The sky was white and heavy with the promise of snow as office workers in search of lunch trickled along Seaport Boulevard, muffled against the ocean breeze. A bracing odor wafted from the Boston Fish Pier, raising nostrils at the foot of the glassy condo developments. Down the street, at an event space, scientists and entrepreneurs hung up their parkas, straightened their suit jackets, and picked up their plates for a light lunch buffet before an afternoon symposium. The subject: cellular agriculture, or lab-grown meat.
Under exposed lime-green ductwork and a triumphant mural of Boston’s skyline at night, attendees of the Tufts University Cellular Agriculture Innovation Day took their seats. “What do you do?” a man in a blue suit asked his neighbor. “Growth factors,” said the neighbor, a young man with blond hair. “And yourself?” The reply came: Nutrients. The two discussed the merits of E. coli versus plants as vessels for manufacturing ingredients for cell culture. It was the hope of many people in the room that at some point humanity would be eating meat grown from animal cells cultured in a dish. (The lunch buffet featured Impossible Burgers, as well as steak and chicken, lab-grown meat being still largely ephemeral.)
Tufts professor David Kaplan took the podium and introduced a panel of leaders in the field. These included Mark Post, a Dutch pharmacologist who, 10 years ago, produced a burger made of lab-grown tissue that was cooked and eaten on British television, a stunt that catapulted the idea to large numbers of people who had never thought to separate meat from livestock farming. The burger, which cost a quarter of a million euros to produce, was more of a proof of concept than a marketable product.
Post’s point back then, an opinion shared by his fellow panelists on this chilly afternoon, was that given the current global appetite for meat — enormous and growing all the time — and the regrettable effects of livestock farming on the environment, another way to get meat needed to be found. Lab-grown meat would take cells from a biopsy of a cow or a chicken, say, and raise them in the lab with no further need of the animal.
In the decade since Post’s memorable burger, between 100 and 150 companies devoted to the idea have sprung up, he said. In 2021, Tufts received a five-year, $10 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture to fund research into cellular agriculture. The panelists all agreed this was remarkable progress.
But problems remained. It’s expensive to grow cells in large enough numbers that someone could eventually cut the tissue with a knife and fork. Cell culture in its simplest form produces a flabby layer a far cry from the marbled fat and muscle that you’d recognize as a steak. And there is always the danger that if companies are not careful, lab-grown meat could be an environmental failure, noted Isha Datar, the executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit that funds cellular agriculture research. Growing cells and producing the myriad components of the broth where they live is energy intensive. To fulfill its promise, cultured meat needs to be better for the planet than what it’s replacing.
Ten years ago, these problems seemed monumental. But as a panel of scientists took the stage, it became clear that in the intervening time they had done painstaking work. They had begged funding from nonprofits and government agencies. They had trained graduate students. They had developed new combinations of nutrients and specialized molecules to coax cells into growing. They had gathered in meetings like this one and discussed among themselves. It could, they thought, be done. The question was how, on what time scale, and with whose money.
The government should be picking up more of the bill, it was agreed. Bruce Friedrich, president of the Good Food Institute, invoked the examples of electric cars and solar power: Governments supported the development of these technologies because it was clear that people were not going to give up cars or start using less electricity. It was necessary to have a plan for making them less damaging.
The problem of meat fell into the same category: too big for business or academia to handle on their own. If demand for meat continues to grow as expected, “Paris won’t happen,” Friedrich said, referring to the goals set by the Paris climate accords. All by itself, continued growth in livestock agriculture could make it impossible to keep the planet’s temperature within the set bounds.
The afternoon continued with talks from companies imagining fish filets that didn’t deplete the oceans and milk replacements that used cow milk proteins, without cows.
Outside, the fishing boats at the pier rose and fell silently, their catch long since unloaded. The snow did not materialize. Instead it began to rain. The first week of January had been one of the warmest on record.
Veronique Greenwood is a science writer who contributes frequently to Ideas. Follow her on Twitter @vero_greenwood.