Not long ago, few people on the planet were even aware of the efforts scientists were making to manufacture meat in laboratories. Today, the cultivated meat industry has captured the attention of the media, governments, investors, and conscious consumers eagerly awaiting their chance to enjoy slaughter-free meat.
Here, we offer an overview of the industry, from its origins and challenges to where cultivated meat companies and the wider industry are today.
What is Cultivated Meat?
Before jumping into the history, let's recap some basics about cultivated meat and the cultivated or cultured meat process. Cultivated meat (also known as lab-grown meat and cultured meat) is meat developed in a lab directly from animal cells. It looks, tastes and cooks like conventionally-produced meat, but doesn't require the raising or slaughter of animals.
Environmental advocates have hailed the innovation as a potentially revolutionary way to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to meat production, while animal welfare advocates have touted lab grown meat as a safe, humane alternative to conventionally-grown meat.
Lab-Grown Meat vs "Real Meat"
Put simply, lab-grown meat is made in a lab from animal cells, while conventionally-produced meat is made from animals that are bred, raised, transported, slaughtered, processed, packaged and delivered to shops and restaurants around the world to feed global demand for meat.
How is Cultivated Meat Made?
To make meat in a laboratory, scientists must first source a small sample of cells from a living animal. Most cultivated meat companies (including Believer) have innovated ways to complete this step just a single time for every type of meat they produce. For example, just a single sample of cells from a chicken can be used indefinitely to make a company's entire lab-grown chicken supply.
Companies do this by either genetically modifying cells to proliferate forever, or by sourcing cells that naturally proliferate forever, which is what we do at Believer.
Once the cells are sourced, the next step is to "grow" them into much larger batches of cells by providing them with the conditions they need to happily reproduce themselves as they would inside an animal's body. This process begins in small flasks, where cells live in a nutrient-rich solution, and continues in a series of increasingly larger vessels and bioreactors.
Finally, once the biomass is "harvested" or removed from bioreactors, they are combined with other ingredients to give it the shape, feel, texture and taste of conventionally-farmed meat.
Cultivated Meat Industry History and Milestones
This still-evolving process is the result of roughly two decades of research and development that began in a handful of laboratories, and that continues today at dozens of cultivated meat companies and other institutions thanks to critical support from investors, governments, corporations, nonprofits and other actors around the world determined to bring cultivated meat to the masses.
Early 2000s: Early Development
The early aughts was a time of important early research into cultivated meat. One of the most notable endeavors of the time was research conducted by NASA-backed scientists, who were looking for alternative protein sources for astronauts on long space journeys. This resulted in what some call the world's first cultivated fish, which no one actually tasted, but that "looked and smelled" like fish, according to the scientists who made it.
Inspired by the NASA research, Jason Matheny (a researcher who now leads the RAND Corporation), launched New Harvest, the first nonprofit research institute to support the nascent field, which has and continues to accelerate its development.
2013: Lab-Grown Meat's Public Debut
After years of research and development, cultivated meat made what is widely regarded as its public debut at a 2013 London news conference where food critics were served a hamburger made from cattle stem cells. The burger famously cost a whopping $332,000 to create, reflecting one of the most pressing early cultivated meat industry challenges — making meat affordable enough for consumers.
2013-2019: The Rise of Cultivated Meat Companies
According to the Good Food Institute, a leading alternative protein think tank, 2013 marked the year the cultivated meat industry moved from the "conceptualization" stage to the "proof of concept" phase.
This period was marked by growing investment in startups and in the wider cultivated meat industry, which provided innovators and young cultivated meat companies with the resources, funding, and practical support needed to innovate cost-saving solutions (and bring cultivated meat prices down), refine their products and move them closer to consumers' plates.
2018: Believer Meats Launches as Future Meat Technologies
This period is also when Believer Meats got our start, launching in 2018 under the name Future Meat Technologies. Our patented technology, ability to cultivate cells in suspension and recycle costly growth media have been important contributions to the industry's cost-cutting challenges.
2020: First Government Greenlights Sale of Cultivated Meat
One of the most significant industry milestones came in 2020 when Singapore approved Eat Just’s cell-cultured chicken, and when the chicken debuted at a members-only restaurant there a short time later.
The last few years have been marked by robust industry growth with dozens of new companies emerging, many of them shifting their focus from research and development to scaling up.
During this time, Believer Meats broke ground on our first U.S. commercial-scale production facility, which is poised to be the largest in the world capable of producing at least 22 million pounds of meat a year for consumers across the U.S. and beyond.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, recently gave a key stamp of approval to our friends at Upside Foods and GOOD Meats, bringing both cultivated meat companies one step closer to serving their products to U.S. consumers.
When Will Cultivated Meat Reach the Market?
At the moment, Singapore remains the only country to have approved the sale of cultivated meat. But the recent FDA approvals show signs of momentum in the United States, where cultivated meat companies, including Believer, are gearing up for industrial-scale production.
When exactly lab-grown meat hits the market depends on a range of factors, including speed of regulatory approvals, how effectively companies can scale their operations and how willing consumers are to embrace slaughter-free meat.
What Needs to Be Done to Advance Cultivated Meat?
Despite its rapid advancements in recent years, the cultivated meat industry is still relatively new and faces challenges that must be addressed for the industry to reach its full potential.
One of the key issues is legislation. Friendly policies and streamlined regulatory processes are important for both research and development and, eventually, commercial success.
While the cost of producing cultivated meat has fallen substantially since 2013, it remains an industry challenge. To keep costs down for consumers, innovators and the wider web of actors in the cultivated meat space must work together to lower the cost of raw materials, infrastructure and technology needed to scale up operations.
For our part, we're proud to have built cost-saving solutions into every step of our cultivated meat-making process. Everything from the types of cells we use to the process we use to cultivate them is designed to ensure our meat is affordable and accessible to consumers, and not a high-end splurge.
Science and Technology
As cultivated meat companies move from pilot laboratories to industrial production facilities, they will inevitably encounter new science and technology challenges they will have to address. Increased investment in this space will ensure that processes can be finetuned and adapted for scale.
Why is Cultivated Meat Important?
There are many reasons why governments, activists, scientists and other actors from very different fields have thrown their support behind the cultivated meat industry. From animal welfare and food safety to growing global demand for sustainable meat sources, here are some of the benefits supporters see in this burgeoning industry.
Benefits of Cultivated Meat
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of cultivated meat is the promise this industry holds to save millions, perhaps billions of animals every year. In fact, animal welfare organizations, like PETA, have been important cultivated meat supporters since the industry's earliest days.
Beyond saving animals from harmful on-farm practices and eventually slaughter, the industry also holds the potential to significantly slash livestock land use, water use, and reduce direct greenhouse gas emissions from food production.
The lab-grown meat process simply does not require the same level of land, energy or water used to raise, feed, and transport animals in the production of conventional meat.
Meeting Growing Global Food Demand
The world is not currently on track to meet growing global demand for meat. As the population grows, the cultivated meat industry offers a sustainable way of feeding a growing global population.
Health and Safety
Experts also believe that cultivated meat has the potential to be a safer alternative to traditional meat because it's produced entirely in a controlled environment, which reduces the risk of contamination from bacteria and other pathogens present in live animals.
Writing the Next Chapter
For all of these benefits to come to fruition, the cultivated meat industry must successfully scale. With companies around the globe on the cusp of commercialization, we are closer than ever to realizing our vision of a world in which meat is abundantly available — but not at the expense of animals or the health of our planet.