From stem cells to supermarkets: The promise of cultivated meat
This article features an interview with Krijn de Nood, the CEO and co-founder of cultivated meat startup Meatable. De Nood will be speaking at TNW Conference, which takes place on June 15 & 16 in Amsterdam. If you want to experience the event (and say hi to our editorial team!), we've got something special for our loyal readers. Use the promo code READ-TNW-25 and get a 25% discount on your business pass for TNW Conference. See you in Amsterdam!
As a vegetarian for the past 13 years, I have tried the whole gamut of plant-based meat substitutes. And let me tell you, the texture and taste has come a long way since the early 2010s. Developers and restaurants have woken up to the fact that just because someone chooses not to eat meat for environmental or ethical reasons, doesn't mean that they don't want the satisfying experience of a juicy, umami-rich burger or hot dog.
Meanwhile, it is understandable that for a hardcore meat enthusiast, a seitan steak is just not going to cut it. However, whether you are a dedicated omnivore or not, there is no denying that our current food production systems of livestock farming and animal husbandry are unsustainable.
Enter cultivated meat, and the companies working to make it a staple on our supermarket shelves within the next decade.
Krijn de Nood is one of the founders of Meatable, a Delft-based food tech startup that grows meat in a lab - without any animals harmed in the process. The company just recently held the first public tasting of its pork sausage in Singapore, and looks to be cost-competitive with corresponding organic conventional meat products in just a few years' time.
First of all, let's state what cultivated meat is not; it is not vegan, or plant-based. It is actual animal meat from stem cells, taken from a live animal, that have been cultivated and fed with nutrients in a bioreactor so they can grow.
Another potential misconception around the technology is an underestimation of how complex the process is. According to de Nood, "Things go a lot slower than building a new, say, app. It's not exactly the same, but it's closer to developing a new vaccine, for example, or a new medicine."
Ending unnecessary suffering
Around the world, an unfathomable 70 billion land animals are slaughtered every year. That is close to 200 million every single day. And the world's appetite for meat continues to grow along with population and GDPs.
By 2050, global meat consumption is predicted to increase by 70%. While Meatable and its colleagues/competitors may not reasonably be expected to replace the entire conventional meat industry, by 2035, the company hopes to save an estimated 27 million animal lives cumulatively.
As de Nood explains part of his reasons for leaving a business career with McKinsey and co-founding Meatable in 2018, "If I, in 20 years in this field, can look back and say, hey, I was a pretty significant part in starting the fact that we don't have to rely on animals as much anymore for our food, I think that will be a lifetime well spent."
When it comes to environmental impact, 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to livestock farming. In contrast, aviation is responsible for around 2.5%.
Other than carbon dioxide, meat production also contributes to methane and nitrous oxide emissions. While the latter two do not linger in the atmosphere for as long as CO2, their climate warming potential is between 25 and 300 times higher.
So much are we intent on keeping raising cows for meat and dairy, that an Australian startup called Rumin8 making a methane-reducing feed additive (basically, making sure cows burp less) has received a $12 million investment from Bill Gates-founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV).
There have been tentative reports that put into question how environmentally sustainable it is to cultivate meat in a lab. However, de Nood says that comparisons being made between the current carbon intensity of cultivated meat and conventional livestock farming are not entirely fair. This is because it measures how much energy it requires to produce lab-grown meat today, and not how much it will need once reaching industrial scale.
"If you look at the research process, it's always going to be that to make, say, one electric car, you need to have a lot of infrastructure. And if you allocate all that to one electric car, that electric car is not going to be any better than the car that comes from an industrial normal car manufacturer."
De Nood explains that when looking at Meatable's life cycle analysis (LCA), its cultivated beef can become approximately 97% less polluting than conventionally raised cattle beef, and its pork about 80% less polluting. Given, of course, that the company manages to scale its technology.
Scaling cultured meat
Pigs are by far the most butchered animal on the planet, which is one of the reasons why Meatable decided to first develop its pork products, although a dedicated "bovine team" is also busy cultivating beef. The cells themselves behave a little differently, which means that nutrient uptake needs to be optimised individually for each species. However, when it comes to scaling up to larger bioreactors, the process is very similar.
