Lab-grown meat is on the cusp of a revolution, having finally moved from a scientific ambition to consumers’ plates, after long-running concerns over the drawbacks of traditional meat production.

In December 2020, Singapore became the first country in the world to approve the sale of ‘cell-based’ meat, giving the go-ahead to San Francisco-based Eat Just to serve up its ‘cultured’ chicken to customers. Eat Just announced plans to open its first Asian manufacturing facility in Singapore back in October. Josh Tetrick, chief executive of the company, tells fDi that the Lion City is “leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system”.

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“Singapore is going to be a critical hub of manufacturing for Eat Just’s plant-based egg and cultured meat products for years to come,” he says. “We’ve seen an incredible amount of consumer excitement”.

But by creating an enabling environment for innovation and investment, Singapore’s forward-thinking approach is having impact beyond its borders.

Mirte Gosker-Kneepkens, country head for Singapore at the Good Food Institute (GFI), an advocacy group for plant- and cell-based proteins, says that consumers being able to buy lab grown meat has “made the industry real” in a way that it has not been until now.

“Even though the volume of cultivated meat being sold is still the tiniest of drops in the bucket, we believe that it serves as a useful proof of concept that will accelerate growth of the space globally,” she adds.

GFI is not alone in this thinking. Roger Lienhard, the founder and partner of Blue Horizon Ventures, which backs start-ups disrupting the food industry, believes that food technology will define 2021.

“I don’t think that it will be the only time that we see cultured meat make it to a menu,” he wrote in a blog post shortly after Singapore’s regulatory approval. “Governments that realise the positive impact it will have on the environment will approve its sale, just as Singapore’s food authority has.”

Research by UK bank Barclays forecasts that the value of the alternative meat market will grow tenfold to $140bn by 2029, equivalent to 10% of the global meat industry.

Simmering progress

While lab-grown meat is now gaining prominence, it has been years in the making. What emerged as an idea in the 1950s, spearheaded by Dutch scientist William Van Eelen, only became a reality in 2013, when professor Mark Post at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands created the first cultured beef burger.

However, despite progress the manufacturing process was far from commercially viable, with a single patty costing a whopping €250,000. Unlike plant-based meat alternatives, which are made of proteins such as pea and soybean, in vitro meat is produced from animal cells grown in vats — a process that is far more expensive than raising livestock for slaughter.

Despite these costs, the potential for harm reduction is huge. Meat cultivation currently accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, not to mention its impact on antibiotic use, human health and animal welfare. 

Mosa Meat, the cultured meat start-up co-founded by Mr Post in 2016, claims that thousands of kilograms of meat can be produced from a single muscle cell, using 99% less land and 96% less water than the traditional meat industry.

Investment and research in the sector has reduced production costs substantially, with Eat Just announcing that one of its cultured chicken nuggets costs the equivalent of a premium chicken dish at a restaurant. The dynamics are also moving in the right direction.

Blake Byrne, an innovation specialist at GFI, predicts that global investment into cellular agriculture — which includes cultivated meat, eggs and dairy products — could reach over $1bn in 2021. 

Beefing up investment 

In the broader ‘bioengineered’ food sub-sector — which includes start-ups that produce either cell-based or plant-based meat alternatives — venture capitalists (VCs) have been making increasingly larger bets.

In 2020, bioengineered food start-ups attracted a record €2.6bn of VC funding, according to PitchBook data, up more than seven-fold from a decade earlier. 

US-based start-ups took the lion’s share of this, attracting more than €2bn of funding in 2020, helped by major rounds from lab-grown meat start-up Memphis Meats and plant-based alternative producers, such as Impossible Foods and Livekindly. 

Yet, while most cell-based food start-ups are focusing on mimicking beef or chicken, others have set their sights on the sea. San Diego-based BlueNalu is leading the way here, becoming the first cultured meat producer to lay out plans for a large-scale production facility back in August 2019. After raising $60m in January 2021, the start-up is currently expanding into a new 40,000 square-foot facility, and plan to launch their mahi mahi cultured fish product in about 10-12 months time.

Tim Mellon, a serial investor and non-executive director at sustainable food investment firm Agronomics, says that the “tipping point” is here and that he expects seafood to be approved for sale in the US this year.

Lion City lead

Figures from investment monitor fDi Markets indicate that Singapore is the leading city destination globally for foreign research and development projects in the food and beverage sector. At the country level, the city-state ranks third behind the US and China.

Beyond becoming a regional base for tech start-ups, including dairy alternative producer Perfect Day, Singapore has also become the “top choice” for multinationals, says Ms Gosker-Kneepkens. These include Swiss legacy firms Givaudan and Buehler, that are set to open a new innovation centre to produce plant-based food in the city-state.

However, Ms Gosker-Kneepkens says that with the influx of major food companies moving into Singapore, there is now a talent shortage. This has led GFI to launch an alternative protein university course in the Lion City to boost young workers in this field.

Meanwhile other locations are making their own meaty moves. Israel is positioning itself as a global alternative protein ecosystem, with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu trying cultivated steak in a visit to start-up Aleph Farms back in December 2020. In the same month, the EU provided €2.7m in grant funding to a lab-grown meat research project.

Blake Byrne at the GFI predicts that the number of cellular agriculture companies could grow from just more than 100 today to 150 by the end of 2021, including both start-ups and large corporations.

Ms Gosker-Kneepkens believes that other governments, such as the EU, UK, China and US, should follow in Singapore’s footsteps, asserting that plant-based and cultured substitutes are “probably our only hope” of seriously decreasing conventional meat production.

“We need a space-race-type commitment toward making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells,” she concludes.

This article first appeared in the February/March print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.

*The above article has been amended as BlueNalu is not yet producing seafood products at its facility