Nearly a decade after the first images of hamburger produced from beef cells grown in a petri dish flooded media outlets, enormous advances have been made in reverse engineering meat. And these advances could be significant; proponents of cultured meat (also known as cultivated meat) claim that sustainably producing it at a price point competitive with conventional meat could help enable widespread dietary transitions towards the reduced consumption of conventional meat, thereby helping to alleviate environmental pressures imposed by traditional animal agriculture practices as the global population and global per-capita meat consumption continues to increase. Cultivated meat production could also offer lower antibiotic and zoonotic disease risks and substantial improvements in farmed animal welfare as compared to intensive animal rearing practices.
Yet a suite of scientific challenges persist that could prevent the wide scale commercialization of cultivated meat products. There may be no setting in which this was better exemplified than at the 8th International Conference on Cultured Meat, held October 9-11th in Maastricht, Netherlands. This annual conference examines the questions researchers are trying to answer in the drive to make cultivated meat a viable food technology.
What is holding back cultivated meat production?
Cultivated meat research has already achieved significant milestones that once seemed impossible. Following the first regulatory approval of cultivated meat products in 2020, cultivated chicken has become commercially available to consumers in Singapore at a price premium compared to conventionally-produced chicken, and researchers are currently developing new techniques to enable further retail price reductions while diversifying the types of cultivated meat products available to consumers. In the United States, the FDA also recently completed its first premarket approval of a cultivated meat product, and the construction of groundbreaking commercial-scale production sites is currently underway.
On the back of these successes, researchers participating in this year’s conference presented novel mechanisms for cultivating fat cells, which are just as critical as muscle cells for cultivated meat products to replicate the taste, texture, and cooking experience of conventional meat. There was also a new emphasis on efforts to develop fish and seafood alternatives, a category of products that has received considerably less research and development attention to date despite its pressing environmental importance.
Yet some challenges that have plagued the field since its earliest days remain unresolved, such as how to replicate the compositional pattern of muscle and fat cells present in whole-cut steak products. This year’s conference also identified several new questions important for developing and commercializing cultivated meat products. For example, how to replicate not only the taste and texture of some meat products, but also the nutritional value.
The challenges highlighted at this year’s conference were not just technical, but social and economic as well. The afternoon of the second full day of the conference considered some recent research on the psychological and social factors—including marketing and advertising—likely to affect consumer acceptance of cultured meat products, two factors among many that will determine whether cultured meat emerges as a widely consumed food source. Researchers from this year’s conference also highlighted the importance of attitudinal variables, such as animal welfare concerns, as potentially strong predictors of consumers’ willingness to consume cultured meat. Additionally, most research on consumer acceptance of cultivated meat to date has focused on measuring consumer intentions because cultivated meat is not yet widely commercially available. These findings may not accurately reflect consumer purchasing and consumption behavior because intentions can often be poor predictors of actual consumer behavior. As one researcher flagged during her presentation, many pertinent questions regarding consumer acceptance of cultivated meat on the behavioral level have not yet been explored.
The fact that researchers are even turning to these questions affirms the increasing maturity of cultured meat research. But the lack of answers also underscores the sizable gap between the current state of the field and what will be required for the introduction of cultured meat and seafood into existing food systems at prices that are competitive with conventional meat.
How interdisciplinary research can help advance cultured meat
At the conference, I presented preliminary findings from new research —supported by The Breakthrough Institute, New Harvest, and others—on the readiness of Thailand to become a leading cultured meat producer. In this research, we explore how stakeholder engagement has shaped the establishment of an ecosystem to support cultivated meat production in Thailand using both a scoping literature review and semi-structured interviews with 21 expert informants from a range of sectors. We also identify key barriers and opportunities that could further impact the commercial-scale production of cultured meat in Thailand.
As a PhD student studying cultured meat through an interdisciplinary socio-environmental lens, I see multiple priorities for new research. Most existing work on cultured meat is funded by private companies, and despite calls for greater transparency and public sector engagement, patents and intellectual property concerns continue to restrict access to data. Such restrictions could limit the successful incorporation of cultivated meat technologies into existing food systems at a transformative scale. Engaging populations that could be affected by the development of cultured meat into research and development could help counteract this trend and simultaneously help identify new research opportunities. For example, speaking to ranchers about types of beef products that are the least profitable to produce with conventional methods could inform the positioning of new cultivated product types that ranchers might be more willing to embrace.
To begin the process of engagement, the opportunities and benefits that could be made accessible through cultured meat production would need to be clearly communicated to stakeholders in the food supply chain, and these stakeholders should be incentivized to participate in cultured meat research and development. The use of participatory foresight methods to inform strategies to mitigate potential unintended consequences of cultured meat production on the livelihoods of workers currently engaged in the animal agriculture sector also may help facilitate the increased acceptance of cultured meat by these workers as a food production technology.
Additionally, the development of cultured meat technologies should be oriented to the food security needs and the cultural preferences of the communities such technologies seek to serve. Structured dialogues offering members of these communities opportunities and forums where their feedback can be heard should be used to inform technological development and strengthen public awareness campaigns. Ultimately, financial, regulatory, and governmental support mechanisms may also be needed to foster increased engagement in cultured meat research and development.
A potential pathway to transform cultured meat research along these lines already may be emerging. First-of-their-kind government funding initiatives designed to support the formation of a new research ecosystem around cultured meat have recently been announced in Europe and the United States. One is the $65 million grant recently awarded by the Dutch national government to Cellular Agriculture Netherlands that aims to stimulate education, academic research, publicly accessible scale-up facilities, societal integration, and innovation in cellular agriculture. This investment includes the specific objectives of producing open access research, engaging farmers and consumers to maximize the potential societal benefits of cultured meat production, and generating opportunities for companies to support the development of a cultured meat sector.
Public funding to establish cultured meat research centers and programs at universities could also help broaden the engagement of a diverse cohort of early-stage researchers and increase the production of inter- and cross-disciplinary research. As an example of the potential impact of increased public funding for cultured meat research, at the conference I met a PhD student in the computational neuroscience program at Tufts University, whose interest in pursuing a career in cultured meat research was directly inspired by the USDA National Institute for Cellular Agriculture, recently established at her university through a five-year $10 million dollar publicly-funded grant. This initiative promotes interdisciplinary research that could help make cultivated meat techno-economically viable, and includes the establishment of a Center of Excellence as a national institute for cellular agriculture to promote multi-sectoral stakeholder engagement as well as numerous outreach, extension, workforce development, and consumer education efforts.
These initiatives serve as demonstrations of how an interdisciplinary perspective that prioritizes more equitable engagement in the development of cultivated meat research could help solve existing remaining barriers to commercial-scale cultivated meat production. Adopting such a perspective to direct cultivated meat research at this early stage of technological development may help to ensure that the introduction of cultivated meat products does not replicate historical choices and strategies that harmed the rollout of other food production technologies. For instance, the acquisition of start-ups pioneering genetic modification technologies by larger firms increased intellectual property concerns and aggressive patenting initiatives, which fueled activist backlash and public skepticism.
The adoption of an inclusive and interdisciplinary perspective could help combat the potential for such outcomes by helping align communications efforts with potential consumer concerns from the start. The use of this perspective to inform cultured meat research development could also help identify novel opportunities to drive the multifaceted benefits that cultivated meat could offer to producers and consumers. Ultimately, this could bring cultivated meat technology one step closer to widespread commercialization.