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The future of protein lies in plant-based and cell-based meat. It’s a nascent industry with plenty of challenges, but these innovators won’t be cowed.

By Kara Baskin for The Engine
Illustrations by
Gabriel Ebensperger

eef: It’s what’s for dinner. This was the phrase coined by the Leo Burnett advertising agency in 1992. It touted beef as an essential part of a healthy American diet, and the ubiquitous slogan is still the motto for the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The phrase has become baked into Americana. And why not? In 2017, U.S. meat production totaled 52 billion pounds — 26.3 billion of which was beef. On an international scale, an estimated 30 percent of the calories consumed globally by humans come from meat products. In the U.S., approximately 95 pounds of meat per capita is now consumed annually, an increase of 44 pounds since 1961. U.S. consumers spend more than half of their protein dollars on animal protein.

Clearly, humans want meat. But its production is quickly becoming a global crisis. Sustainability is an issue: One cow alone can consume up to 30 gallons of water per day. Emissions are another worry: Total emissions from global livestock are 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent per year, representing 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions — that is, emissions resulting from human activity. Cattle raised for beef and milk are the animal species responsible for the most emissions, representing 65 percent of the livestock sector.

“It is the biggest environmental threat that humans have ever faced,” says Patrick O. Brown, CEO and founder of the Redwood City, California-based Impossible Foods, which specializes in plant-based meats.

A (Not So) Rare Solution

New companies are grinding away on enviro-conscious, potentially healthier ways to deliver meat: cellular and plant-based meat.

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(Left) Patrick Brown, CEO & Founder, Impossible Foods (Right) Jonathan McIntyre, CEO, Motif Ingredients

Plant-based is the higher-profile of the two methods, and it’s poised to be a $7.5 billion global market by 2025. One of the highest-profile purveyors is Impossible Foods, founded by Brown, a former Stanford University biochemist. Impossible claims to use 87 percent less water, emit 89 percent fewer emissions, and impact 96 percent less land than beef made from cows. Their product is made from soy protein, coconut oil, and sunflower oil, and heme — an iron-containing molecule that makes the Impossible’s product smell, taste, and bleed like the real thing.

“The alternative protein space is suddenly booming,” says Jonathan McIntyre, CEO of Motif Ingredients, a Boston, Mass.-based startup that specializes in alternative protein ingredients made via fermentation, not animal agriculture.

According to Nielson surveys, nearly half of consumers eat a form of protein with every meal. Dollar sales of plant-based foods and beverages increased 14.7 percent in 2017, and 39 percent of Americans are actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets, according to Nielson.

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“There is a very strong awareness of both the environmental impacts of the food and agriculture industry and the healthfulness of eating more plant based products,” McIntyre says. “These products have been around for a long time in different forms and shapes, but they really appealed to a small audience and the quality of the products were really not good enough to appeal to a more mainstream audience.”

No more: The Impossible Burger debuted in 2016 and is now available in more than 5,000 restaurants worldwide, including Burger King, and a gluten- and cholesterol-free iteration will debut in grocery stores this year.

“We can expect not just to see more of these products on the shelf, but also to start seeing them shelved in more highly-trafficked sections of the grocery store, including right in the meat aisle. Retailers realized that when they introduced plant-based milk to the refrigerated dairy aisle, right next to cow’s milk, it resulted in significant sales growth for that category, so why not follow that same strategy for other plant-based categories like plant-based meat? The easy answer is to merchandise them with similar products,” says Alison Rabschnuk, Director of Corporate Engagement at The Good Food Institute (GFI), which provides business support to plant- and cell-based meat companies in Washington, D.C.

“The announcement [in April 2019] that Burger King will start selling a Whopper made from Impossible burgers shows just how ubiquitous these products are becoming. The final hurdle to making plant-based meat as equivalent to animal meat is the price; we predict that these products will become less expensive as the companies achieve economies of scale,” she says.

