The livestock sector is responsible for an estimated 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions and uses up 30% of Earth’s and 8% of global freshwater. Those numbers need to be drastically reduced if the world is to become carbon neutral. It’s a tough ask given that meat consumption is expected to grow by 50% to a market valued at $1.8 trillion USD by 2040.
Cultivated meat, which is grown directly from animal cells rather than the entire animal, could complement the production capacity of sustainable livestock farming methods to meet the growing market demand for protein, while drastically cutting down on the overall environmental footprint of meat production.
Adding it into the mix could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 92%, land use by 95%, and water use by 78% compared to intensive livestock farming, according to Didier Toubia. CEO of Aleph Farms, an Israeli scale-up which grows beef steaks from non-genetically engineered cells isolated from living cows. He says his company’s cultivated meat products can be produced anywhere on earth, independent of climate or availability of natural resources, and someday may even be produced in space.
The idea is to create a global platform for local production, enabling high quality nutrition for anyone, anywhere. Israel imports 88 % of its beef, China imports 90 %, and Japan 65% so there is a strong will to find alternatives, says Toubia. And of course, if people are planning to colonize Mars, a way will have to be found to feed the settlers. “One vial containing hundreds of animal cells could feed a whole population for 20 years,” says Toubia. “We are decentralizing the production of meat and making it more secure.”
Aleph Farms, which has raised over $100 million in funding, wants cultivated meat to be successfully integrated with current food systems by supporting local producers and giving existing farmers the opportunity to forge new revenue streams alongside conventional production. The company is actively reaching out to ranchers to try and figure out the right business models.
It has already gained the active support of some of the world’s biggest meat distributors, including U.S. global food corporation Cargill, Switzerland’s Migros, a supermarket chain and food services company and BRF, a global Brazilian meat and food company. The collaborations are an example of how young companies can work with legacy businesses to scale their businesses and have a real impact on climate change. But moving cultivated meat from bioreactor to fork involves many challenges and is likely to take years.
Aleph Farms was created in 2017 by Toubia and The Kitchen Hub incubator of the Strauss Group, in collaboration with Prof. Shulamit Levenberg, Former Dean of the Biomedical Engineering faculty of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. The company, which was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer, has gone on to become one of the world’s leading cultivated meat companies, along with SuperMeat, MeaTech and Future Meat Technologies. All are headquartered in Israel.
Aleph’s cultivated steaks are made by mirroring the natural process of tissue regeneration processes that occur in the animal’s body, but outside of it and under controlled conditions. The process is designed to use a fraction of the resources required for raising an entire animal for meat, and without antibiotics.
To successfully grow whole pieces of meat, compared to minced meat product, Aleph mimics the extra-cellular matrix found in animals with a plant-based matrix that enables the cells to grow and form structured tissues of meat. Its ‘cell-banks’ yield an unlimited source of pluripotent (immature cell or stem cells capable of giving rise to several different cell types) for growing large quantities of meat without dependency on living animals.
Aleph produced its first thin steak in 2018. In September 2019, the company conducted the world’s first experiment of meat cultivation from cells on the International Space Station (ISS). It partnered with 3D Bioprinting Solutions, a technology provider of 3D bioprinters, and successfully assembled a small-scale muscle tissue — the building block of its cultivated steak — under microgravity conditions. Since then the company has been developing a second production platform, based on 3D bioprinting, together with a research partner at the Technion University and Levenberg, Aleph Farm’s Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Advisor. The outcome of this research allowed Aleph Farms to produce thicker and marbled steaks directly from animal cells. The proprietary system it created, similar to the vascularization in tissues, enables the perfusion of nutrients across the thicker tissue and gives the steak a similar shape and structure as that found in livestock before and during cooking.
In 2020, the prototype of its commercial product was introduced at the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit on November 20th in Singapore as part of a virtual cooking demonstration hosted by Aleph Farms’ resident chef.
