Cultivated Meat is On Sale, But It’s Pricey. A New Study Shows How to Bring the Cost Down

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Now that the cultivated meat industry has achieved the long-awaited milestone of going on sale to consumers in the US, the focus will increasingly turn to whether it’s possible to make meat outside the animal more affordably. After all, it’s cool to make meat using a process that sounds straight out of pages of a science fiction novel, but most of us can’t afford to dine in restaurants run by some of the world’s most famous chefs.

So how do we go from prices that rival the world’s most expensive cuts of meat to a more approachable price per pound? According to a new techno-economic analysis (TEA) from bioreactor startup Ark Biotech, using current methods – in other words, with technology and processes primarily developed by a pharmaceutical industry where drugs can cost thousands of dollars per ounce – we can get to about $29.5 per pound for cultivated meat. That’s (kind of) progress, but when you consider that’s what you’d pay for a pound of filet mignon at a butcher, it’s clear that that price per cut will not cut it.

To navigate from filet mignon prices to something closer to that of ground chuck, Ark outlines four ways to do that in the analysis:

  1. Reduce the cost of media
  2. Improve biomass yields
  3. Optimize the bioprocess
  4. Reduce capital spend (depreciation), primarily through larger bioreactors

The TEA breaks down how much each lever currently contributes via the legacy production process:

From there, they analyze how to cost-optimize the price along all four cost levers:

Reduce the Cost of Media

Media is the most significant cost driver today. Ark believes that the price can be reduced by “decreasing media production costs (e.g., procurement, recipe), and (2) increasing the cell mass per unit of media (growing more meat with the same amount of media).” They also explore further cost reductions through other methods, including recycling media and developing ‘fit for purpose recipes’.

Improving Cell Mass

Increasing the cell density and growing more mass per liter of input is another way to decrease the overall cost per pound or, in other words, improve the overall production yield. Ark’s analysis goes into significant technical detail on how to do so, including by optimizing cell lines naturally or through genetic modification.

Optimizing the bioprocess

Another significant lever to reduce the overall cost of cultivated meat is to optimize the bio-production process, which means selecting the optimal mode in which nutrients are supplied to the cells in the bioreactor. According to Ark, there are four primary methods for providing nutrients to cells in the bioreactor (batch, fed-batch, perfusion, and continuous), and the choice of the technique involves tradeoffs in capital expense vs. ongoing cost of goods sold.

Bigger Bioreactors

The most significant capital expense in cultivated meat production is the bioreactor, those giant metal vats which grow cultivated meat. While larger bioreactors have larger price tags, the capital cost per unit of cultivated meat decreases as production volume increases. Factoring in that the costs of running a bioreactor are largely fixed, the short-short is that bigger bioreactors mean lower prices per pound of meat produced.

The analysis concludes that to get to pricing that approaches the commodified price of traditional ground beef, a combination of improvements (i.e., lever adjustments) is needed. Exhibit 1 shows how much progress each lever will contribute to reducing the cost per pound of cultivated meat.

It goes without saying that Ark has a significant amount of self-interest in arriving at these conclusions. Still, from what I can see, the analysis is a reasonably thoughtful assessment of what drives the costs of cultivated meat and where the industry needs to go to lower the price per pound.

Of course, they go into much greater detail in the full report, so I’d suggest those interested check it out.

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