Cultured Meat Will Not Be Realistic Anytime Soon: The Numbers Behind the Hype
Cultured meat, clean meat, synthetic meat, in vitro meat, cellular agriculture, animal free meat, whatever you want to call it, is meat grown in a liquid culture in a bioreactor, a large vat to grow cells. What they do is take muscle cells from an animal and put them in media that has the materials required for growth of the cells. The idea is simple and it is crazy to think that you could just take your own cells grow them and turn them into a meal but you could! One day cannibalism could be the new cool thing. Maybe.
Now cultured meat is said to have advantages over normal meat in that it is technically vegan(no animal is hurt in the process), requires less resources to manufacture and is better for the environment. That sounds great! I mean, who wouldn’t support eating a hamburger that tastes just like a hamburger from a cow except you don’t need to kill the cow and you get to help the environment in the process!
There are a number of start-ups in past few years that have raised a bunch of money on hype. It’s not unreasonable to imagine one day we will all eat cultured meat. The problem is that most people tell you that it is only 2 or 5 years away(Memphis Meats says they will sell cultured meat by 2021) I want to let you know that it is probably much much farther away than that, maybe even 20 years or more.
See, there are few things in our world like food. Human beings constantly eat so the amount of food that needs to be produced to feed everyone is massive. We don’t see it and so are oblivious to the scale and infrastructure required to get us our meat. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association 25 billion pounds of beef is grown, butchered, distributed and sold in the US. Think about that scale, the average semi truck can hold maximum 80,000 lbs. It takes around 390,000 semi trucks packed to capacity to move that meat around. Think about the number of people employed in the beef industry. According to the bureau of labor and statistics around 131,000 people working in Butchering and Meat cutting alone. There are 728,000 cattle ranches in the US! The infrastructure and job training around meat and food is at such a scale it is not even really fathomable. The craziest part is that USDA Choice Beef is sold for the average price of $5.96 / lb! AND people make money off this whole process!
What this tells us is that meat takes more than just cattle and cultured meat takes more than just being able to grow some cells or giving a company tens of millions of dollars.
But why not? It’s not hard to grow cultured meat cells. I mean I have grown up cultured meat in my garage and you probably could too. Just get some freshly butchered meat, sterilize it, and throw it in a petri dish with the proper growth media to feed the cells and some will grow. You can find instructions here on how to isolate and grow mouse myoblasts(A myoblast is a muscle cell. It is what meat is made from).
Ok great but if it is so easy to grow then what’s the problem?
The main problem with cells is that they don’t scale well outside of organisms. It’s easy to grow cattle, you just feed them. In cells, once you try to move from a petri plate to a 1 liter bioreactor to a 100 liter bioreactor to a 1,000 liter bioreactor things become exponentially more difficult each step. Making lots of meat cells is so much harder than making just a little meat cells.
Cultured Meat Needs Antibiotics
Yeah, remember when people told you that these cells are antibiotic and growth horomone free, weeelllll they lied.
Animal cells grown in culture are severely prone to contamination. So much so that most research labs have laminar flow hoods and separate rooms dedicated solely to this purpose. Growing cells can not only get obvious contamination but also contamination that is not detectable by visual inspection or microscopes, the dread of the cell culture world is a teeny tiny bacteria called mycoplasma. Theoretically, you can always just add more antibiotics and anti-fungals. Still this isn’t even mentioning viruses…
From this paper they say you can get about 1gram(g) of myoblast cells per liter(L) of culture media under optimal conditions and the process to grow them takes around 10 days. I have heard that people can get more than 1g / L but not of myoblasts alone. Anne Specht, Ph.D. from the Good food Institute, a pro-cultured meat institute, say that it will take 44 days to grow a single batch at scale. So let’s say 1g / L is an underestimation and 44 days is too long. So let’s overestimate and say we ca grow 10g / L in 10 days. That means it takes 45L of growth media per pound(lb)(~450g in a lb) of cultured meat. So one hamburger, a quarter pounder(~110g) would need 11L of media and cells! To produce 1000 quarter pounders you would need 11,000 liters of cells!! Imagine trying to keep all the liquid, all the cells, all the air, all the pipes and connections, everything that helps run this bioreactor sterile and clean. Basically, the only way to do this will be with antibiotics. Sterility is going to be an expensive and hard learning curve. Bacteria survive even in NASA clean rooms how much more for this?
