When it comes to the process of growing meat in a lab with no actual animals involved (outside of the initial biopsy to gather cells), a recent study on lab grown meat posed the question – is it food or pharmaceutical? The argument is that the methodology of growing meat in this way is actually closer to the pharmaceutical process than food, and this is largely due to the “growth factor” which refers to what actually makes the animal cells grow. Aside from the “growth media,” composed of the appropriate fats, sugars, amino acids, etc. the cells also must be contained in big cultivating vats, using electricity, in large facilities filled with white lab-coat clad personnel.
This biotechnology has been around for decades, as growing meats in a lab is strikingly similar to that of making vaccines, and claimed to look like a present day vaccine manufacturing plant - with one more step to further process the cells into human food.
Before starting 1915 Farm, I used to sell pharmaceuticals in the diabetes space, which consisted of a class of drugs that lower your A1C and even helped patients lose a little weight. Every new drug launch meant a milestone was met, with the FDA (formerly known as the Consumer Protection Agency), finally giving the “green light” to a new drug. A deserved celebration would follow, as the FDA – notoriously one of the more difficult government agencies to gain approval from, is known to be expensive, stringent, and slow to approve drugs or medical devices. It’s worth noting, I worked in pharma before Covid.
In the study we mentioned earlier, lab grown meat was more inline with the process of developing pharmaceuticals than the process of producing food. Logically, it makes sense – lab grown meat is developed in a lab, versus being born on a farm. The regulatory process of these cell-cultivated meats mirrors that of pharmaceuticals, as the FDA really doesn’t regulate meats or farms, outside of animal feed – especially medicated feed containing drugs, which most factory farms use to keep livestock from getting sick while tightly confined in barns or feedlots. The part of the meat industry that is heavily regulated is the harvesting and processing of livestock – that’s handled by the USDA. When it comes to lab grown meats, the two agencies are partnering up for a dual approach – the FDA regulates the process of growing the meat, then the harvesting oversight is handed off to the USDA.
Which again raises the question – despite being grown from animal stem cells, are these new products food or pharmaceuticals? How can some “real meat” need to be regulated by the FDA, while some “real meat” doesn't? Can we truly say lab grown meat is “real meat”?
Follow the Money
America was the second country in the world to approve the sale of lab grown meat, behind Singapore, the tropical sunny island off Southeast Asia and one of the smallest countries in the world. Singapore relies heavily on imports to feed its nation, as 90% of the food consumed is imported. Singapore has welcomed roughly 30 lab grown meat companies to its country, understandably so, as the country relies heavily on imports to feed its nation, resulting in vulnerabilities in the nation’s food security.
To provide some perspective, America imports just 15% of our food supply – mainly fruits, vegetables, and seafood. America’s food exports have more than tripled since 1997, from a value of about $62.8 billion to $196 billion, as our domestic output of agricultural products supersedes our need, making exports a necessity since agricultural stakeholders depend on them to keep prices steady. This fact is reminiscent of our previous series, The Big Meat Dilemma, wherein 1970s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz heavily encouraged monocropping and maximizing crop outputs which ultimately led to a major crash when we quit exporting to the Soviet Union.
To summarize, America produces a ton of food. Why are we the second nation to approve lab grown meat? While we can’t assume it’s correlated, it’s worth noting that American companies are heavily invested in the lab grown meat sector – with U.S. investment accounting for a whopping 62.24% of the worldwide capital invested, America’s financial backing in lab grown meat is more than all the other countries combined. Following the United States’ large investment in lab grown meat companies, Israel’s funding makes up 21.72%, The Netherlands contributes 5.67%, and Singapore’s stake amounts to 4.61%.
With an estimated market size of $250-500 billion in annual sales by 2050, competition is rapidly growing. And since there are already over 150 cultivated meat companies around the world, lab grown meat organizations are starting to develop patent strategies, with some patents filed and granted already.
Lab Grown Meat Patents & Regulation
In a young industry such as lab grown meats, market exclusivity is key. Since patents grant exclusive rights to use, make, sell, or offer for sale inventions for a defined period of time typically 16-20 years, they are crucial to the success and of the rising cell-cultured meat companies.
A Bloomberg Law article suggested that lab grown meat companies should develop patent strategies similar to how a drug company may protect a biologic. Biologics are “therapeutic complex molecules produced directly from organisms.” In pharmaceuticals, biologics include vaccines, immune modulators, growth factors, and more.
