Vow.
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Vow.

Cultured meat was never inevitable

This past week an excellent, carefully researched and reported article titled “Lab-grown meat is supposed to be inevitable. The science tells a different story,” was shared by Joe Fassler in The Counter. In it, Fassler shares the bear case for cultured meat and delves into many of the technical challenges and questions of whether it will reach the lofty ambitions promoted by cultured meat companies.

This may sound strange coming from the CEO of one such cultured meat company: I absolutely agree with Joe’s conclusion.

Cultured meat is far from inevitable and definitely not going to provide a cost effective replacement for commodity meat in the short to medium term. Instead, cultured meat should be viewed as a paradigm shift in manufacturing that will enable products we can only dream of today.

Like semiconductors, electric vehicles, or smartphones before us, many impactful technologies that shape our lives found their success in doing what previous systems couldn’t. Cultured meat will find its place because of what it is — a new food manufacturing paradigm — rather than what it isn’t — commodity meat from animals.

I spent a long time as an economic sceptic of cultured meat. Having been traumatised by long hours learning to culture HeLa cells during my undergraduate degree in biochemistry, I wasn’t convinced by the idea of scaling up something so finicky.

What eventually started to shift this view was a “back to the atoms” analysis: where do all the molecules come from to turn into cultured meat? Quite quickly it becomes apparent that the inputs are straightforward and ubiquitous: sugars, amino acids, fats, salts. Along with other, biologically produced molecules: growth factors, which are already on a steep downward cost curve. Finally, we need a whole lot of stainless steel in the form of bioreactors.

When you break it down like this it’s clear there is nothing intrinsically scarce or expensive, and we are at the dawn of humanities knowledge in engineering cell systems.

In the very long term, as our ability to engineer biology improves, I believe cultured meat will become the cheapest way to make protein, but it will take decades to reach this point.

This story of cost is already shared by other high impact industries. Electric cars in the US today are still roughly double the cost of their ICE counterparts, but this break even point is expected to be crossed some time in the 2020’s. This was always the plan and doesn’t mean Tesla is a bad business today or has been for the past 18 years — quite the opposite.

Had Tesla tried to launch with a direct competitor to the best selling commodity vehicles in the US in 2003, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, they would be long dead.

The same is true of cultured meat, trying to compete head on with commodity meat is equally foolish. This is why we founded Vow: to use this technology to make a new category of food that is both sustainable and irresistable, not to recreate what we eat today.

To go deeper, let’s dive into 4 core points:

Commodity meat won’t stay cheap

Cultured meat won’t be replacing cheap mince in the next couple of years. It will offer a better option, with regards to taste, nutrition and convenience, for a small number of uses to begin with.

According to Numbeo’s price index, in the US commodity chicken and beef are US$4.20 and US$5.77 per pound, respectively (US$9.26 and US$12.75 per kilo). This is a staggeringly cheap price enabled by incredibly efficient, intensive, and industrialised production systems.

These artificially cheap prices, at least in the US, are made possible by two, related factors:

  1. Farming subsidies reducing costs both through direct subsidies to meat producers and indirectly through subsidised feed production (including soy and corn)
  2. Externalising both direct (emissions) and indirect (land clearing) environmental costs

This is far from a permanent state of affairs. In fact, The Counter published this graphic on their homepage the day after their story on cultured meat when live:

For now, the world’s demand for meat is growing quickly.

To increase production means more animals on less land. All of this intensification comes with an important and increasingly obvious risk: a perfect storm for zoological disease.

African Swine Fever in China led to a tripling of pork prices in 2019, a trend that is likely to become more frequent and serious as intensification of animal agriculture continues.

Increased meat prices are a global phenomenon. Increasing demand and rising global wealth has seen the FAO’s meat price index nearly double over the past 18 years.

There is a foundational assumption underlying critiques of cultured meat that the only path to economic viability and impact is to match the price and experience of commodity produced meats today — I do not believe this is the case.

For Vow, at least, cultured meat isn’t about replicating what we eat today

Meat is a superfood, nutritionally dense and loaded with incredible, hard to replicate sensory experiences and nutrients.

