By Sarah Watts
In August 2013, scientists delivered a meal that was two years and more than a quarter of a million dollars in the making—the world's first lab-grown hamburger, cultivated from a small sample of bovine cells and grown at a lab in the Netherlands.
The burger passed the taste test (“The mouthfeel is like meat … there's a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger,” said food writer Josh Schonwald at the time), and soon the creation was heralded as a potential cure for world hunger, capable of feeding an untold number of people with far less resources than standard dairy farms. After the debut, two scientists behind the original burger teamed up to form Mosa Meat, with the goal to bring cultured meat to the public—and similar startups, such as Aleph Farms, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Finless Foods, quickly followed.
Eight years later, however, lab-grown meat is still more like science fiction, existing primarily in labs and press releases rather than dining room tables. But if industry reports are to be believed, that's soon about to change: In January 2020, California-based company Memphis Meats (now UPSIDE Foods) announced plans to build a pilot production facility in San Francisco backed by big names. Last month, an Israeli biotech company called Future Meat launched what it called the “world's first industrial cultured meat facility,” capable of producing 500 kilograms of lab-grown meat products per day—the rough equivalent of 5,000 hamburgers.
With the technology in place and the means of production scaling up, lab-grown meat is one step closer to becoming a viable dinner option for the public.
Cultured meat is still in its infancy—but the practice of modifying meat for consumers has been in place for decades. When large-scale animal production boomed right after World War II, the country's largest poultry retailer launched a national contest with the USDA called “The Chicken of Tomorrow,” where farmers were encouraged to breed chickens with a higher meat yield and plumper thighs and breasts. (The winning chicken breed eventually became the dominant chicken stock throughout the country and large commercial farms became the norm.) Cows, meanwhile, were modified as well: Farmers started to breed beef and dairy cattle without their horns so the cows could eat more equitably at the trough and in pasture, resulting in a more uniform size. In the 1950s, the FDA approved the use of steroid hormones in beef cattle and sheep, which not only increased the animals' growth rate but also their efficiency to turn feed into meat.
But where food has been traditionally modified for feeding as many people as possible, companies are now turning to food modification like lab-grown burgers for environmental and ethical reasons, says Mosa Meat CEO Maarten Bosch.
“Climate change and biodiversity loss present an existential crisis for humanity, and our global food system—especially industrial scale beef production—is a huge contributing factor for that,” says Bosch. Meanwhile, the global demand for meat is expected to increase by 2050—and companies are scrambling to find a way to satisfy demand without further destroying the planet.
This shift mirrors a larger business trend toward sustainability identified in a recent study on the future of work. The study found that one of the key indicators a company is ahead of the curve in preparing its organization for the future is a commitment to improving environmental sustainability. 90% of these “Pioneers” said this is important to the success of their business strategies, compared with less than half (47%) of the more ill-prepared “Late-movers.”
“There are simply not enough resources on our increasingly hungry planet to supply that demand,” says David Kay, Communications Director at UPSIDE Foods. But developing a cell-based meat supply, Kay says, means being able to feed the masses and use less land and water to do so, all the while decreasing the greenhouse gas emissions that come with large-scale factory farms. And the benefits don't end there. “[Lab-grown meat] can be produced in clean, controlled environments which can minimize the risk of harmful bacterial contamination like salmonella,” says Kay. “This can be done without the use of antibiotics or large herds of densely stocked animals, which has the added benefit of reducing pandemic risk.”
While lab-grown meat has the potential to feed millions and provide numerous environmental benefits, some worry that it will destroy commercial farming as we know it, putting farmers out of business across the country. But that's not necessarily what will happen, Bosch says. “We will need dramatically fewer cows to collect our cow samples, but we still need cows to create our burgers,” he says. Mosa's meat, he explains, is grown from a peppercorn-sized sample of cells from a living cow—but each small sample only creates approximately 80,000 burgers apiece. “We will also need to work with farmers who grow the crops needed to feed our beef cells,” he says.
And as production scales up, startups like UPSIDE, Mosa, and others are continuing to hire—meaning that even though the dairy industry will likely be disrupted, it doesn't necessarily mean a lack of total jobs. “In the last year, our team has more than doubled, and we're still actively recruiting,” Kay says.
As the global population surges, there's little doubt that meat is here to stay. But the future points to a dramatically different—and more sustainable way—of feeding the growing planet.
“Given the pace of scientific progress, the regulatory approval we just saw in Singapore, and the proliferation of startups working in this space, I expect to see a total transformation in how we feed the world,” says Bosch. “Given the challenges we face, that really must happen.”