Lab grown meat and biologics involve similar complex biological processes and products. A characteristic of their patents are claims covering multiple aspects of the essential technology and its surrounding innovations. Therefore, this opinion piece from Bloomberg suggests that given the many similarities with biologics, cultivated meat companies will likely adopt certain biologics patent strategies to protect their innovations.
If lab grown meat companies' true mission is to feed the rising global population, improve the environment, and save livestock – should patents keeping the formulations a secret be granted? After all, patents don’t exist for “real meat.”
Let’s assume lab grown meats are the answer to feeding the world and would be better for the environment. In order to make a substantial impact, widespread adoption of alternative meats would have to occur. During an interview with MIT in February 2021, Bill Gates said he wasn’t sure if lab grown meat like then Memphis Meats (now UPSIDE Foods), will ever be economical. He does believe that plant-based protein companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, who he’s also heavily invested in, have a quality and cost roadmap that makes them “totally competitive.”
In his book, How to Avoid Climate Disaster, Gates says:
“using regulation to force a shift to synthetic meat is only one of a wide range of government policies that will ultimately be needed to avoid a climate disaster.”
Clearly, Bill Gates is proposing that the government force citizens to adopt a synthetic meat diet, to save the planet. In addition, Gates wields a colossal influence on decision-making with regard to global health and agriculture. A major study confirmed the increasing impact ultra-rich organizations like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have on government policy.
According to the report, the Gates Foundation is now the second largest donor to the World Health Organization, second to the United States. He’s also one of the world’s largest single investors in biotechnology for farming and pharmaceuticals.
Pairing patented formulations of specific companies with government policies that prioritizes or incentivizes their consumption – is clearly a very slippery slope.
The Lab Grown Meat Leaders
UPSIDE Foods, one of the two cultivated meat companies discussed throughout this piece, was recognized as a ‘unicorn,’ following the largest funding round in the cultivated meat industry to date, having concluded its Series C raising $400M at over $1B valuation in April of 2022. UPSIDE Foods is funded by 41 investors to date. UPSIDE Foods has raised a total of $598M in funding over 8 rounds, and has an estimated valuation of over a billion dollars
- Bill Gates – the largest landowner in the United States & fierce advocate of meat alternatives. He is also invested in Eat Just, the parent company to GOOD Foods, who was also recently approved to sell their lab grown meat.
- Tyson Foods – the biggest meat producer in the world.
- Cargill – the largest privately-held corporation in the US, (a family of 14 billionaires).
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a government grant in an undisclosed amount on June 21, 2023, the same day UPSIDE announced its full approval.
GOOD Meat, a subsidiary of Eat Just (another Gates backed venture that produces plant-based alternatives to egg and meat products), created the cell-cultivated chicken that won Singapore’s approval in 2020. GOOD Meat has raised a total of $267M in funding over 3 rounds and are funded by 6 investors. Like UPSIDE Foods, their latest funding was raised on Jun 21, 2023 from a USDA grant.
Believer Meats – While most of our conversation has surrounded the newly FDA and USDA approved companies above, Israel-based Believer Meats is trailing closely behind in third place, with the largest commercial lab grown meat facility in the world already under construction on 43 acres in North Carolina. Hoping for US federal regulatory approval and facility completion by Q1 of 2024, Believer meats has a head start on its two competitors regarding breaking ground on a commercial scalable facility, designed to crank out millions of pounds of lab grown meat a year, 22 million pounds in this initial design of their 200,000 sq. ft. facility.
Even the Brazilian meat giant, JBS (who you know from our series, The Big Meat Dilemma) the world’s largest beef producer, is getting in on the lab grown meat market. In November 2021, JBS announced the acquisition including a $41 million budget to build a new facility in Spain.
Why does there appear to be such a rush to be one of the first companies to get lab grown meats on the market? While I’m sure there are a variety of reasons, there are substantial benefits to being a “first mover,” which is the competitive advantage known to give companies a leg up if they can be one of the first to launch its offering in a new product category. The lab grown meat sector is predicted to be worth $1.99 billion by 2035. With billions of dollars being bet on the success of the cell-cultured meat market, there’s clearly plenty at “steak.”
It feels like yesterday when plant based meats were all the rage, with companies like Beyond Meat booming, and the Impossible burger having its place on the menu. However, over the past several years, the plant based alternative meat movement has lost significant steam. Their sales volume dropped by 4% in 2022, with Americans' appetites for real meat rising in 2022, despite rising economic pressures. JBS, the largest beef packer in the world (and in the United States), pulled out of their plant based meat investment, Planterra Foods, before investing in lab grown meat in Spain. Beyond Meat, one of the market leaders in plant based meats, has seen their stock plummet, trading at just $13 per share compared to a $177 peak in 2019. It might be safe to say that Americans have spoken on plant based, and we’re now seeing an industry push toward lab grown meat. The big question is, will anyone actually want to eat it?
