Is disruption on the horizon?
In addition to numerous active business start-ups in the clean meat field Dr. Specht cited (including Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow, SuperMeat, Finless Foods and Integriculture), several companies are in “stealth mode,” not yet publicizing their work.
While each company has its own proprietary technology, the basic building blocks of clean meat production are consistent from one company to the next, Dr. Specht said. The two-step process begins with putting animal cells into a cell proliferation bioreactor where, fed by a nutrient solution (cell culture media), the cells multiply.
The second step is scaffolding, which provides a support structure for cellular adherence, Dr. Specht said. The scaffolding material must be edible or biodegradable and serves as the medium where the cells differentiate into the various kinds of component cells (muscle, fat and connective tissue) that make up meat.
“New inputs into the media signal the cells what they should become,” Dr. Specht said. “The scaffold provides biomedical cues and gives spatial control.” She said the scaffolding will help provide heterogeneity, a desired quality in meat — in which no two bites of a steak are exactly identical.
The inefficiency of current methods of meat production were emphasized by Dr. Schulze. Noting that plants are able to convert sunlight into energy at a 10% efficiency rate, animals then eat the plants, also converting into energy at no more than a 10% efficiency rate. Finally, people consume meat, converting into energy at a rate of at most 10%.
“So, 0.1% of sunlight is converted into us,” he said. “It’s very inefficient. We can do better.”
While optimistic about the future of clean meat, Dr. Schulze said there is no prospect for the end of animal agriculture.
“The world will not stop consuming meat,” he said. “We are not trying to eliminate meat. It is a growing market.”
Dr. Schulze said demand for meat is expected to double by the year 2050, further straining already stretched production resources.
Noting that the global meat market is valued at $750 billion per year, for context he said that compares with a global smart phone market worth $430 billion per year.
Expanding on Dr. Specht’s comments about sustainability, Dr. Schulze said production of a single 1,600-lb steer from birth to shelf requires 3.5 Olympic sized swimming pools of fresh water to yield 440 lbs of beef. Using clean meat technology, 440 lbs of meat may be produced with only a single bathtub of water, he said.