It may never have occurred to you to hanker for a supper of, say, flame-broiled North Atlantic right whale, braised shank of black rhino, or of another critically endangered species. But should such a craving come, it may soon be possible to satisfy it, according to scientists and the technological promises of a fast-emerging industry.
It may also be possible to dine on a filet mignon that won’t raise cholesterol levels, consume bacon that rabbis might consider kosher, and grill burgers a vegetarian might approve of — all without killing animals or contributing to the massive greenhouse gas emissions associated with raising animals for food.
Recent advances in so-called cultivated meat — harvested from cell cultures in specially engineered steel vats, rather than from slaughtered animals — and a recent landmark decision by the US Department of Agriculture allowing two California companies to sell their cell-based chicken thighs in restaurants, are propelling what proponents say is a meat revolution with almost unlimited possibilities.
“This is a game-changer,” said David Kaplan, a professor of biomedical engineering who oversees the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture, which has received millions of dollars in federal grants to help a growing number of universities and startups move cell-based meat from the lab to dinner tables. “As consumers start to understand that cell-based meat is healthier, safer, higher-quality food, I think it’s inevitable that this is how our food will eventually be produced.”
There are critics who say such predictions are premature, but mounting worries about feeding the world and the environmental impact of raising meat have helped fuel a surge in research and private efforts to make lab-grown varieties real. More than 150 companies and research institutions around the world, including several in Massachusetts, are working on using cells to grow food in labs. They’ve raised investment capital of nearly $3 billion collectively, according to the Good Food Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes cell- and plant-based meat.
Elliot Swartz, a scientist at Good Food Institute, expects the USDA’s approvals in June — which followed the Food and Drug Administration’s findings last year that the companies’ chicken is safe to eat — will lead to even more investment. He also expects other countries will now be more likely to approve cell-based meat. In 2020, Singapore became the first country to allow it to be sold.
“Many global regulatory agencies look to the United States Food and Drug Administration for their leadership in the safety assessment of new food,” he said. “With this approval, we anticipate that many global regulators will accelerate the development of clear regulatory pathways.”
At the same time, advances in the ability to isolate and grow stem cells, the creation of optimal nutrients to feed them, and methods for engineering tissue have produced results that increasingly resemble, in taste and nutritional value, meat from slaughtered animals.
Researchers say they can now grow meat that has the shape, texture, and taste of a chicken breast, fish filet, or fat-marbled steak. Creating elements like skin and bones is also possible, and animal parts like drumsticks or rib roasts are also within reach, they say, though the process of creating them is still complicated and expensive. They also have the ability to mimic flavor variations of grass- or corn-fed beef, simply by feeding cells a special nutrient brew of whatever an animal might eat.
In theory, the meat of any living animal could be grown — and even some that aren’t. This year, an Australian company made a woolly mammoth meatball using the long-extinct creature’s DNA.
“This technology will completely change our palates,” Kaplan said. “We now eat a narrow range of species. With this technology, you can take any animal on the planet and create food.”
As for how well these new products go over with ordinary consumers, there hasn’t yet been much opportunity. But at a recent tasting tour in California, James Dolgin, a 27-year-old graduate student in Kaplan’s lab, sampled a smoked chicken salad that was good enough for him to want more, he said.
“If I had a blind taste test, I wouldn’t have known the difference,” Dolgin said. “They mimicked the taste and the smell and texture pretty well.”
“No product was perfect,” he added. But “I would have loved second helpings.”
The first lab-grown burger, the product of tens of billions of cells cultivated in a Dutch lab, was served 10 years ago at a conference in London — at a cost of $330,000 for the first batch. Six years later, the makers of that burger said their costs had fallen to less than $10 to produce the same beef patty.
Skeptics of cell-based meat say the advances and falling costs aren’t enough — and might never be sufficient — to enable its production at a scale to feed the world and halt the slaughter of billions of animals every year.
They argue that biological limitations, such as cells failing to thrive because of ammonia and other cell waste that build up in bioreactors, could make it hard to scale up at sufficient levels. They also say that costs must fall more than 1,000-fold for cell-based meat to be competitive with regular meat. And they point to a range of unknowns, such as whether there could be unforeseen dangers from cell-based meat.
They also question whether there’s really a market for such meat, and whether consumers will view it as unnatural or similar to genetically modified foods, which have been tarred as Frankenfood.
