What’s Beef? A Look Inside Lab-Grown Meat’s Aim To Tackle Climate Change

In an effort to tackle climate change and emissions, Memphis Meat is attempting to shake up a legendary meat industry that has become environmentally unsustainable.

Who doesn’t love burgers? A vegetarian’s nightmare and a carnivore’s go-to meal. Unfortunately, we may be reaching a point where it is no longer sustainable to feed our population with beef.

Livestock’s role in climate change and air pollution now exceeds that of the transport industry, with 9%, 35-40% and 65% of the total global emissions of CO2, CH4 and N2O, respectively, coming directly from livestock and agriculture. [1]

With that in mind, we should even be more worried about the future, where it is expected that global demand for beef will increase twofold by 2050. [2]

According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science, the process of producing 1 pound of beef produces the same CO2 as a European car every 70 miles, and requires the same energy to light a 100 watt bulb for nearly 10 days.[3]

In addition, Eschel et al. 2014 estimated that producing beef requires 28 times more land, 6 times more fertilizer and 11 times more water than producing pork or chicken.[4] Current practices are leading to further deforestation, loss of habitat for our ecosystem, degradation of land and depletion of scarce water resources.

Enter the solution – Memphis Meats. Memphis Meats is a startup that aims to tackle all these threats by manufacturing lab-grown meat. Its lab-grown meat consumes 90% less water and land, as well as 50% less energy and emits just 4% of the greenhouses gases that current meat growing practices emit.[5][6] The supply chain is much simpler compared to ‘regular’ beef patties, the comparisons shown below:

Figure 1 – How In-Vitro Burgers Are Grown [7]

Now don’t get me wrong – we are still a long way away from being able to fully realize the potential of lab-grown meat. Memphis Meats has gone from 18,000 USD per pound of beef to 2,400 USD over the past 2 years; but that still pales in comparison to 4 USD for store-bought beef. [8]

As a result, there are several short-term and long-term goals that Memphis Meats is focusing on [9][10]:

  • Short term:
    • Aim to have competitively priced products in the market by 2020, at a price of 10 USD per burger
    • Increase the size of the team as more research and development is needed to achieve the ambitious goals that have been set
    • Figure out a method to utilize bioreactors for upscale production. Current bioreactor capacity limits can only feed 10,000 people at best, and these bioreactors are not even specifically designed for the production process of lab-grown meat
    • Involve leading experts to enhance knowledge of the products and advertise their potential viability to replace products, with significant upside for climate change and taste concerns
  • Long term:
    • Find blood-free alternatives to replace the blood serums that are currently used to ‘culture’ the meat in the lab. There is only so much blood serum that exists from current cattle that it would be impossible to meet the goal of replacing all forms of regular meat
    • Move away from producing just burgers and nuggets to industry-accepted meat types such as steaks and ribs

In terms of other key issues that Memphis Meats needs to address, there seems to be a lack of involvement of established industry partners, as most companies operating in the space are start-ups that may or may not succeed without the support of industry giants. [9][10]

This would enable start-ups to leverage research and development as well as downstream access in distribution channels.

If all else fails, there needs to be immediate attention placed on the supply chain and distribution channels for lab-grown meat, specifically [11][12]:

  • Outsource the significant inputs of cell culture media rather than produce in-house
  • Involve governmental organizations to provide energy for production, with clean energy a key objective to enhance the wholesome cleanliness of the industry
  • Develop robust systems and procedures to ensure the safety and consistency of production; this is a new industry that will require as much positive ‘buzz’ around it as possible since there is likely to be small uptake initially
  • Be more transparent with consumers, who will have concerns if there is a lack of transparency in the production method. The fact of the matter is, there are several players competing in the space and there needs to be greater communication among the players if they are to deliver on this ‘promise’ of clean, healthy meat for the consumer.

Finally, my main worry to the class is whether we think there will be enough community support given the availability of cheaper meat for at least the next 10 years. A lack of interest would deter future capital investors, and then there is the possibility that industry players will lobby against this technology. Thus, is this even remotely possible?

