Cellular Agriculture and ‘Clean Meat’

The worldwide hunger for protein shows no sign of slowing down. What if the “ranch” of the future is a laboratory?
Mary Ladd

EATING MEAT REMAINS ROUTINE FOR MOST Americans. The per capita supply of meat available to Americans—a rough gauge of likely consumption— topped a whopping 222.2 pounds (100.8 kg) of red meat and poultry in 2018, according to projections from the United States Department of Agriculture. For context, the last time meat availability hit such highs was in 2004. 

The global market for meat is estimated at $675 billion, and there’s a steady increase in demand (especially in Asia and India) as population levels continue to boom and standards of living rise. Protein is a reliable and necessary commodity for sustenance and nutrition, but it can often be financially out of reach in impoverished parts of the world. There are also supply issues, environmental tolls from feed crops and the use of land and water, and bad conditions at feedlots. 

Bruce Friedrich, executive director of advocacy group the Good Food Institute (GFI), said earlier in 2018, “Research by UN scientists found that raising animals for food is one of the top contributions to every single one of the most severe environmental problems plaguing us: from water pollution, desertification, and deforestation, to biodiversity loss and climate change.” GFI promotes plant-based meat, dairy, and egg substitutes, as well as “clean meat” alternatives versus the products of conventional animal agriculture. 

In the same way that clean energy providers have sought to help various environmental concerns, cellular agriculture—producing “clean” or “cultured” meat in labs—has the potential to provide solutions to these pressing problems. 

While the carnivores among us may still relish the experience of eating “real” meat, the way most meat comes to our table has long been via agricultural production. Especially at the level of corporate and industrial farming, most animals raised for meat spend their lives going through a highly regimented, specifically engineered, and scientifically measured process that is not so far removed from the careful management of laboratory conditions. 

Lab-based agriculture works through culturing cells—no soil or grazing land required. To create meat or skin, whole cells become the food product. For creating something like milk or egg whites, the cell’s products are instead used—technically an acellular process. 

If a bland and pressed Tofurkey is what comes to mind when you hear “clean meat,” that only demonstrates the degree to which meat and meat substitutes have evolved. Clean meat products are bioengineered meat items with roots to actual animals. Over time, the chicken strip or steak on your plate may not have come from an animal with a face, eyes, or even bones, but instead from a petri dish. That novel disconnect can be the toughest hurdle to visually grasping what cellular agriculture is all about. Cellular growth takes place entirely in the lab, as biopsied stem cells are sampled from livestock. Then, under the proper conditions, these stem cells multiply over weeks, presenting a vastly shorter time frame than feedlot cycles. 

In ten to twenty years (or perhaps much sooner), our meat supply may largely be “raised” from the cells of animals grown in labs (or even at home). 

Many companies are racing to get clean meat to market, and financial returns are but one driving factor. New Harvest, a nonprofit founded in 2004 and among the oldest such companies, provides research funding and runs an annual conference for cellular agriculture researchers and companies, as well as advocating for open sourcing of information to help prevent duplication of effort among researchers. The goal: sustainable, affordable ways of feeding a projected global human population of over 9 billion by 2050. 

New Harvest’s Erin Kim says that cultured meat represents the “Holy Grail” of cellular agriculture. Indeed, culturing meat is vastly more complex compared to culturing wool, silk, leather, and fabrics. The company envisions what it calls a “vibrant and diverse industry of animal products made without animals.” 

Mark Post, a Dutch scientist, cooked and ate a cultured beef hamburger prototype back in 2013 (an expensive meal, considering it cost $325,000 to develop). The focus then was not necessarily on how it tasted, since this represented just a first milestone in the field. Google cofounder Sergey Brin funded that project, which used beet juice, seasoning, and egg white to provide texture to the engineered flesh. (As you might expect, meatballs and ground beef are easier to produce in the lab than, say, a porterhouse steak, since engineering convincing fat and collagen is a serious challenge.) 

New Harvest funds avian cell research by Dr. Paul Mozdziak, a North Carolina State University poultry science professor. Mozdziak, who has been holding his own starter culture in his freezer since 1993, is said to have more firsthand experience than anyone else in the world in cultivating avian muscle cells. Mozdziak is something of a rock star in the field, because his starter cells can be used by other researchers, which furthers the cause. He’s long been enthusiastic about the possibilities his work presents, but he couldn’t get funding until New Harvest came along, allowing him to at last dedicate more of his time to culturing. 

