Cultured meat and alternative protein are out to disrupt the meat industry. But Future Meat‘s Chief Science Officer Yaakov Nahmias says the quickest way to achieve that goal is through the infrastructure that’s already in place, including farmers. Nahmias sees poultry, pork and beef producers as a critical partnership for cultured meat start-ups and the meat industry’s transition.
During an interview two weeks ago, Nahmias said he envisions a role for what he calls hybrid farmers: Traditional livestock producers who invest in a bioreactor, a large steel vat that maintains the environment need for cells to grow and divide, allowing them to culture meat. Farmers could continue to raise livestock and simultaneously take advantage of the efficiency and safety advantages of cultured meat, Nahmias told me in an interview.
It takes between six weeks and six months for a chicken to reach market weight. Cattle require 14 to 22 months. But if a farmer were to invest in cultured meat, they could also produce a new crop of cultured meat every couple of weeks. Nahmias estimates that a bioreactor the size of a standard refrigerator could generate the mass of 100 chickens every two weeks. And farmers could easily vary the type of meat they’re growing from batch to batch based on demand. “You have the ability to do chicken today, pork for Christmas, and turkey for Thanksgiving and beef for Memorial Day,” he said.
There will always be a market for traditional agriculture, but this is a way for farmers to diversify, Nahmias told me. On top of faster production and the ability to grow a variety of meats, cultured meat also has a shorter supply chain because there’s no slaughter step. Farmers could sell directly to processors and packers. And maybe most importantly, hybrid farmers would have access to a new customer base–those buyers looking for animal-free protein.
There’s also a safety and efficiency advantage to cultured meat. Viruses can do serious damage to a flock or herd before they’ve even been detected, costing producers months of work and investment. But bioreactors– at least the ones manufactured by Future Meat– will offer real-time detection. A contamination would cost a farmer a couple weeks instead of months or whole animals, Nahmias said.
Culturing meat does have its limitations, like the fact that it’s not yet possible to produce high value cuts of meat like steaks, chicken breasts and pork chops in a bioreactor. Future Meat grows muscle and fat cells in separate bioreactors and then combines them using extrusion technology to give the desired texture. Other start-ups grow the fat and muscle cells concomitantly, but the outcome is the same: a ground product. There are companies developing ways to culture whole muscles, but that technology is a decade away from commercial application.
Nahmias acknowledges that right now farmers feel threatened by the alternative protein industry and cultured meat. “But they are threatened the same way horse cart drivers were threatened by the car,” he said. The car was a major investment, but in the long term it offered greater financial stability. In other words, the mode of production might be changing, but there’s still room for farmers to be involved.