Animal-free Beef: A Meaty Idea

Article exploring lab-grown beef startups and the environmental implications

In early 2016, Uma Valeti stood in a professional kitchen staring at a pasta dish with a small meatball sitting on top. Except for the professional presentation, the dish looks rather ordinary, almost traditional. Yet there was nothing traditional about this dish – this was the world’s first meatball to ever be made without involving an animal. Instead, Uma’s startup, Memphis Meats, which is ironically based in the San Francisco, had grown this meat in a lab.

Following this demonstration, and the accompanying promotional video, venture capitalists were clamoring to invest in Memphis Meat, which soon raised $2.75M in an over-subscribed seed round[1]. Looking past the natural skepticism of meat grown in a lab, the startup sees a more environmentally friendly world where animals would no longer need to be raised for consumption, while still allowing people to enjoy steaks and burgers.

Green House Gas (GHG) emissions associated with livestock accounts for 18% of global emissions,[2] greater than the combine impact of all cars, trucks, planes, and boats. Additionally, livestock’s impact will continue to increase as the global population rises, and as diets shift to include more meat, driven by rising incomes in developing nations.

In contrast, cultured meat has 78% lower GHG emissions compared to chicken (the animal with the lowest GHG footprint), and 96% lower GHG emissions compared to beef. [3] Given this radically improved carbon footprint, many people are optimistic about the future potential of cultured meat to play a meaningful role in slowing down climate change.

Why does livestock have such a drastic impact on the environment? The sources vary, with the primary drivers being[4]:

  • 34% from deforestation associated with beef production
  • 30.5% from manure[5]
  • 25% from methane created as a byproduct of the digestion process

Cultured meat is able to provide such promise because it avoids all of these conventional drivers of GHG emissions.

In addition to environmental benefits, cultured meat has significant humanitarian benefits. Besides the obvious issue of animal cruelty, demand for food will continue to increase with the rise in population, yet 12.9% of the population today is undernourished. Though this is a complex issue, one of the causes is that plant-based calories that could be used to feed people are instead used to raise livestock. The problem is that this process is inefficient, with 20 calories of feed used to create a single calorie of beef protein – a 20x Protein Conversion Ratio[6]. In contrast, Memphis Meats claims they have achieved a 3x Protein Conversion Ratio[7].

With so many potential benefits to cultured meat, there are still some major hurdles. The first hurdle is getting the cost down to a price point attractive to consumers. At a reported $18K/pound[8], Memphis Meat is not likely to be in stores soon. This must be priority #1 for Memphis Meats. However, some optimism is justified – Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University developed a cultured meat burger patty in 2013 at a cost of ~$1.1M/lb[9] [10] and believes that the next version will drastically drop to a cost of just $28/lb[11] [12] through economies of scale and improved technology.

Once they have cracked the cost challenge, Memphis Meats should focus on ensuring the quality of their product. For starters, taste is king, and Memphis needs to start incorporating fats to add flavor to their meat. In addition to flavor, they need to make sure it has an enjoyable texture. It is smart of them to create a meat ball first, since it is easier to emulate the texture of ground beef than a steak. However, once they have a product to compete with ground beef, they should work on developing products that emulate the feel of steaks, particularly since steaks command a premium price over ground beef. Finally, they need to address the ‘ick’ factor. This starts with having a good product to generate positive word-of-mouth. They should also get the endorsement of famous chefs, then partner with environmental groups and have them encourage people to try the product.

Though many challenges lay ahead, the initial results appear promising. With massive environmental benefits and $105B annual spend on beef in the US alone[13], environmentalists and investors alike are eager to see startups like Memphis Meats succeed.

 

Word Count: 703

[1] Burwood-Taylor, Louisa, “Memphis Meats Closes Seed Round Oversubscribed on $2.75m, Expects Huge Demand for Cultured Meat,” AgFunderNews, February 11, 2016, [https://agfundernews.com/memphis-meats-closes-seed-round-oversubscribed-on-2-75m-expects-huge-demand5360.html], accessed November 2016

[2] Hanna L. Tuomisto and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos, “Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production,” Environtal Science Technology 45 (14), 6117–6123 (2011): ACS Publications via Google Scholar, accessed November 2016

[3] Ibid

[4] STEINFELD, H. (2006). Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. pg 113

[5] Includes manure management, manure application/deposition, and indirect manure emission

[6] David Tilman & Michael Clark, “Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health,” Nature 515, 518–522 (27 November 2014): Nature via Google Scholar, accessed November 2016

[7] Michal Addady, “You Could Be Eating Lab-Grown Meat in Just Five Years,” Fortune, February 2, 2016, [http://fortune.com/2016/02/02/lab-grown-memphis-meats/], accessed November 2016

[8] Grant Burningham, “Lab-Grown Beef Will Save the Planet — and be a Billion-Dollar Business”, Newsweek, February 28, 2016, [http://www.newsweek.com/2016/03/11/lab-grown-beef-will-save-planet-and-be-billion-dollar-business-430980.html], accessed November 2016

[9] ABC Rural “Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands has developed synthetic beef patties” March 26, 2015, keynote, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-27/mark-post-synthetic-beef/6352860, accessed November 2016.

[10] €250K for a 5oz patty; assumes the 2013 average exchange rate of 1.33 euro/USD

[11] ABC Rural “Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands has developed synthetic beef patties” March 26, 2015, keynote, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-27/mark-post-synthetic-beef/6352860, accessed November 2016.