(780 words)

 

[1] Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., and de Haan, C. (2006). “Livestock’s Long Shadow” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

[2] Ranganathan, J., Vennard, D., Waite, R., Dumas, P., Lipinski, B., Searchinger, T., (2016). “Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future” World Resources Institute

[3] Bittman, Mark. “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler.” New York Times, January 27, 2008. [http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html], accessed November 2017.

[4] Eshel, G., Shepon, A., Makov, T., Milo, R., “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

[5] Addady, M., “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 2017.

[6] Michael Specter, “Test-Tube Burgers,” The New Yorker, May 23, 2011.

[7] Reilly, R., “Lab-grown burgers ‘will be on the menu by 2020’: Scientists set up company to make stem cell meat an affordable reality.” Daily Mail, October 16, 2015. [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3275913/Lab-grown-burgers-menu-2020-Scientists-set-company-make-stem-cell-meat-affordable-reality.html], accessed November 2017.

[8] Bunge, J., “Cargill Invests in Startup That Grows ‘Clean Meat’ From Cells.” The Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2017. [https://www.wsj.com/articles/cargill-backs-cell-culture-meat-1503486002], accessed November 2017.

[9] “Are You A Genetic Superhero”, BBC Focus (August 2016)

[10] Ireland, T., “The artificial meat factory – the science of your synthetic supper.” Science Focus, August 25, 2017. [http://www.sciencefocus.com/article/future/artificial-meat-factory], accessed November 2017.

[11] Specht, L., Lagally, C. (2017). “Mapping Emerging Industries: Opportunities in Clean Meat” The Good Food Institute

[12] Mattick, C., Landis, A., Allenby, B., Genovese, N. (2015) “Anticipatory Life Cycle Analysis of In Vitro Biomass Cultivation for Cultured Meat Production in the United States” American Chemical Society

 

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22 thoughts on “What’s Beef? A Look Inside Lab-Grown Meat’s Aim To Tackle Climate Change

  1. I think your last question (the availability of cheaper meat) hints at the key question as to whether or not Memphis Meat will ultimately succeed. Consider that here’s an important distinction between the current price of beef and the true cost of beef. If we only take into account market-distorting subsidies — and ignore the (mammoth) negative externalities from beef production — the cost of beef looks much different than the $4 price the article references. The U.S. government’s agricultural subsidies hide much of the cost behind this deflated price; economists have estimated that if we removed water subsidies alone, a pound of beef would jump to around $35 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/15/AR2009111502210.html). Beef is in fact very expensive to produce, but our public policy decisions (e.g., to subsidize the industry) make it seem less so. Perhaps Memphis Meat and its cohort of startups would benefit from taking a more active role in lobbying efforts?

  2. The question of whether consumers will support lab grown meat is a really interesting question. I think it’s a question around where the price point ends up thereby who is the potential consumer.

    Will the price point drop below conventional meat? In this case, lab-grown meat can be marketed to consumers who can’t afford the alternative. In this case, I think it stands a chance because it doesn’t have to stand up to the taste-test comparison to conventional meat. But, in this case, will lab meat truly steal share from the traditional meat market?

    Will it be priced around the price of conventional meat? In this case, I think it’s tougher to make the case that it’ll steal share from conventional meat. Some who have tried the meat claim it is nowhere near the same taste [1]. However, I recognize there is still a lot of testing and improvements in the space.

    For those consumers who are health and climate change conscious – there are other alternatives to lab meat. For example, Impossible Foods has created a plant based burger that claims to taste as good as a traditional meat burger. As these alternatives to conventional meat evolve, who knows what will be on our burger in 10 years!

    [1]
    Engber, Daniel, “Meat for Meat’s Sake,” Slate Media, May 27 2013, accessed November 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/08/lab_grown_meat_will_never_taste_right_it_s_a_waste_of_time.html

  3. I agree that demand is certainly an issue. Nowadays, people don’t trust “lab food” especially meat. People care about healthiness and are willing to pay more for food with premium quality. Also, traditionally people think “real meat” can bring natural proteins while the lab ones are “fake” even they deliver same nutrition. Thus, for the market to grow, the company need to invest abundant marketing resources to educate consumers.

  4. Great points, and well written essay. Your points on not only the shortened supply chain, but the environmental impact of that supply chain are an especially good response to our prompt.

