Can cell cultured meat start a food revolution?

  On June 10, 2022, China’s first cell cultured “pork belly” was born.
  On the same day, US start-up Eat Just broke ground on Asia’s largest cellular meat factory in Singapore.
  In order to change the status quo that its agricultural products rely heavily on imports, Singapore is the only country in the world that allows cell meat to enter restaurants. This kind of meat “raised” from the laboratory is not limited by geographical resources and can be stably supplied locally.
  Compared with the familiar plant meat, cell meat tastes more “meaty” and is closer to real animal meat. Zhou Guanghong, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University and academician of the International Academy of Food Sciences, who developed China’s first cell-cultured meat, once said that from a commercial point of view, if this technology can replace one-tenth of the animal husbandry, the corresponding output value can reach 100%. trillions.
  However, today, the cellular meat industry with an output value of one trillion yuan is still in its infancy. Most of the research and development results are limited to laboratories, and a few companies are building large-scale production plants. To most of the public, cellular meat is still a very foreign concept. If someone walks into a restaurant in Singapore and orders a $17 fried chicken nugget, it’s hard to realize that the chicken they chew on could spark a new food revolution.
The fate of the cows is no longer the slaughterhouse

  This is a special cooking live. On a livestream from London, the world’s top chef Richard McGwyn was working on an ingredient he knew best and most unfamiliar: beef. His goal was to make a beef burger, as usual, but his cautious look was captured on camera and passed on to the tens of thousands of viewers on the other end of the camera. Because the piece of veal sandwiched between the burgers is worth more than $300,000, which is the world’s first cell-cultured meat grown in vitro. This live broadcast took place in 2013.
  Its creator is Mark Post, the father of “cell cultured meat” and professor of tissue engineering at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He first extracted a special kind of stem cells called “muscle satellite cells” from the cow’s neck and placed them in a biological medium to allow them to differentiate, multiply and grow on their own. The advantage of this type of cell is that it is easy to differentiate, and later it will gradually merge to form primitive muscle fibers, eventually forming a thin pink muscle strip. It all happened in just three weeks, and raising a cow would take at least 2-3 years. Post pointed out that using this technology, it is theoretically possible to increase the number of burgers made by a cow from 100 to 100 million, which means that the number of livestock used by humans can be reduced by 1 million.
  After interviewing Post, Time magazine described a “better” future: cows on pasture walk leisurely while eating clover, and every few months, veterinarians will give them a few shots of local anesthetic , a piece of muscle tissue the size of a pepper was removed from its flank and sent to Post’s laboratory a few kilometers away, and the cows with their wounds sutured would return to pastures. A few weeks later, at the high-end restaurant in Maastricht, the cows are still living an idyllic life on the grass as patrons nibble on beef derived from cows. In other words, the end of the fate of the cows is no longer the slaughterhouse.
  Compared with traditional animal husbandry, the cell meat “bred” in the laboratory is also conducive to environmental protection. Livestock farming is one of the important contributors to greenhouse gases. Studies have shown that compared with traditional meat production methods, cultured meat can reduce energy consumption by 30% to 50%, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% to 90% and land use by more than 90%.