In early May 2019, Beyond Meat, a competitor of Impossible Foods, saw 163% gains on first day of public trading, signaling significant appetite for alternative protein from some of the world’s most prominent investors.

Turning Over a New Leaf

Cell-based meat — also known as clean or cell-cultured meat — is a more nascent field, and one that might appeal to a broader carnivorous population.

Here, agricultural products are produced from cell cultures. Proponents say that this process will require less land and water than conventional meat, will cause exponentially less climate change, and eliminates the environmental repercussions of animal waste and contamination via runoff. It also requires no antibiotics, produces no bacterial contamination, and won’t harm animals.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute biomedical engineer Glenn Gaudette is pioneering the use of edible spinach as a tissue-engineering scaffold to grow cell-based meat. He says that his process is a good alternative for meat-loving consumers who might cringe at the idea of plant-based foods.

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(Left) Alison Rabschnuk, Director of Corporate Engagement, The Good Food Institute (Right) Glenn Gaudette, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

“I’m all for the Impossible Burger and plant-based meat. It’s fantastic, and I think it’s the immediate market. But we’ve tried to change people’s dietary habits for years, and it doesn’t work,” he says. “So we need to take a step back and say, ‘OK, what is it that [consumers] really need, really want? Well, they really want meat. Can we produce it in a different way? So rather than trying to change America and say, ‘Everybody’s got to be a vegetarian,’ let’s think about how we deliver and how we grow the meat.’”

As such, his goal is to replicate the tissue structure of meat, growing cow heart muscle on a spinach leaf scaffold, stripped of its plant cells. Scaffolding provides external binding, holding the cells together so that they can grow. No high-tech leaves here; Gaudette gets them from the local grocery store.

Roughly 100,000 bovine cells per leaf are isolated in this process. Gaudette then employs the spinach’s natural vasculature to nourish them with an oxygen, protein, and sugar solution. They form long, striated muscle cells.

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(Left) A decellularized spinach leaf scaffold. (Right) Decellularized spinach leaf injected with an oxygenated solution essential for animal (or meat) cell integration. Images courtesy of Glenn Gaudette

“Nature has already provided a series of vessels, in the leaf, to deliver water. We can use those vessels to deliver oxygenated solution, putting a tube in the end of the leaf or using pressurized fluid to cause the solution to go through the leaf,” he says. “The other big plus is, if you think about growing meat on a scaffold, you want a scaffold that’s edible or a scaffold that you could easily get rid of. But a scaffold that’s edible and that the consumer is actually familiar with is preferable,” he says.

Ergo grocery store spinach.

In its final form, these cells will transform into what he lovingly terms “mush meats” — hamburger, chicken nuggets, and other such meats easily ground into smaller pieces. However, growing them into a scalable size is a couple of years away, he says. It currently takes months to create a small piece of meat.

“I think if we can get this to work, then in terms of growing different types of meat on the scaffolds, on the leaves, it’ll pave the path for other avenues,” he says. Ultimately, he hopes to provide decellularized scaffolding to larger cell-based meat companies, who would then grow the cells and customize their health properties, modulating the number of fat and muscle cells involved. This isn’t a pipe dream: Mainstream companies such as Tyson Foods have invested in Berkeley, Calif.-based Memphis Meats, which developed the first “clean” meatball in 2016.

Another frontrunner is Motif Ingredients, helmed by McIntyre, a longtime head of research and development at PepsiCo. Motif produces protein through fermentation of engineered microbes. The company launched in February with $90 million in financing.

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“It’s no different than the way you might make beer,” says McIntyre. “You have yeast, or another micro-organism, growing in a tank. We program that micro-organism to produce a protein of interest or an ingredient of interest.”

Think of Motif as the secret sauce outsourced to larger food companies who want to mimic a particular flavor and taste. For example, if a company wanted to use a plant-based yogurt with pea protein — but if pea protein lacked that classic, creamy yogurt taste — Motif would in turn develop the proteins to nudge it toward smooth dairy properties.

