In 2019, we produced nearly 330 million metric tons of meat, which is four times as much as we did fifty years ago. Meat production comes at a high cost. It accounts for around 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions being one of the biggest contributors to climate change as it is responsible for land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain and deforestation.
Fortunately, nowadays there are a lot of companies out there trying to tackle these problems and working on alternative meat products ranging from plant- and insect-based meat to cultured meat options. While for plant- and insect-based meat, proteins are extracted from different plants and insects, cultured meat is real meat that is grown in the laboratory outside of the animal’s body. Despite the fact that no animals have to die, important product properties such as flavor and texture are the same compared to traditional meat.
The following article illustrates why we need meat alternatives now, and why alternative meat products are massively growing in popularity lately. We will explain the latest production techniques and reveal the current challenges and limitations that we need to work on in the near future in order to save our planet.
Why do we need alternatives to meat now?
Besides the heavy emissions of greenhouse gases, traditional meat production comes with a variety of additional disadvantages such as high resource demand or ethical considerations about animal eating.
Meat production requires vast amounts of water and nutrients. To grow one kilogram of beef, more than five times the water is needed compared to wheat. 77% of our agricultural land is used to grow livestock although meat supplies less than 20% of globally consumed calories. It is just not possible to adopt the western, meatheavy diet to the rest of the world.
Toennies, one of the biggest slaughterhouses in Germany was exposed to a COVID-19 outbreak and faced in that course heavy accusations about its employees. In Germany slaughterhouses mainly use subcontracted work, thereby circumventing certain labour laws.
The solution to foster a better diet and to reduce the environmental impact of meat consumption is to make meat alternatives as desirable as real meat. They only become a viable solution the public adapts into their daily diet, if alternative meat producers match the price point as well as the flavor and consistency of real meat.
Alternative Meat options
The underlying processing technique to produce plant-based meat is called extrusion technology. Companies like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods extract proteins from plants such as soya or peas and then put it through thermal and mechanical stresses. Thereby, the protein’s structure changes and can be shaped into a meat-like texture.
Other companies, such as Redefine Meat try to optimize these techniques by using proprietary 3D-printing technology to produce animal-free meat and recreate the appearance, texture and flavor of whole muscle meat. The company claims to have 95% smaller environmental impact compared to traditional meat production. Though such processes certainly do not require any animals to die, there are current limitations to these alternatives.
All of these plant-based meat alternatives use a substitute product for animal fat. Often, coconut oil or sunflower oil is being used in the production process in order to mimic traditional meat’s texture, appearance and flavor in the best possible way. Animals mostly have saturated fat, which is more stable at higher temperatures and thereby contains the flavour better. Although plant-based fat has seen huge progress towards accurately mimicking the taste of real meat, there is still a difference according to most meat lovers.
The process of creating cultured meat is very similar to nature’s process of letting animals grow. The main difference is that animal-derived cells are used in-vitro (in a laboratory) to grow meat outside of the animal’s body. What may sound like science-fiction to most, is already a reality in the labs of companies like Mosa Meat from the Netherlands.
In a harmless and painless process, stem-cells are extracted from the muscle of a cow. These cells are called myosatellite cells and are in charge of reproducing muscle and tissue in case of an injury. After extracting the cells, they are grown inside a bioreactor that contains a nutrient solution with growth factors, called “medium”and grown inside a bioreactor. These bioreactors look similar to the ones that are used to ferment beer or yogurt.
Mosa Meat can produce 800 million strands of muscle tissue (equal to 9000kg of meat) from one sample of a cow. It is worth mentioning that genetic modification is not needed within the whole production process. Although cultured meat is one of the most promising meat alternatives, there are certain limitations within the production process such as the energy costs of bioreactors and the limited scalability that doesn’t make it suitable for mass production as of now. We hope to see that change with new technologies developing in the near future.
