Is Cultured Meat Commercially Viable?
Cultured Meat is attracting more and more interest from investors and consumers alike. Ever since Singapore became the first country to give regulatory approval for cultured chicken meat in December 2020, debate over the novel cellular agriculture technology has shifted from questions of feasibility to discussion of the industry’s commercial viability. Now, cultured meat pioneer Mosa Meat has responded to critics.
Mosa Meat, the first company to present a prototype hamburger patty made from cultured beef eight years ago, on 10 November 2021 published a blog post in response to critical media reports that questioned whether the technology of producing meat from animal cells in bioreactors could ever become commercially sustainable.
Commercialization of cultured meat ‘not inevitable’
While agreeing that a cultured meat (CM) breakthrough on a commercial scale was not inevitable, the Dutch industry pioneers analyzed the critical points raised by media commentary into five main issues – concerns around growth media, critiques of lifecycle and techno-economic analyses, scalability of hardware and production facilities, open-source science versus private research, and the role of investors – and laid out their case that each of these potential barriers can be overcome.
Regarding growth media, the key issues are the ethics of extracting fetal bovine serum (FBS) and the price of nutrients. Mosa Meat noted that alternatives to FBS are available for growing both muscle and fat tissues, and that its own animal-free serum is equally effective or better as FBS while also becoming progressively cheaper. While the firm acknowledged legitimate concerns over the ability to create a supply chain for pharma-grade nutrients at the levels needed to bring down prices and enable economies of scale, it pointed out that industry R&D efforts are underway to develop alternatives. Already, food-grade protein hydrolysates and feed-grade glucose have been shown to be effective nutrients.
Responding to criticism of Techno-Economic Analyses (TEA) and lifecycle analyses of CM, including the TEA by CE Delft published in February 2021, Mosa Meat conceded that economies of scale for cell production have not yet been achieved and that predictions on mass production of animal cells remain difficult. On the other hand, the CM industry is geared towards maximizing cell production and minimizing use of growth medium or recycling it, while the business model of the conventional biopharma industry (with which the CM industry was unfavorably compared) prioritizes secretion over biomass in the cell lines it cultivates. “While the base technologies of our two industries are similar, the production processes have divergent motivations and any modeling drawing comparisons need to take that into account,” the authors wrote.
Scaling up cultured meat production
In the area of hardware and production scalability, potential obstacles include the need to prevent contamination and the costs of production facilities as well as growth media. Mosa Meat argued that with appropriate facilities with compartmentalized stages meeting different industry standards, the risk of contamination can be managed. Comparing the industry production capacity required to cover all current meat consumption to that of global wine industry, Mosa Meat argued that the basic volume of bioreactors for CM should be 300m3 for 750,000 kg per year output. Production facilities on this scale, combined with optimized production processes and a fully developed value chain, can make commercial scale-up achievable, though it will take a decade or more, the authors wrote.
Open-source vs. private research
Responding to concerns that the prevalence of privately funded corporate research and unwillingness to share proprietary know-how could slow down or impede the commercialization of CM, Mosa Meat pointed out that it shares research and other insights with the industry at conferences and in publications. The authors encouraged other actors to follow suit in the interest of advancing the industry as a whole. As the cellular agriculture sector continues to grow, more and more public funding is also being made available, including by public authorities in the US, Iceland, Norway, Korea, Japan, the EU, Singapore, and Australia.
Silicon Valley or bust?
Is the CM sector, as some critics have alleged, a high-stakes casino for investors and venture capital firms from Silicon Valley seeking short-term gains? Mosa Meat cited the growing role of Series B investors who are now backing many major industry players. Their involvement showed there is now a broad funding base available for successful market actors, supported by rigorous due diligence on the part of investors seeking long-term sustainable engagement rather than quick profits, the authors argued: “The size and caliber of the companies that have now begun investing in cultivated meat gives a clear signal about the perceived viability of cellular agriculture. Many of these investors are also potential value chain partners that bring to the table expertise and strategic partnerships to help the industry commercialize more efficiently. It would be unfair and inaccurate to characterize them as uninformed or naive.”
In conclusion, Mosa Meat acknowledged that barriers remained to be overcome, including through open debate and exchange of viewpoints. “There is a natural tension between needing to generate excitement in order to raise funding and not overpromising on important milestones,” the authors wrote. As such, they called for “robust and open dialogue about the development of our beef” and announced that Mosa Meat’s co-founder and CM pioneer Mark Post would discuss the feasibility of CM at a panel with David Humbird, one of the industry’s most vocal critics, at the 7th International Scientific Conference on Cultured Meat, which runs from 29 November to 1 December 2021.
To learn more about cultured meat and its prospects for commercialization, read our dynamic report Supertrends in Cultured Meat.