- Consider the chicken nugget.
These nugs look like your average breaded and fried processed meat product, but to some people, the chicken nugget symbolizes pretty much everything that's wrong with the meat industry.
We're talking a myriad of environmental issues, poor working conditions, and more.
They're bad for you, bad for the people who make them, bad for the planet, and of course, bad for the chickens.
But these aren't your normal nuggets.
They were grown in a lab, which means they're not part of the current meat industrial complex.
They cost about 50 bucks to make, each.
Lab-grown meat, or cell-cultured meat, might just be the answer to the nastiness of our current meat industry woes.
But is it the magic cure-all it seems to be?
Where is this industry headed?
I'm Swapna Krishna.
Let's explore the future of meat.
[upbeat music] ♪ Let's start with the basics.
How do we make cultured meat?
Essentially it works like this.
Scientists take the general cells of an animal or a plant and recreate its ideal growth in an artificial environment.
As the cells replicate, they're moved into bigger and bigger containers.
To keep the cells healthy and growing, they're fed a liquid growth medium of nutrients.
It's a combination of purified water, salts, glucose, amino acids, as well as growth factors, the hormones, recombinant proteins, and cytokines that regulate cell development and metabolism.
Eventually they're transferred to a bio reactor, think the large fermenters you see in breweries.
Oh yum, nothing like a vat of meat to make you hungry.
The cells keep dividing, but they also undergo changes.
Up until now, these cells have been general cells that are just replicating.
At this point they differentiate in order to become the final cell.
Meat is made up of different cell types, muscle, fat, or connective tissue.
To recreate both the texture and the flavor in a lab, you need the right combination of cells.
Lastly, the cells are made into a final product.
So far the easiest option is nuggets, sort of like a scoop of cookie dough, you just kind glob it out.
At some point, though, we might get it to resemble a specific cut of meat with techniques like scaffolding and 3D printing.
- So the technology works, so I think that's step number one, but I think by virtue of the technology working there's been a lot of hype.
- We have never replicated this process on massive scales, the kind we would need to feed humans.
So far, cell-cultured meat growth happens mostly in labs, not factories.
But what would it take to replace the current meat industry altogether?
Well, in order to produce just 1% of the global meat market, we'd need 220 to 440 million liters of bioreactor capacity.
That's roughly 88 to 176 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The entire biopharma industry only has about 10 swimming pools worth.
And remember that would only cover 1% of the current meat industry.
Basically, we need to create entirely new infrastructure in order for this to work, for massive factories filled with bioreactors to source cell lines and growth media.
More on that later.
And that's assuming we can make the societal shift to eating lab-grown meat.
- Right, we're essentially creating cells from scratch, right?
We need to produce these animal cells for the product, but also in bioreactors that do not exist.
So all this manufacturing sort of equipment needs to be built from scratch, and that's not cheap.
- All of that is going to be really expensive and require lots of tech breakthroughs.
Let's start with cell lines.
These are the cells you use in order to start growing the meat.
There aren't many publicly available cell banks you can order from, at least partially because of the lack of government funding.
That means that current researchers either have to get cell lines from meat producers or use mouse cells to test.
And picking the right cell line, one that can grow continuously and become the kind of cell you need, muscle or fat, without dying off, is crucial.
Cells are sensitive and need the right growth medium to stay alive and healthy.
That's the second part of this, the nutrient-dense broth used to feed cells.
This is where the scary-sounding and ethically-dubious fetal bovine serum, or FBS, comes in.
It's the secret sauce that keeps cell cultures alive and thriving.
It's been the driving factor in many life-saving therapies and vaccines, but it's made from cow fetuses.
When a cow is slaughtered, it's often pregnant, especially dairy cows which are kept pregnant to produce milk.
The fetus is euthanized and it's blood is extracted for the serum.
It's expensive, upwards of $800 per liter, and it's a big reason that cultured meat is also expensive.
Plus, let's be clear, it's cruel in an industry that's being touted as cruelty free.
Alternatives do exist.
Essential 8 is one example which contains no animal products, but they too are expensive and often have fewer nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, which leads to slower cell growth, and ultimately higher costs.
Companies would need to charge $200,000 per pound to break even.
- You know, it's just a whole new ball game.
It's all driven by cost, cost, and cost, and you've gotta get cost down.
But like any technology, the initial products will probably be a little more expensive, that's a given, and as it scales, it'll come down and down.
- So then, what's the future of meat?
Are we gonna be eating lab-grown filet mignons?
- We're talking about a very nascent industry that's been overhyped.
But it hasn't been overhyped because the technology doesn't exist, it's been over hype because the technology hasn't had time to come to maturity.
- There are more than 100 startups active right now.
In 2021, investment in the lab-grown meat space grew 336% to $1.38 billion.
But those resources are tied up in private companies, and their research is largely proprietary.
That means that none of it will be publicly available for other scientists to build upon or study.
What's more, last year the USDA awarded a $10 million grant to researchers at Tufts University to tackle scaling up cultured beat.
But in contrast, the USDA has spent $50 billion on subsidies for livestock operators since 1995.
It's easy to forget how subsidized the current meat industry is.
Current market prices for meat don't actually reflect production costs, and we haven't even talked about the challenges of actually bringing these products to market.
- Pretty much in a nutshell, these three competences, zero free media, scaffolding, bio reactors, which are scalable from a tech perspective.
And that's only one part of the story, right?
The other part is like building the supply chain, right?
- But here's the thing, are the costs of not pivoting to lab-grown meat too high to ignore?
- As more consumers care about the environment and animal health and human health, it's inevitable.
It's the only good option we have.
- We've already seen a huge shift in Americans eating less meat.
36% are eating less than they were just a few years ago.
There's also a growing interest in more sustainable protein alternatives, such as soy and even insects.
Cultured meat could help offset the massive environmental and ethical toll that the meat industry takes, but will people eat it?
- It's gonna take some learning for the consumers, and if they are willing to be open.
- It's clear we're not quite there yet with cultured meat, but we are getting closer.
- I do think that the basic science could be far accelerated with public funding.
A lot of groundbreaking, basic science we rely on every day, right?
From cellular telephones, to location services, to the internet itself, to, as I just mentioned, mRNA vaccines, were either developed entirely in government labs with public funding, or were partially supported.
- Governments have been hesitant to shell out for lab-grown meat research, because it crosses disciplines, part tissue construction, how do we get a perfectly marbleized steak?
Part cell research, part food science, and part engineering, but that's slowly changing.
- I look at where we were three, five years ago, and I could check off these boxes of things we've made major progress on, not little progress, major progress.
So I am so confident, but we're not there yet, I don't wanna say we're there, I'm just saying the progress with our lab and other labs has been really, really strong, and it's continuing.
- What do you think about lab-grown meat?
Would you eat it?
Let us know when the comments.
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