Thoughts of public sector animal geneticist - all views are my own

Month: December 2019

Who is selling cultured meat? What do the consultants and the data say? 4 of 4

(*****This series of 4 BLOG posts (1,2,3,4) is extracted from my paper from the Proceedings of the Range Beef Cow Symposium XXVI, November 18-20, 2019. Mitchell, NE. pages 37-49.*****)

Nobody is selling it yet, at least as far as cultured meats go, because no one has reduced the production  to a commercial scale. But the concept is being sold hard.

In October 10, 2019 a Jerusalem biotechnology company Future Meat Technologies announced it will establish the world’s first cultured meat pilot production facility, “producing GMO-free meat cultivated directly from animal cells on a commercial scale”.  According to an Israeli press article “The company plans to establish the facility south of Tel Aviv and begin operations next year. The expansion of research and development efforts come after the start-up secured $14 million in a Series A funding round. The company plans to introduce hybrid products into the market, combining plant proteins for texture with cultured fats to create the aroma and flavor of meat. While existing costs are $150 per pound of chicken and $200 per pound of beef, it aims to market its hybrid products at a “competitive cost level” from its pilot production facility by 2021.”

According to the June 2019 report by consulting firm A.T. Kearney, they predict that “In 20 years, only 40% of global meat consumption will still come from conventional meat sources”. They posit that “Cultured meat will win in the long run. However, novel vegan meat replacements will be essential in the transition phase”. In their estimation by 2040, cultured meat will make up 35 percent of meat consumed worldwide, while plant-based alternatives (e.g. Impossible, Beyond Burger) will compose 25 percent.

Projected breakdown of global meat production by 2040 according to a June 2019 A. T. Kearney Analysis.

By 2040 the FAO predicts there will be 402 million metric tons (MMT) of land-based meat consumed worldwide (169 MMT chicken, 143 MMT pork, 90 MMT beef). That does not include eggs (98 MMT), fish (200 MMT), or milk (1,051 MMT). The total of animal-based products in 2040 is therefore predicted to be 1751 MMT (compared to 1430 in 2020) as illustrated in the feature image. Doing the back of the envelope math and assuming that only the 402 MMT of land-based meat production (i.e. not the sizable milk, fish and eggs production) is replaced with “quarter pounders” of alternative sources as predicted in the image above, that would equate to [(.25 x 402 MMT) X (1,000,000,000/0.1133981)] which would be approximately 886,258,235,367 plant-based burgers, and (.35 x 402 MMT)X(1,000,000,000/0.1133981) which would be approximately:

One trillion, two hundred forty billion, seven hundred & sixty-one million, five hundred and twenty-nine thousand, five hundred & fourteen (1,240,761,529,514) cultured meat burgers annually by 2040. That is a big ask in 20 years for an industry that does not yet have a single product on the market!

As with all ‘disruptive innovations’, there is a need to consider the pros and cons of the system that is being proposed as compared to the existing system. There will always be tradeoffs, some good, some bad. There are positive externalities associated with ruminants such at the ecosystem services they provide when they graze rangeland.  Grazing ruminants are embedded in the definition of rangelands—“a natural ecosystem for the production of grazing livestock and wildlife.” Grasslands and their associated biodiversity frequently evolved with large hoofed herbivores; well-managed, herbivorous grazing by ruminants maintains rangeland health.

Ruminants also provide manure, transportation, the livelihoods and food security of an estimated 1.3 billion livestock keepers. Small ruminants – sheep and goats – produce only about 4% of global animal-source protein. However, they are a very important source of such protein in the developing world as they are able to upcycle plants that are inedible for humans into high quality animal-souce foods. THAT is the magic super-power of grazing ruminants. The rumen’s microbial population can transform inedible grasses and other cellulose-based forages into energy. Additionally ruminants produce more than just hamburgers. Milk is by far the most consumed animal-source food globally, and dairy animals also produce both milk and meat.