  Nanjing Zhouzi Future, established in 2019, is the first cellular meat enterprise in mainland China. Ding Shijie, the first doctor in the field of cellular meat cultured by Post, and CEO of Nanjing Zhouzi Future, pointed out to China News Weekly that ideal cellular meat can not only shorten meat production time, but also save land, reduce pollution, and protect animals. The quality of industrially produced cultured meat products is more controllable and can be customized. But now, the main challenge is cost.
  In the past ten years, by the end of 2021, the Israeli cellular meat company Future Meat said it had reduced the cost to about $1.7 per piece of chicken, or about $7.7 per pound, or about 0.1 yuan per gram. In June 2021, the company opened the world’s first cellular meat production plant in the Israeli city of Rehovot, and sells chicken breasts “raised” from the laboratory for $3.90 a piece.
  Ding Shijie said that the cost of Future Meat is currently the lowest in the industry, and the cost level of most cellular meat companies in the world is 1 to 2 orders of magnitude higher than it, ranging from seventy to eighty dollars per pound to several hundred dollars. The domestic cost level Also roughly equivalent. Judging from the technological progress of Zhouzi in the next ten years, the cost of cell-cultured meat has dropped by about 300 times, and there is still room for further decline. After calculation, Ding Shijie’s team found that the commercialization of cultured meat is only possible if it drops to 0.3 yuan/gram, and it can truly have an industrial advantage when it drops to 0.03 yuan/gram. “This process takes about 5 to 10 years.”
  In the culture of cell meat, the largest raw material cost is the cost of in vitro cell culture medium, which accounts for more than 70% of the entire culture cost. When Post created the world’s first cell beef, the culture medium used was fetal bovine serum, but the price of this serum is high, costing several thousand yuan per 500 ml, and the quality of different bovine serum varies greatly. , and the risk of carrying the virus. Future Meat claims that the secret of its cost reduction lies in the innovation of the medium. The use of serum-free culture increases the proliferation efficiency of cells by 10 times, and can “produce a cow in 6 days”.
  Yang Ziliang, CEO of CellX, a domestic cell meat culture company, explained to China News Weekly that serum-free medium is a mainstream direction of current cell meat technology, that is, to simulate the function of real serum through various combinations of growth factors. It is the exclusive “recipe” of each company. However, he pointed out that the simulated serum cannot currently be compared with the real serum in terms of cell culture efficiency. Therefore, how to improve the material conversion efficiency of serum has become a technical difficulty at present. Future Meat says it’s technically reaching 100 grams of meat per liter of serum.
  Ding Shijie further explained that there are very complex elements and factors in animal serum, which ultimately help cells to proliferate and differentiate. If you want to develop a more efficient serum-free medium, you must have a good understanding of cells. A more ideal state is to customize the “formula” according to the needs of cells, and its effect can even surpass that of serum-containing medium. “The best state of serum-free medium should not only emphasize that it is serum-free, but that the chemical composition is clear. This is how the quality can be controlled.”
  In his view, the decrease in the cost of cell meat culture is a systematic problem involving a whole set of technical systems. In addition to improving the formulation of the medium, there are corresponding technical challenges in every link. For example, in the first step of culturing, how to screen out suitable seed cells that can proliferate and differentiate. In addition, in the process of cell proliferation and differentiation, microcarrier scaffolds are generally required for cells to attach to and grow. The latest technology of Ding Shijie’s team adopts animal cell suspension domestication technology to get rid of the dependence on scaffolds. In addition, it also involves the foodization of cellular meat. At present, most of the cellular meat is colorless and odorless. How to process it into the appearance of real meat is also the key before the cellular meat can be officially served on the dining table.

