Part of Back to the Future, from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
This much is true: Production and consumption of meat is an environmental and ethical catastrophe. And we keep eating more of it, with enormous consequences.
There’s climate change and the environment: Almost 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to livestock, while in the US alone, air pollution from meat production is linked to 12,700 premature deaths each year. Or lifesaving drugs: Three-quarters of antibiotics used globally are fed to farmed animals, and partially as a result, bacteria on farms are growing resistant to the drugs, contributing to the 35,000 Americans who already die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections, a number that is only set to rise in the future.
Or the simple and terrible question of animal suffering: Some 1 trillion animals are raised and killed for meat and seafood each year, treated in ways that would outrage us if done to a dog or cat.
Add it all up, and you can see why the factory farming system that delivers 535 million tons of meat and seafood to consumers each year may one day be seen as the great moral crime of our time. Yet despite those facts — and despite the growing public awareness of that crime — global meat production is projected to only go up and up and up in the coming decades. Experts call this the “meat paradox” — the psychological conflict that occurs when our dawning recognition of animal rights and the effects of meat production clashes with our seemingly insatiable desire to eat them.
One solution would be to finally listen to the ethicists and the animal rights advocates and simply change our eating habits. Yet despite all of the above, we cannot — just 5 percent of the US population considers itself vegetarian, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, a figure that has barely changed over the past two decades.
Plant-based meat alternatives likely won’t save us either. While the Beyond burgers and Impossible nuggets of today are vast improvements on the Tofurky of the past, they’re not yet good enough to persuade Americans who eat the equivalent of 2.4 burgers per day to switch at scale.
But what if there were a way to make meat that tastes exactly like meat, without killing a single animal? That could 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.
It may sound like magic or science fiction, but that product exists — at least in the labs of food tech startups. It’s called cultivated meat, and it involves culturing and growing animal muscle and fat cells in tanks through a process that resembles brewing beer by fermentation. That’s an oversimplification, but in its essence — most importantly, including the way it tastes — cultivated meat is biologically and chemically identical to farm-raised meat. It would be a way to have our burger and eat it too.
There is, of course, a catch: For cultivated meat to truly make a difference, it will need to be produced and sold at a low enough price point to compete with our heavily subsidized factory farm meat system. In many ways, it’s the same economic challenge that renewable energy sources like wind and solar faced in trying to displace fossil fuels. But unlike renewable energy — which is already beating fossil fuels on cost — some prominent engineers and biomanufacturing experts believe the sector will never advance to the point where a cultivated burger could compete with a conventional one on cost.
In a 12,000-word article published in 2021 in the Counter, a now-defunct food news publication, journalist Joe Fassler outlined in painstaking detail a host of challenges the cultivated meat sector faces in getting their no-kill meat to your dinner plate and doing so at just a few dollars a pound. As one expert told Fassler, the scientific and economic challenges of producing cost-competitive cultivated meat at scale amounted to an impenetrable “Wall of No.”
We’re far from finding out if the deep skepticism is warranted; new technologies take decades, not years, to pan out (or sputter out). If the skeptics are right, though, there might seem to be no simple escape from the meat paradox. Then what?
There may be a third way: blending plant-based meat ingredients with just enough cultivated meat to make a “hybrid” burger. In much the same way that hybrid vehicles acted as a bridge between the electric vehicle experimentation of the 1970s to their rapid commercialization today, hybrid meat products may do the same for cultivated meat. They could renew excitement in meat alternatives as the novelty of Impossible Whoppers and Beyond Meat McPlants wears off, while also giving the cultivated meat sector a testing ground for its grand ambition of one day ending conventional meat production.
That is, if they’re able to easily explain to consumers exactly what it is they’re selling, and if a dab of animal cells is indeed sufficient to nudge us away from our destructive love of animal meat.
