It’s a bird! It’s a fake! It’s Supermeat! Israeli biotechnology startup Supermeat has ambitions to transform the way we eat meat by growing chicken meat in a lab.
“We intend to create cultured meat in a very special way that will make it very cost effective,” Supermeat co-CEO and co-founder Koby Barak told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Though researchers such as Mark Post of the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands have been developing cultured beef for several years (and reportedly have brought the price down from $325,000 to $11 for a burger’s worth), eight-month-old Supermeat is the first to foray into petri dish poultry.
Chicken, said Barak, is the second-most consumed meat in the world after fish, with some 60 billion chickens consumed globally each year.
That, he said, makes the field ripe for innovation.
The company’s R&D plan revolves around pioneering work by Hebrew University professor and biomedical engineer Yaakov Nahmias, who co-founded the company along with Barak and Ido Savir.
Though they’re not willing to discuss the secret sauce they think can make labgrown chicken a reality, Barak offered a few insights into how it’ll be done and how it will be cost effective.
First comes the meat growing.
It begins with a one-time biopsy from the animal, in this case the chicken. Lab technicians separate out the different kinds of cells from the tissue, such as muscle and fat, and grow them in machines that mimic the natural environment of the chicken’s body.
Part of the challenge will be figuring out the right combination of cell types that will produce the texture and flavor of chicken to which consumers are accustomed.
But cells don’t grow in a vacuum.
Like real chickens, they need nutrition.
“It’ll be a milkshake of a lot of minerals, fats, sugars and nutrients, and the source will be vegetables and non-animal derived materials,” said Barak, though the exact process remains unknown.
Within two years, he predicts, the company will be able to manufacture lab-grown ground chicken. It’ll take a further two years to develop technology to grow more complex chicken parts, such as chicken breasts.
Mass production will take five years, by which point Barak believes the cost will come down to a very affordable price of NIS 4 to NIS 20 per kilogram.
Distribution is part of the business model. Rather than building a major factory to manufacture industrial quantities of meat in, say, the Galilee, the company plans on building machines so that local supermarkets, restaurants, and eventually even households can produce their own chicken meat.
When it comes to chicken meat, transportation costs (which include the cost of refrigeration) weigh in substantially, and can account for as much as 18 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions.
The company claims that cultured meat requires 99% less land, uses 96% less water, and produces 96% less greenhouse gases than traditional meat-growing.
Indeed, the dream of labgrown meat promises many social benefits. With the world population expected to increase by one billion people in the next 12 years, and a growing global middle class demanding more meat in their diet, the challenge of feeding the world is immense. Raising animals for food also requires more resources such as water and crops, and produces negative environmental byproducts including greenhouse gases.
And, of course, it doesn’t require killing animals.
Not everyone is confident that cultured meat is a worthwhile economic venture, though.
Gil Ronen, CEO of the Ness Ziona-based genetics company NRGene, thinks that the technology makes more sense for growing, say, transplant organs than dinner.
“Even if you’re talking about growing meat, agriculture is still 10,000-fold cheaper,” he said. “It’s a gimmick, about the environment and not sacrificing animals, but economically I don’t see anyone actually producing food in the next 20 years in the lab.”
But Barak says their company’s technology and R&D plan suggest otherwise. They are seeking to raise $2.5 million, some of which they are raising through crowd-sourcing on IndieGogo.
“It’s a high-risk, high-gain project. We don’t have proof that it works, but we have a very promising R&D plan from a leader in the field,” said Barak. “It’s not just a theoretical idea. It’s based on technology that he already developed. We’re not starting from scratch.”