In a perfect world, no meal would come at the cost of the environment or the welfare of an animal. A juicy steak with freshly ground pepper and a pat of butter wouldn’t contribute to climate change. Nor would bacon fat’s sizzle mean that a pig had been slaughtered on a factory farm.
These are gastronomic dreams of astronomical proportions. The good news is that we’re inching closer and closer to achieving such goals through the development of cell-cultivated meat, or meat grown directly from animal cells in a lab. The United Nations sees cellular meat, alongside other shifts like plant-based diets, as a potential solution to problems like climate change and global nutrition.
Earlier this year, two companies received FDA and USDA approval to sell cell-cultivated chicken. And though the ethics of cellular meat — like curtailing slaughter and reducing carbon emissions — are far better than the violent, resource-intensive factory farms that make meat now, foodies everywhere hope it will also taste good. It does seem as though we’re getting there: Star chef José Andrés piloted lab-grown chicken skewers at one of his restaurants back in July, and my colleague Kenny Torrella said that the slaughter-free chicken tasted, yes, just like chicken.
Creating a technological (and delicious) wonder is one thing; scaling it to feed billions of people is another. Right now, governments globally have invested $1 billion into developing cellular and plant-based meats, according to the Good Food Institute. It’s a start, but it’s not enough. To get cellular agriculture over the finish line and onto people’s plates, governments and corporations need to innovate and approach cultivated meat as the essential technology it is, rather than just a new food trend. Cellular technology must be accelerated with the same urgency with which we treat renewable energy in order for it to scale and make a dent in carbon emissions.
To do that, collaboration will be key. Working together, stakeholders in the cell-cultivated meat space can make the best use of public funding for emerging technologies. Consortiums — collaborative associations of private companies, governments, and institutions like universities and NGOs — have previously helped lead scientific breakthroughs in things like lifesaving vaccines and space exploration. They’ve also played no small part in getting computers to where they are today. Many essential industries wouldn’t exist without publicly funded R&D that private companies aren’t well structured to support because of the risks associated with such large-scale investments.
It’s not unheard of to see this type of collaboration in the food world. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which was established by President Barack Obama’s 2014 Agricultural Act, now runs 10 consortiums working on innovating everything from fertilizer to climate-resilient crops.
In the cell agriculture world, though, consortium-type groups are in their infancy, particularly in the US, which consumes huge amounts of meat. With more of these partnerships, researchers, companies, and consortium members could supercharge their progress by slashing redundancies, costs, and time spent. For example, horizontal collaboration — say, if every member of a consortium can use the same cow cell to make their respective beef products, be it steak or brisket — would mean more researchers could focus on innovation rather than recreating basic building blocks.
Consortiums could help push cell-cultivated meat technology forward to a point where transitioning away from factory farming becomes reality. You don’t need all that mess and horror to make abundant cheap meat — it’s just a matter of making slaughter-free options accessible to the public.
The hold-up in developing cellular agriculture
Scaling slaughter-free meat from a niche product to a grocery store staple is the only way it will become a legitimate solution for climate mitigation. To do that, it must reach price parity with factory-farmed meat.
Even so, the goal shouldn’t be a one-to-one replacement of factory-farmed meat with cultivated meat, for the simple reason that per capita meat consumption is already too high for optimal health in rich countries like the US. Cultivated meat will have to work in tandem with a shift to more plant-based foods, in the form of plant-based meats and just eating more straight-up veggies.
But not everyone is going to go for a bean burrito or a plant-based sausage. The reason may be as simple and undeniable as a craving, which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t necessarily mean your body is deficient in any particular nutrient; it’s more likely to come from a mix of social, cultural, and psychological factors. For those who want to continue eating animal products, cellular agriculture offers a way to do so.
Cultural perceptions around “real” meat are likely to be a huge hurdle when it comes to the uptake of cell-cultivated meat. Yet even that’s jumping the gun in many ways. The first obstacles cellular agriculture must overcome are technological, political, and financial — all of which are intertwined.
Several technical aspects of making cultivated meat from animal cells are expensive to start and challenging to make cheaper. Bioreactors, the vats in which cells grow, are not dissimilar to the steel tanks you would see at a beer brewery. They must keep conditions optimal for cell growth, with the right temperature and the right oxygen levels. Growth media for cells, the nutrient slurry cells grow in, are still being perfected, ideally using ingredients that can already be found in food production. Private funding alone won’t beget the most efficient innovation process for these components.
Instead, public funding and regulatory approval are critical to supporting the development of the cellular agriculture field. Only two lab-grown meat startups have been approved to sell cultivated chicken in the US, and chicken is the only meat thus far approved by the FDA and USDA. To truly become a disrupting force in overall meat sales, cultivated meat will need a lot more public investment. President Joe Biden’s 2022 executive order on biotechnology and biomanufacturing, signaled to the cellular agriculture industry that there will be regulatory support for ag tech by boosting research and data sharing. But the US has so far dedicated much less funding to the cell agriculture field than some other affluent countries.
