Last week, The Counter’s Deputy Editor Joe Fassler wrote an article asking whether cultivated meat is the future of meat or just a billion-dollar boondoggle?
It’s a question worth asking. While many believe this new way of producing meat will radically change the food industry over the next decade, the reality is the technology required for scaling cultivated meat production to where it creates enough food to make a dent in the conventional meat market has yet to be invented.
Fassler starts his story with Paul Wood, who doubts the viability of cultivated meat as a traditional meat replacement. According to Fassler, Wood, the one time the executive director of global discovery for Pfizer Animal Health, couldn’t understand “how costly biomanufacturing techniques could ever be used to produce cheap, abundant human food.”
After years of wondering, Wood thought he’d get his answer early this year when the Good Food Institute (GFI) released a techno-economic analysis (TEA) about cultivated meat. The TEA from GFI broke down how the cultivated meat industry would tackle a series of technical challenges that they believed would eventually transform this early-stage technology into a volume producer of high-protein calories for the masses. The report, Fassler writes, “showed how addressing a series of technical and economic barriers could lower the production price from over $10,000 per pound today to about $2.50 per pound over the next nine years—an astonishing 4,000-fold reduction.”
Wood didn’t buy it. He thought GFI’s report trafficked in wishful thinking when it came to how the industry would address the hard technical challenges that needed to be overcome.
There’s some back and forth about the economics of cultivated meat production as Fassler wonders whether investors understand what advancements are needed for them to make their money back eventually, but perhaps the most interesting part of the story is when he looks at whether the science of cellular agriculture will support cell reproduction at the scale needed to make cultivated meat viable. New facilities are needed, and those facilities – called bioreactors – will need to be optimized to the point where contamination and bacteria growth do not ruin whole production runs and make cell-cultured meat production way too costly in the process. It hasn’t been done yet, and yet the entire industry is betting it can be.
I won’t recite the entire Counter article; you should read it yourself, since, after all, it’s an important and well-written piece of in-depth journalism. Instead, I’ll just say it makes a convincing case that viability of scaling cultivated meat production is the central existential question facing this industry, and it’s really THE only question that should be keeping investors in this space up at night.
In some ways, it reminds me of the decades-long debate about the feasibility of using nuclear fusion as a way to produce cheap, environmentally friendly energy for the masses. However, unlike nuclear fusion, investors are acting as if the science for cultivated meat is largely a solved problem. Because of this, money is pouring in, and aggressive timelines are being set.
Eventually, these same investors will insist they make a return on their investments, which means, more than likely, we won’t have to wait decades to find out if they are making a wise -or foolish – bet.