Cell-based meat on the table as financial and Covid pressures take their toll

As startling new figures present a compelling argument for cellular agriculture, what are the key challenges and opportunities faced by investors and how will it fit into the future farming landscape?

While there has been much talk about the market for cell-based meat of late, recent events have sharpened the focus of both investors and environmentalists. 

For many, slaughter-free meat represents the future – a panacea that satisfies both the environmentalists and our continued hunger for protein from animals.

Cell-based meat: what is it?

Not to be confused with plant-based alternatives, cell-based meat is exactly what it professes to be. By creating products from cell cultures, lab-grown meat is grown from real animal tissue in a controlled environment that is free from bacteria and disease. Typically these might be muscle, fat or stem cells – to which the practices of tissue engineering are applied – as they grow in a bioreactor, evolving into muscle cells that replicate the taste and consistency of traditional meat.

Interestingly, the idea of cellular agriculture is not a new one. Back in 1932 Winston Churchill had been musing over what the world might look like in the 1980s when he published an essay called ‘Fifty Years hence’. Within this were a number of futuristic predictions such as ‘wireless telephones and television’ and also a vision of a planet that would escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing’. Instead Churchill envisioned a less ‘inefficient and wasteful’ world where these parts would be grown “separately under a suitable medium”.

In many respects today’s innovators share the same visions. While there are various reasons for the interest in cell-based meat, the environmental challenges faced worldwide and increasing pressure on farmers as the world’s population continues to grow at pace remain the most pressing.

The case for cellular agriculture

With a United Nations report suggesting the world’s population could hit 9.7bn by 2050, further data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) points to demand for meat and milk growing by a staggering 70%. Left unchecked, that could have far reaching consequences.

To add some context to that, it’s believed that during the 1990s, humans were deforesting an area the size of Portugal every year to make room for cattle ranches and associated feeder crops.

Fast-forward to 2020 and our total global meat consumption stood at more than 300mn tonnes per year. Various sources suggest there may now be as many as 1.5bn cows on the planet, with animal agriculture responsible for almost 15% of global greenhouse emissions. However, according to the UN, around 65% of those emissions come from beef and dairy cattle alone.

Such startling figures present a compelling argument for cellular agriculture. In the case of cell-based beef, for instance, there is a 95% reduction in land use in comparison to its conventional counterpart. If you also take into account a drop in green house gas emissions of somewhere between 95-99% according to cultured meat producers Mosa Meat and Future Meat Technologies – could a more sustainable future beyond industrial farming soon be a possibility?

The meat sector has certainly been facing additional pressure from environmentalists and animal rights activists for many years now and, as legislation on these issues tightens, investors are looking to broaden their options elsewhere as the risks associated with holding meat portfolios increase.

Back in March last year, new financial modelling from the FAIRR Initiative suggested that the future physical impacts of climate change and rapid growth of alternative proteins would also put billions of dollars at risk for the likes of Tyson Foods and JBS who supply more familiar household names such as McDonald’s, Walmart, Burger King and Marks & Spencer.

Covid-19 and cell-based meat: the pandemic effect

Of course, although such risks form an important consideration in the future of meat production, 2020 brought the current pitfalls associated with meat and poultry processing facilities and packing plants to the fore.

As the coronavirus outbreak rapidly swept across geographies, its effect on the meat supply chain landscape became all too clear. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 17,000 cases of COVID-19 and almost 100 deaths were reported at US meat and poultry processing facilities between April and May alone last year.

In Europe it was a similar story. In July last year, Toennies, a slaughterhouse and meat producer in Germany was forced to shut down the country’s largest meat processing plant after more than 1,500 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Unfortunately, low temperatures and crowded working conditions have turned meatpacking plants into coronavirus hotspots.

Such disruptions could effectively be avoided in the future as cell-based agriculture would remove this aspect of industrial livestock farming and meat production, with lab-grown alternatives eliminating waste and disease to offer continuity and simplicity in the supply chain instead.

Investors betting on cell-based meat to diversify risk

With the market fast approaching scalability, investors are certainly providing capital for bringing lab-grown burgers to your plate at a price that’s palatable – back in 2013 the world’s first lab-grown burger cost a mouth watering €250,000.

Between 2018-19, investments in cultured meat start-ups grew more than 120%, with more than 60 companies now having entered the space as they seek to produce cultured beef, chicken, pork and seafood. Last year that trend grew even further, with cultivated or cell-based meat companies raising 417% more than in 2019, according the Good Food Institute.

Out of those firms, Memphis Meats has seen the most funding interest, raising just shy of US$200mn to date having reached Series B funding in the last year. However, strategic investors continuing to look for innovation and a scalable approach have also helped the likes of BlueNalu, Future Meat and Mosa Meat in raising further funding.

The latter, the original player in the space, recently received a further €16.3mn from investors including Blue Horizon Ventures, ArcTern Ventures, Rubio Impact Ventures and Mitsubishi Corp., taking its series B funding to around US$75m.

This is of particular interest as Mosa Meat has developed a plant-based alternative to the commonly used fetal bovine serum (FBS) for feeding cultured cells. In doing so, its Medium Optimisation team says that the removal of FBS and development of ‘animal-free media’ has reduced the cost by 88 times. Long-term, this will help the Dutch start-up to be cost effective at scale whilst also solving ethical questions for the firm.

Constructing a market outlook for cultured meat

As funding and research continue at pace, we can begin to construct possible timelines and market outlooks for cultured meat. A recent report from AT Kearney predicts that, by 2040, 35% of all meat will be cultured, with 60% of this grown in vats or replaced by plant-based alternatives.