Mattick et al. (2015) writes of cultured meat, “These energy dynamics may be better understood through the analogy of the Industrial Revolution: Just as automobiles and tractors burning fossil fuels replaced the external work done by horses eating hay, in vitro biomass cultivation may similarly substitute industrial processes for the internal, biological work done by animal physiologies.” Meaning external energy sources will be used to replace the work of the biological processes that take place in the cow. The authors continue with this train of thought, “That is, meat production in animals is made possible by internal biological functions (temperature regulation, digestion, oxygenation, nutrient distribution, disease prevention, etc.) fueled by agricultural energy inputs (feed). Producing meat in a bioreactor could mean that these same functions will be performed at the expense of industrial energy, rather than biotic energy.” Cultured meat would replace  a biotic system with a fermentation factory powered by industrial energy. The abstract of their paper concludes:

“While uncertainty ranges are large, the findings suggest that in vitro biomass cultivation could require smaller quantities of agricultural inputs and land than livestock; however, those benefits could come at the expense of more intensive energy use as biological functions such as digestion and nutrient circulation are replaced by industrial equivalents. From this perspective, large-scale cultivation of in vitro meat and other bioengineered products could represent a new phase of industrialization with inherently complex and challenging trade-offs.”

Mattick, et al. 2015. Anticipatory Life Cycle Analysis of In Vitro Biomass Cultivation for Cultured Meat Production in the United States. Environ Sci Technol 49(19):11941-11949.

In summary, cultured meat is a term used to describe imitating a range of animal products from animal cells grown in a bioreactor. Although there is a lot of venture capital and celebrity investor buzz around this technology, there is no company that is currently selling cultured meat. There are a number of unknowns about the feasibility of culturing animal tissues at scale, and the true environmental impact of using energy to replace the biological functions carried out by the body of an animal (harvesting forage for energy and growth, waste removal, fighting off disease etc.). Growing animal cells efficiently and keeping contaminants out of the system and end product requires attentive management and innovation, whether meat is produced in a biotic system that is powered by solar energy and the physiology of a cow, or an industrial system using electricity and a bioreactor to produce cultured meat in a manufacturing plant.

Cultured meat start-ups and venture capital: What do the data say? 3 of 4

(*****This series of 4 BLOG posts (1,2,3,4) is extracted from my paper from the Proceedings of the Range Beef Cow Symposium XXVI, November 18-20, 2019. Mitchell, NE. pages 37-49.*****)

When it comes to cultured meat, venture capital funds are funding startups in California, Israel and the Netherlands. Some of the first work in this area was done by Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands to produce the proof-of-concept burger  featured at the August 2013 £250,000 (US $330,000) lab-grown burger unveiling event in London. According to an article by Mouat and Prince, “Before the hamburger event, the mystery benefactor that financed the burger was unknown. Later it was revealed that the funder was Google co-founder Sergei Brin (Net Worth: $53.8 Bn). The event was simulcast on the web and included a celebrity chef live-cooking the burger, a three-person tasting panel, and a live studio audience . At this event, Post estimated that if the process can be scaled up it would take 10–20 years to produce ‘beef,’ likely still at relatively high cost (Murray, 2018).

Memphis Meats made meatballs from cultured meat at $18,000 per pound in 2016. Somewhat ironically given the environmental footprint of airplane travel, Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson (Net Worth: $3.8 Bn) joined Bill Gates in financing cultured meat leader Memphis Meats in part of a $17 million fundraising round in 2017.

“There is no doubt that the association of this iteration of biological technology with super-rich celebrity investors and venture capital is significant”  (Mouat and Prince, 2018).

Ground beef is not the only product that is being attempted in cell-based culture. There are a number of companies springing up making everything from ice-cream to egg whites to cowless milk. In 2014 Perfect Day (Muufri prior to August 2016) was offered USD$2 million in seed money from Horizons Ventures. According to Mouat and Prince (2018), one of the partners at Horizons Ventures, Li Ka-shing ‘loves disruptive innovations and sees it as kind of predictive lenses into the future. He loves to meet and geek with the founders and CEOs of companies within our disruptive portfolio, to understand their concepts and missions’. Horizons Ventures have also invested in Facebook, Spotify, Skype, Modern Meadow (lab-grown leather for disrupting the $90 billion per year leather industry). There has also been some state investment in these technologies (Stephens, 2015).

