The meatball tastes like meat, an accomplishment in itself.
It’s a bit dense and on the smaller side — not exactly the classic version you imagine melting in your mouth at an Italian restaurant with red-checkered tablecloths and a parmesan wheel. But it’s well browned on the outside, and the flavor is full and savory. The scent of just-cooked pork hangs in the kitchen.
This is the ground floor, the chef, Mark Schomberg, tells me. Imagine what’s possible a year from now.
There’s a reason we’re sitting a short drive from the University of Oxford dissecting the experience of eating a meatball: This one is a science experiment. The centerpiece of my lunch traces its origins not to a slaughterhouse, but to a bioreactor stationed in the next room, operated by a British startup called Ivy Farm Technologies.
Founded in 2019, Ivy Farm is part of a battalion of companies raising billions of dollars from investors to change the way we eat.
Right now, enjoying a juicy steak or a crispy chicken sandwich requires turning a blind eye to the ways in which our food system harms animals and powers the climate crisis. But these startups claim that by reproducing animal cells in a lab, we can eliminate this trade-off — protecting our diets without compromising our ethics and destroying the Earth.
“Most of the world’s consumers love meat,” said Rich Dillon, the CEO of Ivy Farm. “The transition to a plant-based diet is not happening fast enough. If we do not make meat in a different way, we will be running out of resources on the planet.”
Lab-grown meat — or “cultivated” meat, as industry insiders have settled on calling it — may sound far-fetched. Yet it’s closer to dinner plates than ever before.
The sector has seen an explosion of funding in the past two years. Ivy Farm’s new 18,000-square-foot pilot plant, which it says is the biggest in Europe, has a 159-gallon bioreactor nicknamed “Betty” and a shiny new test kitchen. There’s ample space for its 50-person staff to work, perched on beanbags or meeting tables beside slogans like “We are forking fearless.”
Regulators are also getting on board. Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration said for the first time that a lab-grown meat product is safe to eat, a milestone for the sector. Right now, Singapore is alone in allowing the sale of cultivated meat to consumers, having issued a green light in late 2020.
While Ivy Farm had hoped to launch sausages in Britain in 2023, it’s now considering the United States as its first market. It’s racing to compile the data it needs to submit its paperwork to the US Food and Drug Administration.
Yet delivering on the promise of lab-grown meat won’t just come down to regulators.
Despite the investment boom, the industry hasn’t figured out how to rapidly scale up production to meet demand and drive down costs. The first lab-grown burger, served up in 2013, cost more than $300,000 to develop. Ivy Farm says it could produce a similar product for less than $50 — an improvement, but still nearly 10 times the price of a Big Mac.
Cultivating more meat will require unprecedented feats of engineering and revamping entire supply chains, since the sector relies on materials and equipment traditionally used to make vaccines or medicine. With biopharmaceuticals, small batches sell at high prices. Food production requires the opposite.
Then there’s the question of consumer appetites. While surveys indicate a willingness to try cultivated meat products, plenty of people find the concept unsettling.
“Like anything new, some people will gravitate toward the novelty and excitement and other people will wait,” said Vijay Pande of Andreessen Horowitz, who led the venture capital giant’s first cultivated meat investment earlier this year. “I think this is something where the taste and cost will go a long way.”
Why people are growing meat in labs
Demand for meat is increasing as the global population marches past 8 billion and the middle class expands in countries like China. But there’s a problem: Meeting that demand could jeopardize hopes of keeping global warming in check.
The livestock industry accounts for nearly 15% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations. The estimated 7.1 gigatons of emissions the sector churns out per year is greater than 2019 emissions from the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany combined. Razing trees for livestock grazing is also behind almost 40% of global forest loss.
Solutions include encouraging people to eat less meat, especially in wealthy countries, or pushing plant-based alternatives like Beyond Meat or Impossible burgers. But changing behaviors is hard, and critics quibble about the taste of non-meat ingredients like pea protein. The cultivated meat industry thinks its technology provides a better option.
“The promise of cultivated meat [is] to bring forth a taste and texture component, and to deliver sustainability,” said Gautam Godhwani, managing partner at Good Startup, a Singapore-based venture capital firm that has invested in eight cultivated meat startups. “People want to eat the food they grew up eating.”
The way it works is fairly straightforward. Using a biopsy from an animal about the size of a dice, scientists isolate high-quality cells from different parts of the tissue. They then feed the cells with nutrients so they can grow efficiently under controlled conditions. Finally, they’re put in steel bioreactors, where they grow until they’re ready to be harvested and made into, say, meatballs.
Proponents say the final product is much cleaner than what’s currently available on supermarket shelves.
“We don’t have to grow the whole animal,” Dillon said. “We can just grow the parts that we want that are nutritious, that are delicious.”
The process takes about three weeks, estimates Ivy Farm, whose name is a play on IV, or “in vitro.” While it’s also experimenting with chicken and beef, the startup is focusing first on ground pork, which chef Schomberg has transformed into hot dogs, sausages and dumplings.
Regulators aren’t the only obstacle
The sector experienced a huge breakthrough last month when the FDA backed the safety findings of Upside Foods, a startup in California making lab-grown chicken. Following additional inspections from the US Department of Agriculture, it could be cleared for sale to consumers.
The regulatory road in the European Union and the United Kingdom still looks murky. (I had to sign a waiver before the tasting.) But Ed Steele, co-founder of Hoxton Farms, a London-based startup developing cultivated fat, told me the FDA news was “a huge boost for the whole industry.”
With the path to market becoming clearer, companies quickly need to crack the code of mass production — the only way they’ll be able to move from making small batches to supplying restaurants and grocery stores. Ivy Farm can produce about 6,000 pounds of meat per year thanks to “Betty.” That’s enough red meat to cover the annual consumption of fewer than 80 Americans, according to USDA estimates for 2019.
“We know how to grow cells. We know how to turn them into the components of meat,” said Elliot Swartz, lead scientist for cultivated meat at the Good Food Institute, a think tank that works to advance alternative proteins. “But we’ve never done it at the scale necessary for food.”
There’s no guarantee the process can simply be replicated with bigger tanks, which Ivy Farm is interested in testing in the United States. Nutrient solutions for feeding the cells are also made up of components historically used by the biopharmaceutical industry. Supplies can be limited, and they’re expensive.
“Most of the industry is having to use materials [priced] for medical research,” said Marianne Ellis, a professor at the University of Bath studying this issue.
Innovation is possible, but requires money. And startups are facing an increasingly tough economic climate, which could limit funding. Venture capitalists have poured more than $3 billion into cultivated meat startups over the past two years, according to data from PitchBook. But global recession fears have stoked skepticism of companies that won’t be profitable for a long time.
Would you try it?
The sector may surmount these obstacles. It still needs customers.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency found that a third of UK consumers would try cultivated meat. (I was initially a bit apprehensive about the taste test, but the FDA’s findings made me feel better.) About 60% would try plant-based products, many of which are already on the market.
That gap isn’t stopping Ivy Farm from plowing ahead. The company is working with Dennis Group, which has built plants for companies like Danone, to scope its options in the United States.
Meanwhile, startups from Japan to Israel and Australia are honing their products, from lab-grown beef steaks to sushi-grade salmon. Even cultivated fois gras is in the works, a sign high-end consumers will be the first to try these innovations.
But what’s sold at restaurants and high-end grocery stores early on may not even be 100% lab-grown. The meatballs I was served consisted only of 65% cultivated pork. It was mixed with plant-based meat, as well as breadcrumbs and seasoning.
“I think the whole of the cultivated meat industry will go hybrid first,” Ivy Farm’s Dillon said.