Cultured Meat – the food of the future?

Cultured meat – or clean meat – is set to revolutionize the food industry. Can it provide a viable alternative to conventional meat that is healthier, more ethical, and better for our planet?

The present and future of meat

People across the globe are eating more meat than ever. Whether it be a bacon sandwich or a juicy burger, most of us find it an irresistible part of our diet.  

But the way that we have traditionally produced meat by farming animals is environmentally unsustainable. It’s putting pressure on our resources such as land and water, contributing to the loss of biodiversity and to the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. We need a radical shift in our approach.  

A recent United Nations report calls on us to all substantially cut down on our meat consumption to help save the planet [1]. But what if there was a way to continue eating our burgers and bacon, guilt-free?  

Cultured meat – grown in a bioreactor, rather than on a farm – could offer that sustainable alternative.  

Using technologies already familiar to cell biologists around the world, the approach involves growing meat from real animal cells in a process known as  cell-based agriculture. The future vision is to grow clean meat products – such as chicken, beef, pork or fish – commercially at a large-scale in factories that resemble something like a brewery.

Did you know?

  • 70%

    is the estimated increase in global demand for meat and milk by 2050 [2].

  • 92%

    is the potential reduction in the global warming impacts from cultured beef production compared to conventional farming [3].

  • $5.66

    per kilogram is the estimated cost of producing cultured meat in 2030 [3].

The world’s increasing appetite for meat

By 2050, estimates suggest that the number of people on the planet will have increased by 2 billion, from 7.7 billion to 9.7 million – and could peak at nearly 11 billion at the turn of the century [4].  

But the demand for more meat isn’t only fueled by our growing population – economic development and the expanding middle-classes are also important factors. Put simply, as people get richer, they can afford – and want – to eat more meat.  

Estimates suggest that by 2050, the demand for meat and milk will grow by a staggering 70% [2]. And it’s a similar story when it comes to seafood – we are now eating more than double the amount of fish than we did 50 years ago [5].

Bad for the planet – and for our conscience

But our taste for animal protein comes at a huge environmental cost.  

The way we farm our food is the main driver of global biodiversity loss. An astonishing 86% of species at risk of extinction are specifically threatened by  agriculture alone [6]. Huge swathes of forests are lost every year, and it is estimated that three-quarters of deforested areas are converted to agricultural land [7]. Much of this is used for livestock – or to grow crops, such as soy, needed for their feed.   

Producing meat also contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. Indeed, recent estimates suggest that livestock are responsible for around 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity [8]

And there are also ethical considerations. Many people want the assurance that the animals have led good lives. But this is often at odds with large-scale  industrial farming practices, which can lead to suffering.

Cultured meat: Ethical, healthy and environmentally sustainable

Eliminating the need to breed, raise and slaughter animals for food, cultured meat – which is also known as cultivated or cell-based meat – offers a way to reduce the environmental impact of traditional meat production.  

Figures suggest that, cultivated meat produced using renewable energy reduces global warming impacts by 17%, 52%, and 85-92% compared to conventional chicken, pork and beef production– while also using 63-95% less land [3].  

And cultured meat, which is generated from only a few animal cells at the start of the process, would result in ethical meat products that avoid the animal welfare concerns raised by intensive farming methods.  

Cultured meat will be produced in a clean, sterile environment – and so is inherently less prone to contamination, such as with viruses and bacteria.  However, like any large-scale manufacturing process, rigorous safety tests will be demanded from start to finish – from the validation of everything that enters the bioreactor, through to determining the nutritional content and safety of the final product. With these stringent regulations in place, this will provide safety and quality assurance before it reaches our plates.  

While working on technological solutions, we recognize that cultured meat and the idea of making it a regular part of our diets raise questions that extend beyond technical challenges. Check out this comprehensive trend study on cultured meat and its impact on society, the food industry and the future of meat consumption.

Dive deeper

Collaboration is key for the commercialization of clean meat

While it’s still early days for this emerging industry, the sector is making rapid progress. More than 70 startups around the world are now focused on  bringing a variety of tasty and affordable cultured meat products onto our plates [9]. A total of $366M was raised by cultivated meat companies in 2020 - nearly six times the amount invested in 2019 [9].  

