In theory, growing meat from animal cells instead of slaughtering billions of sentient creatures and plundering the oceans sounds like a no-brainer: The promise of ‘real’ meat, without the ethical and environmental baggage.
In practice, many of the startups attempting to deliver on this promise are using approaches with highly questionable economics at food scale, claims Fork & Good co-founder and chief scientific officer Dr. Gabor Forgacs.
“It’s a totally useless exercise to make these products at a price that nobody can afford. We have to separate the hype from reality in this industry. I’ve lived through this hype before when I was working in bioprinting [at a company called Organovo] in 2007. I remember people were saying, ‘Oh, you guys are going to make hearts and livers and kidneys overnight’ and the hype was so unhealthy.
“And that’s one reason why Fork & Good [which Forgacs cofounded with Niya Gupta in 2018] has been in stealth mode until we got to the point that we were convinced we could make products at a price that people can afford. From the very beginning, we were thinking about techno-economics.”
Gene-edited cell lines, proprietary bioreactors, continuous harvesting
So what is different about Fork & Good, which has just opened a pilot facility in New Jersey?
Multiple things, says Forgacs, a biophysicist who first produced cultivated meat over a decade ago at startup Modern Meadow, then quickly determined that a tissue-engineering approach was not scalable, and pivoted to bio-textiles.
First, Fork & Good is not using stem cells, which can differentiate into multiple cell types, but only when triggered to do so by approaches that can jack up costs, he tells AFN. Instead, it is using primary (already differentiated) muscle cells and using gene editing to immortalize them such that they will proliferate indefinitely.
“There’s no free lunch, but the genetic editing allows us to make the cells much more frugal, to grow with less,” he explains.
“So it’s not only that we’re immortalizing the cells, but we’re also making them grow in a very efficient way, so we use much less of the medium than otherwise would be needed. For growth factors, for example, we only need two or three, in very, very small quantities.”
Second, he says, Fork & Good is not growing its cells in stirred tank bioreactors, in which the contents are stirred by rotating impellers that exert shear forces that can damage cells once the tanks get over a certain size.
Instead, it is using smaller tanks in which the contents are agitated “essentially without moving parts,” and then continuously harvesting the biomass, significantly increasing yields, he claims.
“We’re growing adherent cells, which need to attach to some kind of surface to grow. So rather than growing them on microcarriers [which reduce cell densities in growing vessels and must either become part of the end product or be detached from the cells later, adding to costs], we allow the cells to bump into each other and form aggregates.
“If you use a stirred tank reactor, the aggregates can get damaged, so we need something very gentle. We’ve got an exclusive agreement with a bioreactor company to use technology that has been used in the chemical industry to mix liquids, and that has turned out to be fantastic.”
As for size, bigger isn’t always better when it comes to bioreactors, he argues. “Nobody, to my knowledge, has grown mammalian cells in bioreactors larger than 25,000 liters.”
But even if you could, he says, would you want to? “If you’re making batches in a 250,000-liter bioreactor and there’s a contamination, that’s an astronomical amount of money you stand to lose.”
Fork & Good, he says, will probably “not need to go much beyond 1,000-liter bioreactors because we use smart tricks. For example, we do a kind of continuous harvesting by draining the bioreactor at the same speed that the cells are growing. This allows us to generate from one bioreactor much more product than if we were to grow in the batch mode.
“Using our continuous harvesting approach, in a month, you can generate 100 times more biomass by using ten 1,000-liter bioreactors, than what you’d get using a batch process with one 10,000-liter bioreactor. And if one of my 1,000-liter bioreactors is contaminated I still have 9,000 liters of capacity, and I haven’t lost everything.”
How meaty is the final product?
So if Fork & Good is growing primary muscle cells, what is it doing about fat?
Down the road, it may look at cell cultured fat, but in the first instance, the plan is to make hybrid products using its muscle cells (comprising at least 50% of the product) combined with a small amount of plant-based ingredients including fats, says Forgacs.
But if Fork & Good is not doing a second phase of tissue engineering (culturing cells around edible scaffolding, for example) or using bioprinting, how ‘meaty’ are its final products going to be?
According to Forgacs, “If you grow cells in aggregates, they communicate with each other just as they do in the animal. They talk to each other and secrete molecules that the other cells perceive, and I’d describe them as ‘mini tissues’ that have some texture. But our plan is to start with ground products, not steaks.”
“Achieving high yields at an affordable price point is incredibly complex, and Fork and Good is uniquely equipped for the task.” Adam D’Augelli, partner, True Ventures
The economics of cultivated meat
For Fork & Good co-founder Niya Gupta, who was running a hydroponics startup in Singapore before she teamed up with Forgacs in 2018, the key metric in any livestock operation is the feed conversion rate. And for cultivated meat, she says, the math didn’t add up.
“I looked at this space back in 2015, 2016, and my prediction was that this technology would be a guilt-free solution for the 1%, which could still be a successful business, but was not really what I was interested in.”
With Forgacs’ approach outlined above, however, she felt they had a shot. “We’ve been around since 2018, but we didn’t really start talking publicly about what we’re doing until this month when we could say we could finally beat the feed conversion of a Berkshire pig that’s raised without antibiotics. That’s what got us excited.
“My ultimate goal is to be able to grow beef and pork at the cost of chicken.”
‘We’re targeting cost parity’
To date, Fork & Good has raised $22 million from investors including True Ventures, Leaps by Bayer, Collaborative Fund, Firstminute Capital, Green Monday, and Starlight Ventures, which will “take us through to hopefully regulatory approval and getting to a small-scale launch in restaurants,” says Gupta.
The first products will be hybrid ground products combining cell-cultured pork and some plant-based protein and fats that could go into anything from dumplings to sausages, she says.
“We’re targeting cost parity. My benchmark is antibiotic-free pork at Walmart. Maybe you can charge a small premium, but I don’t think you can count on that. At best maybe people will pay a 20-30% premium.”
‘African Swine Fever wiped out a quarter of the world’s pigs and we don’t have a cure’
Stepping back, she says, “I think many people think there’s nothing wrong with producing meat the way we do it today and wonder why people are trying to ‘Silicon Valley-ize’ it, because all the media coverage about cultivated meat is about Silicon Valley and how much money startups have raised.
“What we’re doing is then put through a ‘tech’ frame, so we have to remind people why we’re doing this, what problem we’re ultimately trying to solve.”
There are ethical and environmental arguments for reducing our reliance on industrial animal agriculture, a leading driver of climate change and deforestation, antibiotic resistance, and habitat destruction she says. But there are also more basic concerns over ensuring a consistent supply of product. “The problem is meat not being on the shelf, meat not being affordable.
“Many people don’t realize that the current meat ecosystem is under a lot of pressure. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a pandemic [African Swine Fever] that wiped out a quarter of the world’s pigs and we still don’t have a cure. Some companies took pork off the menu entirely because they couldn’t get the meat they needed.”