From “no-kill” chicken grown in bioreactors to juicy plant-based burgers, alternative protein options are cropping up (in extremely limited quantities) in the grocery aisle, at restaurants, and on your plate. The big question of the last few months, however, is whether alternative proteins could realistically scale to challenge conventional meat protein dominance.
During the pandemic, alternative proteins saw a rise in consumer spending as people became more conscious of their health and the environmental impacts of traditional meat, and as meat shortages affected households. This year, though, sales dropped, and skepticism of alternative meat’s staying power grew.
However, according to a recent report by the Good Food Institute, governments around the world are investing in public partnerships to the tune of $1 billion globally, indicating that alternative proteins could be an important component of national approaches to food security.
The upshot: Governments around the world are more ready to fund alternative proteins in the wake of unstable food prices in 2022, a year that shed light on the effect of geopolitical tensions on food security. By developing an alternative protein sector, countries such as Singapore and Israel aim to be more self-sufficient while transforming their agriculture sector to be resistant in the face of wars, climate change, and export bans.
Not only could investing more in alternative meats buoy countries’ food sovereignty aspirations, it could help their economies. If governments continue to invest in cellular agriculture — the process behind no-kill, lab-grown meat, different from plant-based meat substitutes like Beyond or Impossible meat — then the report estimates that there could be $1.1 trillion in global economic activity by 2050 and 9.8 million jobs in the sector. For reference, the meat industry value globally was $897.5 billion in 2021.
Though the $1 billion benchmark bodes well for the staying power of alternative protein, and it’s certainly enough to get some projects off the ground, the GFI report estimates that much more will be needed to truly scale alternative proteins — about $10.1 billion total.
That’s because, while veggie burgers have been around for a long time, making plant-based meat that is as affordable and tasty as conventional meat is still in the early stages — which means it’s expensive. That’s even more the case for cellular agriculture, which needs a whole set of infrastructure to produce real meat at scale. Both plant-based and cultured meat need government funding to get from lab to table in meaningful quantities.
In the case of cellular agriculture, success depends most on advancements in the research and development phase, where technical hurdles, such as how to build sufficiently large bioreactor facilities, remain. Success will also depend on the commercialization phase, where regulators approve the sale of these new food products and production scales up to make cultivated meat affordable, but there are already positive signs in that direction: Regulators in the US have cleared two companies, Upside Foods and Good Meat, to sell cultivated chicken in restaurants.
Ultimately, though, in order to make cellular agriculture widely available, more than regulatory approval is needed. Governments must boldly provide funding to universities and public-private initiatives, through grants and investment. We know what global instability can do to a nation’s food security. It’s time to get a headstart on creating lower-emissions alternative proteins.
The technological and supply hurdles
Unlike other alternative protein options, such as the soy protein often used in vegan nuggets, creating cell-cultivated meat is a lot more involved.
The cellular agriculture process starts with the extraction of cells from a live animal, from a needle biopsy. Those animal cells are placed in a growth medium, which feeds the cells nutrients so that they grow and proliferate. After that, the cells are placed in a bioreactor, where they have a clean environment in which to replicate. Finally, the cells are placed onto a scaffolding, which can be made of synthetic collagen and gelatin or plant-based proteins, that helps the cells mimic the texture of a cut of meat.
The final product of the cellular-agriculture process tastes like meat because it is meat — just without the animal slaughter, horrible work conditions for humans, and environmental consequences, like producing 15 to 19 percent of global greenhouse emissions. As Vox’s Kenny Torrella has reported, cellular agriculture could also “create an escape hatch from the meat paradox, allowing consumers to enjoy food they seemingly can’t get enough of, without the ethical and environmental side effects.”
But getting cell agriculture to take off is often talked about as a “moonshot.” It will be tough to make the production process efficient and affordable enough to meet consumer demand for meat, and then there’s the hurdle of people accepting it as their go-to protein. It’ll require funding and collaboration across industrial, academic, and government stakeholders.
A large-scale production facility could cost $60 million, according to a cost analysis published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Research late last year. The largest contributors to cost are the growth medium, bioreactors, and labor. Good Meat’s Singapore production facility — which has the largest bioreactor in the cultivated meat space — was supported by a $100 million investment. With 156 cultivated meat companies as of 2022 around the world, building a cellular agriculture industry will require resources and money — they’ll all need pricey bioreactors, growth medium, cells, and scaffolding.
There are steps stakeholders could take to accelerate progress in the field, however. Compatibility across different parts of the supply chain can be made more efficient by making crucial information, such as cell lines, widely available. Collaboration could make it easier for university labs and startups developing cells to know if their cells are compatible with an animal-free growth medium, for example. Such open innovation has a track record of success; it’s previously been used to develop software, crop genetics, and in the energy sector.