One reflection of this trend is provided by some of the deals already happening in the space. Three years ago, China signed a US$300mn agreement to purchase lab-grown meat from Israel, thereby bringing the idea of clean meat to a whole new audience.

Given the sheer scale of the Chinese market, this is highly significant. With a population of over 1.4bn people the country spends £10bn a year on meat imports and has already committed to reduce its meat consumption by 50%.

This year, we’ve already seen Israel's Aleph Farms ink an agreement to have Mitsubishi Corp.'s Food Industry Group bring cultivated meat to Japan. By using Aleph’s BioFarm manufacturing platform and the latter’s expertise in biotechnology and the local markets, the pair hope to be at pilot stage by the end of next year.


Cultured meat gains regulatory approval but sceptics remain

However, one recent breakthrough could prove to be the landmark moment many in the meat industry have craved. Regulators in Singapore have approved ‘Chicken Bites’ from the US firm Eat Just and this marks the first time that cultured meat has been green-lighted for sale to the general public.

This is a crucial step in the evolution of cell-based products and one that Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just, believes will come to be remembered as one of the most ‘significant milestones’ for the food industry in decades.

“It’s an open door and it’s up to us and other companies to take that opportunity”, he says. “My hope is this leads to a world in the next handful of years where the majority of meat doesn’t require killing a single animal or tearing down a single tree.”

Yet, it appears that not everyone shares the same appetite for a cultured meat future.

In France, Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie has questioned whether this is the kind of society people want for their children in a recent tweet.

“Me, no,” he says. “I say it clearly, meat comes from life, not from laboratories. Count on me so that in France, meat remains natural and never artificial!”

While such misgivings reflect the historical culture of countries such as France, there is another issue at play here. For Europe, there are strict regulations for food legislation governed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), meaning the technology is likely to be well behind other regions in terms of getting to market.

Labelling and marketing cultured meat

Another point of debate surrounds the marketing of cultured meat and the use of the word ‘meat’ itself. In vitro meat, argue some purists, should be labelled as such, so that people know whether it has been sourced from live animals or grown in a laboratory.

This has already caused much debate and France has already taken the step of banning misleading phrases that contain meat and dairy-related words such as ‘sausage’ and ‘milk’ from vegetarian and vegan food packets. The US has also seen similar pushback from livestock farmers and this led to Missouri being the first of several US states to pass meat-labelling laws to prevent the use of the word “meat” for food products not originating from livestock or poultry.

Further legislation by the Senate echoed the strength of feeling around the subject in the Real MEAT (Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully) Act of 2019, with the USDA and FDA agreeing on each agency’s responsibilities  for regulating cell-based meat in the same year. In this case, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has said it will publish an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) to seek public comments to better inform future labelling rules for cell-based meat and poultry products.

Cell-based meat and ethics

So where does this leave us? Clearly, the trend towards sustainability and improving animal welfare strengthens the case for vegetarians and vegans alike. But at the same, it’s clear that the desire to consume meat isn’t going away and cell-based cultured products remove the two main perceived barriers to meat consumption. 

Ethically speaking, cultured meat also solves several other questions whilst reducing the overuse of products like antibiotics in the food chain, so for these reasons  may gain new consumer acceptance.

Conversely, the use of ‘clean meat’ allows us to create products with added vitamins, whilst removing contaminants such as seafood laced with mercury and microplastics. With a UN report suggesting there are more than 51 trillion microplastic particles in the sea – more than 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy – removing some of these from our diet might be a good idea.

Addressing environmental concerns around cell-based meat

But could the switch to cultured meat prove to be costly for the environment in other ways? There is certainly some logic to this, as current figures reveal high-energy consumption and carbon emissions in small-scale production facilities. However, those working in the space point to both price parity and huge reductions in both water usage and carbon emissions when they begin producing cell-based meats on an industrial scale.

Of course, low-carbon energy sources that fuel production will be key if lab-grown meat is to help in the drive to reduce emissions and remove questions surrounding the longer lasting impact of carbon versus methane gas pollution.

As John Lynch and Raymond Pierrehumbert note in their report Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle, improved greenhouse gas (GHG) emission efficiency of production is viewed as one of the biggest potential advantages of cultured meat versus conventional livestock production systems.

According to the pair, the climate impact of cultured meat production hinges on the level of decarbonized energy generation that can be achieved in addition to the specific environmental footprints of production.

The future for cultured meat production

“There is a need for detailed and transparent lifecycle assessment of real cultured meat production systems,” they argue. “Based on currently available data, cultured production does not necessarily give license for unrestrained meat consumption.”

While key challenges remain ahead in the cell-based meat landscape that still need addressing, there are opportunities too. In the meantime the next step for players in the space is getting wide-scale regulatory approval for products that are safe at a price point that works for consumers.

To do that, they will have to develop lab-grown products that replicate the taste and consistency of traditional meat on a scale never seen before using decarbonised or renewable energy solutions. This will mean a continued focus on cell-specific serum-free media.

But as investment continues to pour in and more products become available, it seems highly likely that we’ll see a growing consumer acceptance of products in the same way that we transitioned from horse and cart to the first motor vehicles just over a century ago.

Of course, the shift to more sustainable forms of protein consumption has already begun − cultured meat will also face strong competition from other meat substitutes and plant-based products already in play.

However, while we all strive for improvements in the food chain, there must be careful consideration of where this all fits in socioeconomically and politically within the current farming landscape too. This will be key to governments and farmers alike. Much to consider then!