Meat grown in the lab is said to be inevitable. Science tells another story.
So far, the production line imagined by GFI looks a bit like what you might encounter in a current vaccine manufacturing plant. The Oxford-Astrazeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines, for example, are produced using a related method (through cultured human kidney and retinal cell lines, respectively). But GFI’s version takes an extra step that would turn cells more into human food. The large stirred reactor will be harvested three times to fill four smaller infusion reactors, more sophisticated vessels that help cells mature and differentiate. Each infusion reactor would ultimately provide a total of 770 kilograms of cultured meat, slightly more than the weight of a single live steer before slaughter, this time without bone or cartilage.
It’s a complex, precise, and energy-intensive process, but the efficiency of this single train of bioreactors would be comparatively tiny. The hypothetical factory would need 130 production lines like the one I just described, with over 600 bioreactors all running simultaneously. Nothing on this scale has ever existed, but if we wanted to switch to cultured meat by 2030, we had better start now. If cultured protein even accounts for 10 percent of the world’s meat supply by 2030, we’ll need 4,000 factories like the one GFI envisions, according to an analysis by the trade publication Food Navigator. To meet this deadline, building at the rate of one mega-installation per day would be too slow.
Each of those facilities would also have a breathtaking price tag: a low of $ 1.8 trillion, according to Food Navigator. This is where things get complicated. This is where critics say – and even GFI’s own numbers suggest – that cell culture meat may never be economically viable, even if it is technically feasible.
2. A buried report?
In 2015, Open Philanthropy publicly admitted being annoyed by the problem of farmed meat. In a long and detailed article on its website, the organization summed up everything it knew, exploring whether the emerging technology was a potentially transformative solution worthy of a serious investment, or something more wacky. After struggling with a number of issues in weeds, from sterility issues to scaffolding designs, Open Philanthropy concluded that it just doesn’t have enough data to draw a conclusion. “There is essentially no industry data on the cost of increasing cell production,” he writes.
In 2018, Open Philanthropy stepped in to fill this gap, hiring Humbird to conduct an in-depth analysis of the potential of cultured meat. He was the right guy. After receiving his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from UC Berkeley in 2004, Humbird used his training to embark on the field of rigorous and scientifically informed predictions. Today, in addition to his work as a private sector consultant, Humbird provides techno-economic analysis for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a renowned federally funded research center in Golden, Colorado. Most engineers at NREL use money from the US Department of Energy to design, test, and improve new green energy technologies. Humbird’s job is to look into the crystal ball. He is one of NREL’s experts in determining which approaches are viable at scale, how much they would cost and, ultimately, whether the government should fund them.
Humbird spent over two years preparing his analysis for Open Philanthropy. The resulting document, which is 100 single-spaced pages with notes and appendices, is the most comprehensive public study on the challenges cultured meat companies will face. (An abridged version, officially peer-reviewed, has since appeared in the journal Biotechnology and bioengineering.) Their future does not look good. Humbird assumed that the industry would grow to produce 100 kilotons per year globally, which is roughly the amount of plant-based “meat” produced in 2020. He found that even taking these into account. economies of scale, which would reduce the costs of inputs and materials prices that do not exist today, a facility producing about 6.8 kilotons of cultured meat per year would fail to create a competitively priced product. Using large 20,000L reactors would result in a production cost of about $ 17 per pound of meat, according to the analysis. Relying on smaller, more efficient infusion reactors would be even more expensive, resulting in a final cost of over $ 23 per pound.
Based on Humbird’s analysis of cell biology, process design, input expenses, capital costs, economies of scale and other factors, these numbers represent the lowest prices. what businesses can expect. And if $ 17 per pound doesn’t seem too high to you, consider this: the end product would be a single-cell suspension, a mixture of 30% animal cells and 70% water, suitable only for ground meat products like burgers and nuggets. Markups being what they are, a $ 17 pound of mill-grown ground meat quickly becomes $ 40 at the grocery store or a quarter-pound of $ 100 at a restaurant. Anything that looks like a steak would require additional production processes, introduce new engineering challenges, and ultimately incur additional expense.