already clear that current food sources like animal meats will not be able to sustain needs alone. This is why companies invested in “fake meats” and the science of cultured meat is a hot topic. In fact, lab-grown meat offerings are already starting to appear in some restaurants around the world.
In total, there are between 100 and 140 companies exploring the science of cultivated meat. Unlike plant-based meats, these companies create lab-grown meat directly from animal cell samples. To date, leaders in the lab-grown meat sector have introduced things like chicken nuggets. But within a few years, many hope to be providing foods that mimic animal meats on a much grander scale. Notably, there are many advantages in using this animal cell technology. But at the same time, the industry faces many challenges as well. The following thus provides a snapshot of where the lab-grown meat industry is today.
“Instead of needing billions of animals and all the land and the water, and all the rain forests you typically need to knock down to make that happen, we start with a cell.” – Josh Tetrick, Co-founder and CEO of Eat Just
The Science of Cultured Meat
If you’re not familiar with lab-grown meat, the overall concept is quite simple in theory. Cells are harvested from an animal, like a chicken, cow or fish. Then, the cell is cultured in a laboratory and grown into a larger protein mass. In essence, the product is no different than that animal’s muscle protein. Thus, the same protein that exists in an animal-based diet can be created without animal slaughter. Notably, the science of cultured meat cannot product something that looks like a steak or even a slice of bacon. But the potential of these clean meats to play a role in food production in the future is quite positive.
The interest in lab-grown meat stemmed from the recent success of plant-based foods. Faced with the risks of food scarcity, plant-based foods will be a natural part of the global solutions. But many believe that the science of cultured meats will play a role as well. While plant-based food options can mimic things like cheeses and burgers, there ability in this regard is limited. That may not be the case for lab-grown meat as the technologies continue to advance. With such competition in the industry already, advances are expected to occur quickly. And based on some countries already establishing regulatory oversight of these foods, this perspective is supported.
“Our food system’s role on climate change is generally underappreciated, but industrial animal agriculture is a major contributor. Alternative proteins, including cultivated meat, can be a key aspect of how we reduce the emissions from our food system.” – Caroline Bushnell, VP of Corporate Engagement at the Good Food Institute
Challenges Facing the Lab-Grown Meat Industry
Currently, the only nation to pass regulations allowing lab-grown meat is Singapore. Already, startup Eat Just has been selling cultured chicken nuggets in some restaurants there. Recently, an Australian start-up in the industry, Vow, announced it would be selling its brand Morsel in the country by year’s end. Unlike, Eat Just, Vow offers cultured umami quail products created through the science of cultured meat. But the company recently acknowledged the demand is much greater than their scalable capacity. Despite over $49 million in Series A funding received this month, Vow sees major challenges in scaling operations. Not only are materials costly, but it is difficult to reach volumes that make prices competitive with animal meat products.
The second challenge facing the lab-grown meat industry has more to do with aesthetics according to meat lovers. To date, meats cultured in a lab do not have the same texture, mouth-feel, appearance, or even aroma as regular animal meats. The science of cultured meat has advanced to combine fats and other tissues with cultured proteins. But to create something in a lab that looks and feels like a steak or pork chop is more difficult. Recently, however, another company called Matrix F.T. may have solved these issues. The company creates nanofiber scaffolding upon which cultured cells can grow. In essence, this scaffold allows cells to form into a shape that closely resembles real animal meat offerings. And the nanofiber can be consumed in the process leaving no trace of its existence. Or, because it is plant-based, can be eaten along with the lab-grown meat. Matrix F.T. is already working with 30 companies in the science of cultured meat sector.
“There are two major challenges that would need to be overcome for alternative meats to make a significant contribution to the food supply: they need to be affordable, and they need to provide an eating experience that can drive consumer enthusiasm.” – Steven Savage, M.S. and Ph.D. in Plant Pathology
A Slow But Steady Progress
As is evidenced by Vow’s recent funding, investors are still bullish on the lab-grown meat industry. The pressing need to find solutions to address food scarcity with rising populations is real. Likewise, the impact that the animal meat sector has on the environment is significant and unsustainable. These driving forces along with ongoing advances in the science of cultured meat technologies account for the continued support. And while it may be years before companies reach scalable volumes, consumer demand appears to be fueling progress as well. Vow projects it will be able to produce 66,000 tons of lab-grown meat annually with its recent funding. This is far from adequate when considering global needs. But it’s an impressive start that will undoubtedly increase over the next decade.