For at least a century, people have dreamed of being able to dine on plentiful meat without having to worry about the labor exploitation, environmental destruction, and animal cruelty that go along with it. In 1932, Winston Churchill predicted that within 50 years, “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” He added, “The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural products from the outset, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”
Churchill’s timeline didn’t pan out, but recent announcements from the burgeoning cell-cultured meat industry suggest that his vision has finally reached fruition, or at least come so close you can taste it—as long as you live in or can get yourself to Singapore. There, diners can order “dishes featuring high-quality [lab-grown] chicken made in a brand-new way” delivered to their door, according to an April 19 press release from Eat Just, a San Francisco alt-protein titan. Or, as a follow-up announcement on May 18 revealed, Singaporeans can head to Madame Fan, a fancy hotel restaurant, for the Thursday special: meals centered on “real meat without slaughter.” These product launches became possible when, in December 2020, Singapore became the first nation to approve cell-meat products for sale.
It likely won’t be the last. In December, Israel’s then–Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first head of state to publicly taste animal flesh grown in a vat instead of in the body of an animal. After savoring a bite of steak cultured by Aleph Farms, the embattled politician declared it “delicious and guilt-free,” adding that “I can’t taste the difference.” In a July 7 press release, Aleph Farms—the jewel of Israel’s bustling alternative-protein sector—vowed to make its cultured meat products publicly available in 2022.
Read the headlines, and you’d assume American consumers may soon have similar opportunities: “Meat Grown in Israeli Bioreactors Is Coming to American Diners,” Bloomberg reported in June, citing an announcement from another Israeli company, Future Meat Technologies, that its products would hit US restaurants next year if they can secure approval from regulators. Meanwhile, Upside Foods, the pioneering cell-ag company until recently known as Memphis Meats, plans to sell cell-based chicken by the end of this year, “pending regulatory review,” the company announced in May.
Such announcements give the impression that the industry is market-ready, save for ironing out a few minor details, mostly having to do with overzealous regulators. They’ve piqued the appetites of venture capitalists, many of whom are wowed by dreams of snatching a share of the $1.4 trillion global meat industry. Investors poured $350 million into the cultured-meat space in 2020, nearly double what had been invested into the industry up to that point, according to a recent report from the Good Food Institute, which promotes alternatives to animal agriculture. All told, the number of companies that have “publicly announced a business line in cultivated meat” stood at 40 by the end of 2020, versus five in 2015, GFI added.
The VC spigot continues gushing. In the first half of 2021, more than $250 million flowed into cell-meat startups, Bloomberg reports. Investors who have placed cash behind Churchill’s dream include a who’s who of celebrity moguls: Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Kimbal Musk, Sergey Brin, Peter Thiel, and John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods. Conventional meat giants Tyson and Cargill have also hedged their bets on the future of carnivory by investing in cell-based startups, and Swiss processed-food giant Nestle has announced plans to do the same.
So far, the industry has proven for more adept at churning out optimistic timelines than it has at offering consumers an alternative to meat from animals. With the help of New Harvest research fellow Allison Esperanza—building on a 2013 piece from the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal—I’ve compiled a list of claims made by companies and research institutions regarding their ambitions for when cell-grown meat will hit the market. As you can see, Churchill’s 1932 prediction of novel meat within a half-century ultimately begat a tsunami of similar prognostications. Back in 2005, Jason Matheny—then a University of Maryland graduate student, now a technology adviser to President Joe Biden—got the ball rolling. He foresaw that “within several years, lab meat could be used in Spam, sausage, and even chicken nuggets,” Discover reported. Such claims continued at a steady pace before exploding in 2015, when cell-meat startups began hitting the scene. “I am confident that we will have it on the market in five years,” the pioneering Dutch cell-meat researcher and entrepreneur Mark Post told the BBC that year, as he was preparing to roll out a company called Mosa Meat to do just that.
Promises, Promises: 15 Years of Claims About When Lab Meat Will Emerge
*Click on the bars for more information about each prediction.
It turns out that mimicking the complex biological processes that generate what eaters know as meat is mind-bogglingly difficult, and massive technological hurdles to doing it at scale remain. Rebecca Vaught, founder of Van Heron Labs, a biotechnology company that works with medical and cell-meat companies to streamline their cell-growth processes, argues the engineering challenges associated with cultured meat “are nearly on par with the engineering challenges with taking a man to the moon.”
The regulatory caveats aren’t trivial, either—these novel products have yet to pass muster with the US Food and Drug Administration and agriculture department, which in 2019 agreed to jointly oversee regulation of cell meat.
Excitement about cell-based meat may be flourishing. But the gap between current aspiration and ultimate achievement is not a notion you’re going to find spelled out on a press release heralding the imminent debut of lab-grown chicken nuggets at a restaurant near you.
