Blog 21 Mar 2024 

The promise of cultivated meat – are we any closer to this being a truly affordable and sustainable protein source?

Cultivated meat is set to transform our food systems and cut down carbon emissions. But when will it become an affordable and sustainable protein source?

Judith Huggan

Judith Huggan

Business Development Manager

Globally, meat consumption is at the highest it’s ever been and with production predicted to double by 2050 it shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. So, after a decade of research and $3 billion of investment, are we any closer to seeing cultivated meat becoming a regular feature on our menus?

The growing appetite for meat creates a dilemma: can we continue our current eating habits while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions? 

Given the vast emissions that livestock farming produces, it’s imperative that we consider alternatives to traditional meat production and consumption. The growing demand for meat alternatives has triggered a wave of new technologies, aimed at creating sustainable solutions to address the evolving consumer demand.

By embracing fermentation, plant-based proteins, and cultivated meat, we are not just reducing our carbon footprint; we are paving the way for a more resilient and diverse food ecosystem. But these new alternatives present their own challenges. Scalability, affordability and consumer perceptions remain key concerns, so how far have we come in the journey to deliver a viable meat alternative?

Making meat

Cultivated meat, also known as cultured meat or lab-grown meat, creates animal-based products from cell cultures. The result – real animal products made without using traditional methods of meat production that account for 57% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is not a new concept; back in the 1930s Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying: We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”. 

Scientists have made impressive strides towards turning this once-radical idea into a reality. In a landmark advance, a beef burger created from thousands of beef muscle strands, grown in tissue culture flasks, made its debut in 2013. It cost €250,000 to produce. Fast-forward ten years and the industry now boasts more than 150 companies across six continents, with products now cost-effective enough to be found on menus from Singapore to San Francisco. Despite this, the cost to produce cultivated meat remains prohibitively high, although there are some companies that claim to be close to achieving cost parity with conventional farming. 

Image showing an ornate dish containing chicken made from animal cells in a lab that was served at a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco
Cultivated chicken meat served up at Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco for the first time in July 2023 (Source: UPSIDE foods)

It’s not just private companies making investments in this growing sector, Government contributions to this field of research are now starting to reflect this growth. The Netherlands has already earmarked 60 million funding to support its production, while the UK has recently invested £12 million in a cellular agriculture research hub (CARMA), qhich aims to create an integrated cellular agriculture manufacturing value chain. Such long-term investments coupled with a favourable regulatory position, as well as an outstanding innovation landscape, make the UK an attractive option for companies developing cultivated meat.

This is a significant leap forward, however, there is still much to be done to make commercially available cultivated meat a reality.

Solving innovation problems

There are multiple challenges facing the cultivated meat industry. To start with, technology must scale up to produce cultured meat in a profitable, but environmentally friendly way. The UK has a unique opportunity to help drive down the cost of producing cultivated meat, especially if production is directly linked to renewable energy sources, keeping costs low. Reports show that if renewable energy is used in its production, the carbon footprint of cultivated meat drops by 80%. 

There are also ethical concerns to contend with. Most notable is the reliance on animal derived products in growth media with many companies focused on talking this issue directly. As an alternative, Newcastle University’s biotech spin-out 3D Bio-Tissues has been developing novel growth media supplements that can eliminate the need for fetal bovine serum and bovine serum albumin in growth media. These innovations support cell growth in a more economic and animal-friendly manner. 

Removing barriers to innovation and scale

As with many novel technologies, one of the biggest issues to surmount is regulatory approval and scale. 

Encouragingly, we are already seeing the beginnings of reform that could help to foster cultivated meat innovation in the UK. The UK is currently governed by EU novel food regulations; however, The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has commissioned a number of reviews, with the aim of modernising and streamlining the application approvals process. 

At the 2nd Annual Meat Evolution Leaders’ Summit, impressive advances were showcased in scaling up cultivated meat processes while also cutting the cost of media production. There are many overlaps between the technologies used for cultivated meat production and in bioprocessing for healthtech applications and I wondered if we could also apply learnings from scaling up fermentation processes in order to improve scalability and help drive down costs? Fermentation has been used for centuries to produce many of the products we consume today; could we transfer our experiences of obtaining products from fermentation to cultivated meat? Transferring knowledge in areas such as bioreactor design, process engineering and downstream processing to help optimise production efficiency and ensure product consistency could help accelerate the adoption of cultivated meat products to consumers. 

As an organisation supporting innovators in cultivated meat, we have a unique advantage. Not only can we offer services to support customers in this space, but we can also apply our experience of validating innovative products and processes in fermentation to the cultivated meat sector. 

Our recently opened Novel Food Innovation Centre, is a first-of-its kind facility in the UK located in the Tees Valley, in north-east England, which builds on our current biotechnology process development capabilities. A key new capability is our ability to produce food safely due to our new food grade facilities; together with the right quality and food safety management procedures, and a HACCP qualified team who can assess processes for food safety. The proof in the pudding’ is that CPI has achieved the food management safety certification (FSSC 22000) and is working towards FDA certification. 

By supporting businesses in their pursuit of creating innovative and enhanced food products, CPI aims to foster growth and development in the industry. 

Cultivating new appetites

To truly harness the potential of cultivated meat, a shift in consumer perception is still needed. A third of UK consumers are open to trying cultivated meat, but with transparent processes, rigorous research, and public education, the acceptance of cultivated meat can widen. 

Continued investment in research, together with robust public and private partnerships, will be key, if cultivated meat is ever to overcome its challenges and be an affordable and sustainable protein source. 

It won’t happen overnight, but a time could come where farm-to-fork and lab-to-table meat could sit next to each other on our dinner plates, and CPI will be at the centre of the innovation behind this cultural shift.

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