How to grow a burger
The hybrid future of meat, I’d heard, could be found in a nondescript office building next to a Home Depot off the highway in San Leandro, California, a suburb southeast of San Francisco. I was there to see an occupant of that building that even contained the future in its very name: SCiFi Foods.
SCiFi Foods — which recently raised $22 million in its Series A funding round, led by the major VC firm Andreessen Horowitz — is one of more than 100 startups toiling away to commercialize cultivated meat, but it’s one of just a few taking the specifically hybrid approach of making primarily plant-based products that feature a small amount of cultured cells. Joshua March, the CEO and co-founder of SCiFi Foods, is a meat-eater; he said he started the company in part because he felt the existing alternative meat landscape was missing something vital: taste.
Plant-based meats, he told me, “are way better than they used to be, but they still don’t actually taste like meat. ... How can we create products that actually bridge that gap and make meat eaters want to eat it?”
At the same time, he agrees that creating affordable 100 percent cultivated meat isn’t doable — at least not any time soon. SCiFi Foods even conducted its own analysis in 2020 that reached a similar conclusion to one of the analyses in the Counter article.
“That’s why we think you need to do a blended approach, at least for now,” March told me. “It may not be true in 10 years; technology will evolve. But at least today, you have to do a blended approach.”
SCiFi and the few other hybrid meat startups all rally around the same big idea: Take the best attributes of plant-based meat — cheap ingredients, easy to produce at a large scale, consumer familiarity — and marry them with just enough animal meat cells to push their product over the top.
Abundant, affordable soy is the main ingredient in SCiFi hybrid burger, but there’s sufficient cultivated beef sprinkled in — around 10 to 20 percent by mass — to achieve a meatier mouthfeel, taste, and aroma than any plant-based burger currently on the market. Think of it as a new-and-improved Impossible Burger — at least, that’s what it tasted like to me. It smelled like beef and was both a little tough and very juicy, all at once.
It all starts with a biopsy of cells taken from a cow in a relatively painless procedure. SCiFi got theirs from a cow at a farm in Ohio, but they won’t need to go back; theoretically, one cell line can be used to produce an infinite amount of meat.
The cells are grown in stainless steel tanks called bioreactors, which are kept at 98.6 degrees, close to the internal temperature of a cow. SCiFi starts with about a quarter of an ounce of bovine cells, which are fed a mix of amino acids and sugar, and other molecules and proteins, to help them grow and proliferate into fat and muscle tissue. Right now they’re only producing small batches in their R&D lab, but down the road, if they reach the point of full-on manufacturing, CTO Kasia Gora told me over email that one-quarter of an ounce of cells will turn into 7,700 pounds in about one month.
The lab part of the lab-grown burger goes beyond simply growing the cells. For bovine cells to grow, they need to attach to a surface. That takes place inside the cow in nature, but building structures inside the bioreactor for the cells to attach takes up too much space, so they need to grow independently to be economically viable.
SCiFi Foods — which, true to its name, leans into a high-tech approach — has used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to develop bovine cell lines that can grow in the bioreactors without the need to attach to a surface. The company says that process has brought the cost of cell production down 1,000-fold. (Some other cultivated meat startups, including New Age Eats — another hybrid company — have experimented with CRISPR.)
After the cells are done growing, SCiFi separates them from the cell culture medium with a centrifuge, washes and freezes them, and then blends them with plant-based ingredients to become burgers.
The real price of cultivated meat
Cultivating a burger in the lab is possible, as the test products that SCiFi is churning out demonstrate. But doing so at a price point that is competitive with conventional meat — a price point that is artificially low due to the lack of regulation in the subsidized meat industry — is another task entirely.
David Humbird, a chemical engineer who spent two years conducting an analysis on the feasibility of producing cultivated meat at scale for the foundation Open Philanthropy — and who served as a primary source for Fassler’s article in the Counter — identified cleanliness as a major challenge. Startups will need to ensure their giant batches of animal cells aren’t contaminated with bacteria that would ruin production. They’ll also need to figure out how to make cells grow faster and develop more affordable sources of feed for the cells.
