A tidal wave of real, fake meat may soon be coming our way. Intentions to construct the world’s biggest facility for cultivating meat from animal cells were announced on Wednesday by San Francisco-based company, Good Meat.
The facility is slated to have ten, 250,000 liter “bioreactors”, or giant, metal vessels in which cells can be cultured and meat can grow. In other words: ten giant meat vats.
These bioreactors will theoretically be able to produce up to 30 million pounds of cultivated meat every year, according to the company. And Good Meat will initially be focusing this mass-production on chicken and beef.
But right now, Good Meat’s massive meat vats are just a plan. They’re looking to finalize their facility site within the next three months, and are considering locations in multiple states around the country (NC, PA, UT, TX, WI, and CO), a company representative told Gizmodo via email.
In addition to the really, really huge site, they’re also planning for smaller facilities in Alameda, California and in Singapore. The California site is scheduled to come online before the end of 2022, and Good Meat is hoping to open the Singapore facility in 2023.
Cultivated meat (A.K.A. lab-grown, cellular, synthetic. etc…) first emerged as a concept more than a decade ago. However scaling up the process of growing meat off the bone to a commercial level has faced many hurdles so far. The proposed Good Meat facility will likely encounter its own challenges going from plan to reality, but at least some experts see it as a large step forward.
“It’s a big move,” said Matthew Hayek in a phone call with Gizmodo. Hayek is an environmental scientist who studies the impacts of food systems at New York University. He explained that there’s a lot of work left to do to make cultured meat viable at a global, commercial scale, but that this new facility announcement “should be commended and viewed with some optimism, but cautious optimism.”
There are more than 130 companies and life science firms working on cultivated meat, according to one global market report. Good Meat is the first of those many cultured meat makers to receive regulatory approval. But so far, that approval only applies in Singapore. Good Meat launched as a consumer product there in December 2020.
In the U.S., the company is not yet FDA and USDA approved, and you can’t currently buy Good Meat’s products in any U.S. store or restaurant. “The GOOD Meat team has been engaging with the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture on a regulatory pathway to market,” said the company representative.
The environmental benefit?
Companies like Good Meat (which is part of Eat Just, the brand that produces “Just Egg”) tout the environmental cost of the standard meat industry as a big reason to embrace alternatives. They’re not wrong.
You probably know a lot of this by now, but standard, industrial meat production is bad for the planet. About 11% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, and about 40% of that is from livestock directly, according to the EPA. But that number is deceptively low for a couple of reasons.
First off, much of the gas emitted by livestock is methane and nitrous oxide, which are 25x and 300x more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. So, the small proportion of total emissions doesn’t mean much. Plus, that 40% of 11% percent doesn’t account for the land use and production needs of growing all the crops that feed all that livestock.
Then, there’s all of the other environmental costs to meat production like run-off and water pollution from animal waste, antibiotic resistance, dangerously bad air quality, and the amount of land that needs to get turned into monoculture corn and soy in order to feed all those animals.
On their website FAQ, Good Meat cites a 2011 study that predicted significantly lower emissions, land use, and water use for large-scale cultivated meat. “The research found that cultivated meat requires 78-96% lower greenhouse gas GHG emissions, 99% lower land use and 82-96% lower water use than conventionally produced meat,” the site claims. But more recent research has found less promising results.
One 2019 study comparing the climate impacts of cultured meat to standard beef found that the lab-grown stuff isn’t necessarily any environmentally better than raising and slaughtering cattle. But Hayek explained that that study’s results were based on projections far into the future that assumed our energy systems don’t become less carbon intensive. “I think that study had unrealistically pessimistic assumptions about the energy mix and the standard technology itself.”
Other research has placed the environmental impacts of cultivated meat somewhere around that of standard chicken or pork, said Hayek. And he generally agrees with these estimates. For context: chicken production releases about one tenth of the emissions of beef (but still about 10x more emissions than beans).
Really though, the emissions and environmental consequences of cultured meat depend on a variety of factors that companies like Good Meat just haven’t disclosed. It’s unknown how the planned facilities, for instance, will get their electricity. It’s also unknown exactly what goes into the feedstock that keeps the meat cells growing, and the impact of producing that feedstock.
Historically, cultivated meat feedstocks have involved fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is a product derived from actual cows, and thus a product that produces all the same emissions as raising cattle.