Another alternative form of traditional meat production is called Hybrid or Blended meat. This form of meat is currently popular among the so-called “flexitarians”, i.e. people who want to reduce but not entirely quit their meat consumption. Hybrid meat combines meat and plant-based ingredients to produce blended burger patties, meatballs, steaks etc.
The dutch company Meatless has been working on how to blend traditional meat with plant-based proteins for more than a decade. Their products are already sold in numerous supermarkets all over the world. According to the producers of hybrid meat, up to 75% of meat can be replaced, while keeping most of the original meat’s texture and taste.
Companies like Cubiq food and Peace of Meat follow a different approach to produce Hybrid Meat. Fat is the main deliverer of meat’s taste and juiciness. Hence, they add between 10-25% cultured fat (lab-grown fats based on cells from real animals in a harmless and painless process) to a plant-based meat product with the goal of achieving the same level of meat flavor and structure as conventional animal meat. The production process of cultured fat is similar to the one used for cultured meat production as described above. Besides the advantage of having a plant-based alternative that tastes like real meat without an animal having to die, this process could also contribute to a better balanced and healthier diet.
The current market situation
In 2019 plant-based meat companies gained significant popularity with new partnerships, distribution agreements and enhanced production capabilities that will further accelerate the meatless trend. Beyond Meat, one of the biggest plant-based meat producers went public in May 2019 raising more than $240M in its IPO and is currently valued at around $8B. The company published deals with existing food giants including KFC, Subway and McDonalds to incorporate the plant-based meat products into their product portfolio. Other major food players such as Tyson Foods, Nestlé and Kellogg launched their own plant-based meat products and large grocery chains such as Kroger or Wegmans started to offer private label plant-based offerings.
Impossible Foods, another big player in the plant-based food market recently raised a Series F in March 2020 with $500M. The company is valued at nearly $4B and received a total disclosed funding of $1.3B to date. In early 2019, Impossible foods launched the Impossible Whopper, which today is sold in most Burger King chains and in the same year announced plans to enlarge the menu with plant-based sausages.
Cultured Meat (Lab-grown Meat)
The first cell-cultured hamburger was cooked and tasted live on air in London in August 2013. Mark Post, a professor of the University of Maastricht and his company Mosa Meat produced this worldwide first in-vitro burger for around $325K. Just two years later, scientists announced a drastic price drop to around $11 per burger (equivalent to $80 per kilogram of meat). Since then, a lot has happened in the cultured meat industry and numerous companies are trying to improve price level, scalability and acceptance. Mosa Meat just raised a new funding round of $55M in September 2020, further accelerating the process of making cultured meat available to the mass market.
In 2016, the company Memphis Meat produced the world’s first synthetic meatball followed by the first cell-cultured duck and chicken one year later. Besides the significant price drops for producing the meat, the company claims to use just 1% of the land and 1% of the water compared to conventional meat-producers.
Current market share & Growth potential
In between 2019 and 2025 the global plant-based meat market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18% and most likely will cross $12B in total market size by 2025. Compared to the traditional global beef market volume of $320B, the plant-based products would only cover a small fraction (approximately 4%) of the total market, but as this is just the beginning of a meat revolution, it is likely that consumer behavior will fundamentally change within the next decades.
While plant-based meat products already impact the traditional meat market, lab-grown alternatives are yet not available for the mass market because of limitations in large-scale production. As the price point is still one of the major challenges, recently-funded startups such as Future Meat Technologies, which raised a $14M Series A round in October 2019, are focusing on the development of new technologies to scale the production of cultured meat. Future Meat Technologies redesigned the Bioreactor in which stem-cells are grown so as to be able to produce large quantities of fat and muscle cells. They claim to be able to produce the meat worth of two cows in about a month as of now.
Current Challenges & Limitations
Texture & Flavor
are the two key components that make meat look, feel and taste in a very distinctive way. Plant-based alternatives have become extremely good at mimicking texture and appearance of real meat, but what still lacks behind is the taste. One major problem are the fats plant-based meat producers use. Substitute products for animal fat such as coconut or sunflower oil have a much lower melting point compared to traditional meat. When the green meat is fried, most of the oil leaks out of the product too early and as fat is one of the most important flavor carriers, plant-based meat does not accurately mimic the juicy animal beef taste yet.