Cultured Meat is Not Vegan
To grow the cells at more than a snail’s pace you need to use FBS. FBS is Fetal Bovine Serum, literally, the filtered non-red/white blood cell part of blood from fetal cows! This is pretty far from vegan. The reason fetal serum is used is because it contains all the growth factors that are needed and fetal cows don’t have all the immunological parts that would cause them to kill or inhibit the cells you are trying to grow. Theoretically, you don’t need to use FBS you could possible use Newborn Calf Serum(NCS) which is the serum from newborn cows, much easier and less expensive to obtain but it doesn’t work as well and is still not vegan. NCS is also more immunogenic and so is less likely to work well. Adult serum is not usually used because it has lots of immunological factors that make it difficult for cells to grow but maybe we can eventually figure out an easy way get adult serum to work and harvest it from humans? Would that be vegan?
*Disclosure I donated plasma in college for money when I was a poor undergrad so it’s not an unreasonable idea
Are there good cheap vegan alternatives to FBS that work as well? There are plenty of non-serum based alternatives but none that work well enough to make people switch over.
Structuring those Infras
When you think about meat we tend to think about the animal and the grocery store because that is all we really know and see. The biggest problem with cultured meat is not whether you can make a meatball or a hamburger, that’s the easy part. The hard part is how to scale it to be able to produce enough to sell to consumers and make a profit.
In order to get your meat to the store first, you start with the farmer or cattlehand. The average feedlot(let’s call it a farm) has 40 head of cattle. There are around 728,000 beef farms and ranches or about 15,000 per state if they were divided equally. This produces 25 billion pounds of beef. Say a cultured meat company aims to take 1% of the market or 250 million pounds of beef. At traditional prices($5.96 / lb) that beef is worth about $1.5 billion.
Let’s just say for argument sake that a company like Memphis Meats really only needs to make 1 million pounds of cultured meat a year. Just a note, 1 million pounds a year is tiny, Impossible Foods, a plant based meat start-up just started scaling up to 1 million pounds a month and they aren’t even selling in grocery stores. Ok, still, how would a cultured meat company do that? You need to start out by building a warehouse filled with giant vats to grow cells called bioreactors. Now, most bioreactors are around 2000L or smaller. For reference, a chinese company that grows massive amounts of cells for other purposes, WuXi, created a 14 tank 2000L system for $150 million. Now, this warehouse has a max output of 28,000L, let’s imagine they run it flawlessly at our overinflated production numbers from above of 10g / L of cells and a new culture every 10 days. From that you could make only around 23,000 lbs of meat a year. Cattle take around three years to grow to full weight. Even with these inflated numbers cultured meat is definitely more time efficient. Still, even if you could make 10x (100g / L) more cultured meat cells, way above and beyond what anyone can reasonable do at this time, it would still only be 230,000 lbs of meat a year! That is still not alot, remember 1% of the market is 250 million lbs so this is only 0.001% of the market. At $10 / lb which is almost twice the going rate you would only make $2.3 million!!! Ok, so, what if every liter produced 1 kg or 2.2lbs of meat even though this is a theoretically impossibility because (1kg)1000g of cells per (1L)1000g of water, i.e. there is no water left only cells, but let’s just see how the math turns out.
Every 10 days you would make around 62,000 lbs of cultured meat and you can do that 36 times a year so you have a total of 2.2 million lbs of cultured meat a year. Also, understand that the animal serum industry only produces around 700,000 L of FBS media to grow the cells each year and to run the bioreactors that much would require over 1,000,000 L! So even if you could produce an impossible number of cultured meat, you would need an unyet accomplished amount of media and all to grow only 2.2 million lbs of cultured meat, which is less than 0.01% of the 25 billion lb beef market. Even using theoretical impossibilities and a state of the art bioreactor system one could only make less than 0.01% of the current market in a year. Are you skeptical yet?
It gets worse though, at consumer prices reasonably comparable to cattle beef say $10 / lb, that 2.2 million lbs of cultured meat would only be $22 million a year. If the media to grow the cells only cost $22 / L you would still make no profit. Unfortunately, it costs a lot more!
