Do fruit flies hold the answer to making lab-grown meat cost competitive with the industrial meat industry?
That’s what the co-founders of Future Fields think. The company is part of a growing group of businesses looking to drive down the price of making meat in a lab — and their secret weapon is the fly.
Image Credit: Flickr/Taryn
The company now has a patent pending for their genetically modified fruit flies — which have been engineered to make a key component necessary for growing animal cells at scales to rival industrial meat production.
That component is a growth medium that has been wildly expensive — leading to costs that can reach as much as $3,000 per pound, according to Future Fields co-founder, Matt Anderson-Baron.
“We insert the gene for the growth factor into their genome. That gene for the growth factor is then in their genome and they’re expressing it like they would any other endogenous gene in their body,” said Anderson-Baron of his genetically modified flies. “It’s analogous to what they do with yeast cells to produce the protein.”
Using the flies cuts costs by around 1000x compared to traditional methods of making growth factor and there’s virtually no cost to feeding the flies, Anderson-Baron said.
(FootPrint also knows a thing about raising bugs, thanks to its investment in Ÿnsect.)
If Future Fields (or competitors like the Singapore-based TurtleTree Scientific, which is also working on driving down the cost of growth medium) can be successful it’d bring the cellular agriculture industry one step closer to commercialization.
But there are still advances that need to be made in other areas of production including bioreactors to grow the cellular material; scaffolding to provide structure for muscles; and fats to add more flavor.
A vial of flies bred to produce growth medium. Image Credit: Future Fields
Stepping up to take a swing at solving the scaffolding problem — creating the structures that cells can grow on to really create cuts of meat like steaks or chicken breasts, instead of some sort of pre-formed patty — are companies like Matrix Meats, which is building extracellular matrices for meat.
The Columbus, Ohio-based company intends to work with businesses like Future Fields to create a platform that any lab grown meat business can use — allowing the companies trying to make meat to focus on just that — making the meat.
And while Matrix uses a process called electrospinning, where electrostatic forces produce scaffolds from novel biomaterials, other companies are 3D printing these tiny tubes to support meaty, lab-grown muscles.
Finally, there’s the fat.
Fat gives the meat we eat a lot of its flavor and if bio-engineered meats are going to catch on, then they need to be delicious. That’s where companies like Nourish Ingredients come in.
Nourish, and its counterparts at Cubiq Foods, are making fats that other companies can add to their meat products to let people savor the flavor.
“Processed food is viewed badly and the only current option is to go to ecological food production. This is unsustainable and un-scalable to deal with a growing population,” Cubiq co-founder Andrés Montefeltro told the outlet Vegconomist in a 2019 interview. “Cultured food, meaning food made from cultured cells, is scalable, sustainable, nutritious, and can be enriched in vitamins or essential fatty acids like omega-3. It is probably the best way to produce new healthy products and we would like to be part of this change.”
All of these businesses are part of a broad push to bring lab-grown meat to market. The founders of each of these companies believe that it’s the most sustainable way out of the food crisis an overpopulated, meat-devouring world will demand.
At this point, the negative environmental impacts of industrial meat production are pretty well understood. While meat is a solid source of nutrients, the process of growing animals for food is pretty terrible for the planet.
Industrial agriculture and the meat industry are responsible for producing more greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation sector, according to organizations like the LandHealth Institute. And half of the methane and two-thirds of the nitrous oxide (greenhouse gases that trap more heat carbon dioxide) are released by humans through crop and livestock production.
These numbers are only set to increase if something isn’t done to slow the growth of industrial meat production by eating less meat — or by finding a replacement for existing methods of meat production.
That’s why lab-grown meat is attracting so much attention from researchers and non-profit organizations like FootPrint Coalition member New Harvest.
The idea of cultivating meat from cells isn’t a new one. Famously, Winston Churchill penned an article for publications including Popular Mechanics and MacLeans entitled Fifty Years Hence, which talked about where chicken meat would come from by the year 1981.
The soon-to-be Prime Minister wrote:
We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future.
Well, it’s taken longer than the fifty years that Churchill predicted, but there’s a surge of interest in making meat from that “suitable medium”.
New companies have cropped up — and raised nearly a billion dollars among them to replace milk and meat with lab-grown or fermented replacements, according to data from the Good Food Institute. These are businesses like Upside Foods, Aleph Farms, Future Meat Technologies, Good Meat, and dozens more that are aiming to bring pork, beef, chicken, tuna, salmon and other choice cuts of meat from the lab to supermarket.
For most of these businesses, there’s still the price problem, which is what Future Fields and its fellow petrie dish predators are trying to solve.
“Every company has said we’re two years away for the past eight years. If we all worked collaboratively we could move that timeline up,” said Zac Graber, head of business development at Matrix Meats. “It’s impossible to do awesome at everything … as soon as you choose a path it greatly takes away from what else you might work on.”