“You want it thicker? Thinner? Creamier? Tart? We’d be helping to create those ingredients,” McIntyre says.

Providing a “Scaffold”

As these techniques grow, organizations are offering them a platform for research and connection.

Brooklyn, NY-based New Harvest was founded in 2004 to focus on ways to make animal food products using cell cultures instead of whole animals. Today, they fund basic research and cellular agriculture, with an emphasis on research at the university level.

“We fund researchers who are working on different challenges associated with live grown meat, all the way from, ‘How do we make a bioreactor that can grow these products?’ to ‘What kind of cells do we use in that bioreactor and how do we feed those cells?’” says research director Kate Krueger.

Colleagues of New Harvest include David Kaplan at Tufts University, who is focusing on silk scaffolding. At the University of Auckland, Laura Domigan studies how to feed cells using bovine-serum-free formulations. Marianne Ellis at the University of Bath works on hollow fiber bioreactor production, considered one of the most promising designs for cultured meat. Another researcher is working on nutraceutical food products, wherein molecules grow inside muscle cells, tweaked to produce terpenes. These compounds can have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and pain-relieving benefits.

Hypothetically, “You could get the same effect eating a steak chip as you could from having a carrot,” Krueger says.

Meanwhile, GFI provides business support services to plant- and cell-based meat companies, advising and providing technical consulting and advice to entrepreneurs in the space. GFI recently funded roughly $5 million in research through their competitive grants program.

“This is effectively doubling the amount of money that has been invested into these spaces so far, and that’s all open-access research,” says business analyst Brianna Cameron.

They also work on regulatory policy and with grocery stores to help them understand the plant-based market, in the hopes that they’ll stock their shelves with more such brands. Networking opportunities also abound: San Francisco, California-based New Age Meats, a cell-based meat company that focuses on pork sausage, met through a GFI digital community facilitated by Cameron.

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(Left) Kate Krueger, Research Director, New Harvest (Right) Brianna Cameron, Innovation Manager, The Good Food Institute

“Most consumers are making their food decision based on three factors, and that’s price, taste, and convenience. The theory of change that we’re trying to work with is if you can get products to compete on all three of those factors, then consumers will have an easier time changing their behaviors than if we’re just trying to tell people to change or ask them to change,” she says. “Basically, we’re trying to create an environment where the better choice is the default choice and where these options are widely available for consumers. They’re cost-competitive. They taste just as good. That’s our vision of the future.”

And the future may be now, or at least soon: Memphis Meats, for instance, plans to bring its first products to market within the next two years, as does Motif.

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Is the Cattle Industry Out for Blood?

Of course, not everyone is delighted about these advances, namely the cattle industry.

One conundrum: Is meat really meat, if it’s grown in a laboratory? Not surprisingly, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association doesn’t think so.

In 2018, the Association sent a petition to the USDA to impose strict labeling requirements on beef: the tissue or flesh of cattle born, raised, and harvested in a traditional manner, rather than coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or non-animal components, or grown from animal cells.

In 2018, Missouri passed a law that prohibits products such as plant-based and cellular meat from calling themselves “meat” at all. There’s a tough penalty, including up to one year in prison and up to $1,000 in fines.(Plant-based companies promptly sued.) States such as Iowa and Nebraska are pondering similar laws. The issue mirrors an ongoing struggle in the dairy industry, as the National Milk Producers Federation has continually urged the FDA to crack down on soy and almond products labeled as dairy, with limited success.

This has raised a philosophical conundrum. Where does meat end and science fiction begin? Organizations such as GFI have fired back, accusing the Cattlemen’s proposal of impinging on the First Amendment rights of plant-based and cell-based companies and asking for preferential treatment in labeling. After all, the thinking goes, the USDA exists to regulate labels to protect the welfare of consumers, not to favor one production method of meat over another. And what is the “traditional manner,” anyway?