At Vow, we aren’t setting out to replicate these low cost, commodity meats. Instead we create new foods that industrial animal agriculture can’t.

Our belief is the market dynamics of protein over the coming decade will more closely mirror beer. In the US, the largest beer brands (like Bud Light) have been dropping in consumption year over year as consumers reduce their intake and choose instead to drink a greater variety of more expensive, specialised craft beers instead.

Craft beer isn’t anything like the commodity lager it displaces. It’s more expensive and less widely available.

Cultured meat will take a similar path to impact. You won’t be buying cultured chicken breast at $3 per serve. Not for some time at least.

You will, instead, be purchasing higher priced, branded products,something with 10x the bioavailable iron of beef. Or perhaps a product enriched with animal collagen for better skin and nails. Or something impossibly decadent that brings together melt in your mouth duck fat with the irresistible sizzle on the pan of a pork loin.

Long term projections about new technologies are often wrong

Projections of new technologies are extremely challenging even for experts within a field.

Biotechnology is full of incorrect predictions by experts — both overly optimistic and pessimistic.

Francis Collins, who led the $300m, 15 year effort of the Human Genome project at the National Institute of Health, penned an article 20 years ago predicting the impacts of genetic technologies over coming decades.

Included within was an incredibly audacious claim for the time: by 2030 the cost of sequencing a whole human genome would be just $1,000 — a 300,000x reduction from the first effort he led.

This number was reached in 2014, 16 years ahead of schedule. Today, we’re at 1/10th of that target, with many years of advancement left to come before the Collins’ 2030 target.

Solar panels, another technology excruciatingly studied through techno-economic models, has been laughably incorrect, with multiple agencies across different continents drastically underestimating both cost reductions and adoption.

Countless other technologies over the past century have been underestimated by experts in the field. Precisely because frontier industries can only emerge through beating previously established limits and expectations.

Frontier industries are defined by doing things better than anyone has done before

In the article Paul Wood, a biotech industry veteran, is quoted as saying “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.’”

Yes! This is exactly how new ventures work.

Google said they would categorise all the world’s information to make a better Internet. Tesla has made hundreds of inventions to create desirable, incredible to drive electric cars at a price and scale never before seen. SpaceX has reinvented rocket engineering to enable faster reuse than ever before.

To invent a new category, you must create breakthrough inventions to make it possible.

For cultured meat we have three major problems to solve: cells, bioreactors and media.

As the article points out, Chinese Hamster Ovary cell lines, developed 60 years ago, are “probably not efficient enough for low-cost production of bulk cell mass” according to Humbird’s analysis. He is absolutely right.

Can we exceed this benchmark, set in the 1960’s, with the benefit of today’s tools? With modern biology, cheap robotics, and ubiquitous computing? I am certain the answer to this is a strong ‘yes’.

Then there’s the question of building large scale facilities. Can we efficiently and cost effectively produce bioreactors, arrange factories and engineer these complex systems cost effectively? Can we even produce cheap, precision welded stainless steel vessels by the thousands?

There are certainly many engineering challenges here which are yet to even be described. The answers won’t be drawn from the biopharma industries. Instead they will come from from automotive or food manufacturing or aerospace. Like SpaceX’s new welding techniques to rapidly and cheaply build the enormous Starship from stainless steel sheeting.

Then there’s the production of the nutritional media. Can we build new supply chains that produce adequate volumes of cost effective amino acids and recombinant growth factors?

We are already seeing specialised new entrants dropping the costs of some of these inputs by multiple orders of magnitude. From growth factors three orders of magnitude cheaper to pharma companies developing complete media. Both new entrants and incumbents are making headway into this new industry.

There are a huge number of barriers that stand between our industry today and cultured meat having a widespread and positive impact on our food system. Just like so many other innovators that have come before us, we will face these challenges and do everything possible to make this new category of food real.

Cultured meat, like ubiquitous electric vehicles, low cost interplanetary travel, or level five autonomous driving are not inevitable. Far from it. These are technologies which can only exist through hard work, invention, and creativity.

Cultured meat represents an opportunity to create electrified production of meat. Are the benefits that presents to people and our planet worth the risk? Clearly I believe this answer to be ‘yes’.

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