Why lab-grown meat won’t work

Cultured (or lab-grown) meat is all the rage. Investors poured $3.1 billion into alternative-protein startups in 2020 (and the trend has continued in 2021) and there are calls for an “Apollo Project” for meatless meat. 

All the funding and buzzy press exclaiming the end of meat makes one wonder: are we in the final years of animal agriculture? Will the 2030s be spent eating Tyson Burger Vatties™, using meat from a local, artisan meat vat near you? Will we see an explosion of vat-to-table restaurants?

I suspect not. In fact, I’m going to go on record here and say that lab-grown meat is going to be a Theranos-level flop (and could include more fraud!) and just plain not work in the next decade, or possibly ever. Though I suspect that lab-grown meat will light a lot more money on fire than the comparatively-small $1.4b that Theranos raised.

After all, lab-grown meat companies have a loooong history of claiming to disrupt the meat industry and failing to launch any sort of real products. We’ve been waiting 15+ years for lab-grown meat claims to live up to the hype, and they just… haven’t. 

There are many, many reasons why. As a recent post outlined (which I highly recommend reading if you’re interested in the topic), creating lab-grown meat that is even close to price-parity with real meat is hard. And expensive. And there’s currently no realistic path to making it happen. 

Recently, the fake-meat nonprofit organization Good Food Institute (GFI) released a paper purporting to show how overcoming key economic and technical hurdles could lower the production price of cultured meat from $10,000+ per pound today to ~$2.50 per pound over the next nine years. 

Though the paper (of course) received a lot of buzz, the truth is their “solutions” were a lot of hype and almost no substance. For example, in the hypothetical lab-grown future that GFI laid out, there will be lab-grown meat facilities that can churn out 22 million pounds of cultured meat per year. It sounds like a lot, but when compared to the 100 billion pounds of meat produced in the US each year it’s not even a rounding error – 0.02% of domestic meat production. 

When you dig into the price tag, it gets even worse. Just this single projected facility would cost $450 million to produce 22 million pounds of cultured meat, and would have to exist at a biomanufacturing scale never seen before: just one facility as described would make up a third of the entire biopharma industry’s bioreactor footprint. All this just to create one facility to make 0.02% of our nation’s meat production! 

To get lab-grown meat to comprise even 10% of meat production would require something like 4000 facilities like the one above, for an estimated price tag of $1.8 trillion. For just 10% of our meat requirements!! 

Beyond just cost, there are plenty of technical issues involved in scaling cultured meat production. For one, it’s challenging to give cells the nutrients they need to grow. Current cultured meat facilities “feed” their cells fetal bovine serum (FBS), blood collected from a cow fetus that’s rich in proteins and vitamins that these cells need to grow and multiply. 

Not only is this philosophically challenging – how exactly does “meatless meat” work if it requires animals to function? – but there’s no clear way to create an economical growth medium for cultured cells that does not rely on animal products. 

There are also very real questions around the feasibility of scaling up bioreactors at this scale. Keeping factories completely sterile will be important in any sort of scaled-up cultured meat operation. As the article says:

 In cell culture, sterility is paramount. Animal cells “grow so slowly that if we get any bacteria in a culture—well, then we’ve just got a bacteria culture,” Humbird said. “Bacteria grow every 20 minutes, and the animal cells are stuck at 24 hours. You’re going to crush the culture in hours with a contamination event.”

For one, keeping a facility sterile that can churn out tens of millions of pounds of cultured meat just has not been done before. Not in food, and not in pharma. And, keeping such a hypothetical facility clean is not cheap: David Humbird, a UC Berkeley-trained chemical engineer, estimated that a Class 8 clean room big enough to produce roughly 15 million pounds of cultured meat a year would cost about $40 to $50 million dollars. That figure doesn’t reflect the cost of equipment, construction, engineering, or installation. It simply reflects the materials needed to run a sterile work environment, a clean room sitting empty.

This is important as cells have no immune system, which means that any virus or bacteria can infect and spread to every cell in a batch of cultured cells, effectively killing the batch and making it worthless. 

And the Good Food Institute (and their main funders, Open Philanthropy), know this. Open Philanthropy has previously funded David Humbird to spend two years digging into assumptions and plausible costs to getting lab-grown meat closer to price parity. At the end of his research project, Humbird estimated that the lowest possible cost the cultured meat crew could expect is roughly $17 per pound. And as The Counter says:

And if $17 per pound doesn’t sound too high, consider this: The final product would be a single-cell slurry, a mix of 30 percent animal cells and 70 percent water, suitable only for ground-meat-style products like burgers and nuggets. With markups being what they are, a $17 pound of ground cultivated meat at the factory quickly becomes $40 at the grocery store—or a $100 quarter-pounder at a restaurant. Anything resembling a steak would require additional production processes, introduce new engineering challenges, and ultimately contribute additional expense.

So according to GFI, after $1.8 trillion of investment, thousands of bioreactors built, technical hurdles solved, a non-animal growth serum invented… we effectively get a shitty $17 burger patty. 

It gets worse! The whole reason cultured meat is receiving so much attention and funding is due to the potentially positive environmental impact. The jury is still out, but one early study points to cultured meat having even more of a negative climate impact over hundreds of years when compared to animal agriculture (mainly because there’s no natural carbon cycle like in animal husbandry, just energy expenditure). Not to mention that beef is not, in fact, a main driver of climate change

I get why food companies are all for this. After all, if Tyson spends $1b on a few lab-grown bioreactors (and patents a few steps along the way), they can charge a huge premium for their meat product. As Tim Hayward quips,  intellectual property protections in the cultured meat space will change “meat” to “Meat™”. 

At-scale cultured meat would also further our dependence on Big Food and the chemically-intensive, industrialized system of agriculture that we now have. It’d also be impossible to roll out in other countries: how on earth does GFI expect developing countries to afford a $450mm bioreactor to cover less than 1% of their protein needs? Everywhere we’ve outsourced our industrialized food system, poor health and environmental degradation has followed. This would be no different. 

I just can’t help but find this whole thing almost impossibly stupid. We’re actually proposing to spend trillions of dollars to “save the planet” with a solution that can’t and won’t work, won’t scale, and that no country can afford. But sure, let’s keep tossing money at this pretend solution to make everyone feel good, cows aren’t dying, yay! 

We are sick, our environment is sick, our food system sucks and makes us sicker, yet we’re stuck reading proposals to spend trillions of dollars on $17 lab-grown burgers that can’t scale, are bad for the environment and solve zero real problems. I’m all for thinking deeply about ways to improve our food system, but firmly believe that regenerative (or some other whole-ecosystem approach) is the path forward. 

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