The industry that just took off

  Currently, only about 700 people in the world have tasted cellular meat, mostly from Singapore. At many restaurants in Singapore, customers are tasting special $17 chicken nuggets that are 70 percent made from cell-cultured chicken made by cell-meat culture company Eat Just. These lab-grown chickens are mixed with ingredients such as mung bean vegetable protein, then coated with grated breadcrumbs and served with seasonings for guests to enjoy.
  In June this year, Eat Just announced that it will build Asia’s largest cellular meat factory in Singapore, covering an area of ​​30,000 square feet, which is scheduled to open in 2023. Meanwhile, the company is looking for a site in the U.S. to build a giant bioreactor about four stories high, which is understood to be capable of producing up to 30 million pounds of cellular meat a year. These expansions require huge amounts of money. In 2021, the company has raised a total of $467 million in financing. In addition to cell cultured chicken, Eat Just plans to grow beef and fish in the future. In Japan, the company turned its attention to high-end Wagyu beef, considered Japan’s “national treasure.” The company’s CEO Josh Tetrick aims to have Eat Just’s cellular meat products priced close to, or even lower than, natural chicken, beef and pork by the end of 2030.
  Starting in 2020, capital has been betting on cell cultured meat companies. By the end of 2021, there are about 107 cell meat start-ups in the world, 21 new ones will be added in 2021 alone, and the cumulative investment has attracted nearly 2 billion US dollars. Among them, the financing companies are mainly concentrated in Israel and the United States. Investors include the “national team” represented by the Singapore government, as well as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon founder Bezos, and Michelin-starred chefs. In March 2021, MeaTech, an Israeli cell meat technology company, landed on Nasdaq in the United States, becoming the world’s first and currently the only cell meat company successfully listed. Therefore, many people in the industry believe that 2021 is the first year of the cellular meat industry.
  Ding Shijie analyzed that the “hot” cell cultured meat in 2021 is due to the continuous maturity of technology on the one hand, and the international attention to climate and environment in recent years, coupled with the frequent occurrence of African swine fever, which makes people feel There are higher requirements for the stable supply and safety of meat. “We speculate that within three years, cellular meat may be promoted on a small scale in local areas, and it may take at least 5 to 10 years if it is to become a relatively mainstream meat choice in the market and be accepted on a large scale by consumers.”
  In the United States, Upside Foods, whose valuation has entered the $1 billion club, has opened a pilot plant in San Francisco in November 2021 with an annual production capacity of nearly 200 tons, and announced that its future products will cover all kinds of meat from livestock and poultry to seafood. . It is expected that this year, the company will build another large-scale chemical plant with an annual output of “one thousand tons or even ten thousand tons”. In addition, some optimistic analysts believe that after Singapore, the US may approve the official entry of cellular meat into the market by the end of 2022. “In addition to cost, there is another major obstacle to industrialization, which is the government’s approval of cellular meat products.” Yang Ziliang said.
  Yang Ziliang pointed out that since this is an emerging field, it has also subverted people’s traditional understanding of meat. Therefore, the government lacks experience and relevant knowledge in examination and approval. Although Singapore’s approval seems to be the fastest, it has actually started three or four years ago. According to him, Singapore’s approval mainly “looks” at four points: first, the safety of raw materials, how to extract the seed cells, whether the animals from which the cells are derived are healthy, what subsequent optimizations have been made, and whether gene editing technology is used; second, the culture medium Whether the ingredients are safe; the third is whether the specific production process is safe and stable; finally, a series of tests should be carried out on the end product of the cultured cell meat.
  In addition, because each company’s production process is different, the Singapore government’s review agency adopts “one case, one discussion” for cell meat companies, and “the work is done very carefully.” In Yang Ziliang’s view, Singapore has relied on imports for most of its agricultural products for many years. Therefore, in 2019, the “30·30 Vision” for agricultural products was introduced. It is hoped that by 2030, domestically produced agricultural products will account for more than 30% of the national nutritional needs, while cellular meat It is an important way to solve local food security. This is one of the reasons why Singapore’s cellular meat industry has developed rapidly in recent years.
  Domestic policies have also released some positive signals. In December 2021, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released the “14th Five-Year Plan for National Agricultural and Rural Science and Technology Development”, which mentioned cell-cultured meat and other artificially synthesized proteins for the first time, which are important technologies worthy of attention in food manufacturing in the future. Yang Ziliang, who returned to China to start a business, remembers that since 2020, more and more domestic capital has begun to pay attention to the cell meat industry. By 2021, more investors will come to him to communicate.
  Even so, compared with the plant meat that has initially formed industrialization, there are only three cell culture meat companies in China, and the results are still in the laboratory research stage. Avant Meats in Hong Kong focuses on cell cultured fish; Nanjing Zhouzi Future Food Technology Co., Ltd. was established with the technology developed by the team of Zhou Guanghong, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University and an academician of the International Academy of Food Sciences; and CellX, a young company established in July 2020.
  In June 2022, Zhou Ziwei developed China’s first cell-cultured “pork belly”, and at the site of the new product launch conference, he made a “live color and fragrant” green pepper stir-fry with the cell meat, and tasted it on the spot. The person sighed that the pork belly was very chewy. In November 2019, at the National Meat Quality and Safety Control Engineering Technology Research Center of Nanjing Agricultural University, China’s first cell-cultured meat was born, with a weight of only 5 grams. One month later, Zhou Ziwei was established and received 20 million angel round financing.
  In Yang Ziliang’s view, the domestic cell culture meat technology started relatively late, and the industrial development is generally 2 to 3 years “slower” than that of foreign countries. Many international companies have completed the pilot test and started to build their own pilot factories, which can stably reduce costs in larger-scale production, and these are the tasks that domestic companies need to complete in the next year or two. How to stably produce at a lower cost in a larger system is a major challenge facing domestic cellular meat companies.
  In June 2021, the cellular meat industry report released by McKinsey predicted that by 2030, the cellular meat market could reach a scale of 25 billion US dollars, accounting for about 1.5% of the total global human market size, but this prediction has a premise that consumers Fully accept cellular meat, and cellular meat reaches the same level as natural livestock meat in terms of taste and cost.

