Lab-grown meat is supposed to be inevitable. The science tells a different story.

Up until this point, GFI’s imagined production line looks somewhat like what you might encounter in a present-day vaccine-manufacturing plant. The Oxford-Astrazeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines, for instance, are produced using a related method (through lines of cultured human kidney and retinal cells, respectively). But GFI’s version assumes an additional step that would further process the cells into human food. The large, stirred-batch reactor will be harvested three times to fill four smaller perfusion reactors, more sophisticated vessels that help the cells mature and differentiate. Each perfusion reactor would ultimately deliver a total of 770 kilograms of cultivated meat, slightly more than the weight of a single live steer before slaughter—this time without the bones and gristle.

It’s a complex, precise, energy-intensive process, but the output of this single bioreactor train would be comparatively tiny. The hypothetical factory would need to have 130 production lines like the one I’ve just described, with more than 600 bioreactors all running simultaneously. Nothing on this scale has ever existed—though if we wanted to switch to cultivated meat by 2030, we’d better start now. If cultured protein is going to be even 10 percent of the world’s meat supply by 2030, we will need 4,000 factories like the one GFI envisions, according to an analysis by the trade publication Food Navigator. To meet that deadline, building at a rate of one mega-facility a day would be too slow.

All of those facilities would also come with a heart-stopping price tag: a minimum of $1.8 trillion, according to Food Navigator. That’s where things get complicated. It’s where critics say—and even GFI’s own numbers suggest—that cell-cultured meat may never be economically viable, even if it’s technically feasible.

2. A buried report?

In 2015, Open Philanthropy publicly acknowledged being vexed by the problem of cultured meat. In a long, detailed post on its website, the organization summarized everything it knew—exploring whether the emerging technology was a potentially transformative solution worthy of serious investment, or something more far-fetched. After wrestling with a number of in-the-weeds issues, from sterility challenges to scaffolding designs, Open Philanthropy concluded that it simply didn’t have enough data to draw a conclusion. “There is essentially no industrial data around cost of scaling up cell production,” it wrote.

In 2018, Open Philanthropy itself stepped in to fill that gap, hiring Humbird to do a robust analysis of cultivated meat’s potential. He was the right guy. After getting his PhD in chemical engineering from UC Berkeley in 2004, Humbird used his training to go into the business of rigorous, scientifically informed predictions. Today, in addition to his work by him as a private-sector consultant, Humbird provides techno-economic analyzes for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a renowned federally funded research center in Golden, Colorado. Most of NREL’s engineers use US Department of Energy money to conceive, test, and improve upon novel green energy technologies. Humbird’s job is to look into the crystal ball. He’s one of the experts NREL contracts to figure out which approaches are viable at scale, how much they would cost, and ultimately if the government should fund them.

Humbird spent more than two years preparing his analysis for Open Philanthropy. The resulting document, which clocks in at 100 single-spaced pages with notes and appendices, is the most comprehensive public study of the challenges cultured meat companies will face. (An abridged, formally peer-reviewed version has since appeared in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering.) Their future doesn’t look good. Humbird worked off the assumption that the industry would grow to produce 100 kilotons per year worldwide—roughly the amount of plant-based “meat” produced in 2020. He found that even given those economies of scale, which would lower input and material costs to Prices that don’t exist today, a facility producing roughly 6.8 kilotons of cultured meat per year would fail to create a cost-competitive product. Using large, 20,000 L reactors would result in a production cost of about $17 per pound of meat, according to the analysis. Relying on smaller, more medium-efficient perfusion reactors would be even pricier, resulting in a final cost of over $23 per pound.

Based on Humbird’s analysis of cell biology, process design, input expenses, capital costs, economies of scale, and other factors, these figures represent the lowest prices companies can expect. And if $17 per pound doesn’t sound too high, consider this: The final product would be a single-cell slurry, a mix of 30 percent animal cells and 70 percent water, suitable only for ground-meat-style products like burgers and Nuggets. With markups being what they are, a $17 pound of ground cultivated meat at the factory quickly becomes $40 at the grocery store—or a $100 quarter-pounder at a restaurant. Anything resembling a steak would require additional production processes, introduce new engineering challenges, and ultimately contribute additional expense.

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