26/04/2021 – Innovation / Cultivated Meat / Agriculture / Environment
A Revolution In The Ribeye – Cell-cultivated meat
Cultivated meat producers are using non-genetically engineered cells to cultivate increasingly convincing looking (and tasting) cuts – the production of which uses a fraction of the resources required to raise an entire animal for meat. However, Israeli firm Aleph Farm’s new partnership with Brazilian meat giant BRF S.A. suggests that such cutting-edge disruption need not necessarily see innovative upstarts locking horns with meat industry incumbents.
Meat production has risen dramatically over the years – and by 2050, consumption is projected to have grown by 70 per cent, or even higher, as populations expand globally. However, major public health crises have been linked to patterns of conventional meat consumption, as has climate change, with the raising of livestock generating an estimated 14 per cent of the world’s greenhouse emissions. It is also a wildly inefficient activity: around 77 per cent of agricultural land is used for livestock, which provide only 17 per cent of global caloric consumption. Greater awareness of such impacts, alongside ethical concerns, means that alternative methods of producing meat are sought to satisfy growing demand from the ‘conscious consumer’. All of this points towards a ‘New Agricultural Revolution’, as investor Jim Mellon calls it. “The harrowing effects on our environment, animal cruelty in food … and the struggling ability to feed the world’s ever growing population gives us no choice but to grow meat in labs or derive our proteins from plant-based sources.”
Surging demand for meat alternatives has boosted sales of plant-based burger patties and sausages in recent years – and while brands like Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger and the like have continued to burst into the mainstream, many carnivores remain sceptical that plant-derived substitutes are sufficiently comparable to the real thing: “My sense is that producers of well-bred UK Angus steaks and Iberico hams, with their accompanying taste and texture, are probably safe for now,” remarks David Stevenson in the FT.
A cut above plant-based
So-called lab-grown meat promises consumers something a cut above, however – the same taste and nutritional qualities of meat, yet without slaughtering an animal to achieve it. The process typically entails a sample of cells taken from a live animal and placed into some form of bioreactor. Inside the tank, the cells are fed a nutrient-rich ‘growth medium’, which enables them to grow and divide.
The past decade has seen a steady increase in the application of animal cell culture technology toward the development of food products – and in 2021, such activity looks set to pick up the pace.
Certainly, Aleph Farms’ rib-eye steak product (pictured, left) – launched in February this year – seems a significant step up from what has gone before. Produced via 3D ‘bio-printing’, the cell-cultured steak “incorporates muscle and fat similar to its slaughtered counterpart,” according to the firm, which added that the product boasts the same attributes “of a delicious tender, juicy rib-eye steak you’d buy from the butcher.”
In a landmark agreement, the cell-cultivated beef-steak innovator signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with global Brazilian meat heavyweight BRF S.A. in March this year, the goal being to bring cultivated meat to Brazilian tables. Under this new agreement, Aleph and BRF will co-develop and produce cultivated meat using Aleph's patented production platform (BioFarm™). BRF will also distribute Aleph-backed cultivated beef products in Brazil.
For BRF, the new partnership will strengthen its supply chain and reduce its environmental impact, while diversifying the company’s product offering to meet growing consumer demands for a variety of protein products beyond meat.
For Aleph, the new partnership will advance its growth strategy of integrating into the existing global food ecosystem, enabling greater positive impact for this innovative player that is already backed by some of the world's most prominent and innovative food producers, including Cargill, Migros, and the Strauss Group. Notably, the firm has also recently received top accolades from the World Economic Forum, UNESCO, Netexplo Forum and EIT Food for its contribution to the global sustainability movement, which have served to further raise the profile of the startup.
Beefing up production
While one would be forgiven from thinking that the concept of cell-cultivated steaks could be anything other than diamaetrically opposed to the interests of traditional meat producers, Aleph Farms’ boss is keen to stress the synergistic opportunities for meat producers in partnering with his firm. Certainly, in its collaboration with BRF – a global food and meat industries leader – the Israeli food innovator more than adequately demonstrates such an endeavour.
“This new partnership advances Aleph Farms’ strategy to integrate into the existing ecosystem as part of our go-to-market plans,” remarked Didier Toubia, Co-Founder and CEO of Aleph Farms. “Leveraging the expertise and infrastructure of leading food and meat companies will drive a faster scale-up of cultivated meat and eventually lead to a broader positive impact.”
Brazil’s meat giant embraces change
As one of the largest beef producers in the world, Brazil is clearly a strategic market for Aleph, advises its chief, who adds that he has been impressed by the strong commitment from BRF’s management to both innovation and sustainability.
One of the world’s largest meat producers, BRF reported revenues of approximately US$7.25 billion in 2020. Last year, the company invested over US$28.81 million in projects aimed at reducing environmental impact. The new partnership with Aleph forms part of BRF‘s 2030 Vision strategy. Unveiled in December 2020, this over-arching initiative is expected to garner revenues in excess of BRL 100 billion by 2030 (approximately US$18.5 billion).
“BRF is ready and charged to play a leading role in this food revolution and be an active participant in one the greatest industry transformations of this generation,” enthused Lorival Luz, CEO of BRF. “Since 2014, we have witnessed an increasing global demand for new sources of protein driven by several factors – namely environmental concerns, new diets and lifestyles – which have spurred the growth of new dietary genres including flexitarianism, vegetarianism and more,” Mr Luz pointed out.
“Agents of transformation”
Beyond the commercial potential of cultivated meat in the Brazilian market, this alignment advances a shared drive in the areas of sustainability and food security. Brazil recently reaffirmed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) its commitment to reducing total net greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent in 2030. In April 2020, Aleph Farms committed to eliminating emissions associated with its meat production by 2025 and reach net-zero emissions across its entire supply chain by 2030.
Once scaled up, cell-cultured meat production could also play a crucial role in helping countries to achieve food security. For example, Singapore – the world’s third most densly populated territory, with 7,810 people per square kilometre and rising – has an ambition to produce 30 per cent of all its food locally by 2030. Understanding the ambitious nature of that target, the heavily import-reliant city state became the first country to rubber-stamp approval of the commercial sale of cultured meat in December 2020.
With demand for meat set to expand dramatically in the decades ahead, the partnerships of cultured meat innovators like Aleph Farms with major industry incumbents demonstrates how incorporating innovation into the local agricultural ecosystem could help companies and countries alike to reach their climate and food security goals. Engagement in cultured meat production – alongside the far more commercially-advanced plant-based alternative space – will also help ‘Big Meat’ players like BRF maintain market share and relevance in a world of shifting consumer expectations.