Cultivated meat could be $25 billion industry by 2030

19 July 2021 6 min. read
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Cultivated meat products could help the global food industry reduce its carbon footprint, and provide consumers with more choice and flavour, according to a new study. Before that, though, the emerging industry needs to prove it can provide tasty produce for the right price.

With the mounting climate emergency escalating drastically in the summer of 2021, close attention is currently being paid to the Amazon rainforest. Growing trees and plants have taken up about a quarter of all fossil fuel emissions since 1960, with the Amazon playing a major role as the largest tropical forest – and without that natural facility, it is likely that climate change will accelerate in the coming years.

To the dismay of scientists around the world, it has now been confirmed by multiple studies that this is the case, though. The Amazon rainforest now emits more carbon dioxide than it is able to absorb, having released nearly 20% more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the past decade than it absorbed. The emissions amount to a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Most of these emissions are caused by fires, many of which are started deliberately to clear land for farming. Cattle ranching in particular is the single biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, and forest loss for cattle farming in the Amazon releases about 6% of the world's greenhouse gases.

The animal protein market is growing at 1% annually

In this context, the drive for alternative diets is understandably picking up support among consumers around the world. One survey conducted in 2016 found that the number of people identifying as vegans rose a whopping 360% in the previous decade, and it appears that plant-based diets have continued to grow in popularity. At the same time, some private companies are looking to produce a form of meat which could wean the planet’s remaining human carnivores off ‘unsustainable meat.’

According to a new study from McKinsey & Company, while the number of vegetarians and vegans might be growing, so is the number of humans in general. As such, the meat market will continue to grow at around 1% annually, with the volume of produce needed to satisfy that hitting 531 million tonnes by 2030. Beef, pork and poultry make up the majority of the protein in demand, and these are also the most intensive to produce in terms of energy, water and waste.

Meat demand

Cultivated meat could provide a far more sustainable means of meeting this demand, however. Cultivated meat, also known as cultured meat, is genuine animal meat (including seafood and organ meats) that is produced in laboratory conditions, by cultivating animal cells directly. This production method eliminates the need to rear and slaughter animals for food.

Depending on factors such as consumer acceptance and price

McKinsey’s report notes a recent Life Cycle Assessment by CE Delft, which found that cultivated meat is over 75% more sustainable than traditional production of beef. This includes its impacts like CO2 production, and land and water usage. At the same time, the study asserted that cultivated meat’s sustainability profile could be better than that of chicken or pork, if sustainable energy is used or if process improvements are implemented, such as if cooling is not needed for the bioreactors.

However, as with any market-based solution, all this potential impact is academic unless there is a proven potential for sales of cultivated meat. McKinsey admits that due to the scarcity of cultivated meats at present, they will initially come with a premium price tag – meaning many consumers may be unable to access them. However, the report also asserts that as the industry scales, the price will fall. In this case, the market for cultivated meat could grow rapidly in the coming years.

The study shows that the cost of cultivated meat is already falling at a rapid rate. When Dutch scientists first developed a cultivated piece of beef, the result could have produced burgers priced $300,000-a-piece. In just eight years, though, Future Meat Technologies has announced it is able to produce a chicken breast worth $4 when mixed with plant protein. While this is still slightly higher than the going rate for meat, it is not far from being competitive – and has far outpaced the falling price of another recent biotechnology, genome sequencing.

Growing industry

If prices do continue to fall like this, and cultivated meat is able to replicate a wide variety of processed and whole cuts, it could receive large sales spikes in meat-consuming countries. In this case, the industry could produce more than 2 million tonnes of meat by 2030, worth $25 billion.

Consumers currently pay a premium for protein alternatives that are important to them

At the same time, cultivated meat could end up offering widespread access to products which are currently unavailable to consumers. McKinsey notes that currently, the world primarily eats the meat of animals that are the easiest to farm industrially, but cultivated meat will face no such constraints. In this case, the industry could “select cell lines from specific animals with the best traits, such as Wagyu beef or wild salmon, and replicate them at the same cost as, say, beef patties or tilapia.”

It remains to be seen whether any of this comes to pass, or whether it remains in the realm of science-fiction. Cultivated meat will undoubtedly face more complicated hurdles than just scientific matters – it will also have to contend with market protectionism should it threaten to disrupt traditional meat producers. It could also face a backlash in terms of its impact on the economy – as while it requires a similar number of jobs to farming, the skillsets involved are very different, prompting a mass reallocation of labour, and necessitating its retraining. Above all though, convincing consumers cultivated meat is something they want to eat is the biggest challenge.

McKinsey concludes, “A lot has to happen for cultivated meat to become a major industry – not least that tens of billions of dollars need to be spent to scale it to even 1% of the global protein market. The focus of the next decade will likely be on proving commercial viability, with modest market penetration. To succeed, the industry must assuage potential concerns around a novel food while delivering deliciousness at the right price.”