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The Future of Food is not a Steak

“Hybrid” fresh cell-based shrimp, algae, mushroom mycelia sushi
“Hybrid” fresh cell-based shrimp, algae, mushroom mycelia sushi

Cell-based food companies (beef, chicken, seafood and fish cellular agriculture or lab-grown meat) are attracting substantial investor interest. Cruelty-free and environmentally sustainable meat is urgently required to satisfy growing global demand and many hope that cell-based eating will mirror the meteoric growth of plant-based eating. Investors eagerly bet on early-stage companies that they hope will become the Beyond or Just of cell-based food — putting the first bioreactor-grown burger or tuna steak into Whole Foods? This feverish interest in cell-based food is driven by a perception of insatiable consumer demand for minimally processed, wellness-promoting food made from clean label ingredients in a manner that respects our planet.

At a recent conference, Pat Brown the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods publicly stated his view that “cell-based food will never be a commercial endeavor”. While Brown’s arguments were primarily about the economics of cell-based meat production, he was also critical of the exclusive focus on growing animal muscle cells for food. Interestingly, the same criticism that Brown levels at the cell-based meat sector may apply to plant-based meat companies such as Impossible and Beyond. The belief that plant-based meat innovation is the future of food has become quite pervasive — to the plant-based boosters its just a matter of getting that meaty taste, look and mouthfeel perfect as a strategy to dominate the supermarket meat department.

The difference between plant and cell-based foods may not be as large as Brown claims. Both approaches to human nutrition are technologically novel and still at a relatively early-stage. While, plant-based meat is widely available in supermarkets, it is still only a tiny segment of the overall meat market. In the case of cell-based meat, the first lab-grown burger was unveiled in 2013. Now, almost 8 years later, we are not much closer to being able to buy a similar product at the local food market. As with all new technologies, we tend to underestimate the environmental impact of both cell and plant-based meats. What are the real environmental costs of our growing demand for soy, pea and other legume concentrates and isolates? What is the real contribution of the demand for plant-based meat ingredients to global deforestation? How much water and energy is being used to make industrial plant-based food ingredients and how wasteful is this process? The sustainability claims of cell-based foods are quite spectacular with over 80% reductions in greenhouse gas production and water consumption when comparing a feedlot-raised, beef burger with a bioreactor-grown, cell-based burger. These claims are still largely theoretical and based on an untested, industrial upscale model. The cell-based versus plant-based debate may not be the best way to think about the future of food, as it is linked to the assumption that what we will be eating in 2050 will look and taste much the same as what is on our plates today. Perhaps this obsession with a animal meat-like, bleeding plant-based burger made with industrially processed ingredients is just a byway on our journey to cruelty-free, sustainable food for billions of people?

If you want to see the future of food and meat in particular, perhaps a good place to start is with the era that brought “modern meat”to our tables. Visit the old stockyards of Chicago and the meat packing and processing area (Packingtown) today and you will see very few vestiges of what was, about a century ago, a global center of food innovation. Under conditions that for animals and humans that were deplorably cruel, modern meat processing was essentially invented including supply chain management, cold storage, canning technology, production lines and zero-waste. The Chicago stockyards played a key role in democratizing access to meat through the industrialization of processes to slaughter, butcher, prepare and store animal protein. The decline of the Chicago stockyards did not herald the end of industrial meat. It is the very technologies perfected by the then meat giants such as Armor and Swift that made it possible to process animal meat at an industrial-scale anywhere in the world. The true impact of industrialized meat was more about access than products. Suddenly it became possible for people with very modest incomes to buy animal protein that was safe, easy to transport and store and reasonably priced.

A century from today, we are going to be looking at plant and cell-based meat products with the same critical eye that we look at the Chicago stockyards? The plant-based burger is infinitely superior to a slaughtered beef burger as it is cruelty-free and less wasteful in terms of production inputs, but it will be regarded in the future as just the beginning of our planet’s journey towards sustainable, healthy food. Similarly, the current crop of cell-based meat companies will be seen as technologically primitive and environmentally unsustainable. Will our current plant and cell-based food paradigm stand the test of time? Only if massive upscale is possible and this seems to be extremely challenging today. The growing demand for soy and legumes is driving industrial (as opposed to organic and regenerative) farming with huge social and environmental costs. Making meat and fish in giant bioreactors may never be a feasible way to produce sufficient quantities of food given a range of engineering and biotechnological challenges.

What is the future of food? Rather than restate the obvious, that we should be eating cruelty-free, health and sustainable foods, what are the true drivers of the transformation in what we eat? I believe that within a decade, we will be eating more and more foods that taste and look different to what is on our current industrialized world plates — let us call them “hybrid foods”. Hybrid food will be based on combinations of ingredients from the bottom of the food pyramid such as mushrooms, plants and algae, thereby ensuring sustainability. As our obsession with protein, animal protein in particular, subsides we will be using cell-based fish, beef, seafood as an ingredient rather than as a primary food source. As production technologies such as additive manufacturing or 3-D printing improve, we will be able to make food that looks comfortingly familiar but with ingredients that are healthier and that are produced in ways that are more respectful of our planet.

Hybrid food is not theoretical — we have produced a fresh cell-based shrimp, mushroom mycelia, algal sushi and it tasted great. The innovation in this sushi is the combination of safe, known ingredients using 3-D printing and there is little reason why a cruelty-free, hybrid seafood sushi should not be on the market in 2021. Of course, this sushi will initially be expensive, but the technology is scalable and production inputs for this type of cellular agriculture include clean, anaerobically digested food waste, thereby introducing the circular economy into our food chain. The hybrid food approach is a practical way to get combinations of plant and cell-based food onto the market within a few years, not decades. Hybrid food offers the quickest route for the transition from the small-scale, laboratory cell-culture paradigm to large-scale cell farming or cellular agriculture. For those of us who believe that the future of food and the future of our planet are inexorably intertwined, the urgency is to innovate by doing — growing, making, cooking and eating.

WRITTEN BY Leonard Lerer

Leonard Lerer is the founder and CEO of Back of the Yards algae sciences, a Chicago-based sustainable industrial biotechnology company.

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