During this year’s May Rakia Mission, a recent public-private space mission organized by the not-for-profit Ramon Foundation with the Israeli Space Agency (ISA) and and Israel’s Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology, Aleph Farms designed an experiment to better understand the effects of micro gravity on two basic processes in its first production platform and thin-cut steaks. These processes include proliferation and differentiation of cow cells into the building blocks of any steak in nature. Inside the lab-on-a-chip device designed for Aleph Farms by SpacePharma, another Israeli company, there are pumps, valves and waste reservoirs that replace the growth medium that feeds the company’s cow cells. When the system changes the nutritional composition of the growth medium, the cells receive a signal to mature into muscle tissue. The company said results from the latest space experiment will help it better understand how its production processes evolve within extreme environments, permitting it to develop an automated closed-loop system that produces cultivated steaks independently of climate or availability of natural resources on Earth.
Along with its achievements on earth, printing 3D steaks in space and creating an advisory board that includes Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio (an investor in the company) and retired NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, have helped Aleph Farms generate headlines and capture the attention of consumers, governments and legacy food producers and distributors.
Several forces are helping cultivated meat gain traction. Consumers are more conscious about what they eat. Concerns about climate change and growing food security issues caused by the war in Ukraine, the disruption to global supply chains and increase in shipping costs, has put pressure on governments to come up with more secure, local ways to produce high-quality nutrition, says Toubia. Meat producers and distributors are also under pressure to improve their environmental footprint. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, states that even if fossil fuels were eliminated overnight, emissions from the food system alone would jeopardize the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C. It names plant-based and cultivated meat as transformative solutions that, alongside transitions in the energy and transportation sectors, have the potential to halve global emissions by 2030.
USING SOME ADDED MUSCLE TO SCALE
In order for Aleph’s technology to have a real impact on climate change it needs to scale. The next step is for its cultured meat to be grown in bio-reactors in large facilities similar to dairy farms. The first plant is being built in Israel. Construction of a second plant in the U.S. will begin this year.
To give its efforts muscle Aleph Farms now has six corporate partners: Global protein leader Thai Union and global food and lifestyle company CJ CheilJedang, Cargill Protein,an arm of American global food corporation Cargill, Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation’s Food Industry Group, M-Industry, the industrial group of Swiss supermarket chain and food services company Migros, and BRF, a global Brazilian meat and food company.
A driving factor for Thai Union’s partnership with Aleph is that beef is Southeast Asia’s second fastest growing meat category, with consumption expected to increase as much as 16% by 2022 in a region that up until now has primarily consumed fish and other seafood, according to a Aleph Farms press release.
Aleph and Mitsubishi’s Food Industry Group signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2021 to bring cultivated meat to Japan, which currently has to import much of its meat. Aleph Farms will provide its manufacturing platform for cultivation of whole-muscle steaks while Mitsubishi Corporation will provide its expertise in biotechnology processes, branded food manufacturing, and local distribution channels in Japan. Aleph Farms and Mitsubishi are members of the “Cellular Agriculture Study Group”, a consortium implementing policy proposals under the Japanese Center for Rule-Making Strategy. The consortium brings together a range of experts on the definition and construction of cellular agricultural foods.
And, in July of last year BRF, one of the largest food companies in the world, signed an MoU to bring cultivated meat to Brazilian tables. Under the agreement, Aleph and BRF will co-develop and produce cultivated meat using Aleph’s patented production platforms. BRF will also distribute Aleph-backed cultivated beef products in Brazil, the world’s second largest producer of beef, with 2.5 million farmers operating mostly pasture-based production systems
BRF is one of the largest meat producers in the world, with over 30 brands in its portfolio. Every year it produces 4.6 million tons of beef, poultry, and pork. The company is investing over BRL 155 million in 2020 (approximately $ 28.81 million) in projects to reduce environmental impact under its 2030 Vision strategy. The partnership with Aleph is part of that strategy.
With livestock accounting for significant greenhouse gas emissions and demand for meat expected to continue growing, Aleph Farms says its partnerships with industry incumbents demonstrates how incorporating innovation into the local agricultural ecosystem can help and companies and countries reach their climate goals.
Aleph promotes studies that say that consumers will enthusiastically embrace cultivated meat. For example, research published on May 11,2021 by the journal Foods and promoted by Aleph in a press release, suggests that cultivated meat is likely to make up a major part of consumers’ future diets. The study “showed patterns of greater openness to trying such products by younger generational groups: 87-89% of Gen Z adults, 84-85% of Millennials, 76-77% of Gen X, and 70-74% of Boomers were at least somewhat open to trying cultivated meat,” according to a press release.