Government funding would enable collaboration between diverse stakeholders in the cell ag industry and limit the financial risk that individual companies would otherwise have to take on. As Alla Voldman, vice president of The Good Food Institute Israel, told me in an interview, “A platform that is funded by the government is probably the only way that one could put companies and industry partners and academic groups together to work on collaborative R&D budgets.”
How consortiums can pave the way
Consortiums could fuel particularly forward-thinking work in the cellular-agriculture landscape because they strategically pool resources and know-how to develop key portions of the production process. By allowing competitors to work together on essential components like cell lines and growth media, the hope is that everyone will get to the finish line faster and more affordably, and innovate new processes and products along the way.
Models for cultivated meat consortiums have already gotten off the ground in developed countries across the world. Israel’s Cultivated Meat Consortium is the largest such collaboration, with 14 members and $18 million in funding from the Israel Innovation Authority.
Gaya Savyon, a PhD student at Tel Aviv University, told me that saw the potential of the consortium model in 2019, and took advantage of the Israel Innovation Authority’s magnet consortium program, designed to help academia collaborate with industry, to advance cellular agriculture. She pointed to the need for a strict intellectual property contract, as well as an approval process for using the “background IP” of different consortium members, as ways to mitigate concerns companies might have around ownership and royalties within such a partnership. Such clear boundaries provide members with the security that they will be credited and compensated for their individual contributions.
With climate change threatening to disrupt current food systems, more pockets of leadership are emerging in the cellular agriculture space around the world. Singapore, a city-state on an island has doubled down on producing its own food despite having next to no land for agriculture — and cultivated meat is part of its food security mission to produce 30 percent of its food domestically by 2030.
In 2020, Singapore’s Food Agency became the first in the world to approve cultivated meat for sale. The regulatory body is providing its expertise to others in the Asia Pacific region that want to achieve similar success, as well as advising the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization on cultivated meat safety. “Because it’s such a small country, by default to flourish, they depend on their international collaborations,” Mirte Gosker, managing director of Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, told me. “It’s a very small market, so in order to basically make anything really work, they need to export their products and knowledge.”
Singapore’s small size also enables close connections between industry and government, Gosker said, which means that novel food regulations can be developed nimbly. This closeness also comes from an awareness that Singapore is “a canary in the coal mine,” as Gosker put it: The country has limited resources and land to grow food, and cannot rely on imports, especially as climate change gets worse.
In some parts of the world, cellular agriculture tech is at the door; governments just need to let it in to allow rapid progress. The Japan Association for Cellular Agriculture (JACA), for example, began as a study group in 2019, housed in Tama University’s Center for Rule-making Strategies. Today, there are two Japanese cellular agriculture companies — which may sound too small to garner government interest, but there’s significant domestic and international interest in Japanese cultivated products, including from food and pharmaceutical company Meiji and tech giant Mitsubishi. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed his support in February for a government plan that includes cellular agriculture as part of expanding food tech in Japan.
JACA now has 55 members across corporate, legal, and academic organizations. The consortium also has several collaborative partnerships with other associations, including the Japan Bioindustry Association (JBA), with which JACA is working on policy recommendations to propose to the government.
Megumi Avigail Yoshitomi, JACA’s president, hopes that the large international support JACA has gained will help the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare dedicate more support toward safety regulation guidelines for cultivated products. “JACA is not trying to only focus on the domestic startups communication, but also focusing on how to open up the market opportunity for overseas companies as well,” said Megumi.
We need to bring this collaborative ethos to the US
The US is in the mix to develop better cellular agriculture technologies, and the recent success of startups like Upside Foods and Good Meat is a promising sign. Relative to the consortium-based efforts in other countries, though, the US is lagging.
Currently, there’s one major cell agriculture-focused consortium in the US: the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture, which groups academia, regulators, and industry. Tufts has a farm, a school of nutrition science and policy, and tissue and cell culture facilities. Industry partners include the food giant Cargill, as well as cultivated meat startups like Upside Foods. The consortium aims to develop new technologies like bioreactors, growth media, and cell lines, which can then be tested by industry partners. This process of research and development will make it easier to work with regulators on standards for safety and nutrition.
We need more industry, academic, and big government partners to build on this model. The future of meat is deeply polarizing in America, but if the US government could shift its support from livestock factory farms to making meat sustainable through cellular agriculture, that would be a radical departure from dead-end debates like whether plant-based burgers can be labeled “meat.” It could help us imagine a way forward beyond our divisive food politics.
Creating cultured meat at an affordable price is the primary goal of consortiums, but it’s not the only hurdle. For widespread consumer adoption, more will have to be done to translate the production process to the public and make cell-cultured meat familiar enough to eat. Transparency on how these products are made can help consumers understand that, in the end, they are just eating meat.
The best-case scenario is for successful consortiums in cellular agriculture to bring affordable and accessible cultivated products to consumers. If the price is right, then the ethical and sustainability benefits of cultivated meat should help consumers pick these products over slaughtered animals.
For food systems to remain resilient and sustainable in the face of climate change, efforts to advance food tech must be global. The fledgling cultivated meat sector is, hopefully, just the start.