By Nate Brennan ’25 Associate
Would you ever consider eating meat that doesn’t come from an animal? New developments in alternative meats could soon become a new normal in grocery stores.
Back in August 2013 Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University unveiled the world’s first lab-grown or “cultured” burger during a live taste test in London. The burger was produced using bovine muscle cells grown in a laboratory. The technology behind the burger was so advanced the single patty cost over $325,000 to create. This new development challenged plant-based alternatives that had been in the market since the U.K’s Gergory Sams first commercialized the veggie burger in 1982. Since the debut in 2013, several companies have raised massive amounts of capital in the process of trying to create sustainable cultured meat products. To date, cultured beef, chicken, pork and duck have been the primary product focus. These emerging companies use a similar process to the one used by Mark Post but have found new sources of cells. As opposed to taking muscle cells from cows, these companies perform an incisional biopsy on a fetus inside the mothers womb to collect stem cells. After, the stem cells are taken to a lab and grown inside a tank of fertile bovine serum, which is basically baby cow blood. The cells grow suspended in liquid and multiply once a day, typically taking about a month to grow into a steak. The new technology allows for a more realistic texture and flavor closer to that of traditional meat.
In 2022, the global beef industry produced 75 million tons of meat, that’s equivalent to 19 pounds for everyone on the planet. The beef industries supply chain is destructive and thousands of acres of rainforest are being cleared every year to support growing cattle populations. In addition, cattle farming contributes to water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions on a massive scale. The global beef industry had 3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, which is twice as much as all vehicles in the US at the time. The idea behind traditional meat alternatives is to reduce the environmental impact of the meat market. Beyond Meat, a popular plant-based alternative company, backs this mission, stating that their product generates 90% less emissions than animal meat.
Globally in 2021, companies like Upside Foods, Mosa Meat, Aleph Farms, and SuperMeat raised a total of 1.38 Billion in invested capital. The industry was valued at 9.9 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 28.8%. Major investors include the likes of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and the European Union. Upside Foods is a California based cultivated meat company which has raised more than $600 million to date with a post-money valuation of $1.13 billion. Significant investments have been made by groups such as SoftBank, Norwest Venture Partners, and Temasek indicating a growing interest in disrupting the traditional meat industry.
Currently, the only place where lab-grown meat can be purchased is Singapore. Although with developing technology its availability will increase as long as it’s proven to be safe. A significant barrier to entry in the industry is public adoption. Are people really going to eat meat that doesn’t actually come from an animal? According to a 2018 study done in Canada, 34% of Gen Z and 33% of Millennials either strongly or somewhat agree that lab-grown meat is an acceptable alternative. Generation X and Baby Boomers staggered behind at 19% and 10% respectively. Another 2021 study done in the United Kingdom had participants rank their confidence in the safety of alternative proteins. Plant-based proteins ranked highest at 77%, edible insects at 50%, and lab-grown meat lowest at 30%. It’s clear that younger generations are more open-minded when it comes to meat alternatives. The major barrier for these companies is safety concerns about the quality of lab-grown meat compared to its traditional counterpart.
Ethical concerns have also been a growth inhibitor for the global alternative protein industry. Recently, Italy has backed a bill that would ban laboratory-produced meat and other synthetic foods in an attempt to protect Italian food heritage. The bill was heavily supported by the farmers’ lobby and a petition with half a million signatures has been supporting evidence for the movement. Other consumer dilemmas surrounding the lab-grown meat industry include animal welfare, environmental impact, health concerns, economic impact, and regulation concerns. Although technically no animal is slaughtered to create lab-grown meat, stem cells taken from a fetus are used in production. Animal rights groups have been arguing that it constitutes exploitation and is therefore unethical. Due to the stage of the industry it’s unclear what the true environmental impact of the industry will be. Laboratories use massive amounts of water, energy, and nutrients in production. The meat that is created in these labs has never been exposed to mass trials by the public so the long term health effects are still unclear. Currently, there is also a lack of clear regulatory frameworks for assessing the quality of lab-grown meat. This has raised questions about the reliability and safety of lab-grown products which has affected consumer trust. Another concern is the economic and social implications of disrupting the meat industry. In the US alone more than 500,000 Americans are employed by the meat, beef, and poultry processing industry. The effect of a growing lab-grown meat industry would be felt particularly hard in rural communities where agriculture is relied on for employment and celebrated in culture.
Although there are significant concerns to address, the lab-grown meat market is rapidly evolving and continues to draw investment. The early stage aspect of the industry makes the future unclear, but there are undeniable advantages to alternative meats. Public adoption will rely on a clear standards structure, affordability, as well as sustainable and ethical production practices. The future for the lab-grown meat industry is promising and time will tell the impact it has on humanities diet.
Nathan is a Sophomore from Arlington, MA who is pursuing a Business Administration major with an interest in Sustainability. Since joining the fund, Nathan looks to gain invaluable first hand experience in the world of angel investment and start-up practices. Prior to joining the fund, Nathan interned at MassInvestor, a venture capital database, where he curated information and researched PE/VC funds. During his Freshman year, Nathan co-founded Grey-t Water through the UNH E-Center and has competed in national, state, and school competitions. Nathan is actively involved on campus as a Shaw Explorer, Changemaker Fellow, and member of the honors program.