Scientists have had the ability to extract animal cells and keep them alive and growing in a lab setting since the 1950s. In the 1980s, the technology blossomed into the field of tissue engineering—growing material in a lab to replace damaged or diseased tissue in people. Today’s cell-based meat companies apply those techniques to the task of generating animal flesh. But moving from the synthesis of small amounts of human tissue to mass production of food-grade beef, chicken, and pork requires a vast scaling up—a challenge that still hangs over the cell-meat industry.
In the early 2010s, a vascular biologist at the Maastricht University in the Netherlands named Mark Post began to generate headlines for his push to create beef from the cells of cows. “‘Cultured meat’—burgers or sausages grown in laboratory Petri dishes rather than made from slaughtered livestock—could be the answer that feeds the world, saves the environment and spares the lives of millions of animals,” gushed a 2011 Reuters article on Post’s effort.
At a 2013 event in London, Post’s team, funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, managed to move lab-grown meat from the test tube to a taste test. They presented a hamburger, cobbled together from 20,000 tiny shreds of muscle cultured from an adult cow’s stem cells. Cultured beef cells weren’t the only ingredients: The patty contained “salt, egg powder and bread crumbs (for taste and texture) as well as red beet juice and saffron (for color),” NBC News reported. Two intrepid eaters dug in. One found it “close to meat, but … not as juicy”; the other compared it to an “animal protein cake.” The price tag to produce the 5-ounce patty: $330,000.
The spectacle drew wide coverage (including from me); and inspired the first wave of startups to enter the field. Post himself, the Dutch scientist behind the $330,000 burger, founded one of the first, Mosa Meat, in 2015. “I am confident that we will have it on the market in five years,” Post told the BBC around that time.
As that first burst of hype swelled, skepticism among scientists surfaced. The basic problems involved the difficulty of identifying animal cell lines that could reproduce rapidly; figuring out how to feed them; deciding what to grow them on (in the absence of bone, cartilage, etc.); figuring out how to exercise the growing flesh (because muscles need force to develop); and inventing machines (known as bioreactors), where all of this can be done at scale. (Six years later, all of these challenges remain, according to a 2020 engineering assessment commissioned by Open Philanthropy. It found that a “significant engineering effort would be required to address even one of these issues.”)
In a 2012 Discover piece, Christina Agapakis, then a post-doctoral synthetic biology researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, put it like this: “Cell culture is one of the most expensive and resource-intensive techniques in modern biology,” she wrote. “Keeping the cells warm, healthy, well-fed, and free of contamination takes incredible labor and energy, even when scaled to the 10,000-liter vats that biotech companies use.”
One problem is differentiation. A cow or pig loin is a complex matrix of muscle, fat, and sinew. Tissue engineering had succeeded in creating small muscle strands, but not in meshing them with the other elements that make up meat. Then there’s automation: Animal muscle develops under the pressure of activity—a cow meandering across a meadow, say, or a human pumping iron or moving a heavy object. Lab-grown “wads of meat would have to be exercised regularly with stretching machinery, essentially elaborate meat gyms,” she added. No such machinery had been invented.
But perhaps the most daunting challenge of all hanging over the industry was nourishment required for lab-grown flesh. Just as cows don’t fatten out of thin air—they convert fodder into beef—in-vitro cells don’t magically turn into meat. They, too, needs to consume something if they’re going to grow—and it turns out to be extremely difficult to figure out an affordable food source. “The growth medium that provides nutrients, vitamins, and growth hormones to the cells is currently made with a mixture of sugars and amino acids supplemented with fetal bovine serum,” Agapakis wrote.
Fetal bovine serum is a slaughterhouse byproduct (it’s blood extracted from the unborn fetuses of slaughtered cows) used mainly by the biomedical industry in tiny amounts, to nourish small clusters of cells. Its complex mix of growth factors have proven hard to replace when it comes to nurturing animal cells outside of a living body. Its price—currently, $490 per liter—contributed to the hefty price tag of that London burger.
On top of the sticker shock, relying on a specialty byproduct from the conventional meat industry contradicts the goal of eliminating animal slaughter. It would be as if solar panels required waste from the fossil fuel industry to function efficiently.
Replacing fetal bovine serum remains a challenge. Agapakis says that the composition of the substance—what precisely it contains that makes it the secret sauce required for cell to thrive—remains little studied and thus understood. It will be difficult to eliminate it as a key component of cell meat without better understanding it. “I think there’s probably a whole new supply chain that does need to form” to provide serum-free growth media to cell meat companies, she says. “And a lot of innovation in the biological manufacturing space will need to happen to make that possible.”
These days, Agapakis holds the position of creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company that uses genetic engineering to tweak bacteria into making compounds with industrial applications—including ones that could be useful to the cell-meat industry. She describes its business line as “cell programming for hire.” Ginkgo Bioworks doesn’t directly participate in the creation of synthetic flesh, but its genetically tweaked organisms could, say, provide the compounds necessary to replacing fetal bovine serum in growth medium. In a sense, if cell meat ever does boom, Ginkgo Bioworks could function like the purveyors who provide shovels to miners during a gold rush.
