On stage in London, during the summer of 2013, Dr. Mark Post unveiled the first lab-grown hamburger. It reportedly cost 250,000 euros to produce.
Seven years later, in Rehovot, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasted meat grown in vitro at Aleph Farms, becoming the first leader to publicly do so. We don’t know how much it cost to produce. Aleph’s PR event followed Singaporean regulatory approval of Eat Just’s lab-grown chicken product, marking the first time that lab-grown meat has been approved for consumption.
Cultured meat is touted as the future of the industry, enabling the carnivores among us to have our steak and eat it too, without the associated guilt. But can it really provide an affordable, sustainable solution for all (or at least, a lot of) meat-eating humans, in the foreseeable future?
Yes, according to Aleph Farms’ marketing manager Yoav Reisler. The company is planning a soft launch of admittedly not-cheap “cultivated meat” in 2022. It aims to achieve price parity with natural meat in large-scale production facilities in about five years.
Generally speaking the cultivated meat companies aspire to “replace beef with beef”, as Netherlands-based Mosa Meats puts it. SuperMeat aims to “provide nutritional security...and increase food safety worldwide”. And MeatTech says it’s developing a straight alternative to an industrial farming system.
“The aim is to provided unconditional nutrition to everyone any time anywhere – making cultivated meat accessible,” Aleph Farms’ Reisler tells Haaretz. They are working at reducing the cost of the growth medium for the cells, the nutrient-rich solution providing energy for the cells, which is one of the most expensive factors in cultivating meat, he explains.
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The process of starting with donor cells and ending with a hamburger or steak takes time: three to four weeks at Aleph Farms and Berkley-based Memphis Meats, about 10 weeks at Mosa Meats, it says. Raising a cow from birth to maturity takes two to three years, though, Reisler points out.
Crucially, he adds that no cows are harmed in the cell harvesting process, on which he declined to elaborate, for proprietary reasons, other than to say: “It’s like a biopsy.”
How much does it cost to produce? Most companies won’t say. But to succeed, lab-grown meat will need to cost no more than regular meat.
Aleph Farms said that a serving of their steak cost $50 to produce two years ago, but declined to state how much it now costs to produce. Mosa said that their process “remains expensive” which can only be cured by scaling up production, and also declined to provide a current cost-per-kilogram. Meat Tech declined to answer these questions.
To lower the cost of growing meat in bio-reactors (essentially large vats) and bring it to the masses, prices of both cell culture media and growth factors need to drop, or the technology needs to change.
Reisler shares that Aleph Farms aspires to produce “thousands of tons” of meat every year once they reach full-scale production in 2025. How many tons? He won’t say at this stage.
A second constraint to achieving price parity is that cells can only divide so much. It depends on the cell type, but most cells can only divide 40 to 60 times before exhausting their potential. In other words, a cell line can only produce so much meat before failure.
Certain mutant cell lines have famously achieved spontaneous immortality, but deliberately immortalized cell lines may act unpredictably, making them less than ideal. Despite the fact that genetic engineering could theoretically induce cell immortality, producers are leery due to anticipated regulatory issues and consumer preferences.
No matter the exact pathway chosen, using Aleph Farms’ method, no cows need to suffer during the process of extracting more donor cell samples.
Steak in space
Meanwhile, the lab-grown meat industry is still working on ramping up tissue-perfusion bioreactors to an industrial scale. (Tissue-perfusion bioreactors are vessels where intermediate-stage “meat” is placed on bio-compatible structures and grown into its final shape.) Aleph Farms, for one, is working with major global meat producers on improving the technology, Reisler says.
Why would large-scale farming companies cooperate? Leaving ethics aside, they want to expand their core business rather than replace it, he explains.
Key to a global-scale lab-grown “meat industry” is a closed-system of production. If perfected, a closed system that recycles waste from the cellular processes could save the companies the nightmare of contamination; theoretically it could diminish the inconvenience for cows of having the odd biopsy; and it could even spare astronauts the horror of missing their steak poivre.
Really? In 2019 Aleph Farms’ technology was used to produce its “slaughter-free” steak from scratch on the International Space Station, Reisler explains. The company is slated to launch another experiment to space in 2022, to showcase that its product can theoretically be produced anywhere, even in the most adverse environments.
At least it would be local. One advantage to replacing Elsie with a machine is that right now, if you buy ground chuck at the local supermarket, you generally have no idea where it originated. “It’s buying a black box. You don’t know where the meat was produced or how. With cultivated meat we can ensure traceability. A lot of consumers care about that,” Reisler says.
Lab-grown meat producers aver that we will be able to have our steak and eat it too, even in outer space. But to what degree is it an improvement over farmed meat?
150 cows to feed the world
According to Tyler Doggett, professor of philosophy at the University of Vermont and co-writer and co-editor of Food, Ethics, and Society, three independent ethical issues accrue to meat consumers: controlling animals against their will; hurting them; and killing them.
“Because even the best free range farms will involve some pain, control, and of course killing,” he explains, lab grown meat would be an ethical improvement on all three fronts.
Matthew Halteman, professor of philosophy at Calvin University, and head of the Animals and the Kingdom of God lecture series, concurs: “From a consequentialist standpoint, it seems difficult to argue that taking cells from a much smaller number of animals in order to produce meat that does not call for [factory]-farming or slaughter isn’t a significant ethical improvement over the current status quo.”
According to Mosa, theoretically, one gram of muscle tissue can be grown into 10,000 kilograms of meat, a multiplication factor of 10 million.