Meanwhile, research from Thai Union and Aleph Farms found that 74% of Singaporeans and 97% of Thais are willing to try cultivated meat. In Singapore, a key motivator for trying cultivated meat is the environmental benefits, while in Thailand, diners favor the ability to trace the meat’s origins, according to the quoted research.
In countries like Switzerland and Brazil the uptake is likely to be much slower, according to interviews with Aleph’s strategic partners. They caution that consumer willingness to embrace cultivated meat is could vary widely depending on geography.
Ralph Langholz, head of Alternative Proteins at Micarna, Migros’ meat division, is studying how to integrate Aleph’s cultivated meat into the Swiss’ company’s offerings. Until 2017 the meat division sold only traditional animal protein. Now, it sells vegan products and it is experimenting with a variety of alternative proteins. “We, as a company, see ourselves as providing protein sources for consumers that are both safe and delicious, whether it comes from pigs, cattle, peas or from a bioreactor,” he says.”
The company is committed to trying and help scale Aleph’s technology. “We are not just an investor, we are a partner in commercializing” the Israeli scale-up’s cultivated meat, says Langholz. “Our goal is to be close to the technology. We are the experts in developing and packaging and distributing products for both food service and retail.”
When it comes to cultivated meat, regulatory approvals are a hurdle. Singapore’s 2020 move to become the first country to approve commercial meat products made from cultured animal cells was an encouraging sign. The EU’s food regulatory regime is known for being tough but Switzerland is outside the EU so it is potentially well-positioned to be a good pilot country for Europe. he says.
Migros is unsure how local consumers will react to cultured meat. At Langholz’ suggestion the Swiss company experimented with foods made from insect proteins for several years, but Migros eventually decided not to introduce them for human consumption, at least for the time being, due to lack of consumer interest.
A lot of it comes down to marketing. There is no agreement yet on how to refer to cultured meat in a way that would resonate well with consumers or how to portray the process used to make it. “How will people connect a stainlesss steel bioreactor with meat?”, asks Langholz. While genetically modified products were not an issue in the U.S, in Europe there was a big movement against them.
Once regulatory approvals are obtained Migros says it will integrate Aleph’s cultured meat into its food service business for about a year and a half to test consumer reaction, price points and the scalability of the technology. It is likely to be seven or eight years before it hits supermarket shelves in Switzerland, he says.
Like Migros, BRF is broadening its notion of proteins, says Marcel Sacco, the Brazilian company’s Chief Growth Officer. “We are an animal protein company,” says Sacco. “If we look at the projected demand 30 years from now and the current supply chain, we know we won’t be able to supply all the protein demands, so our approach is having the right options for consumers to give them access to protein while continuing to work with animal protein.”
BRF’s 2030 Vision Strategy is built on three pillars: reducing its environmental footprint by making cattle raising and the processing of meat more sustainable, adding new plant-based protein products into its portfolio and introducing cultivated meat.
The Brazilian meat producer approached Aleph in 2021 and in July of last year invested $500,000 to help the company scale up. BRF and Aleph are working with the government and universities to get cultivated meat approved as safe for commercial consumption in Brazil.
Three other hurdles must also be overcome. One is technology, ie the ability to deliver a good experience in terms of flavor and texture. “It is getting better and better, but we are still not there,” says Sacco.
The second is affordability. He said he believes it will take three or four more years for the price per kilo to come close to that of beef sirloin in Brazil. Today cultivated meat is more expensive that meat from slaughtered animals but in future the situation may be reversed, says Sacco. “If you are going to eat something that is going to negatively impact the environment maybe you will have to pay more for that,” he says.
The third hurdle is consumer acceptance, which might be harder in Brazil than in Asia or Europe. The country’s residents eat more meat than nearly any other country in the world. Sacco says he doesn’t see cultivated meat making up one-third of its business in his native country, but he believes that cultivated meat will “most definitely” be part of the mix in Brazil and the 126 other countries where BRF operates.
“That is why we partnered with Aleph,” he says “We want to have one eye on the existing business and one eye on the future.” BRF is a traditional company, “so it is very difficult for us to disrupt ourselves,” he says. “When we find a company that is disrupting our business, we want to work with them. They have the technology, and we have the brand, the distribution, and the knowledge of the local market so we can give them scale in one of the biggest global markets and they can help us disrupt ourselves in a way that we could never do alone.”