Even if everything goes right, Humbird estimated that growing the modest amount of 100 kilotons per year, about the same amount of plant-based meat produced in 2020, would cost $17 to $23 per pound to produce. That’s around four times the cost of cheap ground beef, and double the cost of the more high-end, organic variety.
A much more optimistic analysis, conducted by the environmental research firm CE Delft for the alternative protein advocacy group the Good Food Institute, concluded it could be possible to bring down the cost of production today (ranging from $10,170 to $68 per pound) to $53 or under $3 per pound by 2030 (since there are so many factors, estimates vary wildly). Humbird and other experts are deeply skeptical of startups ever reaching such a low price point.
And building out all the infrastructure required for an abundant cultivated meat supply poses another obstacle. Using data from the CE Delft report, the industry publication Food Navigator estimated that producing just 10 percent of the global meat supply through cultivation would require building 4,000 factories costing nearly $2 trillion — around 1,000 times the amount invested in cultivated meat thus far.
The counteroffensive to the Counter article was swift; cultivated meat startups and advocates published long rebuttals challenging a number of technical nuances while also arguing that it was far too soon to snuff out hope for the technology, noting that the industry is still in its infancy and companies in the space are making breakthroughs that outside observers aren’t privy to. (The CE Delft report used anonymized data from 15 startups, for example, while Humbird’s relied on public data.)
Ultimately, the debate over the future of cultivated meat is between two models projecting the scalability of a product that doesn’t commercially exist yet. In the coming years, cultivated meat startups will either deliver on their promise, slowly increasing their production while lowering their price, or they’ll burn through their cash and close up shop.
But there’s no doubt that the hybrid startups’ approach is the more feasible one at this point, even if it falls short of the utopian origins of the industry. “I read the Counter article, and I was like, ‘Yep, this is it. These are all the reasons that we have the approach that we do,’” says Brian Spears of New Age Eats, a startup based in Berkeley, California, that makes hybrid pork products. “I showed [the article] to our investors. I’m like, ‘Look, he’s pointing out the things I’ve been saying for years.’ [We were] tremendously validated.”
When most cultivated meat companies cook up samples for curious journalists and potential investors, they, too, are often serving up hybrid products. But the distinction between their goods and ones like SCiFi Foods and New Age Eats is a matter of proportion: the hybrid startups are mostly plant-based, while the more “traditional” cultivated companies are mostly cell-based.
Eat Just, the San-Francisco-based startup that holds the distinction of being the only startup to have a cultivated meat product for sale (at one restaurant in Singapore), told me its chicken is around 75 percent cultivated — much more animal cells than plant. Even at 75 percent cultivated, though, the company told me it’s losing money on each sale. (I tasted it and have to say it tasted identical to the real thing.)
Meanwhile, the cultivated proportion of the hybrid prototypes fall somewhere between 20 percent on the upper end, down to the single digits of New Age Eats’ sausage. That gap, the company’s CEO Spears says, could be the determining factor in getting cultivated meat to the masses, even if it’s in small doses as just a few percent of the end product.
A product that’s 5 percent cultivated is going to cost a lot less to produce than the startups making 75 to 100 percent cultivated meat. “If we’re using low-single-digit by percentage, then all of a sudden, this crazy pipe dream doesn’t seem so crazy,” Spears says. “Because now you’re like 1/50th of the cost for the cell-based ingredients.”
New Age Eats is cultivating both muscle and fat cells, the latter of which could be especially important in making their products taste closer to meat than plants. “If you cook a lot of plant-based meats, then you look at the bottom of the pan, you’re going to see a lot of oil because it all melted out — it wasn’t retained in there,” Spears told me. “So you’re going to have a drier or chewy mouthfeel.”
This is because oils used in plant-based meat, usually coconut or canola, have lower melting points than animal fat. Fat cells have biological advantages too: They grow faster than muscle cells and can be given cheaper feed.