“If this is translated into a reduction of cows, we would need only 150 cows to meet the entire world’s meat demand (the planet now hosts roughly 1.5 billion cows),” Mosa stated, adding: “Theoretically it would be possible to have meat production in your own home, just as some people have vegetable gardens. However, it probably isn’t a very realistic scenario. Producing meat on a tiny scale would take about 10 weeks, so it would perhaps only appeal to the most patient of chefs!”
True, those animals would be controlled by humans, but none would need to die prematurely.
So lab-grown meat could be a superior ethical choice as to the animal being eaten and likely for the environment as well.
In 2020, humans ate approximately 167 billion pounds of beef coming from roughly 216 million cows. Beef production utilizes vast swathes of the world’s arable land even though it contributes to only a third of the world’s protein supply, is estimated to contribute to close to half of agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, and causes runoff pollution due to cattle’s waste.
In a 2018 regulatory comment to the FDA, a number of lab-grown meat producers asserted that their product “is expected to produce lower emissions of greenhouse gases”; by how much was not suggested. This year the environmental affairs consultancy CE Delft published a paper based on modeling of large-scale industrial lab-grown meat cultivation compared with conventional beef production. The group claims lab cultivation could slash cows’ impact on climate change by up to 92%; land use by 95%; and water consumption by 78%. The savings on lab-cultivation of pork would be lesser and even lower with chicken due to their efficiency in converting animal feed into muscle and bone.
True, the group’s figures cannot be taken as reliable at this early stage. But the estimated figures do suggest that governments should reconsider their agricultural policies.
Scientists from Oxford University have also agreed that culturing meat could potentially result in “96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45% less energy, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use than conventional meat”. While it is certainly not a carbon-neutral process, they’re working on it, Aleph Farms’ Reisler tells Haaretz.
Ethicist Tyler Doggett qualifies that the actual degree of environmental harm matters, because the environmental effects of slaughterhouse meat aren’t singular or otherwise special. If it’s wrong to eat regular meat because of its environmental impact (as some people assert), then it would be just as wrong to eat any other resource-heavy food such as almonds or lab-grown beef, he explains. Put differently, requiring large amounts of energy to produce lab-grown meat could still make it “wrong” when properly compared with other sustainable foods.
There is another snag. Aside from Singaporean regulatory approval in late 2020, no other country permits the sale of lab-grown meat yet.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service told Haaretz that they haven’t received any applications for grants-of-inspections from lab-grown meat producers. Mosa says they’re strting with European regulatory approval before potentially branching out to the United States.
Aleph and Meat-Tech both tell Haaretz that they are in contact with Israeli regulatory authorities, but a spokesperson for Meat-Tech observed that Israeli regulatory authorities are in turn closely observing regulatory developments in the U.S. and EU.
It bears adding that regulatory approval also depends on the risks. But what special risks are involved with growing meat?
In February 2002, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously told the press that “there are known-knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known-unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown-unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
The “unknown-unknown” risks remain so, but regulatory filings help to highlight the known and potential risks of lab-grown meat production.
In a filing with the FDA, Memphis Meat notes that the “primary hazards” of the process involve potential contamination with microbes, including viruses. Dr. Eliot Swarz, a scientist at GFI, a domestic non-profit dedicated to removing animals from traditional meat production, and the Iowa-based Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, concur with Memphis’ conclusion concerning the risks of contamination. It’s worth nothing that contamination of cell lines is a problem in all areas using such technology, and there is precedent for establishing mitigation measures.
Moreover, adventitious agents are a well-known risk for animal farming, too: the presence of fecal matter and bacterial contamination by salmonella and E. coli make consumers ill on a semi-regular basis. When you grow meat in a lab, you do, of course, eliminate fecal contamination but there are other issues – including “known-unknowns”.
According to a regulatory comment to the FDA submitted in December 2018 by the industry and GFI, a unique “potential hazard is that the cell culture process and conditions in the bioreactor might cause cells to create substances at levels different from those in an intact animal such as growth factors….production of unintended or abnormal levels of metabolites; genetic and epigenetic drift that could alter protein expression levels; and endogenous retroviruses or other species-specific viruses”.
In other words, the cell cultures could run riot in and of themselves – and so could viral matter they harbor.
According to Swartz, an endogenous virus could theoretically become more dangerous if it is transmitted from an infected lab worker to the animal cell culture, mutates during the cells’ proliferative growth processes, and finally infects another worker in a new and more lethal form.
But he notes that such a re-infection doomsday scenario is unlikely because each step is a very rare event. Careful lab technique can mitigate, if not eradicate, this risk.
At this point, those potential scenarios are theoretical as you can’t buy lab grown meat anywhere, despite its use in a Singaporean restaurant recently. But that lack of industry development doesn’t stop Mosa Meat from claiming that the product is “[k]inder to you, Kinder to society worldwide, Kinder to cows, Kinder to the planet.”
Ultimately, “the question of whether these companies can offer a product that is actually kinder to the world (and not just potentially kinder) is at this point still more a hope than a reality,” says Matthew Halteman of Calvin University. “We must keep in mind that we’re in uncharted territory here and it’s not a foregone conclusion that the experiment will succeed, even though indications are good that it will.”
But will people eat it? Gen-Z seems the most amenable, Reisler shares. “Skeptics say the product is not natural,” he says. Well, is industrial farming natural? Not at all. And in his view: cultivated meat is a natural evolution of agriculture, he tells Haaretz. It is domestication, at the level of the tissue.
Disclosure: The author held a small minority stake in Meat Tech.