Can Cultured Meat Displace Conventional Meat?
Developers of cultured meat technologies are convinced that their products will be safer and more environmentally friendly than conventional meat, not to mention the positive outcomes for farmed animal welfare. For animal advocates, the promise seems like a godsend – in theory, cultured meat could reduce the amount of suffering dramatically. And to do so without convincing existing meat consumers to change their diets? Bring it on!
Ever since the famous Mark Post’s lab-grown hamburger presentation in 2013, the lofty price tag of $325,000 per burger has been reduced significantly. The same research group claims to have cut it down manifold in just two years. Still, no one has mastered producing cultured meat cheaply and at a large scale as of yet. A recently published techno-economic analysis, commissioned by Open Philanthropy, looked into how likely it is that we will be able to displace a significant amount of conventional meat with cultured analogs in the near future.
The study was based on technological perspectives in industrial fermentation and upstream biopharmaceutical sectors to assess how much animal cell cultures could be scaled like a fermentation process. Although several microbial bioprocess technologies such as bioethanol production or wastewater treatment have been successfully scaled up over the last decades, the journey ahead of animal cell culture is poised to be a difficult one. Key challenging characteristics typical in cultured meat operations include:
- Slow cell growth rate.
- Small bioreactor volumes.
- Low final cell densities.
- Cell densities are severely limited by catabolite inhibition.
- High-quality growth media constituents are limited in availability.
- Ensuring aseptic operation raises capital costs significantly.
- A lot of progress in metabolic engineering is required.
- Value proposition differs greatly to that of, for example, pharmaceuticals, where selling prices can be as high as >$10 million/kg (fresh beef sells for ~$13/kg).
The significant barriers identified by the analysis indicate that major engineering effort will be required to meaningfully address any / each of them. However, addressing some or all of them is a must for the successful scale-up of animal cell culture. The author concludes that focusing on enhancing cell metabolic efficiencies and developing low-cost growth media from plant hydrolysates is critical. However, even if science makes leaps of progress in these two areas, cost-effective production of cultured meat would still be far off. A modeled facility of 24 bioreactors, of 20 cubic meters each, could produce nearly 7 thousand tonnes of wet cell mass per year, at a production cost of $37/kg. To put this “large” production scale into perspective, the current global production of plant-based meat alternatives is at 100 thousand tons, and the global production of conventional meat – as high as 320 million tons.
In the analysis, the only scenario where the production cost dipped below the $25/kg threshold was the one where a cheap amino acid source, from U.S. soybean hydrolysate, was utilized. However, the suitability of this material is still speculative, — a rise in use of this product for cultured meat production could create competition for its use in other areas of agriculture, thus potentially raising price. Reducing the production costs of cells is crucial, as there will be extra costs to be endured when bringing the product to market. Downstream tissue culture processing steps such as flavoring and forming will be necessary to make the products palatable – all at additional cost.
The analysis also suggests that several proposed innovations in the field, such as single-use bioreactors, culturing cold-blooded animal cells, or focusing on single-cell protein are not as promising as they might initially seem. The corresponding issues include incompatibility with large-volume production, no significant improvements in the economics, and the limited adoption of non-animal single-cell protein in the market so far, respectively.
While animal advocates have certainly been excited about the prospects — and encouraged by CEOs and companies trumpeting their products as imminent — it seems like cultured meat has a long way to go to transcend the status of an exclusive delicacy. However, we should make use of opportunities to make conventional meat more expensive. Rises in crude oil prices and pro-environment incentives helped biofuel research to skyrocket, after all. Perhaps, via a collective effort to remove subsidies given to animal farmers and instill a climate meat tax, we can decrease the monumental price difference that currently separates conventional and cultured meats.