Another company working to develop its own “species” of engineered meat is San Francisco–based Wild Type, cofounded in 2016 by cardiologist and molecular biologist Aryé Elfenbein and former diplomat Justin Kolbeck. When Elfenbein was working in cardiac regenerative therapeutics—determining if the heart can regenerate functional muscle tissue after heart attacks—it seemed natural to wonder if animal tissue could also be artificially generated. 

“In ten to twenty years, our meat supply may largely be ‘raised’ from the cells of animals grown in labs.” 

Wild Type began research on avian species before turning to salmon, because it’s such a culturally significant fish in the Pacific Northwest, yet it’s on and off the list of depleted species. Wild Type is targeting restaurants (and later, home cooks) with potential products of minced salmon (for a spicy sushi roll), thinly sliced salmon with fat marbling, and even a salmon “fillet.” Incorporating input from chefs, Elfenbein has been thinking about the possibility of creating a disc of salmon that could neatly fill a skillet and feed a family of five, saving restaurant labor required to debone a real fish and reducing waste close to zero. 

Elfenbein says that a microscopic sample can be taken from a fin, tail, or even scale of a living salmon, and that under the right conditions, it could be used to create identical tissue architecture, structure, taste, and appearance. Chefs have said they would like to get a fish cheek product—a prized and pricey dish. The Wild Type team acknowledges that mature fat cells and mature fat tissue are very different, but progress in this area could open up a world of opportunity when it comes to mouthfeel and flavor. 

A significant public-perception challenge with cultured meat concerns its growth medium—often a serum derived from live animals that would seem counter to the “clean meat” narrative. Wild Type has worked with bovine serum, but also claims that is has been able to grow cells in a serum-free environment. Alison Van Eenennaam, agriculture scientist at the University of California, Davis, disputes the idea of a serum-free environment, while acknowledging that fetal bovine serum is often collected from pregnant cows at the slaughterhouse. “I own that and use that [for my work], and I’m okay with that. It’s not totally possible to do [this work] without fetal bovine serum.” 

Such serum is the most commonly used growth medium because it provides three important elements to stimulate sustained cell growth: protein, sugar, and salt. According to Van Eenennaam, the serum “contains growth-promoting factors and other compounds necessary for in vitro growth of cells, such as hormones and attachment factors. ... It is typically hard to establish a cell line from a primary cell culture in the absence of fetal bovine serum.” 

New Harvest’s Erin Kim admits the use of fetal bovine serum as a medium to culture the cells makes her uncomfortable, since it is derived in an “unsustainable and unpalatable” way and presents an “ugly truth” of this research. Kim says that the use of fetal bovine serum gets glossed over, yet the practice is similar to the way human stem cells, harvested from embryonic stem cells and adult tissue, are used to grow human skin, bone, or muscle for medical research. 

Taking a different approach, Impossible Foods set out to create meat substitutes rather than engineered meats—its products are completely plant-based. When the company’s plant-based Impossible Burger debuted in 2016, it caused a stir in the media because its tang, texture, and smell were so similar to a traditional beef burger. Far from the bland veggie patties of old, the Impossible Burger does a much better job of imitating a beef burger by using potato flour, wheat, coconut, yeast, and a touch of soy. 

Impossible Foods is the brainchild of renowned Stanford geneticist Pat Brown, and its Impossible Burger is now sold at over 1,300 restaurants. Impossible Foods’ goal is to make meat substitutes that use about a quarter of the water and 5 percent of the land of a burger made from cows. More time and research will ultimately determine what the energy, cost, and other carbon-footprint savings might or might not be practical. 

Biotech-wise, the Impossible secret is soy leghemoglobin (SLH), which is a close analog of hemoblogin, a key component of what gives real red meat its distinctive taste. Produced from soybean roots and genetically modified yeast, SLH is what makes the Impossible Burger seem like a real burger. 

Impossible Foods’ products represent the first use of SLH in the food supply—a fact that caused an uproar when reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, since Impossible Foods had not demonstrated the safety of the ingredient to the agency’s satisfaction. The company’s still lobbying for official approval, but can still legally continue to sell products containing SLH. 

New Harvest’s Kim says there’s a bit of a “Wild West” atmosphere in these early days of cellular agriculture, and her company’s approach is to try and do everything “as openly as possible.” Others may be more or less transparent, but there’s undoubtedly lots of activity, excitement, and money in play. Regardless of who gets to market first and with what particular strain of engineered food, it seems likely a lot of future meat will be stepping at least partly out of a petri dish.