I recently asked Agapakis whether, in the near-decade since the publication of her Discover piece, the tech challenges she teased out had been addressed. “I think people are still kind of addressing or dancing around this need for growth factors to grow the cells,” she said. One or more of the 40 startups working on one synthesizing meat production may have cracked the code of growing cells efficiently without fetal bovine serum, but none have demonstrated it publicly. “A lot of the prototypes you see are still grown using it,” she says. They’re trying to point toward a “story of how, in the future, we’ll be able to do it without” the serum. But they haven’t gotten there yet.
Cut through the cloud of VC cash and breathless press releases, and skepticism about the imminent availability of lab-grown meat products abound.
Bill Gates, a perpetual techno-optimist and an early investor in Upside Foods, recently aired doubts about cell-grown meat. Asked about the topic in a February MIT Technology Review interview, he replied, “I don’t know that that will ever be economical.”
In December 2020, the same month Singapore’s food safety agency was approving Eat Just’s lab chicken, a San Francisco-based foundation called Open Philanthropy released an engineering assessment examining the economic viability of lab-based meat. Funded largely by billionaire Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, Open Philanthropy has been sympathetic to the goal of replacing animal meat with cell meat—it’s a major funder to the Good Food Institute. The paper, later published in abbreviated form in the peer-reviewed journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, concluded that “Capital- and operating-cost analyses of conceptual cell-mass production facilities indicate production economics that would likely preclude the affordability of their products as food.” Translation: what Bill Gates said.
Even Bruce Friedrich, founder of the Good Food Institute and a tireless champion of lab-based meat as the killer app for replacing industrial livestock production, recently tapped the brakes on the notions of imminent emergence. “If we leave this endeavor to the tender mercies of the market there will be vanishingly few products to choose from and it’ll take a very long time,” he told the New York Times’ Ezra Klein in an April interview. Inspired by Friedrich, Klein called for a federally funded “moonshot” to “supercharge this industry.” Of course, if cell meat were actually almost ready for prime time, than the field wouldn’t need a big injection of federal R&D funds.
Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit research institute that supports open-source cultured-meat research, says the industry remains in a nascent phase, and needs years of expensive basic research before it’s ready to seriously challenge conventional meat. “Basically, anyone can go and culture cells, put them together into some mass, and you can eat it,” she says. “But to do it cost-effectively, to do that with a lifecycle assessment and supply chain that we can be proud of, all the way upstream and downstream—I know that we can’t do that yet.”
But that won’t stop visionary tech startup founders from touting their quixotic quests—and dragging us along for the ride. Will some number of US eaters have the opportunity to taste vat-grown chicken meat sometime this year or next? Possibly. But as long as they have the approval of regulatory agencies, any well-funded startup can perform restaurant demos without solving all (or even any) of the technology’s ongoing hurdles.
Eat Just’s rollout in Singapore is a case in point. The company uses “a very low level” of fetal bovine serum (that pricey slaughterhouse byproduct) to culture its products, Andrew Noyes, Eat Just’s head of global communications, wrote in an email to Mother Jones. “In parallel, we have also developed an animal-free nutrient recipe to feed our cells and have successfully created chicken that does not require animal derived ingredients in the culture media,” he added. “We will bring that to commercialization pending regulatory review.”
Currently, only 70 percent of Eat Just’s Singapore chicken product consists of lab meat. Conventional plant-based ingredients comprise the rest, “providing structure, breading and spices,” according to a report in the Nature Biotechnology, an assessment confirmed by Noyes. The need for plant-based additives to provide “structure” recalls the breadcrumbs in that $330,000 patty served in London eight years ago. It also suggests that the company’s process isn’t mimicking animal-grown chicken texture just yet.
Then there’s the economics. Just as ride-sharing giant Uber still hemorrhages money, its losses covered by investors betting on future profitability, “Eat Just takes a loss on the product, pricing it on par with organic chicken,” and scaling production up to where it’s profitable “will take another three to six years,” the company told Nature Biotechnology. In his email, Noyes reiterated that assessment, but declined to specify the company’s production costs for the chicken in the $17 dishes being sold by Madame Fan, its partner restaurant in Singapore. “Our cultured chicken costs continue to drop with more than a 90 percent decrease in media and total costs since 2018,” he added. “We have a clear path to continue reducing our costs below that of conventional chicken, which will happen in the coming years ahead as we expand our manufacturing capacity and continue to improve our process.”
So, texture remains a problem for this cell-based poultry, it still needs a boost from fetal bovine serum for its products now in the market, and commercial viability is still a future goal, not a settled fact. Next time you read an article hailing the imminent disruption of Big Ag by tech startups promising slaughter-free burgers or chicken nuggets, be sure to dig into the details. It’s unlikely that the solution to the problems generated by industrial-scale meat production will come from a bioreactor pulsing with cells gleaned from a chicken, cow, or pig. At least, not anytime soon.
Top image credit: Mother Jones illustration; Sergei Karpukhin/TASS via Getty; Robert Alexander/Getty; Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty