Cows, labs, or plants: Which makes the best meat? The competition might be closer than you think.

Ryan Duncombe, Beam Project

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

The idea of producing animal meat without the animal has been around for a surprisingly long time. Winston Churchill of all people even mentioned the idea in his 1932 Thoughts and Adventures. The reason the idea has been around so long is that, while meat is an energy- and nutrient-dense food, its production is incredibly wasteful. To keep a cow alive for the 1–3 years needed to produce enough meat for slaughter requires a lot of food, land, water, and energy, and even then, a lot of the cow goes to waste after slaughter. The nervous system, the lungs, the heart, the multiple stomachs, etc. — these are all utilized in other industries (from gelatin to lipstick), but none are as in demand or irreplaceable as meat itself. What if we could only make the useful parts, the meaty parts, without the costs of keeping the rest of the cow alive for years?

Currently, more than 75% of agricultural land is used to support the growth of cows, pigs, and chickens, but their meat only provides 18% of the calories and 25% of the protein in our diets. That’s because of how energy is transferred up the food chain. As a general rule, only 10% of the biomass in a given level of the food chain is transferred to the next highest level. This is why herbivores need to eat so many plants to survive, and why a given ecosystem requires a much larger number of herbivores to support a small population of carnivores. What does this mean for agriculture? By growing and consuming animals, we have to provide them with plants to eat. But if those plants were used to feed humans directly, an entire level of the food chain could be eliminated, effectively increasing the efficiency of our land and energy use by 90% or more.

Minimizing the land use and environmental impact of our food is only going to become more important in the coming years, since meat consumption is currently projected to rise 70% by 2050 as more developing nations attain a higher quality of life and general wealth increases. And in addition to land use, sourcing our meat from animal alternatives (note I don’t say “meat alternatives” as we can still have meat without the animal!) also dramatically reduces the environmental footprints of fertilizer, feed crop production, transportation of animals, manure, and the animals themselves.

Food is nothing but biochemistry — a mix of chemicals and compounds produced by living organisms — and meat is no exception. Anything we eat is a combination of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, micronutrients, and aromatic compounds that create the texture, taste, and nutrients in the foods we eat. In the future, meat won’t be defined by source, but by its structure, taste, texture, and place in our cuisine. If that product came from plants, a lab, or a farm, it will make no difference to the consumer. While it may taste the same, or even be chemically indistinguishable from our meat products of today, animal-free meat would make a huge difference to our planet and our atmosphere.

So, if the meat of the future doesn’t come from animals, where will it come from? There are two competing (and collaborating) methods of “reconstituting” the biochemical composition of meat. One way is to use plants, fungi, or even bacteria to recreate the textures and flavors of meat, and the other is to grow meat cells and tissues in a lab, without the animal. Neither may sound entirely appetizing when put in such terms but a deeper analysis will show that these methods are cleaner, healthier, more sustainable, and will soon be cheaper and likely as tasty as the meat of today. But how do these two methods compare, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Is one source better than the other? Each has unique advantages and disadvantages worth examining.

Plant-based meat

Many people are familiar with plant-based meat substitutes: these are the black bean burgers, tofurkeys, and sometimes-rubbery sausages that vegetarians and others have been eating for decades. These products aren’t really attempting to imitate meat; they’re trying to fill the role meat plays in our cuisine. It might be easy to dismiss current plant-based meats as “not enough like the real deal”, but it’s important to note that only a tiny fraction of available plant proteins and possible strategies have been attempted so far, so the field remains wide open for new alternatives and improvements. The plant-based market has already reached $12 billion value, and is expected to grow to at least $27 billion by 2025. So, while there will continue to be ample resources for experimentation, a few companies have already started taking plant-based meat replacement to the next level, creating products with a taste and texture verging on true replication of meat.