A list of the companies I could find is in Table 2 using data from this list maintained at Cell based tech ( among other media sources – along with their location and the product they are trying to mimic.

Table 2: Listing of companies formed to produce cellular animal-based products, and their location. Estimates of total capital raised is listed when known.

New Harvest, a 501(c)(3) research institute accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture, collects and directs charitable donations and grants in the industry. Next to venture capital funds, large corporations such as Cargill, Merck, Google, UBS, and PHW Group have invested in these companies. Cargill invested in Memphis Meats. The sum of total capital raised in Table 2 is well north of USD$400 million. The Good Food Institute, a non-profit that promotes plant-based and cultured meat alternatives to meat, dairy, and eggs; estimated that in the five years leading up to 2018, USD$17.1 billion had been invested in plant-based food; with a further USD$73.3 million in cell-based meat companies.

Mouat and Prince (2018) use the term biocapitalism to describe the investment in cultured meat. They reflect that fundraising for companies trying to produce animal-free food – depends to varying extents on “a venture capital industry with a culture that celebrates ‘disruption’; a set of biotechnical materials and relations that are being pacified into a marketable object; an existing community of concern worried about the effects of animal agriculture; and the construction of ethical agency for animal-free food to solve the problems that this community is so concerned with. It is all of these things that enable value to be leveraged off the biological material that makes up animal-free food, and so constitutes it as biocapital.

Cultured meats and LCA statistics: What do the data say? 2 of 4

(*****This series of 4 BLOG posts (1,2,3,4) is extracted from my paper from the Proceedings of the Range Beef Cow Symposium XXVI, November 18-20, 2019. Mitchell, NE. pages 37-49.*****)

The start-to-end environmental footprint – called a life cycle assessment (LCA) – of cultured meat at large scale is not available as no group has yet achieved this feat. I have tried to summarize the literature on the basis of kg of final product (Table 1), but note there are differences in a kg milk versus a kg of beef, and even a two-fold difference in the assumptions made as to the protein content of cultured meat. It is therefore close to impossible to do an apples to apples comparison. The values vary dramatically depending upon the assumptions made, and the boundaries of the LCA.

The functional unit (i.e. metric of the comparison) matters – whether kg carcass weight, kg product, kg of nutritional value (e.g., protein), and then of course the quality of that protein or food source. Changes in the functional unit (FU) alters the results quite dramatically, and therefore, the development of a FU which would reflect the complete integrative nutritional function of meat substitute is needed. It is obvious that meat substitutes have different nutritional profiles and, therefore, nutritional value. At the same time, different aspects of nutritional quality (protein and amino acid content, vitamins, fat and fatty acids, micronutrients etc.) vary in different proportion in meat substitutes. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a complex nutritional value estimate, which would reflect the qualities of meat and meat substitutes for further studies.

Table 1. Carbon Footprint CO2-eq, land use (m2), and energy use (MJ) per kg product for different products in a number of different studies. *Qantis (

In looking at Table 1, some general rules always apply: the carbon footprint per kg product increases as you go from one trophic level to the next (i.e. plants to animals that eat plants), and from single stomach (monogastric) animals (e.g.,  chickens/pigs) to ruminants (e.g., cattle and sheep). However, ruminants can eat forage that monogastrics, humans included, cannot. Ruminants consume byproducts (e.g. distiller’s grains) and crop residues (e.g. almond hulls) that would otherwise go to waste or into landfills.

Eighty-six  (86%) of the global livestock feed dry matter (DM) intake consists of feed materials that are not human edible. Producing 1 kg of boneless meat requires an average of 2.8 kg human-edible feed in ruminant systems and 3.2 kg in monogastric systems (Mottet et al., 2017).

