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Our take on the NYT Opinion piece, “The Revolution that Died on Its Way to Dinner”

Five takeaways for your consideration.

Published March 4, 2024 | Updated March 4, 2024 | Isha Datar,

Hi There,

If you have any interest at all in cellular agriculture (as I suspect you do, being subscribed to this newsletter), I am sure you have already read Joe Fassler’s guest essay published February 9, 2024 in the New York Times, ”The Revolution That Died on Its Way to Dinner”.

If not, here is the TL;DR:

  • Cultured meat promised a vision of simultaneous hedonism and altruism: affordable, abundant food with far less cost to the environment and animal welfare, with no need to change behaviors or diets.

  • Close to $3 billion was invested in cultivated meat and seafood companies between 2016 and 2022.

  • Almost a decade later, we have not seen the outcomes promised by these companies, the result of “squandered resources, broken promises, and unproven science”.

While I agree completely with the above three points, I have not arrived at the same conclusions that Joe has, that “a broader cultivated meat revolution was never a real prospect.”

The cultured meat revolution is possible. But we can not expect business-as-usual means of advancing technologies – like off-the-shelf venture capital models – to yield revolutionary results.

I want to make five key points in response to Joe’s article:

Hype is a double-edged sword

There’s a good and bad to the hype that has driven cultured meat to where it is today.

The pros? That the concept of cell cultured meat is out there, in the popular press, a concept that many have heard of by now. That the vision of a world where we don’t have to slaughter animals for food is out there as well. And lastly, that hype has brought in substantial financial resources to begin working towards the vision.

But the cons? The exaggerations, lies, and broken promises – and their subsequent results.

Would bans on non-existent cultured meat products exist without exaggerated timelines? There are several regulatory approvals for products containing FBS or other animal-derived components. How does this build trust with a consumer audience that we are making meat without slaughter? How does this not completely upend the stated mission of cultured meat? How can we collectively move forward when every unscrupulous independent decision made in a hasty race-to-market mentality pulls down the entire field?

Unfortunately, hype backfires.

As we enter a period of disillusionment with cultured meat, due to missed milestones and exaggerated timelines, many companies are not going to make it. We have to hope that several of us will have the resources to keep pushing the technology forward when so many have given up, or have been given up on by their investors.

Even more so, we have to hope that the scientific progress that was made in investor-mandated silos has some way to keep going long after a cultured meat company shutters its doors.

Upside Foods and Eat Just are just two of many players

As Gabor Forgacs, CSO of cultivated meat company Fork & Good points out in his own response to Joe’s article, “there are about 150 companies in the space yet the NYT article draws conclusions based on only two, Upside Foods and [Eat Just].”

It’s true, it would be a disservice to many, many players to assume that what we are hearing about these two companies and their approach applies to the rest of the sector. They are two companies who, very early on, raised hundreds of millions of dollars to pursue a completely vertically-integrated, scaled-up approach to making cultured meat. Complete vertical integration mirrors some of the worst aspects of our overly-centralized meat industry today! And practically speaking, complete vertical integration is a tall order for such a technically-demanding concept. The company would have to iron out an entire supply chain – from media ingredients to cell sources – all the way to scaffold and bioreactor design – to food production. It’s being a biotech company, a food processor, and a consumer facing brand all at once.

There are many other players out there tackling other approaches. New Harvest has especially enjoyed the collaborative nature of the companies working on one or two aspects of the cultured meat supply chain – for instance just the growth factor production, or media development, or scaffolds, or bioreactor design – because they tend to be more collaborative. Their success depends on the success of others. It’s a true supply chain, with each company as an independent link solving a specific problem well. And in this model, hopefully, we avoid the type of corporate consolidation that makes our current food system so problematic.

Joe is telling the story of the finance, not the science, of cultured meat

In some ways, Joe is making the same mistakes that the field has made about the advancement of cultured meat: having an over-fixation on financial milestones and painting CEOs of private companies as the main characters of the field.

The story of cultured meat thus far is really being told to an investor audience. Not to a consumer audience, and certainly not to a scientific audience.

It is an investor audience who focuses on how much money and how many rounds have been raised, on employee numbers, and on patents and regulatory dossiers being filed. These are investor-oriented milestones, meant more to drive faith (and hype) behind an investment than to drive revolutionary change or even scientific development.

For example – how many of the prototypes that we have seen widely in the popular press have been accompanied by data, let alone layperson explanations of how they were made and what they were made of? Insiders know well that most cell cultured prototypes today are really plant-based innovations in texture and appearance, with little to no cell cultured innovations to speak of. But that information does not drive the investor-focused hype that has been so far bankrolling the development of cultured meat.

Globally, the field is about 150 private companies advancing cultured meat behind closed doors within investor-mandated silos. There is no doubt that most companies are working on the same problems, at the same time, in roughly the same order. It’s a misguided effort to keep intellectual property (IP) that should be pre-competitive protected. If we had made a concerted effort to work on establishing the basic scientific building blocks of the field, such as standardized, well characterized animal cells, we would have enabled the entire field to start working on the unique approaches that would set their companies apart from one another. And creating those building blocks would cost a fraction of the $3B invested.