    I think you are asking the right questions about whether this will garner enough public support. Grant brings up a great idea mentioning that the price of regular beef may rise significantly, helping to level the playing field a bit more. And I wonder if perhaps the lobby that he proposes could also highlight how much science/ tech goes into our current beef to help shrink the conceptual gap between lab grown meat and the beef we typically serve now. This article mentions “Important technologies that have been adopted include antibiotics, implants, ionophores, parasiticides, genetics, vaccines, physiological modifiers, and nutrition ” which already is changing my perception of “natural” beef! [1]

    [1] http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/an272

  5. Good article and valid question on the price point being a factor. I’m surprised you didn’t mention plant-based alternatives like the impossible burger, which are also in the running for meat replacement: https://www.impossiblefoods.com/

    To me, the question of public support will be based around the taste and the health of the product, two things that are hard to prove. If the product tastes as good (or better) than meat and can be proven to not have any long term health effects compared to conventional meat, than it will be successful. The supply issues you mention are absolutely critical to bringing the costs down, but a low cost meat that tastes bad and/or is shown to be less healthy, the product will not take off at any price.

  6. Great topic.

    Memphis meats clearly has a while to go before it can be priced competitively when compared to the incumbent players. Even if consumers can get a $10 Memphis burger from their local pub, will they eat it? This is a very important question that not many food tech companies have been able to solve (look at Hampton Creek’s recent scandal). The average consumer, in a move towards healthier consumption, is spending less money on low-quality, mass-produced, modified proteins and more money on organic, additive-free proteins.

    What would you say if I told you that the organic movement was started almost 100 years ago? [1] From a historical context, price has not been the only factor behind purchase decisions. An underaddressed factor has been the the political power of the protein lobby. Memphis meats may be able to convince me but the protein lobby will not go down without a fight.

    [1] http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Bulletins/Transitioning-to-Organic-Production/Text-Version/History-of-Organic-Farming-in-the-United-States

  7. Thanks for the great article. I can’t help but consider this issue from a marketing perspective — specifically, which channels do you think will be key to making this product successful? Given the consumer skepticism you referenced, trialability of the product seems important to grow consumer trust. Restaurants seem like an easy way to expose consumers to alternative meat products with relatively low commitment on their part, but what profile of restaurant would be willing to be an early mover in this space? High end? Health-concious? Particularly without a clear value proposition around (1) health, or (2) price, sustainability may not stand alone as a selling point. I would love your opinions on which channels and key opinion leaders must be won first, in order for this product to successfully diffuse in the market.

  8. Fascinating topic… I had no idea this was a ‘thing’ or that it was so resource intensive to raise cattle.

    I can’t get away from thinking about your title though… ‘what’s beef?’ in a more philosophical context. Let’s say consumers are willing to pay and they are not grossed out by lab cow… why do we have to keep growing cow? Or eating cow? What if it is far easier, economically viable, and equally nutritious to grow dog meat? Will it be ok to grow dog meat and eat that if it comes from a petri dish and not from a kennel? What if the answer is in fact a hybrid frankenmeat? If we are developing this technology we should get ahead of these inevitable questions.

  9. Thanks for this interesting article. While I am familiar with some of the plant-based meat alternatives competing in this space, I was unaware of the effort to manufacture lab-grown meats.

    I agree with your thesis that transparency around production methods and community support for the product will be critical for success in this market. As cjd mentioned in her comment, I wonder what the best way to distribute this product will be? I imagine that consumers may be skeptical of lab-grown meats, so controlling the narrative around the product as well as the “first taste” experience will be key.

    Impossible Foods (https://www.impossiblefoods.com/) has approached this issue by partnering with select chefs and restaurants to distribute its ‘Impossible Burger’ rather than selling through grocery stores or online. In doing so, the company hopes to manage consumers’ first taste experience by controlling the product’s preparation and presentation. I wonder if Memphis Meats would benefit from a similar distribution strategy, especially in its early days of commercialization?

  10. Super interesting article! I agree with your recommendations, but I think the biggest hurdle will be convincing the public to eat meat that is grown in a petri dish (even though it’s chemically identical to that from a cow). In that regard, Memphis could benefit from a larger lab-grown meat industry, as convincing the public will require both time and resources in the form of education and promotion. Additionally, long-term health data will be required to convince many people, and unfortunately long-term health and safety studies will take exactly that – time.