It should also be noted that land use numbers in Table 1 do not differentiate between arable land, and land that has no other human food purpose. Many ruminants graze marginal land, or crop residues, and convert that otherwise inedible forage into milk and meat. Conversely, cellular meat will require the provision of food grade nutrients supplied directly to the cells growing in the bioreactor, and waste streams will need to be disposed of following production of the cultured product. The LCA of this aspect of cellular meat remains unknown.

It is worth noting that the very favorable cultured meat LCA (Tuomisto and Teixeira de Mattos, 2011), oft-cited by proponents of cultured meat, was funded by New Harvest, a non-profit research institute accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture, and has been especially criticized for assuming cultured mammalian meat will be able to be grown using  cyanobacteria hydrolysate as the nutrient and energy source for muscle cell growth, as this medium is more commonly used for yeast cells; and for ignoring the environmental impacts of growth factors and vitamins, as the cells cannot grow without these supplements and they are both difficult to isolate and synthesize.

The functional unit (FU) of the alternative meat discussion to date has been, oddly enough, hamburger patties, ground beef.

As  mentioned previously, the FU used as the comparator can dramatically alter the sustainability metrics of any system (lb carcass weight is different to lb edible meat, and lb protein, and lb of animal source food) – especially if the comparators differ nutritionally.

An average weight steer (1,300 lb) produces an 806 lb carcass which yields 639 lb edible beef, of which 38% is ground beef (i.e.  62% is not!). Primal cuts are obviously more valuable than ground beef, and the by-products of beef (including hides, offal, blood, tallow, bones, and bone meal) which represent approximately 11.7% of the value of a carcass are not factored into many LCA analyses. There are also offal products such as beef tongue and tripe, favorites of many ethnic communities, which are unlikely to be replicated via cell culture technology.

According to the FAO, global animal agriculture is estimated to account for 14.5% of anthropogenic GHG emissions which can be broken down into beef (5.9%), cattle milk (2.9%), pork (1.3%), buffalo milk and meat (1.2%), chicken meat and(1.2%), and small ruminant milk and meat (0.9%) (FAO).

Nationally agriculture accounts for 9% emissions, slightly less than 4% is animal agriculture.

In the United States, all of agriculture is responsible for 9% of the US GHG emissions (US EPA). Fossil fuel-based energy is responsible for over 80% of total US GHG emissions, as compared to slightly less than 4% from animal agriculture. To put this in perspective, it has been estimated that eliminating ALL of US animal agriculture would decrease US GHG by 2.6%, but would also create a food supply incapable of supporting the US population’s nutritional requirements .


Lynch, J. and R. Pierrehumbert. 2019. Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 3(5).

Mattick, C. S. 2018. Cellular agriculture: The coming revolution in food production. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 74(1):32-35.

Mattick, C. S., A. E. Landis, B. R. Allenby, and N. J. Genovese. 2015. Anticipatory Life Cycle Analysis of In Vitro Biomass Cultivation for Cultured Meat Production in the United States.  Environ Sci Technol 49(19):11941-11949.

Mottet, A., C. de Haan, A. Falcucci, G. Tempio, C. Opio, and P. Gerber. 2017. Livestock: On our plates or eating at our table? A new analysis of the feed/food debate. Global Food Security 14:1-8.

Nijdam, D., T. Rood, and H. Westhoek. 2012. The price of protein: Review of land use and carbon footprints from life cycle assessments of animal food products and their substitutes. Food Policy 37(6):760-770.

Tuomisto, H. L., M. J. Ellis, and P. Haastrup. 2014. Environmental impacts of cultured meat: alternative production scenarios. Pages 8-10 in Proc. Proceedings of the 9th international conference on life cycle assessment in the agri-food sector.

Tuomisto, H. L. and M. J. Teixeira de Mattos. 2011. Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production. Environmental Science & Technology 45(14):6117-6123.