The good news is that we’ve funded open innovation before to ensure success in fields where advancement is otherwise difficult. In 2012, the Obama administration launched Manufacturing USA, a program with 16 institutes that use open innovation to advance everything from biomanufacturing to electronics. With the government absorbing some of the risk of investing in new, ambitious technologies, the component institutes worked to revitalize industry. The institutes have done everything from making extreme weather textiles to reducing the cost of gene therapy to developing a chip that can detect viruses including coronavirus. Public funding can jumpstart the kind of infrastructure needed for different stakeholders, from academic labs to startups, to feel more comfortable about collaborating, creating jobs, and advancing technology.
Why countries are investing heavily in cellular agriculture
As the Good Food Institute report explains, several governments have begun to fund cellular agriculture in creative ways, ranging from grants to universities to using national investment funds to support initiatives.
One motivating factor for some countries is to decrease their dependence on imports for livestock and boost food security. For instance, Singapore imports about 90 percent of its food. That degree of reliance on external sources means that any disruption can lead to high prices and food insecurity, as seen last year when neighboring Malaysia stopped exporting live chickens to Singapore. Currently, Singapore has an ambitious target of producing 30 percent of its food domestically by 2030. The country’s small size — an island nation, it has little room for livestock — will make that a difficult goal to achieve, but cell agriculture could help facilitate it.
To reach that target, Temasek, Singapore’s state-owned innovation investment fund, became one of the top global investors in alternative proteins. Singapore has also partnered with universities in other countries, such as the University of Bath in the UK (which has a cellular agriculture research hub). Additionally, Singapore is ahead of the pack when it comes to regulation. Their equivalent of the FDA, the Singapore Food Agency, was the first in the world to approve the sale of Good Meat’s cultivated chicken in 2020.
Singapore isn’t the only small nation with food security concerns; Israel is also trying to develop a robust alternative proteins sector, including via cell agriculture. In 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first head of state to try cultivated meat when he tasted Aleph Farms cultivated steak, and the country is also responsible for 24 percent of global investment in alternative proteins (about $637 million). Israel’s Cultivated Meat Consortium is the largest government-backed consortium to date and was funded by $18 million from the Israel Innovation Authority in 2022.
Israel’s consortium is made up of 10 academic labs and 14 companies, including the largest food manufacturer in Israel, TNUVA. Israel has supported open-access facilities domestically as well as internationally, even adding alternative protein development to their diplomatic toolkit.
In Europe, the Netherlands, too, faced anxieties around food security, spanning back to a deadly famine during World War II. After more than 20,000 Dutch died, the government heavily invested in agriculture through subsidies, infrastructure investment in rural areas, and industrialization. The scar of starvation also motivated the country two decades ago to pledge to grow twice as much food, with half as many resources. Now, it produces 6 percent of Europe’s food, with only 1 percent of the continent’s farmland, reported Vox’s Kenny Torrella.
That drive for efficiency also spurred technological development in meat alternatives. In 2013, Dutch pharmacologist Mark Post in 2013 invented the first cell-cultivated burger. Post engineered tissue for medical uses and saw the potential benefits the technology could have when applied to food production. Cell-cultivated meats, as well as plant-based alternatives, could help the small country to meet its wider goals — and would later make it a leader in the food tech space.
A decade and $66.2 million later, the Dutch funded a cellular agriculture ecosystem with Cellulaire Agricultuur Nederland, which not only supports crucial research, development, and commercialization efforts but also funds workforce transition programs by expanding educational routes to prepare students to work in cellular agriculture.
Developments in the Netherlands and elsewhere are meaningful, but for alternative proteins to have a significant positive global impact, China and the US — the world’s largest economies by an order of magnitude — both need to put more into developing the sector. China’s funding for alternative proteins is largely undisclosed, but President Xi Jinping mentioned it as a priority in 2022, in a speech to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “It is necessary to expand from traditional crops and livestock and poultry resources to more abundant biological resources, develop biotechnology and bio-industry, and seek energy and protein from plants, animals, and micro-organisms,” Xi said.
Cultivated meat is included in China’s agricultural five-year plan, as well as in the National Development and Reform Commission’s five-year plan. China has since held events like the China Cellular Agriculture Forum and a panel on cellular agriculture at the China International Food Safety and Quality Conference hosted by the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment (CFSA).
Notably, the US has been outpaced when it comes to cultivated meat development, though Biden has expressed public support for it in an executive order. Congress, however, has only provided $6 million to the USDA’s Agricultural Resource Service, which is tasked with conducting research on alternative proteins. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has thus far provided the most public money to a cellular agriculture project in the US, giving $10 million in 2021 to Tufts University’s Center for Cellular Agriculture, which is the first US lab to focus on cellular agriculture. By comparison, Israel gave $18 million for a cultivated meat consortium in 2022 and its GDP is ranked 34th in the world whereas the US is ranked first.
Relative to the size of the US food industry, however, that’s not all that much money. By comparison, small countries are punching above their weight when it comes to public funding for cell agriculture — and for the $10.1 billion estimate in the GFI report to be in reach, the US will have to step up.