The Bioreactor Gap
The cultivated meat revolution will require one of the most significant infrastructure buildouts of our generation
Yossi Quint
July 10, 2023

Cultivated meat is on the precipice of transformational growth, but the industry lacks the infrastructure required to produce it at scale.

Cultivated meat has the potential to transform the way people eat. But to drive systemic change in our food systems – or to feed even 1% of the population – will require a once-in-a-century infrastructure buildout.

Transforming food systems with next-generation infrastructure

Cultivated meat is grown in bioreactors - equipment designed to provide a controlled environment to grow cells under optimal conditions. Today, almost all bioreactor capacity in the world is used by the pharmaceutical industry.

Building out enough bioreactor capacity to empower the cultivated meat industry to produce at scale will be a transformation on par with the infrastructure build outs that made possible the switch from horses to cars, from candlelight to electricity, and from almost total reliance on fossil fuels to a landscape rich with renewable energy systems.

Similar to how the rapid expansion of renewable energy technologies transformed the energy landscape, a buildout of bioreactor capacity will transform agriculture as we know it, and enable a growing global population to eat meat sustainably.

Today’s bioreactor capacity is not enough to feed even 0.01% of the global population

Bioreactor capacity is severely lacking. There is a massive gap between what exists today, and what’s needed for cultivated meat to reach any meaningful scale.

This is where we stand:

Approximately 15 million liters (imagine six Olympic swimming pools) of bioreactor capacity exists today. That’s enough volume to produce about 100 million kilograms of meat annually – an amount that would satisfy U.S. meat consumption for one day or global consumption for a couple of hours.

Capacity calculations based on expected yield of 8.2 kg/L/year, which assumes 50% of cultivated meat is produced with an optimized fed-batch process, and 50% is produced with an optimized continuous process.
Sources: OECD, USDA, Ibis World, U.S. Census, Ark TEA

To satisfy just 1% of U.S. meat consumption would require 120 million liters of bioreactor capacity. That’s 10 times more capacity than exists today. And to feed the planet? That would require over 150 billion liters – with the capacity to produce over 1 trillion pounds of meat each year.

Sounds ambitious, right?

But think of it this way:

We could produce enough meat protein to satisfy global appetites in a space less than half the size of the island of Manhattan

Right now, 40% of Earth’s surface is taken up by agriculture. And most of that space is used not to feed humans, but to feed farm animals. Over a quarter of ice-free land is used for livestock grazing, and one-third of farmable land is used for crops destined for livestock feed. When you consider that it takes 100 calories of grain to produce 12 calories of chicken or just 3 calories of beef, it becomes clear that conventional agriculture is a painfully inefficient way to feed the world. And on a warming planet with a growing population, these inefficiencies are something we can no longer afford.

Global meat consumption could be satisfied by as little as 60 billion liters of bioreactor capacity – a volume that could fit into a space equivalent to 460 New York City blocks.

Ark’s commodity scale bioreactors, running a mix of fed-batch and continuous processes, could produce enough cultivated meat to satisfy global appetites within an area of 104 million square feet – a space equivalent to about 460 New York City blocks

But let’s not confuse space efficiency for insignificance. Building enough capacity to feed even 1% of the global population will be a monumental undertaking – and a colossal step forward in building a sustainable future for human life on this planet.

Scaling cultivated meat production to satisfy global appetites would free up double-digit percentages of the world for reforestation and rewilding. This alone would enable cleaner air, slow global warming, and restore biodiversity, bringing countless species back from the brink of extinction. 

And the effects would go beyond environmental impact. Making the switch from conventional animal agriculture to a global food system with cultivated meat as a pillar would result in immensely positive outcomes for human well-being, too. It would increase food access. It would improve worker safety. And it would provide a better, healthier alternative to factory-farmed meat – a food contaminated with hormones and antibiotics, and often riddled with disease.

The effects would be transformative.

Disrupting the current meat industry will require reimagining the bioreactor

There’s work to be done. The 15 million liters of bioreactor capacity available today has been built up over decades at the cost of billions of dollars. Using today’s industrial bioreactor prices, we would need to spend upwards of $18 trillion to build out enough bioreactor capacity to feed the planet cultivated meat.

To move forward in any meaningful way, we need to think differently.

At Ark, we’re creating bioreactors purpose-built to the unique needs of the cultivated meat industry. When produced at scale, Ark’s bioreactors will be 85%+ cheaper than the biggest bioreactors today, and capable of scaling to millions of liters.

Compared to current food systems (and compare we must), the cultivated meat industry could scale to satisfy global appetites with a smaller environmental footprint, and a fraction of the land use. An infrastructure buildout of this magnitude will be a landmark moment in human history – one we’ll look back on and identify as a catalyst of a vital positive tipping point – and a key contributor in a successful fight against the worst effects of climate change. 

The revolution is here. Let’s empower it to scale – a better future demands it.

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