In December 2020 the world’s first cultured meat product, Eat Just’s chicken, received regulatory approval in Singapore [10]. Six months later, Israel  opened the first ever cultured meat prototype restaurant - serving chicken made in a production plant next door [11].  

However, the upscaling and efficient production of cultured meat remains a huge challenge. As a leading supplier to the biopharma industry, we have extensive knowledge of the relevant science and biotechnology that are required to produce cultured meat. By working with companies who are looking to  commercialize cultivated meat, we offer our knowledge and production skills to help them to overcome critical technological challenges to produce meat  that is potentially healthier, more efficiently produced, ethical and environmentally sustainable.  

Our company’s commitment is generating positive feedback across the food industry – in recognition of the value that we can add to accelerate cultured  meat production and the development of products with the desired qualities.  

“As a leader in the life science industry, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is positioned to become the leading technology provider to the cultured meat industry,” says Dr. Liz Specht, vice president of science and technology at the Good Food Institute. “The decision by them to create a team focused on cultivated meat is an important milestone in this young industry and will have a profound impact on how quickly and efficiently the industry advances.”

How burgers are grown

How we can help support clean meat production

We are working closely with a broad range of partners across different sectors – including academia, start-ups, non-profits and large corporations – as part of our commitment to accelerating the cultured meat industry. 

“We already offer reagents and equipment needed for the upstream process for growing cells – for example, cell culture media, growth factors, monitoring  tools and bioreactors,” says Thomas Herget, our Head of Innovation Hub Silicon Valley and China. “And we serve the stem cell industry with cell lines,  differentiation- and analytical tools.”  

Cell culture media are a blend of 50 to 100 specialty ingredients – sugars, salts, pH buffers, amino acids, micronutrients and growth factor proteins – each  of which needs to be sourced, analyzed, sterilized and then optimized for each individual cell type.  

“Cell culture media is the major cost driver for cultured meat products and attributes 50% to 80% of all costs presently,” says Herget. “For start-up  companies, it is a very difficult process to develop their own cell culture media for their specific cells or cell lines. There is a lot of know-how in research and production needed.”  

For cultured meat production, these recipes will also need to be free from any animal-derived materials – and one of our our innovation projects innovation projects aims to design  and commercialize suitable animal-origin free formulations in close collaboration with leading cultured meat startups.

We are also interested in helping to find solutions to other technical challenges – including growing cells at scale using industrial perfusion bioreactors and the use of cutting-edge technologies – such as edible scaffolds and 3D printing – that hold the potential to develop the next generation of structured  products. For example, we are collaborating with teams at Tufts University, Massahusetts, USA, and Technical University (TU) of Darmstadt in Germany, who are carrying out fundamental research into the development of next-generation cultured meat and seafood products.

A new way to eat meat?

While the prospect of eating cultured meat may today still seem like science fiction, the industry is quickly gaining momentum.  

In 2013, food critics ate a lab-grown burger on live TV that had a price tag of around $300,000 [12]. A recent study projects that by 2030, production costs could be as low as $5.66 per kilogram – paving the way to its mass consumption [3]. With the first prototype products now approved in Singapore and  Israel, the industry is gathering the impetus to bring cultivated meat to the market in other parts of the world. So, it may not be too long before cultured  meat products are a common feature on our menus. 

The final challenge will be to persuade diners to make the switch to cultured meat. Would you choose to eat traditionally produced meat – or an alternative  that is more humane and comes at a lower cost to our environment?

In 2012, the United Nations set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world. Three years later, these were adopted by all member states. We are committed that our work will help to achieve these ambitious targets. Developing cultured meat fits under ‘Goal 12 "Responsible consumption and production patterns; Target 12.2" to achieve sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources by 2030.’ Switching from traditional farming methods to cell-based agriculture has huge potential to help meet the world’s growing demand for meat and dairy products while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and using substantially less land and water resources.

Learn more about SDGs
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1 Comments
  • J L Nov 25 2020, 3:13 PM

    Enlightening article - gives me hope for solving hunger, any many other challenges! Thanks for posting!