One of the most famous of these companies is Impossible Foods, which has been making huge waves in the meat-replacement world. What’s little appreciated, however, is that their strategy results from approaching the problem through a purely biochemical perspective. Founder and CEO Dr. Pat Brown was a successful professor of biochemistry at Stanford before he determined that he can do more to improve the world via industry. He raised seed funding to conduct mass spectrometry on beef hamburgers, literally decomposing them to identify the exact molecules that comprise hamburger patties in the hopes it would reveal insights into how to make a more realistic plant-based burger. This strategy has proven to be enormously successful, with his initial experiments providing the key insight that an iron-containing molecule, called heme, is responsible for many of the meaty characteristics of real beef. And so, Dr. Brown set about trying to identify a plant source of heme, which he was able to do by genetically engineering yeast cells to express hemoglobin derived from legumes.

Beyond Meat takes a different approach to replicating meat’s “meatiness. They use coconut oil and pea protein to reproduce the fattiness and protein content of meat, and a process of heating, cooling, and pressure recreates meat’s fibrous texture in their patties. They also simulate the “bloodiness” of meat using beet juice, and by assembling similar levels of macronutrients (fats, proteins, carbs) in the right ratios, they’re able to create a highly meaty product that’s been flying off shelves for years now, without ever using an animal.

Other companies are chomping at the bit to get into the plant-based meat market. From a business perspective, it’s a quick, easy, and cheap way to make meat products. Nestle, Tyson Foods, and JBS (the world’s largest meat producer) have all announced or already released plant-based meat products. But there are many remarkable startups engineering new methods of creating plant-based meats, too. Take Nature’s Fynd, for example, which identified a unique protein produced by a microbe living inside the hot springs of Yellowstone. This protein has all nine essential amino acids and an uncommon versatility that allows it to be molded into all sorts of different food products. There’s also Meati Foods, which uses fungi-derived protein to produce a nutrient-dense, eco-friendly meat alternative.

Lab grown meat

Lab grown meat, alternatively known as clean meat or cultured meat, is a bit trickier to produce than plant-based products, but has sky-high potential for completely replacing animal-sourced meat. If it’s perfected, the product could be identical to animal-sourced meat, but at much cheaper cost. Sure, for some people there’s a certain “ick factor” to the idea of meat grown in a lab, but early polling indicates more than two thirds of people are willing to consume lab-grown meat, and people become more supportive of it with the more they learn about it. The more immediate problem is actually perfecting the product. And to understand the difficulties there, it helps to first understand the four key elements of making lab grown meat:

First, a cell culture is needed. Muscle cells are taken from an animal and cultured in the lab. Successfully growing a bunch of muscle cells together is essentially the end goal, as that’s all meat is, really.

Second, a scaffold is required to provide shape and form for the growing muscle cells. These are often produced with different biomaterials, the most common being textured soy protein. Changing the scaffold shape can recreate different types of meat, from chicken nuggets to steak.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult element is providing food and nutrients to the cell culture. The exact requirements for nutrients aren’t well known, as cells require a vast array of hormones and signaling molecules to continue growing. The current best solution to this problem is culturing cells in fetal bovine serum (FBS) — the blood of a newborn cow. This provides all the food, nutrients, and signals many cell culture lines need to grow, and is commonly used in biology labs around the world. Producing a plant-based or artificial alternative to FBS is a common goal of many researchers, but identifying and assembling the precise mix of hundreds of signaling proteins, hormones, and nutrients is incredibly difficult and expensive, so FBS is still the current standard. Memphis Meats has developed an FBS-alternative, but it’s still dependent on animal products. Mosa Meats has an animal-free substitute, but has yet to scale up production, so for the time being this remains a barrier to true sustainability for lab-grown meats.

Finally, a bioreactor is essential to house and protect the culture. This is essentially the “body” of the lab grown meat, and provides temperature control, nutrient input, waste output, and a barrier against potentially infectious microbes. These are commonly used to produce proteins for research and therapeutic purposes, and are even used by Impossible Foods to culture the yeast used to produce their heme.