The Good Meat rep told Gizmodo that the company is researching and developing feedstocks that don’t use animal-derived ingredients. But that, currently, the Singapore-approved cultivated chicken is “produced with a very low level of bovine serum.”
Even if Good Meat did manage to transition to a plant-based or other feedstock, that would come with its own planetary footprint because producing energy always has some cost. Hayek mentioned some pretty far-out, possible methods of creating meat culture feedstock directly from the sun-itself, synthesized-photosynthesis style, but he compared that field of research to fusion energy. “We haven’t found a way to do it that creates more energy than it uses,” he said.
Aside from the environmental costs, another big motivator for cultured meat is that a lot of people simply don’t like the idea of killing animals. Good Meat markets itself as making chicken and beef that “avoids slaughter.”
Their use of FBS makes this claim a little questionable, as the serum is obtained from the fetuses of slaughtered, pregnant cows. Though, Hayek said that scaled-up lab grown meat probably would save lots of chicken lives in the immediate, and other livestock as well, down the road. “There’s kind of a utilitarian trade off being made: Some death now for technology that has promise of massively reducing the use of animals in the food system.”
The struggles of scaling up
Before Good Meat can even worry about the environmental impacts or animal welfare implications though, they actually have to get their proposed facilities approved and functioning.
“Until now, cellular agriculture has basically been a promissory product, it’s a prototype,” Jan Dutkiewicz, a food economist at Harvard University told Gizmodo over the phone. “Even the products that are being sold in Singapore are very much prototypical…We don’t know [for sure], but the running theory is that they’re being sold at a loss.” Making manufactured meat cost effective hasn’t definitively been done yet.
One of the other biggest issues of scaling up cultivated meat, Dutkiewicz explained, is the bioreactors themselves. The smaller-scale bioreactors that Good Meat has been using are between 6-10,000 liters in size, much different from the proposed 250,000 liter ones.
To accomplish the super-size, the company is partnering with the biotech manufacturer, ABEC, which has made large equipment for pharmaceutical companies, including bioreactors. However, they’ve never made meat vats like this before.
“We have many firsts in the industry as innovators, and manufacturing bioreactors at this scale will be a first for ABEC. While there are some technical challenges, there are none that we feel can’t be overcome,” said the CEO of ABEC in a statement emailed to Gizmodo.
As bioreactors become bigger, it gets harder and harder to make sure the environment inside the vessels is uniform and conducive to “healthy and standard and fast cell growth,” Dutkiewicz said. Increasing scale also makes it more difficult to keep things sanitary enough for food production, he noted, and pointed me to a 2021 publication that cast doubt on the practicality of sterilizing bioreactors larger than 200,000 liters in size.
“There is no literature on bioreactors this size,” he said. And added, “this is pioneering a new scale of bioreactor engineering… In the peer reviewed literature, there’s no proof that this is feasible.”
“There are a lot of basic questions about feasibility, which I’m not saying are insurmountable. I’m just saying that it would be a huge coup of engineering to achieve this,” Dutkiewicz said.
In response to a question about Good Meat’s proposed vat size, the company representative wrote the following:
Industrial fermentation routinely operates aseptic bioreactors at scales larger than 250,000 liters without the use of antibiotics or chemical antiseptics. This is achieved through equipment design, material selection, fabrication techniques and process design. We are working with ABEC to characterize the physical environment to cultivate animal cells at these scales. Our cell culture development approach also screens to select strains suitable for large-scale cultivation.
So, maybe Good Meat knows something we don’t. The scientific literature could easily be lagging behind Good Meat’s trade secrets because so much of the technology in meat cultivation is hidden behind intellectual property patents and closed doors, explained Dutkiewicz.
Which is a big part of why it’s taken us so long to get even here, in the journey to replace meat with… meat. Ultimately, the biggest barrier to knowing what’s possible and impossible in lab-to-table carnivory is the lack of transparency, said both Hayek and Dutkiewicz. We probably won’t know anything if the bioreactors work, what their environmental impact is, or if the meat is making money unless a company press release says so.
“If they can pull this off, that’s absolutely fantastic,” said Dutkiewicz. But he added that “a much better, and likely more sustainable in the long-term approach,” would be for public institutions to get public funding for their own research, and for companies like Good Meat to share their knowledge. Until then, it’s a meat mystery.