Is this how we are going to usher in mission-driven innovation? Is the urgency and the promise of this innovation not enough to advocate for sharing knowledge? If we were developing a product representing an incremental innovation on existing technology then sure, VC would be an appropriate model. But we are innovating an entirely new way of producing food from the ground up.

When we couple the incredible lack of collaboration with the fact that a large number of companies claim to have been able to simultaneously reduce, if not eliminate FBS from their cell cultures, (though the regulatory filings suggest otherwise…) one wonders which is more revolutionary: the science of cultured meat, or the idea of working cooperatively, not competitively, to advance science for the public good.

Time is money

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the $3B invested in cultured meat isn’t a whole lot of money.

As I referenced in my recent blog post about where cultured meat is on the hype cycle, in pharma there is a rule of thumb about drug discovery: it takes 10 years and $1 billion for 1 small molecule drug to come to market. That is in a field where 1) there is a robust global innovation ecosystem with hundreds of institutions and long-term funding from both public and private sources, 2) there are well-established, profitable companies often over 100 years old, and 3) the path from benchtop science to scale-up manufacturing is fairly well-understood, and most importantly, 4) you’re making a small volume, high value product.

Now let’s compare that to cultured meat. This is a field where 1) there is a scant global innovation ecosystem, with little more than $3B in private funding in the space as a whole, scattered among many players without coordination; 2) the oldest cultured meat company is 8 years old, and zero are profitable; 3) the scale-up challenges are largely unprecedented and theoretical and, again most importantly, 4) we’re making a high volume, low cost product.

If we wanted to make the most of $3B to make cultured meat happen, we would use that money in a coordinated effort to create innovative, standardized tools (wetware like standardized cells, software like standardized modelling approaches, or hardware like standardized bioreactors or shared scale-up facilities) that would de-risk cultured meat as a viable means to feed the world. Coordination would be key – some aspects of cultured meat research are sequential and others can be done in parallel. And openly sharing the outcomes is key to quickly advancing regulatory and consumer understanding in addition to boosting field-wide innovation.

I am being self-promotional here, but over the same time period in which Joe monitored the activities of UPSIDE and Eat Just, New Harvest funded 60 researchers across 37 institutions in 9 countries, generating over 60 foundational scientific papers papers for all to use. Coordination wasn’t perfect, but efforts were made well beyond what classic academic structures allow. The researchers and the papers they wrote have influenced countless scientists in industry, academia, government, and international NGOs, and have created a lasting impact on the field at large. Even if New Harvest disappears tomorrow, that knowledge has forever entered the public sphere. And that cost maybe $10 million.

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A happy middle ground: New Harvest?

The most endearing part of Joe’s article was X or Y question he posed to Josh Tetrick, CEO of JUST, about how where the $3B that investors put into cultured meat should have been spent:

“​​Mr. Tetrick perched his hands on his knees to represent two runners. The runner on the right, he said, represented grass-roots activism, political advocacy, nutritional education, farm policy, fair labor practices, animal conservation. The runner on the left was cultivated meat. If he had $3 billion, he mused, which would be the better bet to bring about the kind of world he says he wants first?

He chose the first runner.”

Shouldn’t we dare to find a middle ground, that breaks the mold of tech vs. activism as a way to usher in disruptive change?

What about what New Harvest does – a non-profit approach to advancing cultured meat that keeps the mission of the technology central? And shouldn’t we envision a world where both runners win – where grassroots activism and cultured meat coexist, and even better, enable one another in achieving a shared mission?

“…The thing is, he said, you’re less likely to find people to give the first runner $3 billion. Even if it’s a better strategy, that’s not how the world works.

“People are a lot more motivated to invest in something where they can get a return in something than they are to donate something,” he said. “I think that’s unfortunate, but I think that’s the reality of it.”

That, I can certainly say, is true.

New Harvest has received a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the investment seen in cultured meat. But our influence remains outsized thanks to a commitment to advancing technology towards a mission, not towards near-term profitability for a single private entity. With a focus on collaboration, concerted efforts, and creating open, lasting change – a lot can be done with a little. (But much more could be done with some real cash!).

As Clair Purcell, COO of Alcheme Bio says in her reaction to the NYT piece, “sometimes, maybe even in VC land, slow and steady wins the race.” It’s only slow because we’re used to VC being fast. But maybe cultured meat just isn’t fast. And standard approaches to VC just might not be the vehicle that moves the needle in this era of cultured meat’s development.

Isha Datar
Executive Director
New Harvest |

P.S. At the 2022 New Harvest Conference, I sat down with Joe Fassler and Dave Humbird to discuss one of Joe’s earlier takedowns of cultured meat. Has much changed? See for yourself and watch the video here.

About the Authors
Isha Datar