Foodservice Footprint GH-Mighty-Earth-scaled Comment: The cash issue facing cultivated meat  Comment Out of Home News Analysis

Comment: The cash issue facing cultivated meat 

The problem with cultivated meat and the broader plant protein industry in general is not that there’s too much investment, but that there’s far too little, says Glenn Hurowitz. 

 In 2023, cultivated meat attracted $177m (£140m) in investment. That’s million with an ‘m’. Just three countries have approved human consumption of these meats. The traditional meat industry is valued at more than $1.2trn. Trillion with a ‘t’. And is forecast to grow and grow.  

In other words, the conventional meat industry that slaughters billions of animals per year and causes more climate pollution than all the cars, trucks, ships and planes in the world combined is around 6,779 times bigger than cultivated meat. Even if you consider the much broader plant-based meat sector, that had just $6.1bn in sales in 2022, that’s still less than 1% of industrial meat.  
Which is too bad: because alternative proteins cut climate pollution more per investment dollar of any category of decarbonisation investment, according to Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Indeed, alternative proteins avoid 10 times the carbon pollution per dollar than electric vehicles, and 20 times more than green aviation. 

So, it was galling to read a New York Times op-ed piece recently critiquing the cultivated meat industry for not yet achieving the scale of conventional meat – when it really hasn’t had the opportunity to do so. Perhaps a few cultivated meat entrepreneurs made silly claims that they would replace industrial meat in 10 years. What ebullient tech bro hasn’t made bold claims?   

Businesses in the foodservice sector have also been among the first to serve up the ‘novel’ cultivated meats to intrigued diners and are key innovators in the plant-based space.  There is appetite for more – and in more countries, including the UK. But everyone I know close to the industry has always recognised that scaling means serious investment over years. 

Consider this statement, from McKinsey, in a 2021 paper. “Reaching a $25bn cultivated meat market by 2030 will require the annual production of 1.5 million tonnes of cultivated meat. At current levels of cell-culture productivity, the industry would need anywhere from 220 million to 440 million litres of fermentation capacity, enough to fill 88 to 176 Olympic-size swimming pools. Considering that the pharmaceutical industry’s current cell-culture capacity is estimated to be between 10 million and 20 million litres (less than 10 swimming pools), it will take a massive capital build-out just to reach 1% of the protein market.” 

That’s going to require billions of dollars in investment. A realistic goal is probably to get there by 2030 – which could set the scale for a deeper transformation in the decades to come.  
The alternative protein businesses I know are ready to scale up to larger factories, fermenters, and marketing teams, but they need capital to do it. Like all nascent industries, growth is going to require a combination of government and private sector investment.  

Climate superfix 
Clean energy got to the scale it did because of state requirements and feed-in tariffs, which ultimately created enough of a financial incentive for the private sector to step in and scale. Whether it’s railroads, automobiles, or semiconductors, government investment has always been part of the growth of new industries.   
Dollar for dollar, alternative protein is the single most powerful technological solution to climate change and deforestation – and deserves a commensurate amount of support. Indeed, only nature itself surpasses plant-based and cultivated protein as an affordable climate superfix.  
The bottom line: cultivated and plant-based proteins need vastly more investment, not kvetching that all is lost because progress is hard. 

Glenn Hurowitz is founder and CEO of Mighty Earth, a global environmental organisation focused on supply chain transparency and corporate accountability.