There are literally dozens of startups around the world working on their own approaches to cultured meat. Knowing which one has the precise combination of factors that may help it become the first to take a product to market is hard to say, but they all have a lot in common when it comes to environmental benefits over animal-sourced meat. Among these startups are Meatable and Mosa Meat from the Netherlands, Memphis Meats and JUST from California, and Future Meat from Israel. Memphis Meats, probably the closest to bringing a product to market, estimates they may be able to have a consumer-ready product by 2022.

So how do these two alternatives compare?

The biggest advantage of clean meat, by a mile, is the reduction of land use. Clean meat would be 60–300% more efficient in land use than poultry and 2000–4000% more efficient than beef. This means that agricultural land can be used to produce more fruits, vegetables, and other plants for human consumption here in the US, and it would help slow one of humanity’s most destructive actions: clearing forests and grasslands for animal feed. The Amazon is currently losing a football field of forest every minute — not only causing the extinction of many species in one of the world’s most biodiverse and sensitive habitats but also releasing enormous amounts of carbon into our atmosphere.

There is one potential disadvantage to lab grown meat compared to plant-based meat, however: one recent study showed that lab grown meat could take massive amounts of heat and electricity, as digestion and nutrient circulation is replaced by industrial equivalents. While it’s still early, it seems clear that lab grown meat will definitely have lower global warming potential than beef, though it could be higher for pork and poultry. However, if the right steps are taken, and renewable energies replace current production, this may yet become a non-factor, as lab grown meat could reduce life cycle emissions of meat production by 40–80%.

It’s important to note that, because lab-grown meat is not yet commercially available at scale, discussions of its impact are all estimations. However, all three environmental studies of its potential impact show very encouraging results, with clean chicken using a third to two thirds less land and clean beef reducing land use by 95%. Nutrient pollution for both would likely decrease by 70–90%, with total carbon emissions being reduced by 70–90%.

There’s one other common criticism of lab-grown meat that gets attention. Dr. Pat Brown, of Impossible Foods, is fond of criticizing lab grown meat as being infeasible. As he characterizes it, growing beef without the cow will always be prohibitively expensive because the cow’s immune system does so much heavy lifting. To keep bioreactors clean and free of any potentially infectious microbes may be a tall task, but it’s not as impossible as Dr. Brown makes it sound. Pharmacology companies use them all the time, as bioreactors are exactly how large amounts of therapeutic antibodies and other proteins are made for treating all kinds of diseases, from cancers to infections. These treatments are indeed expensive, but at the right scale it’s not as impossible as Impossible Foods would like it to be. Memphis Meats and Future Meat are both projecting their burger meats to be under $10/pound within the next two years as they start to scale production.

Conversely, while lab grown meat proponents often criticize plant-based alternatives as too artificial, or insufficiently meaty, recent polls indicate a rapidly changing trend of preference for plant based meat patties. The market share of plant-based meats has skyrocketed in recent years, and that trend is only likely to continue as the products improve in quality and decrease in cost.

Conclusion

In the end, it’s clear that both products have incredible advantages over animal-sourced meat, and it’s almost inevitable that both play an important role in our future diets. However, the current situation is incredibly different for each product. Right now, plant-based alternatives certainly have the inside track to success, and might represent a lower-risk, lower-reward type of strategy. Whereas lab grown meat still hasn’t brought a product to market, but has extremely high upside if it can truly produce meat without animals. In a world where we have less than 10 years to avoid 1.5ºC warming, both strategies are essential.

Animal-sourced meat has pushed the boundaries of ethics, environment, and governmental subsidies to reach its present cost, and with increased pressure from the plant-based market, its cost is never going to get lower. Plant-based and lab-grown meats, however, are already competitively priced with meat, and they’re still in the process of increasing in scale. There is no doubt that soon enough they will surpass animal-sourced meat in affordability, and once they do, their momentum may be hard to stop.

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