Alternative meats and alternative statistics: What do the data say? 1 of 4

(*****This series of 4 BLOG posts (1,2,3,4) is extracted from my paper from the Proceedings of the Range Beef Cow Symposium XXVI, November 18-20, 2019. Mitchell, NE. pages 37-49.*****)

The alternative animal product arena is complex and quite varied. Some products are entirely plant product derived and employ only plant origin proteins or metabolites. Other endeavors are using cells of animal origin to derive a more structurally similar meat yet still with animal genomes. Most of the analysis and discussion, though, has focused on bovine alternatives because of the iconic position of cattle in many climate and sustainability discussions.

There are two ‘alternative meat’ sources that are often confused. One is so called “plant-based” or “vegan meat replacements” (e.g. Beyond Burger). These types of “veggie” burgers have been around a long time (e.g. Morningstar Farms, Boca Burgers), and now have some bells and whistles like genetically-engineered heme to make them bleed (e.g. Impossible Burger), but at the end of the day they consist of plant-sourced material being molded into a meat substitute type product. They are currently being sold at some fast food restaurants, and in supermarkets. Impossible Burger recently received safety approval for its genetically engineered heme as a color additive in ground beef analogue products, opening the way for its sale in supermarkets.

These are DIFFERENT to cultured meat, which is the term I am going to use to refer to animal cells grown in cell culture. This technology has other terminology – some appealing (e.g., in vitro meat, cellular meat, fermented meat, or slaughter-free meat, clean meat), and some derogatory (e.g. artificial meat, synthetic meat, zombie meat, lab-grown meat, non-meat, or artificial muscle proteins). This is discussed in my 2018 article “Why cows are getting a bad rap in lab-grown meat debate”.

Cultured meat requires the initial collection of stem cells from living animals and then greatly expanding their numbers in a bioreactor, a device for carrying out chemical processes. These living cells must be provided with nutrients in a suitable growth medium containing food-grade components that must be effective and efficient in supporting and promoting muscle cell growth. A typical growth medium contains an energy source such as glucose, synthetic amino acids, antibiotics, fetal bovine serum, horse serum and chicken embryo extract. Some of these components are problematic for consumers wishing to avoid animal products. The status quo for culturing tissue involves the use of fetal bovine serum, a byproduct of the livestock industry collected from fetuses in pregnant cows that are being slaughtered.  Large uncertainties remain in what a viable, animal-free, growth media may look like.

The world’s first lab-grown beef burger is unveiled in London on Aug. 5, 2013. (David Parry/AFP/Press Association)

If cultured meat is to match or exceed the nutritional value of conventional meat products, nutrients found in meat not synthesized by muscle cells must be supplied as supplements in the culture medium. Conventional meat is a high-quality protein, meaning it has a full complement of essential amino acids. It also provides a source of several other desirable nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and bioactive compounds. Therefore to be nutritionally equivalent, cultured meat medium would need to provide all of the essential amino acids, along with vitamin B12, an essential vitamin found solely in food products of animal origin. Vitamin B12 can be produced by microbes in fermentation tanks, and could be used to supplement a cultured meat product. It would also be necessary to supplement iron, an especially important nutrient for woman of reproductive age that is also high in beef.

The process for making cultured meat has technically challenging aspects. It includes manufacturing and purifying culture media and supplements in large quantities, expanding animal cells in a bioreactor, processing the resultant tissue into an edible product, removing and disposing of the spent media, and keeping the bioreactor clean. Each are themselves associated with their own set of costs, inputs and energy demands.

Cultured meat production will likely require more industrial energy than do livestock to produce equivalent quantities of meat. The reason is that all of the biological structures avoided in cellular agriculture play important roles in meat production. An animal’s skin regulates temperature; internal organs digest food, circulate nutrients, and distribute oxygen; and the immune system destroys pathogens. When meat is grown in a bioreactor, all the same functions must still be accomplished, but at the expense of industrial energy. A bioreactor regulates temperature, food is predigested and fed to cells as simple sugars and amino acids, oxygen is pumped into the bioreactor, and all equipment is sterilized to prevent the growth of pathogens. Hence, a shift from livestock production to cellular agriculture could be a transition toward greater reliance on industrial energy.

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