Before voting to adopt California’s $308 billion state budget last month, Assembly Member Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose, took a tour of Upside Foods, a food technology startup in Emeryville. Inside the gleaming new $50 million facility, Kalra, who went vegan four years ago, and three other local politicians sampled Upside’s prototype: lab-grown, or “cultivated,” chicken meat.
“It reminded me of what chicken tastes like,” said Kalra, who was impressed “it tasted gamy.”
In the state’s final budget, Kalra pushed to include a $5 million, one-time investment for cultivated meat research. He originally introduced the line item in March, tucked into a section that earmarks over $5 billion for the University of California system. The funds are to be distributed among three University of California campuses: UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UCLA.
This makes California the first state to offer to fund cultivated meat, a prospective — and unproven — a new form of food. Advocates say that lab-grown meat will be an environmentally friendly alternative to industrial animal agriculture, which is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. And animal welfare is a priority for many of the sector’s vegan founders. But cultivated meat has not been approved for sale by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That hasn’t stopped private investors from funneling millions into the field. Over 80 alternative protein companies call California home. Fourteen of those are actively working on cultivated meat. The process involves removing cells from a live, unharmed animal, and growing and replicating them in steel vessels called bioreactors. Hormones, called “growth factors,” are needed to foster this development, just as in an animal body. A few companies that appear to be the farthest along include Wild Type, which is re-creating salmon; Eat Just, which is developing chicken and Wagyu; and Upside, which is also starting with chicken but has several proteins in development.
Amy Rowat, bioengineering associate professor at UCLA and the Marcie H. Rothman Presidential Chair of Food Studies, said she welcomed the new funding announcement. While it’s as yet unclear how the funds will be distributed, even one-third of the $5 million pot would be a small fortune for Rowat’s lab, which currently receives $362,000 per year from grants. With the added money, Rowat could support new personnel, buy new equipment and further her research into engineering more sustainable foods and alternative protein sources. She also anticipates strong interest on campus, she said: “There is so much student demand to contribute to this arm of research.”
Budget additions like this one don’t go through lengthy reviews and certainly aren’t seen by every single member of the legislature. In this case, the addition was approved by a nine-member subcommittee on higher education finance. The overall budget was overwhelmingly approved across party lines.
The state of California isn’t alone in its increased attention on future foods. In 2020, the National Science Foundation awarded UC Davis $3.55 million to promote cultivated meat research. In 2021, the USDA issued a five-year, $10 million dollar grant to Tufts University in Massachusetts to develop cultivated meat.
The ecosystem outside the U.S. is gaining momentum, too. Singapore, the only country to grant regulatory approval to cell-based meat, is backing the industry financially. The Israeli government put $18 million dollars toward opening a cultivated meat hub. The Dutch government is investing $65 million in building out the local cellular meat industry. And China included cultivated meat in its official five-year agriculture plan.
Bruce Friedrich, founder, and CEO of The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit supporting food tech, has aggressively lobbied politicians like Kalra for support.
“It’s something the state of California should lean into,” said Friedrich, who joined Kalra on the tour of Upside Foods. Following California’s investment, said Friedrich, “we are cautiously optimistic that other states and countries will follow.”
Many believe that government support will propel the industry faster than if it were funded purely by the private sector. To succeed at the grocery store, cultivated meat, which is currently expensive to produce, must achieve price parity with animal meat — though some experts doubt the task is ever possible. Academic research, considered more open-source, could uncover less-expensive processes to grow meat, like better bioreactor designs and less-expensive growth factors.
It’s also difficult to gauge the demand for alternative proteins. Sales for plant-based meat replacements have fluctuated wildly. In 2020, the plant-based refrigerated meat category was way up. In 2021, it flatlined. Beyond Meat, one of the few publicly traded plant-based companies has seen its stock tumble.
And not all academics support state-funded research into cultivated meat.
“This is a one-off grant driven by industry lobbying,” said Will Rosenzweig, faculty director of the Sustainable Food Initiative at UC Berkeley. “It just plays into the takeover of the food system by Silicon Valley.” Rosenzweig worries that large meat companies will ultimately buy out the sector entirely, and would prefer the state invest in “moving people to more plant-centric diets,” he said.
But for Kalra, the assembly member from San Jose, the research funding is a promising first step — and one that may even bring him closer to eating chicken again.
“This is the first investment like this in history,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty good starting point for the state to show its interest.”
Larissa Zimberoff is a Bay Area freelance writer and the author of “Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat.” Email: [email protected]