The Cost of Making Cultured Meat
FBS is the media used to grow cultured meat cells and it is expensive. You are talking about $1000 for one liter. Yes, one liter. Maybe that price can be driven down by greater demand but fetal cows aren’t exactly the easiest thing to come by. So that 45L / lb of cells is going to cost you $45k. There are definitely bulk discounts so I am sure the price is lower but go back and compare that with the $5.69 / lb of USDA choice beef charged to the consumer. Even if you get a 75% discount at bulk a full pound of cultured meat would cost $11k!!! This is also without replacing the media. Generally during cell culture the media will be replaced multiple times to help the cells keep growing at a good rate.
It is true that there are other ways to grow cells that don’t use FBS. Memphis Meats claims that they can get the price down to $2400 / lb, which seems great when previous prices were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But this number is ridiculously high even if it is true. To produce that impossible ~0.01% market share of 2.2 million lbs of cultured meat it would cost around $5 billion. While at market rate that 2.2 million lbs would only produce around $22 million in revenue.
But let’s theorize again. Cells can grow in many many different types of media. In reality, all you need to grow these cells is some carbon source, a nitrogen source and the proper pH. Newborn Calf Serum(NCS), cost about 20% of FBS at $174 / liter and while that seems like a great deal it doesn’t work as well so that 10g / L of cells is probably much lower but let’s say it is not. So 45L x $174 is about $7.8k / lb using NCS. Even if you can make 100g of cultured meat per liter you are still talking $750 / lb for just the growth media alone.
But hey start-ups just wing it sometimes so let’s say you just use something like Gatorade with a cheap nitrogen source. Six gallons(22L) worth of gatorade mix costs $18 on Amazon. So using something as cheap as Gatorade mix would still cost you $36 / lb at 10g of cultured meat per liter. Of course this is without paying anyone, purifying, packing, processing and shipping. So a bottom number for cultured meat is probably above $36 / lb. Anne Specht, Ph.D. of the Good Food Institute calculated that unless significant advances happen the lowest you can recreate culture media at scale is for $377 / L. So it’s going to be ridiculously hard to make cultured meat at a comparable price but even if someone does they can’t just sell it. They still need to deal with the FDA.
The FDA will probably regulate cultured meat. What exactly does this mean? At the moment no one knows. Does it mean a lengthy process in order to get the product approved for safety or does it mean just simple tests to show that the product is not contaminated? To me this seems to be almost as scary as the scaling problem. The FDA is notoriously lengthy to work with and so you can imagine approving the use of cultured meats possibly taking years.
The Future of Meat is Plant Based
Let’s be honest. In order to create a food product that can scale it needs to fit inside the existing ecosystem of infrastructure. The best bet for something like this would be a plant/fungal based replacement. I have no connection to Impossible Foods but have eaten their plant based burger a few times. Their burger is composed of plant based products and then uses a plant hemoglobin(blood) mimic called leghemoglobin. This leghemoglobin is produced in yeast using genetic engineering so it can be made at scale. It is purified from yeast and added to the plant based burger to give it a “meaty” taste. Their “fake” meat is no different than countless others on the market and so can be processed and made in mostly the same way besides one ingredient. The Impossible burgers tastes pretty burger like. The texture is not completely perfect and generally the restaurants that serve it will sear the burger to give it some texture. I enjoy it.
Selling a new food is all about scaling and Impossible Foods knew that. The next big food start-ups will also know that. Make a staple with mostly plants/fungus say pork, chicken, bacon? And add something completely new to it like a little bit of cultured fat cells. Not too much that it costs alot but enough that it is a unique product that people will want to try. This makes it so the infrastructure investment is minimal and once you create the product your path to market is clear.
Finally, let me take a minute to apologize. I’m not saying that cultured meat is a bad thing. I am not saying don’t invest in it or try to do it. If no money is ever invested in cultured meat then it will never become realized. My biggest problem is that people either can’t do basic maths or don’t care to and so make wild exaggerations about how cultured meat is so much more amazing than cattle beef when it really is just a more expensive, antibiotic laden replacement that can’t scale well.