  11. It’s hard to say if anything is impossible in this day and age. With that said, I think an important question that we as a society must answer is whether this advancement will indeed have its intended effect? Even though a pound of lab grown meat is more environmentally friendly compared to a pound of natural grown meat, will the ready availability lead to lower cost of meat which creates higher demands. I think an alternative solution is to charge carbon taxes associated with beef production, hence driving people towards alternative meat options.

  12. What an interesting article! As the comments above point out, your final question is an important one – will society accept lab grown meat? I do see a world in which lab grown meat becomes the norm especially given the horrible conditions many of our animals must endure in order to provide us with a delicious burger. Vegans have been trying to capture the taste of meat in their foods to attract a larger market and it has been catching on as people as becoming more aware of the environmental and social impact of the meat industry. One particularly successful vegan restaurant is “By Chloe” (in Fenway, I highly recommend!). I do agree that at the end of the day, if taste can compete with normally grown meat, society will be able to accept the general concept of a different avenue of production. Stem cells from cows are capable of making actual muscle and it will be up to the start ups to be able to balance meat vs fat content to get a flavor that can compete if companies play to compete on price.

  13. Love this topic, and great analysis. To your last question, of whether there is enough community interest in this, there are a few different stakeholders to consider. Several comments discuss consumers, which obviously are vital in driving demand and thus revenue for this company. You also brought up investors and whether they would tolerate the long march required to get to a mass market product. I definitely believe there have to be investors in the market that can tolerate these long timeframes given the significant potential rewards (assuming the company is hitting targets along the way). One route this company may have not considered is looking to impact investors, philanthropies, or specific high net worth individuals who are willing to tolerate this long-term risk. Concern over the environmental impact of food supply chains seems to be growing, and if this company can generate significant enough hype and confidence among these socially / environmentally conscious holders of capital, this may be a great group to partner with for the long journey ahead.

  14. I think the commercialization strategy for Memphis Meats as well as other similar companies – Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, etc. – is interesting to consider. It is critical that traditional meat eaters are converted to these alternative products. And for these consumers, the value proposition will need to go beyond the environment and also add value from a health and experience perspective. In a talk I attended given by the CEO of Impossible Foods, he made the point that ‘lab-grown’ meat alternatives may have an inherent advantage to traditional meat products in that traditional meat can only be, well, meat. Attributes such as flavor and aroma are relatively fixed with narrow ranges of variability. With engineered alternatives, flavor and aroma profiles are fluid. While Memphis Meats and others will need to provide a similar experience to traditional meat to ensure initial adoption, in time, the product can be further refined to offer a disruptive improvement to both experience and climate impact.

  15. Thank you for bringing data and research to a topic that is frequently one of the most dividing discussion in my friend group. I believe no one can challenge the facts you put down about the impact of meat production on our environment. However, I the final question you posed, on whether substituting meat with other solution is even possible, is very real. There are two main threats that are playing against Memphis Meats and the companies alike. First, the strong meat, dairy, and egg industry that would try to block market share gain through press, marketing, and strong lobby. Second, the general attitude of the population towards artificial food and non-meat based diet. I believe these two major hurdles can be resolved slowly, with strong education of the regulator and the general public.

  16. While I do agree that the evidence is undeniable that eating lots of beef is bad for our environment, I wonder whether lab grown meat is the best solution and even sustainable in the long-term. You mention how expensive it is to produce which inhibits its ability to be accessible or desirable to the larger population, but it I have a few additional concerns. First, will it be scalable to a level that can actually make a significant impact on climate change? The world consumes a LOT of beef. Would the production of mass producing lab-grown beef really have a net decrease in carbon emissions? An additional concern for me is the global food crisis we’re facing. The rising price of food and the sluggish growth in agribusiness cannot support our growing world population (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2009/06/cheap-food/bourne-text). Not only does beef production create large levels of emissions, but it’s an incredibly inefficient way to feed people. I’d be more inclined to encourage governments to do what they can to encourage citizens to adopt more vegetarian diets. This is cheaper, can feed a larger group of people and solves both the food crisis and the climate crisis. Lastly, with consumers’ aversion to GMO products, I can see this product having difficulty with adoption as many consumers may be suspicious of lab grown beef. So in summary, I think you had all very valid suggestions for this company to succeed, but to your last question “Is this even remotely possible?” I am skeptical whether it is.