According to a health psychologist studying human diets at UCLA, “a lot of people are grossed out by cultivated meat.” According to a 2022 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, 35% of meat eaters and 55% of vegetarians would be too disgusted to try cultivated meat.
Cultivated meat companies are conscious of the consumer hesitation, planning to debut their products at high-end Michelin star chef run restaurants, in an effort to hook consumers who will tolerate a higher price point, before marketing the lab grown meats in supermarkets at a lower, yet still premium price point. Believer Meats (the Israel-based company building the largest lab grown meat commercial facility in the world in North Carolina) – claims to already have the cost pretty close to conventionally raised chicken – costing $7.70 to produce a pound of cultivated chicken and $1.70 to make a 110 gram chicken breast (about a quarter of a pound). Quite an impressive decrease from the $300,000 burger only 10 years ago.
Similarities are present between the launch of plant based meat (back in 2012) and lab grown meats, like celebrity investments creating hype – the product launch phase is strikingly different. With both striving to meet the demands of the “climate conscious consumer”, plant based company Beyond Meat made their product available in grocery stores before restaurants, while both lab grown meat companies UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat are both focusing on restaurants first. With billions of dollars on the line, a successful market entry for these companies is critical, as their success is dependent on the acceptance and approval of consumers, and whether they will actually purchase the product. So why restaurants first?
While this entire article is fact based and backed up by sources, this is where my opinion is coming in. In addition to the celebrity chefs contributing to the hype and consumer acceptance, the preparation is taking place within a closed kitchen – where the consumer never sees the color of the “raw” cell-cultivated chicken.
Lab grown meat companies claim their products are near indistinguishable from the real thing. What would your first thought be opening up a package of raw chicken that has a pale gray tint, instead of a pinkish hue? If it’s near-identical to real chicken, why is it gray? See what we’re talking about in this video.
Do you think most consumers will know that GOOD Meat's patented chicken nugget contains as little as 25% cell paste, i.e., lab grown meat), and up to 20% mung bean? Not to mention everything included in the growth medium, which can include things like corn oil, wheat, and soy. This is a product they’re claiming to be nutritionally identical to real chicken.
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact factory farming has on animal welfare, the environment, and our health – but the jury is still out on whether the public is ready to embrace lab grown meat as the way forward.
Is lab grown meat the answer? Well, let's focus on what we do know.
It's too early to claim lab grown meats as slaughter free, better for the environment, or a realistic and cost effective way to feed the growing population.
While the technology has been around for decades and is very similar to making vaccines, people have not been consuming lab grown meats long term. The FDA has deemed lab grown meats as safe, albeit with no long term clinical trials backing their safety.
Governments are funding the industry, as are millions of dollars from the private sector. Both are counting on the success of these companies and lab grown meats to be well adopted, and their profit depends on it.
Today, browsing through the meat aisle at the grocery store or swinging into a drive-thru for a burger, you'll likely receive a patty that was made from the grind of hundreds of animals – foreign and domestic beef raised in confinement and on drugs to alter their growth rates and keep them alive in inhumane conditions – likely coming from one of the Big 4 packers that controls the beef market.
In 10 years – it may be a cultivated beef patty, grown in a lab creating a greater contribution to the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted, with no longer term studies of its safety, likely coming from one of a handful of companies with a patented secret formulation.
I mean, both options can be argued as synthetic, or at the very least not natural.
Lab grown meat may attract investors, but will it enact any meaningful change in the meat industry?
We don’t need the latest “market disrupting,” scientific innovation to build a more sustainable food system. Regenerative agriculture truly has the capacity to be better for the environment, animal welfare, and consumer health. The caveat being – raising livestock regeneratively, with good animal welfare, providing them with high quality feed, and a natural environment to thrive in (vs. confinement) is more expensive than factory farming. It’s also not subsidized by the government creating artificially low prices.
Regenerative farming is a low margin business and is difficult to scale authentically (without depending on greenwashed labels, claiming the meat is something it isn’t), which will likely keep it from scaling massively, or capturing the interest of investors with expectations of big returns.
Could you imagine the net positive improvement if all the investment, lobbying, advertising, and government subsidies were instead shifted to regenerative agriculture?
For reasons mentioned above, it’s not likely to happen, and it’s up to us as consumers to drive the change.
Thank you for reading – please leave a comment below that let me know what you think!