Note: Paul Wood is no relation to this writer, Patrick Wood. ⁃ TN Editor
Splashy headlines have long overshadowed inconvenient truths about biology and economics. Now, extensive new research suggests the industry may be on a billion-dollar crash course with reality.’
Paul Wood didn’t buy it.
For years, the former pharmaceutical industry executive watched from the sidelines as biotech startups raked in venture capital, making bold pronouncements about the future of meat. He was fascinated by their central contention: the idea that one day, soon, humans will no longer need to raise livestock to enjoy animal protein. We’ll be able to grow meat in giant, stainless-steel bioreactors—and enough of it to feed the world. These advancements in technology, the pitch went, would fundamentally change the way human societies interact with the planet, making the care, slaughter, and processing of billions of farm animals the relic of a barbaric past.
Update, October 7, 2021: This story was updated to include additional comments from Future Meat Technologies.
Illustrations by Cristina Estanislao
It’s a digital-era narrative we’ve come to accept, even expect: Powerful new tools will allow companies to rethink everything, untethering us from systems we’d previously taken for granted. Countless news articles have suggested that a paradigm shift driven by cultured meat is inevitable, even imminent. But Wood wasn’t convinced. For him, the idea of growing animal protein was old news, no matter how science-fictional it sounded. Drug companies have used a similar process for decades, a fact Wood knew because he’d overseen that work himself.
For four years, Wood, who has a PhD in immunology, served as the executive director of global discovery for Pfizer Animal Health. (His division was later spun off into Zoetis, today the largest animal health company in the world.) One of his responsibilities was to oversee production of vaccines, which can involve infecting living cells with weakened virus strains and inducing those cells to multiply inside large bioreactors. In addition to yielding large quantities of vaccine-grade viruses, this approach also creates significant amounts of animal cell slurry, similar to the product next-generation protein startups want to process further into meat. Wood knew the process to be extremely technical, resource-intensive, and expensive. He didn’t understand how costly biomanufacturing techniques could ever be used to produce cheap, abundant human food.
In March of this year, he hoped he’d finally get his answer. That month, the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit that represents the alternative protein industry, published a techno-economic analysis (TEA) that projected the future costs of producing a kilogram of cell-cultured meat. Prepared independently for GFI by the research consulting firm CE Delft, and using proprietary data provided under NDA by 15 private companies, the document 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.
In the press push that followed, GFI claimed victory. “New studies show cultivated meat can have massive environmental benefits and be cost-competitive by 2030,” it trumpeted, suggesting that a new era of cheap, accessible cultured protein is rapidly approaching. The finding is critical for GFI and its allies. If private, philanthropic, and public sector investors are going to put money into cell-cultured meat, costs need to come down quickly. Most of us have a limited appetite for 50-dollar lab-grown chicken nuggets.
With its TEA findings in hand, GFI has worked tirelessly to argue for massive public investment. Its top policy recommendation, according to GFI’s in-depth analysis of the TEA results, is aimed at “forward-thinking” governments: They “should increase public funds for R & D into cultivated meat technology” in order to “seize the opportunity and reap the benefits of becoming global leaders” in the space. In April, just six weeks later, that message was amplified by The New York Times. In a column called “Let’s Launch a Moonshot for Meatless Meat,” Ezra Klein, a co-founder of Vox who is now one of the Times’s most visible and influential writers, argued that the U.S. government should invest billions to improve and scale both plant-based meat alternatives (like the Impossible Burger) and cultivated meat.
Bruce Friedrich, GFI’s founder and CEO, appeared in the story to argue that the need for significant public investment was urgent and necessary.
“If we leave this endeavor to the tender mercies of the market there will be vanishingly few products to choose from and it’ll take a very long time,” he told Klein. The message was clear: If we want to save the planet, we should double down on cultured meat.
Cultivated meat companies have repeatedly missed product launch deadlines
For years, companies have said that “meat without slaughter” is right around the corner. But when will products actually be on store shelves? The answer always seems to be the same: just a few years from now. Below, a map of product launch predictions compiled by staffers at Mother Jones, first included as part of Tom Philpott’s recent piece on new doubts about the impracticality of cultured meat. This infographic is best viewed on a desktop. Hover over a bar for more information.
Wood couldn’t believe what he was hearing. In his view, GFI’s TEA report did little to justify increased public investment. He found it to be an outlandish document, one that trafficked more in wishful thinking than in science. He was so incensed that he hired a former Pfizer colleague, Huw Hughes, to analyze GFI’s analysis. Today, Hughes is a private consultant who helps biomanufacturers design and project costs for their production facilities; he’s worked on six sites devoted to cell culture at scale. Hughes concluded that GFI’s report projected unrealistic cost decreases, and left key aspects of the production process undefined, while significantly underestimating the expense and complexity of constructing a suitable facility.
In an interview by phone, Wood wondered if GFI was being disingenuous—or if the organization was simply naive.
“After a while, you just think: Am I going crazy? Or do these people have some secret sauce that I’ve never heard of?” Wood said. “And the reality is, no—they’re just doing fermentation. But what they’re saying is, ‘Oh, we’ll do it better than anyone else has ever, ever done.”
