Cultivated Meat 2.0: A sustainable revolution in large-scale seafood production

The unsustainable future of traditional food systems has prompted cultivated meat to be the next frontier in protein production.

By Mihir Pershad, CEO of Umami Bioworks

As our world grapples with a growing global population and demand for protein, the sustainability of our traditional food systems is being called into question. Long-established methods of protein production, such as ocean fishing and intensive aquaculture, face mounting challenges due to environmental issues like ocean warming and acidification. Simultaneously, the agricultural sector, with its substantial carbon footprint, plays a pivotal role in climate change.

Our conventional food system faces many challenges beyond its environmental impacts. Depleting aquifers, shifting climate patterns, environmental degradation, thin profit margins, and growing reliance on subsidies, like fishing subsidies, underscore the need for change. The seafood sector, in particular, grapples with supply and price volatility amidst increasing scarcity, with our oceans substantially depleted compared to pre-industrial levels. Change is no longer an option; it is an imperative.

However, despite the pressing need for a sustainable transformation, the agricultural sector has received disproportionately low investment relative to its substantial contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. Only 4% of climate funding is directed towards agrifood systems, despite this sector being responsible for a third of global emissions. Furthermore, vital aspects of climate mitigation such as food loss, waste, and low-carbon diets receive less than 1% of climate funding. Likewise, just 10% of venture capital investments in agrifood tech go to climate-focused businesses. This disconnect between the urgency of the problem and available resources is thus alarming.

Cultivated meat 1.0: A promising start

Over the past decade, the cultivated meat industry has seen significant growth. According to the Good Food Institute, there are 156 companies dedicated to producing cultivated meat and seafood, with a total of US$2.8bn invested in the sector as of 2022. These startups are changing protein production by creating sustainable meat and seafood using bioreactors instead of traditional farming methods.

However, recent months have witnessed growing scepticism, and there are valid reasons behind it – despite millions of dollars poured into the industry, technical progress has been slower than anticipated. Scale-up timelines have been repeatedly adjusted, and production cost estimates have not reached parity with commodity meat, as many had hoped.

Still, despite the prevailing narrative, the cultivated meat industry has reached an inflection point where the viability of the core technology has been validated. Cultivated food pioneers have produced meat and fish with comparable nutrition, flavour, and sensory attributes — all without the need to catch a single fish or slaughter a single cow, pig, or chicken. Yet, one critical hurdle remains elusive: achieving the level of commercial production scale and efficiency necessary to feed millions of people.

As the initial excitement surrounding cultivated meat wanes with well-publicised achievements, some segments of the media have grown impatient with the industry, dismissing the concept as an overhyped, short-lived trend with no real future. However, this perspective overlooks the tangible progress made over the past decade and fails to grasp how novel technologies typically emerge in the market. With the right commercial strategies and pragmatic engineering approaches, the cultivated meat industry is poised for take-off.