There is also the not insignificant issue of public perception. “Cell-based meat” doesn’t exactly have a mouthwatering ring, although it’s the preferred terminology in the industry. (GFI’s Cameron says that “clean meat” is emotionally charged, and “cultured meat” might get confused with cultured food like kimchi.)

Plus, meat is still as American as apple pie. According to Nielsen, 47 percent of consumers believe that unprocessed meat is good for your health. Thirty-four percent believe that those who avoid animal protein are deficient in certain nutrients, and 30 percent believe that animal protein is associated with positive health effects.

There is a misperception that the new modes of meat production aren’t natural, says Paul Shapiro, a founder of Sacramento, California-based Better Meat Co. Better Meat was founded in 2018 to make traditional meat healthier. They sell plant protein blends to major meat users, which are mixed into their products so that they use substantially less traditional meat — up to 50 percent, depending on the application.

“The misperception is that this is somehow less natural than many of the other things that we do in our lives. The fact is, meat today is not natural. You think about chickens who have been selectively bred through intensive genetics programs to grow so big, so fast, that many of them have difficulty even walking before they collapse,” Shapiro says. “When we think about just how unnatural and unsustainable our current methods of meat production are, this seems like a naturally preferable option.”

However, cell-based agriculture is a pre-revenue industry. While plant-based companies have existed on the market for years, cell-based meat still maintains an aura of improbability, as does its technology.

For example, bioreators — 10,000-liter vats with a stirring arm in the center — are useful for growing a large mass of cells. These are already commercialized, explains GFI’s Cameron. But what happens once cells hit the scaffold (spinach or otherwise)? They need to differentiate into fat cells and muscle cells to form a tissue structure. To do this, a perfusion bioreactor is necessary, and large-scale perfusion bioreactors aren’t available yet.

“The size right now is for biomedical applications, such as making one heart valve at a time,” Cameron says.

The problem, says Krueger, is that food science is simply lower-tech than cellular agriculture more generally.

“The tech behind cellular agriculture is the same as that of biologics production or tissue engineering, but with different market pressures applied: The tissues generated are simpler than a tissue-engineered organ or a cancer biologic, but the price point must be lower to compete with food prices. While modern food science is pretty amazing, it’s much lower-tech than cellular agriculture. If most food scientists want meat, they harvest it from a cow; if they want a plant-based burger, they mash plants to form a burger. For the most part, they are ill equipped for the technical challenges of maintaining a cell culture facility or running a tissue maturation bioreactor,” says Krueger.

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(Left) Paul Shapiro, CEO & Co-founder, The Better Meat Co. (Right) Robert Chiles, Assistant Professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State University

There are also ethical considerations, such as the marginalization of farmers, says Robert M. Chiles, who studies agricultural ethics at Pennsylvania State University.

“There’s ethical, nutritional, economic, and medical scientific advantages that would be missed by not taking advantage of the promise of these technologies, on the one hand,” says Chiles. “On the other hand, I would say that the risk of the technologies becoming successful and becoming more widespread and becoming more widely adopted by consumers is that they further stoke urban, rural, economic misalignment; that they further squeeze small farmers.”

He points to San Francisco, California-based JUST Foods as an example of forward-thinking collaboration. They’re partnering with a Kobe beef producer in Japan on a cell-based beef product.

“Kobe beef is one of the most prohibitively expensive cuts of meat that you could get anywhere in the world. They’re partnering with this farm, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s work together. Let’s make your product more accessible. Let’s partner between the farmers who have that expertise, they know how to raise the animals, with these startups who are really capitalizing on these new breakthrough technologies in IT and biochemistry.’ How can they work together and do something that they couldn’t have done by themselves?” he says.

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Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, says his company is exploring ways of repurposing some of the infrastructure used to produce meat in the United States and leveraging it for his production system, so that any new jobs created could support those communities. But the environment takes precedence, he says.