But there is one economic drawback to the approach of cultivating cells — fat or muscle — in the smaller batches hybrid meat companies will require versus those startups going for products that are closer to 100 percent cultivated. Fassler says the hybrid startups are going to miss out on the “economies of scale” they might get by producing cultivated meat at mass levels. “The overall product might be cheaper because it’s plant-based ... [but] now you’re adding another kind of very precious ingredient that is going to be one of the more expensive raw materials in the product.”
The bet is that the cost of that very precious ingredient — meat grown from animal cells — will pay off in the form of a product good enough to lure in, and hold onto, curious meat eaters more than totally plant-based products have.
The taste of the future
For cultivated meat options to win, they will need to come down in price, and they will need to win over consumers.
The first challenge remains price. If cultivated meat — whether hybrid or not — stays a premium item indefinitely, it will fail to solve the meat paradox. The war between conventional meat and alternative upstarts will be fought over budget-conscious shoppers in the supermarket aisle. If regulators require meat companies to treat workers and animals better, or reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the price of conventional meat might rise, just as rules over pollutants have helped increase the cost of energy from fossil fuels. But there’s no guarantee that will happen; there’s a reason meat is considered the “third rail” of American politics.
At the same time, governments could aid in lowering the price of cultivated meat. Around the world, including the US, policymakers are beginning to invest in plant-based and cultivated meat R&D; in mid-September, a White House official said, “We’re also looking to improve food security and drive agricultural innovation, including through new technologies that protect crops from disease, enhance seeds and fertilizers and foods made with cultured animal cells.” It also got a mention in an executive order about advancing biotechnology in the US that President Biden signed the following day.
The second challenge is getting buy-in from consumers, many of whom are leery of “unnatural” food. Which is why it’s noteworthy that SCiFi Foods leans into the unnatural and the futuristic with their name (and their website, which includes cows in bubbles floating among the clouds). March even told me that he was inspired to start the company 15 years ago while reading a sci-fi novel called The Player of Games that mentions cultivated meat.
“We think our task is not to hide the science, but it’s to embrace it and then make it safe,” March told me. “It’s an unavoidable conversation ... especially when you look at younger generations, who are going to be some of the biggest consumers for this. They’re looking for that authenticity, right?”
A 2019 survey found strong support among consumers in China, India, and the US for cultivated meat. But as Vox’s Kelsey Piper noted in an article about that survey, results should be taken with a grain of salt, as people often give aspirational answers to pollsters that may not reflect their real-world behavior. And since these products were not commercially available at the time, no one polled had tasted cultivated meat.
Embracing hybrid or cultivated meat, should it eventually show up in your supermarket aisle, will demand not just a willingness to try something new, but a fundamentally different relationship to what we eat and how it is made. It can intuitively feel as though alternative meats — plant-based, cultivated, or a mix of both — aren’t as good for the climate as “natural” meat. Some environmental groups, researchers, analysts, and food critics dismiss plant-based meat partly on the grounds that we just don’t know enough about these newfangled meat simulacra to declare them an environmental win.
But we do. Hybrid meat or plant-based meat might seem unnatural and thus undesirable, but there is nothing natural or desirable about a conventional livestock industry dependent on spewing noxious pollution and torturing animals to produce pork chops and chicken nuggets. Switching some of our meat system to it would do more to cut emissions from our food system than just about anything else (that, and eliminating food waste). And just as importantly, every burger or chicken nugget or fish filet replaced by a cultivated or hybrid product means that many fewer animals are living short lives filled with suffering.
The choice before us — if we’re serious about climate action and animal welfare — is to either significantly change the meat we eat or eat significantly less of it. Should hybrid meat fulfill its promise, we may be able to do both.
Clarification, October 18, 3:45 pm: Updated to clarify that New Age Foods experiments with CRISPR in its cultivated meat efforts.