Meat prices must rise before cultured meat is viable, say researchers

The economics of cultured beef projects could be the main barrier to commercial success, warn researchers.

The economic feasibility of sustainably cultured meat compared to that of traditional meat production may be the greatest challenge facing those who support the new technology, warn researchers.

While the commercialisation of lab-grown meat may be seen by some to be edging ever closer, there are several barriers that may mean the viability of the new technology is not as great as hoped, say researchers.

A new study from the Netherlands suggests that while cultured meat producers can perhaps overcome issues in consumer perceptions by approaching a 'small scale' and local approach to lab-grown meat production could help to overcome many consumer fears - the economic feasibility of such plans could be the greatest threat to the technology.

"Cultured meat has great moral promise," explained the research team, writing in Trends in Biotechnology. "Worries about its unnaturalness might be met through small-scale production methods that allow close contact with cell-donor animals and thereby reverse feelings of alienation."

From a technological perspective, this ‘village-scale’ production is also a promising option, said the team - led by Professor Johannes Tramper of Wageningen University.

"From an economic point of view, however, competition with ‘normal’ meat is a big challenge; production cost emerges as the real problem," said the team. "For cultured meat to become competitive, the price of conventional meat must increase greatly."

Sustainable option

The authors noted that rising global demand for meat will result in increased environmental pollution, energy consumption, and animal suffering. The idea of cultured meat - produced in an animal-cell cultivation process - is a technically feasible alternative lacking these disadvantages, provided that an animal-component-free growth medium can be developed, they said.

"As large parts of the world become more prosperous, the global consumption of meat is expected to rise enormously in the coming decades," wrote Tramper and his team. "Cultured meat is therefore increasingly seen as a hopeful addition to the set of alternative protein sources."

Though such potential advantages of cultured meat are clear, they do not guarantee that people will want to eat it, the team added.

"For example, a returning suggestion in societal debates is that cultured meat might deter people because it is ‘unnatural’ ... We argue that there is reason to think that a scenario that involves small-scale local factories is not only technologically feasible but may also meet with societal approval."

Indeed, the team reported that workshop discussions and media responses after Mark Post's hamburger presentation "suggest that many people regard cultured meat as a hopeful idea given their moral doubts about ‘normal’ meat."

They suggested that a cultured meat scenario that generated not ambivalence but great enthusiasm among workshop participants was one in which pigs in backyards or on animal-friendly (urban) farms would serve as the living donors of muscle stem cells through biopsies.

"These pigs live happy lives as companion animals while their cells are cultured in local meat factories," they said. "Worries of cultured meat being unnatural, too technological, or alienating were absent here; the idea of local production and close contact with the animals seemed to dispel these concerns."

Too costly?

When it comes to the economics of cultured meat, however, it is a different story.

Tramper and his colleagues noted that animal cells can currently be cultured in suspension in bioreactors up to a size of 20 m3. They calculated that that in the Netherlands, the price of minced meat "is not much more than €5 per kg."  However, per run, at least 20 m3 of medium is needed, corresponding to a cost of €1 million - equating to a cost of €391 per kg of cultured meat.

"A price of €1,000 per m3 is considered to be the absolute minimum for growth medium," the team added. "In that case, the medium costs for 1 kg of cultured meat would be €8; and this price accounts for only the growth medium." 

"This is already an ambitious goal, but not enough to make cultured meat competitive with conventional meat. For that, an order-of-magnitude increase in the price of the latter would be needed."

Source: Trends in Biotechnology
Volume 32, Issue 6, p294–296, June 2014, doi: 10.1016/j.tibtech.2014.04.009
"Cultured meat: every village its own factory?"
Authors: Cor van der Weele, Johannes Tramper

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Comments (1)

Jack - 28 May 2014 | 07:07

But what is the actual price of intensive livestock farming?

Do you really want to know? The global picture is horrendous. Instead of spending 1/3 of the grains produced worldwide to feed farm animals, these grains could be used to feed hungry populations. Let's keep in mind that as of today, the global agriculture could easily feed 12 billion people. Which means that every children, women and men who currently die from hunger is being murdered on the altar of our meat consumption. How much do you think each of these lives is worth? Not more than our craving for the taste of meat, that's for sure! How about the inquantifiable cost of intensive animal farming on the biosphere? What should be the price of all the forests and trees we replace with cattle prairies? What should be the price of the air we breathe and into which intensive animal farming dumps 7 billion tons of CO2 each year (this represents 18% of the total greenhouse gaz emission released by mankind's activity into the atmosphere)? What should be the price of the 20,000 liters of water pumped up in order to produce 1kg of beef, the price of the 50 square meters of virgin forest torn down to produce it? The production of this 1kg of beef meat corresponds to a 250 km trip in a mid-sized car in terms of green-house gaz emissions. Multiply this by 250 million, which is meat tonnage that is consumed worlwide per year, and you get the full picture. And this insanely high number is supposed to increase 2-fold by 2050! You still want to eat that steack? It comes from a corpse! A 2 days old corpse, at least! And of course, how about the cost of the suffering of these millions of poor animals that are slaughtered every year, which are just as loving and sensitive to pain and suffering as our house pets. And last but certainly not least, How about the healthcare cost of treating the millions of people suffering from the negative health effects of including way too much meat proteins in their diet? We need to rethink and rework this, this is just bad... Chill out on the meat 1st of all, this **** will kill you, it will kill us all... And yes, do produce lab-grown meat, it can only be better and far less costly than what is currently being produced...

28-May-2014 at 19:07 GMT

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