  17. Fascinating topic! My first concern was around safety – while I’m all for reducing carbon emissions and saving the planet, I am weary of the other negative social consequences that might result. There is almost always a lag between a new innovation and the safety concerns that might result, like in the case of GMOs, and artificially created foods also usually have some downside. Thus I think proving and communicating safety standards will be a major hurdle this product will have to overcome.

    Along the same vein, regulatory barriers also seem large and prevent scaling up. According to this MIT Technology Review article, “[meat cultured from cells] may end up being viewed as anything from a food to a tissue-based product that has to be regulated as a drug. The latter would clearly make taking many new products to market far more difficult than startups would hope.” [1]

    However, for the organization itself, success really depends on the goal it is trying to accomplish. If its goal is to sell a product that’s better than the status quo (assuming safety is not an issue) to a niche market (socially conscious customers who don’t want to give up meat) and make some money while doing it, this goal might not be that far from reach. If its ambition is to get to a scale that can meaningfully impact carbon emissions and climate change, I’m afraid that will be quite a bit harder.

    [1] https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602244/how-do-you-know-your-lab-grown-burger-is-safe-to-eat/

  18. This is a very interesting topic! It seems that the commercial concern circles around the potential reluctance from the public to accept lab meat. A lot of this may have to do with people’s perception of what the process of making “traditional” meat actually entails. The meat manufacturing process has become a highly industrialised process that consumers are completely removed from and not enough awareness has been raised about the issues of the process. The process is incredibly cruel (branding, unnatural food causing bloating in cattle, feedlots filled with ammonia and methane, etc.) and is chemical-intensive (e.g. 70% of beef are treated with carbon monoxide to make the meat look fresher for longer, the use of “meat glue”, viral sprays, antibiotics, asthama-inducing drugs, etc. ). If consumers knew this, perhaps they would see that we actually aren’t too far off from “lab meat” after all and perhaps the lack of animal cruelty in a lab is much more appealing.

    [1] http://www.wakingtimes.com/2014/08/08/know-10-additives-commonly-found-meat/
    [2] https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/factory-farming/cows/beef-industry/
    [3] http://www.terra.omega/en/terra
    [4] http://www.pbs.org/pov/foodinc/

  19. This is a FASCINATING topic. As the author mentions (and is little known), beef production is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions vis-a-vis methane output and land requirements to effectively raise cattle. Further, (livestock) farming is heavily subsidized by the government in the U.S. to keep prices affordable for consumers and profitable for producers. Therefore, the interesting question becomes…how can this new model and product be leveraged in emerging markets where significantly larger populations need access to quality nutrition at low cost? To me, this is a solution for meeting the short term and long term demands of population growth in emerging markets with limited crop and livestock production capabilities

  20. Great article. Livestock is an utterly inefficient way to feed a population of humans. The cost both from an energy and environmental perspective is massive. Contributing 9% to green house gasses as a segment means it represents a substantial portion of our climate change problem.

    If Memphis meats were able to generate beef at a competitive price, I do wonder what the societal ramifications would be. Would citizens be interested and willing to eat beef grown in a laboratory? This seems like an unproven market.

    I do love meat however! I hope that there are products like this in the future so that in the event I have to chose between saving the planet and having a steak, I have an additional option to do both.

  21. Interesting topic and well written article! Much of the growth in meat consumption is now being driven in emerging markets such as India where meat consumption has traditionally been low. I suspect it’ll be a lot easier to convert first-time/new meat eaters to substitutes and if can get the cost low enough.

  22. Good analysis on an interesting issue. As a meat lover myself, I am hopeful that companies like Memphis Meat will be successful in convincing the public to switch over to lab meat. As far as how to communicate the benefits and long-term necessity of lab meat, I think Memphis Meat should work with other lab meat companies to convince consumers that this product is the way of the future. When people realize all of the benefits of lab meat and when the product is similar to current meat offerings, companies like Memphis Meat will be able to experience significant growth.

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