In fact, GFI was well aware of Wood’s line of criticism. Several months earlier, Open Philanthropy—a multi-faceted research and investment entity with a nonprofit grant-making arm, which is also one of GFI’s biggest funders—completed a much more robust TEA of its own, one that concluded cell-cultured meat will likely never be a cost-competitive food. David Humbird, the UC Berkeley-trained chemical engineer who spent over two years researching the report, found that the cell-culture process will be plagued by extreme, intractable technical challenges at food scale. In an extensive series of interviews with The Counter, he said it was “hard to find an angle that wasn’t a ludicrous dead end.”
Humbird likened the process of researching the report to encountering an impenetrable “Wall of No”—his term for the barriers in thermodynamics, cell metabolism, bioreactor design, ingredient costs, facility construction, and other factors that will need to be overcome before cultivated protein can be produced cheaply enough to displace traditional meat.
“And it’s a fractal no,” he told me. “You see the big no, but every big no is made up of a hundred little nos.”
GFI vetted Humbird’s report before publication and made extensive suggestions for revision. Its own TEA, released a few months later, painted a much more optimistic picture. With its own results in hand, GFI continues to urge world governments to throw money into cultivated meat. If they don’t act soon, according to one recent press release, those nations risk being “left behind.”
Who’s right? Is cultured meat our best hope to save the climate, a billion-dollar boondoggle, or something in between? Will it ever make sense to produce food the way we currently make our drugs?
The stakes couldn’t be higher. In August, the United Nations released a nearly 4,000-page report amounting to what it called a “code red for humanity”: Unless the world’s nations make a vast, coordinated effort to stop burning fossil fuels and razing forests, we’ll find ourselves locked into an even more dire, unforgiving future than the one we’re facing now. At a time when bold environmental solutions are needed, we can only afford to direct public and private investment toward solutions that actually work. But without looking more closely at the fundamentals—something media has largely declined to do—we can’t know whether cultured meat is our salvation or an expensive distraction.
1. The biggest small factories in the world
It’s the beginning of a shift in human thinking, enabled by biotechnology: Rather than raise entire animals, we might only grow the parts we eat. Why spend energy growing the complex, sentient structures we call cattle—complete with bones, horns, hooves, and vital organs—when we only want the finished steak? Cultivating meat inside bioreactors eliminates those inconveniences, doing away with the troublesome task of growing a body, of sustaining a consciousness.
Gram for gram, animals are a wildly inefficient vehicle for producing edible protein (as advocates for cultured meat like to point out). Cattle consume roughly 25 calories of plant material for every calorie of edible protein they produce, according to some estimates. Even chickens, the most efficient form of livestock from a feed perspective, eat 9 to 10 calories of food for every calorie of edible protein produced. Friedrich, the director of GFI, has said that’s like throwing away 8 plates of pasta for every one plate we eat. He’s right—though it’s not only wasteful. Our over-consumption of meat is inherently linked to the global over-production of grains, one of the primary drivers of deforestation and biodiversity loss worldwide. Next time you’re wondering why Brazilian farmers are burning down the rainforest to plant more soy, think of the world’s 1 billion cattle, each one eating many times its weight in grass, legumes, and grain over the course of its short life.
In contrast, the disembodied economics of cultivated meat could allow for huge production advantages, at least theoretically. According to the Open Philanthropy report, a mature, scaled-up industry could eventually achieve a ratio of only three to four calories in for every calorie out, compared to the chicken’s 10 and the steer’s 25. That would still make cultured meat much more inefficient compared to just eating plants themselves; we’d dump two plates of pasta for every one we eat. And the cells themselves might still be fed on a diet of commodity grains, the cheapest and most environmentally destructive inputs available. But it would represent a major improvement.
But cultivated meat’s gains in feed efficiency give rise to new inefficiency—the need for intensive, sophisticated machinery, and lots of it.
The analysis that GFI commissioned laid out a vision of this future, predicting the emergence of a new kind of mega-facility with the power to transform our eating habits forever. The idea was to project what cultivated meat production will need to look like in the year 2030—in terms of scale and cost—if it is going to make meaningful progress toward displacing animal agriculture. In other words, if meat without slaughter is ever going to move out of the realm of exclusive press tastings and onto supermarket shelves, it will need to happen through facilities like the one the report described.
GFI’s imagined facility would be both unthinkably vast and, well, tiny. According to the TEA, it would produce 10,000 metric tons—22 million pounds—of cultured meat per year, which sounds like a lot. For context, that volume would represent more than 10 percent of the entire domestic market for plant-based meat alternatives (currently about 200 million pounds per year in the U.S., according to industry advocates). And yet 22 million pounds of cultured protein, held up against the output of the conventional meat industry, barely registers. It’s only about .0002, or one-fiftieth of one percent, of the 100 billion pounds of meat produced in the U.S. each year. JBS’s Greeley, Colorado beefpacking plant, which can process more than 5,000 head of cattle a day, can produce that amount of market-ready meat in a single week.
“It’s a fable driven by hope, not science, and when the investors finally realize this the market will collapse.”