Mark Post, the father of “cell cultured meat”.
A future food revolution?

  As early as 1931, the core of cell culture meat technology was clearly explained by Churchill, who later served as British Prime Minister. In an article predicting the technology of the future, he wrote: “We will move away from the absurdity of raising whole chickens for breasts or wings, and grow the parts separately under the right medium.” Some opponents of cell meat argue that cells Cultured meat ignores the animal as an organic living whole, and separates the part from the whole. Meat grown in the laboratory is based on the accumulation of cells and the superposition of various nutrients such as fat, protein, carbohydrates, and minerals. It’s like just building a house out of bricks, but it’s not enough.

  In the early days, people believed that the taste of cellular meat was different from real meat, which was a manifestation of “unnaturalness”. When tasting the first human cell meat burger, the two food critics at the scene believed that although the taste was “close to meat”, it lacked juice when chewing, the texture of the meat was a bit astringent, and the consistency felt lack of fat. After years of technological development, Yang Ziliang believes that cellular meat is infinitely close to real meat in terms of taste and flavor. “In various internal blind tests, it is basically difficult for people to distinguish which is cellular meat and which is real animal meat.”
  Even so, people’s concern for the so-called “nature” has always affected consumers’ acceptance of cellular meat. In 2018, Faunalytics, an animal protection nonprofit, conducted an interesting sociopsychological survey of 1,185 U.S. adults. The results showed that when the new technology was introduced to respondents who did not know about cell meat, if the cells were The name of the meat was replaced by “clean meat”, and 66% of the respondents were willing to try it. In the introduction to “clean meat”, the investigators emphasized: “clean meat is real animal meat, which has the same taste, texture and the same or better nutritional content as traditionally produced meat. The culture of clean meat Similar to how muscles naturally grow in animals. In fact, this cellular growth process is present in all natural life. Clean meat has many benefits for human health, animals, and the environment. Best of all, it’s all-natural. “In contrast, many surveys in the same period showed that the acceptance of cellular meat is generally less than 50% among various groups of people, and the acceptance of Generation Z is slightly higher than that of the elderly.
  Yang Ziliang said that CellX will first cooperate with some Michelin restaurants in the future to make high value-added products, and then slowly sink to a wider group of ordinary consumers. Just like the strategy adopted by Just Eat in Singapore, initially in some high-end restaurants, and later into the night market, trying to integrate into a more local culture and younger consumer groups, “It’s a very good idea.” People’s understanding of food and changes in consumption concepts are not overnight, and need to be gradually penetrated.
  Many industry insiders believe that in the short term, although cell cultured meat grows rapidly, it will not completely replace animal husbandry, but as a supplement to traditional animal husbandry, providing a new consumption option for human meat protein. .
  But in Yang Ziliang’s view, in the long run, human beings will inevitably experience a food revolution, and “the understanding of eating will change completely.” He explained that humans now mainly eat pigs, cows, chickens and ducks, not because of how delicious and nutritious they are, but from the eating habits that have evolved over thousands of years. “These are the most domesticated animals, but what about other animals? We just haven’t tried it.” Now, through in vitro cell culture technology, the boundaries of human diets can be expanded, and people’s access to food will no longer be restricted by regions and seasons. limit.
  Yang Ziliang pointed out that all materials needed by human beings in the future will be produced at the level of cellular microorganisms. In addition to meat, there are milk, eggs, fur, and various agricultural products. With the growth of the population and the shortage of resources, human beings always have to find a more efficient production method that is not limited by resources. “This is going to be a whole new revolution, and the food revolution is part of it.”