They point to the relative failures of plant-based meats, such as Beyond Burgers and Tofurkey, to reach a broader market. Last year, plant-based meat products had gained just 1.3 percent of the meat market, and in the second financial quarter of this year, Beyond Meat reported a 30 percent decline in revenue. Over the past two years, the company’s stock has fallen 90 percent.
“Overall, while the technology works, the business models don’t,” said Paul Wood, a biotechnology professor at Monash University in Australia, and the lead author of a recent paper in the journal Animal Frontiers that raised questions about the future of cell-based meat. “Investment companies talk about this as an impact investment, but if the products never get beyond high-end restaurants, they will have no impact on food sustainability.”
Executives and others in the industry insist that the current challenges will be overcome, and that the planet has little choice but to do just that. With ever-rising demands for protein from a growing, more urbanized global population, as well as the increasing urgency to reduce carbon emissions, the existing food systems are unsustainable, they note.
Today, global food systems are responsible for more than a third of the planet’s climate emissions, according to the United Nations Without changes, those emissions could grow as the global population is expected to near 10 billion people by 2050.
“I am optimistic that these problems will be solved, given progress to date, but they are not easy problems,” said Yossi Quint, chief executive of the Cambridge-based Ark Biotech.
His two-year-old company has raised more than $13 million to help solve the problem of producing large amounts of cell-based meat at reasonable costs by building industrial bioreactors and operating systems. Bioreactors are temperature- and oxygen-controlled steel chambers where the cells are grown.
At the company’s labs near Kendall Square, where stainless steel prototypes rise toward the high ceilings of their loft-like space, Quint said their bioreactors will be 90 percent cheaper than existing ones, 50 times bigger, and will “dramatically improve yields.”
He called the federal government’s approval of cell-based meat sales “a watershed moment” for the industry.
“Over the next decade,” Quint said, “I expect cultivated meat to move from a luxury available only in a handful of restaurants to a product on supermarket shelves, at a price point affordable to most consumers.”
Others in the Boston area developing cell-based products include Tender Food, which has so far mainly focused on plant-based “meat-free meat,” and TurtleTree, which is using microbial cells to develop “precision fermentation technology” to make a milk protein known as lactoferrin that it says “nutritionally enhances not only plant-based foods but every single food product.”
Aletta Schnitzler, TurtleTree’s chief scientific officer, said the company plans to start commercial production of their milk proteins later this year. Their first products, she said, will help cell-based meat companies take a hybrid approach by encouraging them to combine their meat with plant-based ingredients, reducing the costs.
“We expect to see technologies used in combination to bring a range of accessibly priced, hybrid products to market, while giving producers time to scale up,” said Schnitzler, who oversees a research and development team in Beverly.
At Good Meat, one of the California companies that received USDA approval to sell its lab-grown chicken in restaurants, officials acknowledged the industry’s challenges.
“This is barely the first inning,” said Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for Good Meat, which aims to change “the way the world eats . . . without tearing down a forest or taking a life.”
The company is working with the acclaimed chef José Andrés, who has been dressing up its cultivated meat products as “anticuchos de pollo,” which are slathered in a Peruvian sauce made with yellow chile peppers, parsley, cilantro, garlic, olive oil, and salt and vinegar. Andrés, a member of Good Meat’s board, has also been holding a weekly tasting menu at China Chilcano, his restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Noyes declined to comment on how much it costs the company to make its cultivated chicken, but he said “our production costs are quite still high” and added that “we are not making a profit on anything we sell to restaurants.”
The company aims to produce tens of millions of pounds of meat before the end of the decade, Noyes said, and expects to do so with more than $250 million it has raised to build large-scale production plants. So far, they’ve sold less than 5,000 pounds of their chicken, he said.
By comparison, in 2020, nearly 60 billion pounds of broilers — chickens bred for food — were sold in the United States, according to the USDA.
At Tufts’ Center for Cellular Agriculture, which received a $10 million grant from the USDA to find ways to advance the field, Kaplan’s team of scientists has been working for the past seven years on finding ways to address many of the industry’s challenges. They have already spun off some of their research to start a company called Wanda Fish, which is developing cultivated fish fillets that they say have “the nutrition, taste, texture, and mouth feel of real fish.”
Kaplan, too, acknowledged the challenges facing the industry, but he scoffed at the naysayers.
“It’s not a question of whether we can do this; it’s a question of when and at what scale,” he said. “In the long run, this is how food will be made in the future.”