As mentioned, Meatable held its first public tasting in Singapore, where it hopes to bring its first industrial facilityonline in 2026. In order for that to happen, there needs to be a whole lot of scaling, something de Nood attributes to a classic R&D process, "We know that it works on a small scale, now the question is if we can apply it at an industrial scale."
One of the key aspects in scaling production is achieving efficiency without sacrificing quality and safety. And Meatable is well on the way, given its recent breakthrough. Just yesterday the company revealed that it can now cultivate pork meat in as little as eight days (less than 5% of the time it takes to rear a pig on a farm), with the highest quality of muscle and fat cells.
This is essential to producing the actual taste and texture of meat, according to de Nood one of the three main metrics of bringing the technology to scale.
"For example, cell densities are very important. So if you have a litre of bioreactor capacity, how many grams of meat can you cultivate? The second one is, what is the doubling time? So how long does it take before the cells to double themselves? And then the third one that's very important is that we start with stem cells. Stem cells are not as tasty as muscle and fat cells. So we need to turn them into that. How many days does it take for that process?"
Apparently, now just a little over a week, combining Meatable's use of pluripotent stem cells (PSCs), which have the natural ability to keep on multiplying and to do so rapidly (with a doubling time of a couple of days), and the company's patented opti-ox technology.
Bringing down the cost
One of the major challenges to the budding cultivated meat industry is the cost associated with the technology. The very first lab-grown burger was produced in 2012, at a whopping cost of $375,000 (EUR347,000). Indeed, one of the founders of Meatable and currently the company's CTO, Daan Luining, was an intern on the project.
Ten years on, what has happened to the price tag? While the exact number remains undisclosed, de Nood says that Meatable's is now "more than a thousandfold" lower than the original.
The company is looking at a small-scale launch of its products - a pork sausage and dumpling - in Singapore next year. Following the inauguration of its production facility in the city-state, Meatable says its products will become cost-competitive with, say, organic sausages in the US and in Asia, with retail prices around $20-25 per kilo. By the early 2030s, de Nood hopes the company will be able to match the price of traditional meat.
This year, the company will open the Future of Meat innovation centre together with Asia's first plant-based butcher Love Handle, where the two will work on developing hybrid meat products. But why Singapore? As the first in the world to do so, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) approved cultivated meat for consumption in late 2020 when it gave the go-ahead for Eat Just chicken nuggets.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) followed suit in November last year, also clearing cultured chicken from Upside Foods for the first time. Essentially, the decisions of the two food safety administrations create more certainty for startups to operate within their jurisdiction.
Europe, or specifically, the EU, has an extremely lengthy regulatory process due to the decision making processes of the union. There is hope for the bloc, as de Nood states that there are "a lot of people," especially in the Netherlands, wanting to make it happen.
Indeed, in April 2022, the Dutch government awarded EUR60 million to develop a national cellular agriculture ecosystem. And this is only the initial step toward funding a more significant growth plan with EUR252 to EUR382 million for the sector. Furthermore, the House of Representatives voted to allow tastings of cultured meat in controlled settings earlier this year.
Are consumers ready?
Well, apparently, it depends - mostly on age. "If you talk to people about 20 to 30 and below, it's a no brainer. They are very climate conscious, and they have grown up with technology; technology is part of their life," de Nood says. "So in 10 years, those people will be 40 and below, and those will be the ones with young children making the buying decisions. That is why I am very positive about consumer perception."
To those who question whether or not lab-grown meat is natural or even ethical, de Nood says Meatable wants to flip the narrative, which is why the company has coined the term "new natural."
De Nood explains, "Well, is it natural to have the rainforest cut down to sow soy plantations that are shipped to the Netherlands to feed our cattle? If you, at some point have the choice between a burger or a sausage, or in a couple of years a steak, where for the first one an animal had to be slaughtered and it was very bad for the environment, and for the second, which was exactly the same, none of those things were necessary, would you still go for that first one?"
Krijn de Nood is one of many tech luminaries speaking at TNW Conference on June 15-16. Use the promo code READ-TNW-25 and get a 25% discount on your business pass for TNW Conference.