Price & Scalability
The production process for plant-based meat has progressed a lot since the first experiments started. Scalability is not a big problem for plant-based meat producers anymore. Price on the other hand still is one of the major factors limiting the demand of these meat substitutes. On average, plant-based substitutes cost 100% more compared to traditional meat. Hence, as of now only people who are willing to pay a premium for responsible food consumption will buy these products. As Beyond Meat and Impossible foods are very successful at the moment, breaking industry funding and valuation records, we clearly see a trend that more and more people are willing to pay a surcharge for the benefit of our environment.
Regulation & Consumer Acceptance
The biggest legal debate of plant-based food is related to labeling issues. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently prevents plant-based meat products from being labeled as “beef” or “meaty” and already passed corresponding laws in several meat-producing states. This most likely will negatively influence consumers who search for meaty and chewy products, but according to experts it is likely that the FDA will ultimately take a more flexible approach to regulate the labeling of plant-based foods as food tech innovation has been fostered in the past as well.
Texture & Flavor
There are huge differences in production related to the type of meat that is grown in the laboratory. Minced meat for instance is much easier to imitate than a tenderloin steak. Although we saw huge progress in texture development, further developmental research concerning scaffolds and improvements in tissue engineering are required to imitate also the most complex textures of meat. In comparison to plant-based meat products, lab-grown meat will perfectly imitate the taste and appearance of traditional meat products eventually as the cells are the same.
Price & Scalability
Currently, the biggest challenges for lab-grown meat are related to large-scale production and price attractiveness which goes hand in hand. Especially the costs of the growth factors needed for sustained cell development must be reduced. Researches are looking for cell lines that can produce the growth factors needed for meat or fat cell production. These cell lines shall then be produced at large scale to supply cheap growth factors. Another approach to lowering costs is to look for immortal cell lines - both for growth factor and meat/fat production. Such immortal cell lines do not need to be replaced after a certain amount of proliferations. Once these types of cell-lines become easier accessible, the scalability of cultured meat will see a huge increase.
Regulation & Consumer Acceptance
Despite the hurdles of scaling production and matching flavors, for many consumers there still is a psychological barrier to eat meat that is grown in a laboratory. While half of the consumers are open to try this new concept of meat, around 40% have no intention of adding lab-grown meat to their diets. For reasons of health and the potential environmental benefits, the current consumer perceptions will most likely change, especially when the price point to traditional meat has been matched or even undercut.
Moreover, we can see market movements that help to bring the lab-grown meat products into the supermarket shelves. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a formal agreement to work on the regulation of cell-cultured food products dealing with cell growth, cell harvesting, production and labelling.
Summary & Outlook
Due to the enormous negative effect meat consumption has on the environment , consumers will most likely increase the focus on ethical consumption, thereby further accelerating the soaring interest for alternative meat products. According to a study of the University of Oxford, plant-based meat consumption will account for annual economic costs of $1.6T until 2050.
We can no longer deny that we have to change the way we treat our planet if we want to keep living on earth for the forthcoming centuries. Alternative meat options will without any doubt play a major role in providing resource efficient meat, reducing animal slaughter and mitigating greenhouse gas emission effects, thereby addressing some of the most severe problems of our time such as global warming, water degradation, biodiversity loss and deforestation.
Despite the current challenges of introducing (price & regulation) and promoting (flavor & acceptance) alternative meat options, plant-based meat products are already available in our supermarket shelves and the myriad technologies necessary for in-vitro meat production have been developed and validated. In the near future, we can likely expect the costs of alternative meat products to further decrease, eventually matching or even undercutting current meat price levels. Moreover, the continued advances in production techniques and tissue engineering will not only improve the texture and flavor of lab-grown and plant-based meat, but also contribute to a healthier diet.