Imagine a world without the ethical concerns of consuming meat. With fewer animals, we could free up about a third of the Earth’s land being used for feed-crop cultivation, reduce human greenhouse-gas emissions, and save water. It takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat.
The challenge to making this a reality, as the founder of Upside Foods, Uma Valeti, notes is: “Meat is fundamentally the most delicious, most desired food across all cultures. And it’s the center of the plate for nearly everything you can imagine.” The demand for meat is growing, but what if instead of raising animals for slaughter, we could develop a single cell into consumable meat?
Upside Foods has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for its lab-grown meat, and has raised over $200 million as it works towards U.S. Department of Agriculture clearance to sell lab-cultivated meat in the U.S. One of its many competitors and the only company to sell lab-grown meat commercially, GOOD Meat, was cleared to sell lab-grown meat in Singapore in 2020 and is working towards the same goal.
“A new space race for the future of food is underway,” The Good Food Institute Executive Director Bruce Friedrich said of the future of lab-grown meat. With lots of hoops to jump through — including adjusting to consumer tastes, meeting regulations, and scaling — both Upside Foods and GOOD Meat appear up to the challenge.
Valeti grew up with a veterinarian father, a love of animals, lots of pet chickens, and eating plenty of meat. As a child, he had a favorite chicken and one day it disappeared. Much to his chagrin, he learned his family had eaten that same chicken the night before. He recalls crying the entire day. Little did he know that his love of meat and animals would become his calling. The idea of lab-grown meat came to the former cardiologist after repairing patients’ hearts with stem cells.
“We can use the science and technology we’re using to grow food that could save billions of humans and trillions of animals. And I felt like I could continue practicing cardiology for another 30 years and save two or [perhaps even] 3,000 lives,” Valeti says. “But if this works, my gosh, it would just literally be a giant leap for humanity.”
From Upside Food’s founding in 2015, Valeti and his team aimed to cultivate 50,000 pounds of meat a year or more at their EPIC facility. They grow food from cells in 10-12 days and then the liquid is separated from the meat before being shaped into various types of meat. A lab-grown chicken breast takes three weeks to grow and cells are stored in a cell bank for up to 10 years.
In 2022, the FDA gave Upside Foods the green light, but the company still needs approval from the USDA. Although lab-grown meat companies require funding support to scale enough to sell in grocery stores, Upside Foods has moved from spending $18,000 to produce a pound of meat to $10-20 per plate. A single chicken breast costs under $5. The Upside Foods team hopes to serve its product at restaurants this year and be on grocery store shelves by 2028.
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In college, Josh Tetrick, the founder of GOOD Meat and JUST Egg, a company that created a formula from mung beans that will scramble like eggs, realized that his dreams of becoming a professional footballer would never become a reality. So he raised his grades, transferred schools, and applied himself to nonprofit work abroad. In Cape Town, he came across the book “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” and it helped shape his views on capitalism.
“What this book says is you think nonprofits are the way to make a change, but you’re wrong. [It says] capitalism is a system, it is a force — and yet can do a lot of wrong in the world. But if used correctly, it can do a lot of right in the world,” Tetrick told CNBC.
Once Tetrick returned to the US, a childhood friend and animal activist challenged him to consider what was on his plate, especially chickens and eggs. A meeting with venture capitalist and the founder of Khosla Ventures, Vinod Khosla, led to an investment of $50,000 and JUST Egg was born. Contributions from other Silicon Valley investors now total $3 to $4 million.
Tetrick set his sights on producing more environmentally friendly meat — this time, not from a plant — specifically targeting the Singapore market. The Asian city-state imports more than 90% of its food and is engaging in an initiative to grow 30% of its food supply locally by 2030.
In 2020, Singapore approved sales of GOOD Meat’s lab-grown chicken breasts and nuggets anywhere from street vendors to fine-dining restaurants. At family-owned Huber’s Butchery, a dish crafted with GOOD Meat’s ‘cultivated chicken’ goes for about $14.
“We lose money when we sell, but we’re also not selling a lot, so it’s not like we’re burning a lot of cash,” Tetrick says of the Singapore market. But by 2027, GOOD Meat aims to reach price parity with regular commercial retailers. The Singapore Food Agency has now approved a serum-free media method to grow lab meat. “It’s more cost-effective to use amino acids, sugar, and salt without any serum [the fluid component of blood],” Tetrick told Forbes, “and we can produce more meat at scale.”
The Meat-Free Vision for the Future
Despite lab-grown meat likely to soon become an option in the market, many consumers are still hesitant. Can it lead to a cruelty-free world? Upside Foods claims they have created an animal component-free cell feed (without the use of the fetal bovine serum process), yet their website still claims they used a fertilized chicken egg for their current product source; living animals and recently slaughtered animals may one day be potential sources.
There’s the further question of the cost of big bioreactors where the cells are cultivated. Once companies get large enough bioreactors, can they scale fast enough? There are only so many cells that can fit within a bioreactor. To be a viable option for consumers, producers must also offer a price on par with conventional meat options. However, animal welfare and the opportunity lab-grown meat gives to rewild land masses taken up by livestock may be a key selling point as more advances and approvals take place.