Bring home the culture bacon1 December 2022
One initiative currently going under the radar that could eventually gain significant traction is cell-based meat. Given cell-based meat is produced from animal cells, without needing to kill the animal, it’s likely to become popular with flexitarians. Martin Morris speaks to Daan Luining, CTO & co-founder of Meatable, Mark Post, co-founder and CSO of Mosa Meat and Professor Tom MacMillan of the Royal Agricultural University, to find out the current state of play from a research standpoint and what obstacles remain in place commercially.
While the cell-based (cultivated) meat space may not be a huge one just yet, a study from AT Kearney argues that it’s more than capable, longer-term, of disrupting the existing multibillion-dollar global conventional meat industry. Indeed, it’s forecasting that cultivated meat will comprise 35% of the global meat market by 2040 and, in combination with plant-based products, alternative proteins will likely have a more than 55% market share over the same time frame.
The term ‘cultivated meat’, however, is a generalised one used by many companies, all of whom are applying different technologies to their production processes, according to Daan Luining, CTO & co-founder, of Netherlands-based Meatable.
The production process involves cells being grown in a controlled cultivator, resulting in an edible product that looks, cooks and tastes – its industry adherents claim – just like a conventional cut of meat.
A novel formula
While many may still be in the experimental stage, Meatable is already launching its cultivated pork sausage meat – made with mature muscle and fat cells – into Singapore, having teamed up with ESCO Aster in a deal that will enable it to produce cultivated pork, including dumplings, sausages and other products, for customers in the city state. This should come as no surprise though, given the favourable regulatory environment there. And while Singapore currently imports 90% of its food – each citizen consuming an average of 62kg of meat per person annually – it’s working towards so-called ‘30 by 30’ – that is, building up its agri-food industry’s capability and capacity to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030.
Moreover, it has legislative and regulatory processes in place than can assess cultivated meat applications within 9–12 months. This contrasts sharply with the EU and UK, where cultivated meat is classified as a ‘novel food’ and regulation assessments can take anywhere from 36–60 months, according to Luining. “With long processes and unclear guidelines surrounding the assessment of applications, it’s a challenging environment for scale ups like ours,” he says. Indeed, the elephant in the room has always been how quickly the industry can be commercially scaled-up. Some have argued that laboratory-grown meat has been stuck in the experimental stage and that for it to become a commercially viable industry, tissue needs to be grown efficiently at scale.
“In terms of achieving scale, what matters most is the biomass accumulation rate,” says Luining, adding: “If it takes a company six weeks to achieve great cell densities, then they won’t have achieved realistic scale. This is one of the reasons we chose iPScs (induced pluripotent stem cells).”
“As they have a faster proliferation rate, they divide faster and the accumulation of kilograms of meat is also faster. We are in the process of scaling up and working to decrease the cost of the media. If the development of media becomes more mature, costs will decrease.”
Invest in the culture
In the meantime, help is at hand – the Dutch government announced in April that it would allocate €60m ($65m) to support the formation of an ecosystem around cellular agriculture. This represents the largest public funding into the cellular agriculture field ever, globally. Funding is awarded under conditions set by the country’s National Growth Fund, which aims to create structural economic growth by investing in the public domain to support innovative economic sectors.
Yet it’s a long haul – investment wise – especially when measured against the size of the global meat industry, estimated at $897bn in 2021, according to Statista. Indeed, as Mosa Meat’s Mark Post is quick to point out, for example: “Despite the increase in funding for the cultivated meat industry, public support and funding has been lacking, (but) governments are starting to include cellular agriculture in their policies and future plans.”
The Netherlands aside, Post cites the US, where two cellular agriculture consortia have been funded as Centers of Excellence. “However, more is required to encourage open-source research and to develop the knowledge infrastructure.”
The next level
Like Meatable, Netherlands-based Mosa Meat is part of Cellular Agriculture Europe and a member of Cellular Agriculture Netherlands. A regular publisher of findings aimed at furthering the objectives of the industry, its recent employee-led paper – regarding cell feed and single-cell sequencing (‘Single-cell analysis of bovine muscle-derived cell types for cultured meat production’) – details what’s being done and what needs to be done in this space.
