The Clean Meat Revolution
Our diet is about to change — forever.
Many key parts of our everyday diet have remained constant throughout the ages despite centuries of technological innovations. Like our ancestors, our current protein sources still primarily rely on cattle, poultry and fish. We’ve improved the scale of production, revolutionized animal husbandry and developed countless innovative food products, yet the underlying raw materials making our protein sources have remained the same.
The unprecedented growth in human population, rising living standards and longer life expectancy are driving demand for protein to levels that we just can’t meet. Even with improvements to existing processes, the production still comes at the cost of negative environmental impact and brutal factory farming conditions. We are nearing the point where a paradigm shift becomes inevitable, and fortunately, teams from around the world are already working on several exciting solutions.
Alternative Protein Sources
We look at new protein sources in three categories: plant-based protein sources, insect-based protein sources and lab-grown meat — also known as “clean meat.”
The plant-based approach relies on protein-rich grains, seeds and fruits. Many of us instantly think of old favorites — soy, quinoa and lentils — but some companies are discovering new plant types that offer greater caloric density and require less land and water to cultivate while others are genetically modifying existing plants to achieve similar goals. Companies like Boca Foods and Impossible Foods have created familiar brands in this space, developing the Boca Burger and Impossible Burger as protein-rich meat alternatives.
The insect-based approach looks at wildlife that is readily abundant and offers greater amounts of protein per pound such as crickets, grasshoppers and larvae. Companies in this field leverage new technologies to make breeding easier, reduce the cost of feed and process insects into powders that can be used as protein-supplements in energy bars and drinks, baked goods and other consumable products. Companies such as EXO and Chirps have focused on the latter, creating products like Chirps Chips and EXO Protein Bars from cricket powder.
Of the three categories, lab-grown meat intrigues us the most. It is often called “clean meat” as a nod to its ability to be animal slaughter-free, as well as engineered without disease or antibiotics. It relies on artificially culturing meat cells in lab-like conditions and generating actual meat without the animals themselves — no butchering, costly animal husbandry or carbon emissions required. While this approach is still in its early days, the concept is quickly gaining traction with the scientific community.
After speaking with many of the teams working on alternative protein sources and consulting with organizations such as the Good Food Institute and New Harvest, we’ve developed a global landscape of alternative protein ventures to help entrepreneurs and decision makers navigate it more quickly.
Clean Meat Is the Future of Protein
Each of these approaches faces challenges such as production costs, regulatory barriers and product maturity, but we believe clean meat is best positioned to ultimately prevail. Clean meat companies are still perfecting the taste, smell, mouth-feel, color and cohesiveness of their products, but as they continue to iterate through R&D cycles, we expect to see products that are increasingly indistinguishable from traditional meat.
And that’s the difference. Meat that actually tastes and feels like meat — but requires no animals — doesn’t require behavior change or undoing hundreds of years of habit. Plant-based and insect-based solutions will also improve over time, but their inherent need to change consumers’ diets will limit them to niche markets.
Clean meat currently faces huge hurdles around scalable production costs and limited scientific literature, but it offers several major advantages over traditional meat. It is much more environmentally sustainable, considerably more ethical, could theoretically scale indefinitely and will help us avoid some of the health risks associated with meat, such as food borne illnesses and the deleterious effects of antibiotics. Consumer sentiment and preferences might pose an initial barrier, so we’ll need to invest in careful branding and public education by clean meat manufacturers.
A Road to Scale
The clean meat industry is still nascent. Companies working in the field are currently focused on obtaining immortalized cell-lines and constructing basic scaffolds that would allow for simple meat substitutes, for use in foods such as chicken nuggets and meatballs. Most companies plan to launch such products in limited supply over the next few years, but we believe their cost will still be considerably higher than traditional meat products. To improve scale and lower prices, some companies might first launch a plant-based product and enhance it with cultured meat cells to improve taste, smell and mouth-feel.
As production costs and subsequent consumer prices fall, more complex products will hit store shelves and clean meat producers will have to strike a balance between consumer price sensitivity and product quality. Initially, clean meat products will struggle to compete at the low-end, as it is traditionally driven by price, whereas the high-end will require rich textures that are beyond the scope of the current research. We believe that initial product-market fit will be somewhere in between. Eventually, companies will work towards creating products with very sophisticated 3D structures and attempt to penetrate the high-end. That said, we believe clean meat replicas for complex products such as marbled steak with intermingled layers of fat and muscle could take decades to produce.
Low-end priced products remain a challenge, as manufacturing technologies need to improve considerably before clean meat can viably compete on price with traditional products. Despite these challenges, we believe that the magnitude of the opportunity will surely encourage new ventures to tackle this category. At the moment, companies working in the field still cover the entire value chain independently, from research and development through small-scale manufacturing and marketing. As the industry evolves, we expect companies will specialize in specific functions such as improving the efficiency of feed-media, creating larger and more efficient bioreactors and assembling cultured cells into finalized products. We believe that the appearance of these clean meat manufacturing-oriented companies will indicate the market’s maturity.
Long Live the Protein Revolution
Clean meat and other alternative protein sources are still in their early days, but the industry benefits from several foundational advantages. The teams working in the field are backed by strong academic research and they are seriously considering the commercial aspects of their products. Wisely, they’re securing funding from both public sources, such as government and research grants, as well as private sources like institutional investors and even incumbent traditional meat manufacturers.
History shows that advancements in food technology have had tremendous implications on society. The agricultural revolution allowed tribes to settle in their lands. Selective breeding dramatically improved yield. Modern farming techniques allowed four billion people to live in cities. Hold onto your forks — clean meat is next.