“When you invent an LED light bulb, you’re not attacking coal miners. You’re just trying to solve a big problem in the world, and wishing no ill will toward the people who are making a living in the old industry,” he says. “It’s a dilemma, but the greater good is to save the planet from a complete catastrophe by finding a better way to produce these foods. That’s priority number one.”

However, recent studies have questioned whether cell-based meat is actually better for the environment. New research in the journal Frontiers for Sustainable Food Systems explores whether meat grown in a lab could actually accelerate climate change more than traditional meat production, due to laboratories emitting carbon dioxide.

“We don’t really have meaningful numbers exactly other than predictions for really how much better for the environment these products are,” says Krueger. “There’s some really great life-cycle analyses that have been done by Dr. Hanna Tuomisto at University of Helsinki, which give you a sense for how much better potentially lab-grown meat and cultured meat products could be for the environment, but those haven’t yet been able to be validated with real numbers just because production hasn’t been scaled yet.”

That’s the other thing: So far, cell-based meat involves test-sized, inedible scaffolds the size of a pencil eraser. How does this stuff taste?

“We hear reports here and there, but not officially,” says Krueger, laughing. “We certainly do not recommend that anyone eat anything that comes out of the lab, because there’s all sorts of concerns with that.”

Funding at the university level is also a hurdle.

“We like to say it’s about a ten-year time horizon,” says Krueger. “We think that number could change a lot depending on the status of publicly available funding for cellular agriculture. Right now, cellular agriculture exists in a no-man’s-land funding gap, a little bit between the farming area and the biomedical research area. Neither of these groups are very keen yet on funding that research,” she says.

The prohibitive cost of bovine serum is another issue. Currently, says Krueger, prices can reach $500 for a 500-milliliter bottle. Because of this, it’s difficult to scale lab-grown meat and to prove out its environmental benefits, she says. The proof of concept is there, but production needs to be ironed out, no pun intended. Gaudette, for his part, is searching for ways to grow his cells without using fetal bovine serum — which, of course, still requires cows.

The Bleeding Edge of Innovation

While it might be years before you bite into a cell-based burger, regulatory adjustments are already afoot. In early 2019, the USDA and FDA announced a formal agreement to regulate cell-cultured food products from cell lines of livestock and poultry. The agencies will collaborate to regulate the development and entry of cellular food into commerce, ensuring that they’re produced and labeled properly.

And as the growth process is perfected, some say it might even be possible to replicate the process at home, just like baking bread.

“Could everybody have one of their own little mini incubators? ‘Gee, I want chicken next week, let me start growing it today.’ Plug it in. I think there’s opportunities for different types of food. You want 50 percent pork, 10 percent chicken, 40 percent turkey? OK, we can do that,” Gaudette says.

Plus, “Once this reaches full scale, we could do a lot more vertical farming — essentially growing vegetables with minimum, usually zero, soil. This allows them to essentially grow on shelves. You could imagine a growing spinach on floors one through five; lettuce on floors five through eight, et cetera. Essentially, we could turn a skyscraper into a farm,” he says.

Skyscraper farms sound like a far more appetizing proposition than the term “cell-based meat.” That phrase will possibly morph to reflect something more innovative and customized, though.

“Rather than thinking of this as something that’s maybe scary or less delicious than available products, think about all the magic that could be in these new products,” says Krueger. “Instead of this topping out at something similar to current meat products, we can actually innovate and make something more delicious, more nutritious, more interesting, and valuable than what we currently have.”

Take it from Impossible Foods: Natural evolution is no match for technology.

“The big advantage we have is that we’re learning more and getting better at what we do every single day, and the cow is not. Animals as a technology haven’t fundamentally improved in millennia, and we’re getting better every single day,” Brown says. “We’re very close in competing for the meat-loving customer, and we’re passing the cow like a bullet.”

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