“If it takes a company six weeks to achieve great cell densities, then they won’t have achieved realistic scale.”
The percentage of imported food in Singapore, which it hopes to reduce to 30% by 2030.
Post remains upbeat arguing his company has already achieved a number of milestones towards scaling up – including reducing the costs of its cell feed and finding food grade substitutes for the ingredients.
“We’re confident the industry will be making progress on scaling up while reducing costs. In fact, we’re seeing the first evidence of scaling up with facilities currently being built,” he says, adding: “To create a quality product, Mosa Meat is prioritising making a mature tissue with rich tasting muscle and nutritious fat, and using the best possible process to create real beef. Getting to parity takes time, but for mass scale consumer adoption we believe it is essential.”
Professor Tom MacMillan, Elizabeth Creak chair in rural policy & strategy at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU), takes a more nuanced view, however. While he notes the cultured meat industry is self evidently focused on tackling the technical challenges that currently make it difficult to scale efficiently and cost-effectively, the big question comes down to one of timescale.
The sector might stumble into some really crippling technical blocks, or it might skip through them at an ever-faster pace.”
Professor Tom MacMillan
The estimated value of the global meat industry in 2021.
“Of course, you can extrapolate how fast this might happen based on the rate of innovation so far and expect these technologies to become commercially viable on a larger scale in the next decade or so.
“But as this is about solving problems that are as yet unsolved, there’s obviously no guarantee. The sector might stumble into some really crippling technical blocks, or it might skip through them at an ever-faster pace,” he says
He adds that it’s striking that some of the barriers and opportunities to scaling have had much more attention than others. “There’s a lot of focus on the science, and a bit on who might eat the stuff. But much less, as far as I can see, on supply chains. Where are the raw materials going to come from and how much will they cost? How will the product get to market?
MacMillan also notes that the environmental impact of cultured meat is as much in the balance as its commercial viability. “It isn’t competitive on either yet,” he says, “but it might be in the next decade.
“On both counts, though, it’s crucial to compare it not only with meats – which of course already have a huge range of environmental impacts and commercial propositions – but also with plant-based, fermented and other meat alternatives. Even if cultured meat starts to compete with livestock, will it ever perform well enough against other alternatives to be anything more than a niche?”
In the meantime, the RAU is leading its own research into the threats and opportunities cultured meat poses for UK farmers, for example.
“They’ve been largely missing from the picture so far. Perhaps that’s because the answer seems that it’s so obviously a threat. But the reality is likely to be more varied. Some livestock farmers will face direct competition, but others might find it complementary,” he says. “Other farmers may grow ingredients or feedstock for this new market. There’s also long been a school of thought, especially in the Netherlands, that you could even see on-farm craft-scale production. We’re looking into all of that, working with the industry, farmers, investors, NGOs and policymakers,” he further notes.
Uncertain times ahead
One particular strand of work the RAU is currently undertaking is mapping the ingredients currently used in cultured meat production and looking for agricultural alternatives. Macroeconomically, however, the one major issue that’s unlikely to go away – and highlighted by MacMillan – will be the integrity of supply chains once production can be scaled-up commercially.
The hangover from, and possible re-emergence of, the Covid-19 pandemic that saw global supply chains come under stress hasn’t gone away. And with the ongoing war in Ukraine, it’s unlikely to anytime soon. Factor in future possible ‘black swan’ events and the optimism about getting alternative meat products to market efficiently, may yet prove to be misplaced – even if the research progresses on a (relatively) smooth path.
Indeed, despite the growing awareness of the impact of the meat industry, that market continues to grow and is still not meeting the volume in demand. In an era of growing food insecurity and increased concerns for animal welfare, alternative proteins can provide viable alternative solutions. Now it’s up to industry to advance this via research, as well as seize the PR initiative.