Cultivated Meat and Vertical Farming: Navigating the Trough of Disillusionment

Cultivated Meat and Vertical Farming: Navigating the Trough of Disillusionment

Cultivated meat and vertical farming have been heralded as the future of sustainable food production, promising numerous environmental and ethical benefits. And for good reason.

With skyrocketing global protein demand and the climate emergency putting historically fertile areas in question, we need to develop new, creative sustainable food production technologies of the future. Cultivated meat and vertical farming are two innovative technologies that have the potential to revolutionize the way we produce food and feed ourselves.

To name just a few quick benefits: cultivated meat will revolutionize traditional livestock farming, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, decreasing land and water usage, eliminating animal suffering, and reducing the likelihood of catastrophic antibiotic resistance and food-borne illnesses. Vertical farming will lead to reduced water usage, decreased dependence on pesticides & herbicides, the ability to grow crops year-round, reduced transportation costs, and could increase the demand for clean energy. Both cultivated meat and vertical farming have the potential to increase food sovereignty by enabling communities to grow their own crops and protein locally and sustainably, reducing dependence on external sources and empowering communities to take control of their own food systems.

Like many emerging technologies, they both currently find themselves on the first dip of the Gartner Hype Cycle: the Trough of Disillusionment (why yes, I did pay for an MBA) – a phase within the typical progression of an emerging technology’s public perception and adoption, where the public’s initial enthusiasm and inflated expectations come crashing down. Those following the news see pessimistic articles about the vertical farming bubble popping, or how cultivated meat is overhyped and doomed. With the shut down of cultivated meat firm New Age Eats just a few weeks ago, it seems like they are the first domino in a long line of other potential (likely?) cultivated meat failures.

And guess what? That’s ok. Many more will fail. Regardless of the significant attention and investment these start-ups have seen in recent years, disillusionment is here. Among many reasons, let’s name a few:

  • Nascent state of R&D. Despite promising early results, these technologies are still in their infancy, and many hurdles remain in translating lab-scale successes to mass-market products.
  • Lack of market-ready products. Today, in 2023, they’re both too expensive for average consumers. For cultivated meat, challenges include scaling-up production, reducing costs (fetal bovine serum ain’t cheap), and ensuring regulatory approval (let’s hope more countries don’t promote luddite anti-cultivated meat policies like Italy did last week). Similarly, vertical farming faces issues such as high initial investment costs, high energy consumption, and the need for continuous technological innovation & attention.
  • Challenges of meeting VC growth expectations. Simply put, there’s a mismatch between investor expectations and the current state of R&D. VCs seek rapid growth and quick returns on investment, while the development of these technologies demands substantial resources, time, and patience. As a result, companies are struggling to meet investor expectations, leading to tech skepticism and a decline in overall funding available.
  • Too many firms. There are too many start-ups securing massive VC funding without solid R&D and a product to back up ambitious claims. Are VCs throwing money at people jumping on the bandwagon, hoping to cash in on the next big thing, without fully understanding the complexities and challenges involved? Are we seeing a flood of overhyped cultivated startups with more money than bioreactors, fetal bovine serums, and technical talent? Vertical farming in expensive urban areas that can’t competitively price a head of lettuce, after factoring in rent? The likelihood of 500 start-ups achieving the required level of success is low. Like many nascent science tech, the failure of a few start-ups can be conflated with a failure in the science itself.

Do cultivated meat and vertical farming face huge obstacles in their journey from the lab to the mainstream market?


Is this a death knell for the tech itself?

Absolutely not.

Companies with strong financial backing and a patient approach to R&D are well-positioned to weather this trough of disillusionment. As these technologies mature, become more affordable, reduce costs, and address regulatory and logistical challenges, the market will gradually shift in their favor, allowing them to play their vital role in shaping a more sustainable and ethical food system for the future.

Well-capitalized companies can and will navigate this difficult phase and ultimately emerge as leaders in the industry. But in the meantime, more will fail. And more after that. As R&D continues to advance, it's crucial for governments, industry stakeholders, and consumers to support and invest in these groundbreaking innovations that have the potential to transform the way we produce and consume food.

We just need to be patient.