[12] €8 for a 5oz patty; assumes the 2015 average exchange rate of 1.11 euro/USD

[13] USDA, “Cattle & Beef” Table 1. U.S. beef industry (website) [http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/animal-products/cattle-beef/statistics-information.aspx], accessed November 2016

Previous:

Electric Vehicles and the impact in the overall effect in Renault’s Carbon Footprint

Next:

From Chocolate Ice Cream to Deforestation in Borneo

11 thoughts on “Animal-free Beef: A Meaty Idea

  1. Great article, Chaewon! I often think how artificial meat could revolutionize our society. One additional benefit I would like to highlight is artificial meat’s benefit to animal rights. Artificial meat will reduce the prevalence of many cruel animal husbandry practices seen in livestock living conditions or slaughter practices. However, consumer taste is a massive barrier to entry for artificial meat. Many consumers will recoil at the idea of eating artificial meat. As you rightly pointed out, there are many ways to mitigate the “ick factor” — I would add that cooperating with governments to distribute educational information about the product and its benefits to the population is a good way to boost consumer awareness and reduce the “ick factor”.

  2. Great article, Ryan! Given that it tastes as good as real meat, I agree that price point is the biggest challenge for further distribution. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods also do something similar – they produce meat-like steaks out of vegetables and the edge is that they look, smell, and taste like steak! The price point for their burgers is $8-11 which is slightly higher than normal burgers, but still in an affordable range for the healthy food category. I would love to find out more about how Memphis Meats figures this out moving forward!

    Read more: https://www.fastcompany.com/3062085/most-innovative-companies/plant-burgers-are-coming-to-a-fast-food-restaurant-near-you

  3. Really interesting post, and I’m eager to watch the next moves Memphis Meats makes. There already seems to be burgeoning competition, with David Chang debuting the Impossible Burger at Momofuku. Overall, I truly believe in the approach to first convince meat-eaters to change their behavior by marketing a product that tastes just as good, as opposed to selling the environmental benefits. I believe Memphis Meats’ marketing strategy will be key to their success.

  4. This is an incredibly interesting article and I think that the potential for “meat substitutes” presents an enormous economic and environmental opportunity. It always amazes me to be reminded that 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions contribution comes from raising livestock. Despite the enormous opportunity here, I do think that there is a long road ahead for these products before they reach commercial viability. I believe that consumer adoption will be difficult and that people will generally prefer “real” meat versus meat substitute. Also, as you mentioned, I think that there is still a lot of R&D and cost-related work that needs to be done before this product can be sold at a supermarket, potentially more than the research suggests. Despite these headwinds I foresee a scenario where in the next 20 years a robust industry develops around “artificial” meats and I think that the environmental impact will be incredibly positive.

  5. Great connection between climate change and the food we eat! I do wonder however as to the full environmental costs of growing “meat” in a lab…

  6. Always very good and necessary to be reminded what a massive polluting factor livestock is! In addition to all the benefits that were mentioned about artificial meat in the blog post and the comments, I would assume that lab-grown meat could also have massive health benefits? In the lab, the meat could surely be structured so that it has less saturated fats and, hence, have less of an effect on blood cholesterol levels and related risks of heart diseases. More than that, it might be be much more durable and therefore prevent a great deal of food-poisoning incidents? These factors might be of additional help for Memphis Meat to push for additional funding and benevolent regulatory environment to achieve their great climate change mission!

  7. It’s always fascinating to consider the impact of food consumption on our global carbon footprint. I have a feeling that the high levels of GHG emissions you pointed out in the article are only pertinent to the developed countries. In my experience, raising livestock in developing countries does not require as gruesome of a process (as it’s not trying to maximize output to satiate demand), and in turn, is unlikely to generate as high level of GHG as that of the US or other developed countries. Ironically, some developing countries are beginning to become environmentally conscious in food production process, and is investing in food items that minimize carbon foodprint. One example is Guayaki – one of the only type of foods that have NEGATIVE carbon footprint. http://guayaki.com/about/1533/Reducing-Your-Carbon-Footprint-with-Guayaki.html

  8. Fascinating post. Agree that this is an area of great potential for high environmental benefits (aka lower GHG emissions), and I think you’ve highlighted the key challenges to the product’s mass diffusion. As a steak-lover, one of my concerns while reading your post was the taste element which you’ve rightfully highlighted as a big hurdle. I kept thinking back to the “veggie burger”, which I personally don’t consider a burger. It will be interesting to see this concept’s evolution in the future, especially when you consider the general consumer trend toward healthy, and socially-responsible food consumption.

  9. When I first learned that meat production was the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, I was shocked. A lot of attention in the media is paid to the transportation and auto industries, but we rarely hear much about the environmental impact of the meat industry. I think it’s because consumers have a hard time imaging a world without meat, as illustrated by pervious comments. People fail to acknowledge that perhaps the simplest thing they can do to reduce their carbon footprint is not to buy a Tesla but rather to become a vegetarian. I truly hope that Memphis Meats is able to achieve a price that will allow it to reach a wide market.

  10. Great, great post! Personally, I hate meat. I hate how it tastes, and smells, and more so, I hate all of the negative externalities that come of the production process, as well as animal cruelty implications. I think that Beyond Meat and similar brands like this one are tapping into a fascinating market where they can replicate the texture, taste, smell, and even density and bloodiness of traditional meat with vegetable alternatives loaded up with some additives. Though this product will never truly be for me, the meat hater, I think it has the ability to sell to the meat-loving mass market. With the added bonus of some really great sustainability efforts and environmental positives baked-in. I say baked-in because I wonder if a finding a meat-like meat alternative drove this innovation, or sustainability concerns around the meat industry did. I’d guess the former. Either way, much good to come from such an innovation. Though, as mentioned in other posts, I’d be worried about price points. I’d also be worried about, if this product really caught on and scaled to other meats, what the implications on livestock would be (over-population?).

    Fascincating read about future stuff
    -angelo

Leave a comment