Last Thursday, the USDA awarded Tufts University a $10M grant to establish a National Institute for Cellular Agriculture, the first research center for cultivated meat and other cellular agriculture technologies in the US. This is great news and represents a major milestone for the industry.
However, just last month, The Counter published a piece by Joe Fassler providing a reality check on the scale-up of cultivated meat. It cited analyses from experts in biomanufacturing, engineering, and techno-economic assessments who expressed major doubts about the technical and economic feasibility of cultivated meat.
Fassler’s piece may seem to fly in the face of the recent news of funding. However, his outline of “seemingly insurmountable challenges” is “actually a great list of where research gaps are,” as Isha Datar, executive director at New Harvest, wrote out in a Twitter thread.
The Tufts institute, for example, could focus their research on the technical and economic barriers the article highlights in achieving bulk animal cell growth, bioreactor design, and growth factor production for instance. This research would help determine how feasible it is to scale up different types of cultivated meat production. Even if such research determines that the scale of cultivated meat production is limited, it would still generate technological spillovers that benefit the biomedical, cosmetics, and other industries considerably and provide a launch point for yet unknown technologies.
Though countries like Singapore and Qatar are already announcing cultivated meat production facilities, it has not yet proven to be economically viable or technically feasible at scale to compete with commodity meats in the near term. However, mitigating climate change, reducing agricultural land use, improving animal welfare, and otherwise cutting the impact of meat consumption is a long-term, multi-decade, even century-long effort and investment now can pay dividends down the line.
At the Breakthrough Institute, we have argued that the federal government is well-suited to fund long-term, open-access R&D aimed at cell biology and production-related questions facing the industry. The new cultivated meat research center led by Tufts represents an unprecedented opportunity to de-risk a new industry and overcome technological barriers – which the federal government has a track record of doing.
It is worthwhile for the federal government to support research in cultivated meat production, despite the uncertainty about whether it can eventually be cost-competitive, given the very large potential benefits. If the technology can prove itself to be economically feasible, cultivated meat could contribute to the decarbonization and resiliency of the food system. The environmental and public health costs of meat consumption globally are estimated to be $1.6 trillion per year. Cultivated meats could have a smaller footprint if produced with sustainable energy sources. Cultivated meat could also potentially mitigate price and production shocks faced by the conventional meat industry as demand grows.
The high risk associated with investing in cultivated meat R&D can be balanced with a broad portfolio of investments in low-carbon agriculture. Governments and foundations could look to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) model, a mission-driven research agency focused on breakthrough technologies that actively manages its portfolio of investments to balance risk and reward across projects. DARPA constantly re-adjusts funding for projects depending on their progress to ensure that resources are used efficiently.
Likewise, governments and foundations should adopt DARPA’s approach towards low-carbon agricultural innovation and provide funding for a wide range of technologies, including cultivated meat. Pursuing many different technological pathways towards climate mitigation in agriculture could offset the risk of investing in just one technology. Investment could go towards investigating new sources of plant-based proteins, which typically rely mostly on wheat and soy. Research could also be aimed at developing methane-inhibiting feed, breeding low-methane cattle, developing low-carbon fertilizers, and engineering crops to store more carbon in the soil, for example. Investing in many different high-impact agricultural research areas, along with cultivated meat, would spread investment risk and offer many opportunities to successfully improve the sustainability of agriculture.
Whether cultivated meat is “around the corner” or not, its future depends on our ability to take on some risk and assess its benefits. Funding for cultivated meat paves the way for other less splashy food and agriculture technologies that also promise climate and environmental benefits.