Both plant-based substitutes (usually derived from soybeans and yellowpeas) and lab-grown meat (artificially made from animal cell tissue) have come a long way, but they're still less popular than meat.
Aside from texture and taste, price is one of the biggest factors holding back mass consumption of lab-grown alternatives. Israel-based Future Meat Technologies expects the cost of a 110g lab-grown chicken breast to drop down to less than $2 before the end of 2023. That's after the cost has already dropped from $7.50 to $4 this year. In the Netherlands, lab-grown meat startup Mosa Meat was awarded a grant in 2021 to specifically research how to lower the costs of cell-cultured meat alternatives.
Reaching peak meat
Right now, lab-grown meat isn't a serious competitor to the still-growing $1 trillion global meat industry. Plant-based proteins have been at the forefront of commercialization of meat substitutes, but there's still a way to go for the lab-grown stuff in terms of economics, public acceptance and regulation. After all, Singapore only became the first country to allow lab-grown meat on supermarket shelves in December 2020.
But, according to a recent report by Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon, plant-based alternatives could hit cost parity by as early as 2023 – that is, when alternatives cost the same or less than farmed animal meat – while lab-grown meat will reach that milestone around 2032. This is a huge deal, and could be the tipping point needed for alternative proteins to dominate supermarket shelves and restaurants menus the world over.
The report predicts that, by 2035, the alternative proteins industry could be valued at $290 billion, with lab-grown meat accounting for just 6% of total volumes. However, the whole alternative protein market could be twice that size if there are ‘more supportive’ policies and regulations, like taxes on meat producers’ greenhouse gas emissions or tax breaks for companies developing meat alternatives. Under that scenario, the report says both North America and Europe could reach peak meat by 2025, after which meat consumption could begin to fall.
Meanwhile, in Brussels in December 2021, a coalition of lab-grown meat makers formed Cellular Agriculture Europe, an advocacy group that aims to put pressure on European legislators to approve the mass adoption of lab-grown alternatives.
The appetite for alternative meats is also growing in China, where a number of homegrown plant-based brands are springing up. Companies like Nanjing Zhouzi Future Food Technology and CellX have begun developing pork alternatives for the mass market.
In the seafood industry, lab-grown alternatives to fish are also making a splash. Fish stocks are not only dwindling due to overfishing for commercial interests, but the changing temperature of bodies of water due to climate change is making it harder for fish populations to survive and reproduce.
And that is the sweet spot that lab-based fish startups are capitalizing on. Hong Kong-based Avant Meats not only produces lab-grown fish alternatives, but also cultivates marine stem cells for skincare. In San Diego, BlueNalu is springing up a factory to hold fish stocks that deliberately do not compete with the species sold by the local seafood industry.
But again, cost remains the key obstacle. Back in 2019, salmon-alternative startup Wildtype estimated the cost of a single sushi roll made with lab-cultured fish to be $200. So it will be a long time before the company is able to get that down to a more consumer-friendly price tag.
The eco dilemma
Aside from the cost of production, there's another uncomfortable truth to be reckoned with in the lab-grown meat space. Compared to both conventional meat and plant-based alternatives, lab-grown meat is often praised for its environmental credentials.
The meat sector is obviously emissions heavy, and even plant-based meats rely on the production of certain crops, which puts pressure on the agriculture industry to meet demand for both consumers and these food tech businesses. Although lab-grown alternatives have been proven to use significantly less energy and water than conventional meat, we're yet to see how this will work at scale. If the vision is for lab-grown meat to replace almost all farmed animal meat in the future, the demand on energy sources will also be massive. That, in turn, could fundamentally undo any environmental positives that lab-grown alternatives have.