In conversation with Ivy Farm

With Earth Day just around the corner, everyone’s discussing the various ways they’re investing in the planet. Shrinking our “foodprint” is one action we can all take.

Food production is one of the major contributing factors to climate change. It’s an ongoing debate about what diet is healthiest for us on a nutritional level, let alone how our eating habits affect the environment and animals. What can’t be ignored however, is the fact that mass food production and intensive factory farming needs to change quickly: it’s having too big an impact on the health of the planet, the quality of the food we eat and subsequently our personal health too.

While the idea of going fully plant-based is often pushed to the forefront of the environmental conversation, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to our diets. For meat lovers like myself, there are other options like reducing your meat intake and shopping from your local butchers that can help reduce your foodprint without having to sacrifice anything.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of companies applying their brilliant minds to coming up with other smart solutions, because let’s face it, there’s no way to enforce what everyone eats. One particular innovation that’s been gaining traction is cultivated meat. You might’ve seen the news about an Australian company that recently made a woolly mammoth meatball using this technology, which just shows how advanced the technology has become. 

While few people might be jumping at the novelty of tasting a prehistoric animal, other companies like UK-based Ivy Farm are working on using this technology as a viable solution for the meat industry. After listening to the company’s CEO Rich Dillon deliver an eye-opening talk about The Future of Food at the Web Summit conference recently, I was hooked. Eager to learn more, I sat down with Rich for a chat.

First of all, how exactly are you able to grow real meat?

So the species we kicked off with is pork. We essentially look for a pig that has the right muscle and fat profile. We then take a small sample and our technology allows us to identify the optimal cells to grow rapidly outside the organism. And that’s the secret to it, really. It’s convincing the cells that they’re still in the body and are still good to grow.

Pretty exciting! Where are you currently growing the meat?

The R&D has progressed far enough for us to invest in the pilot plant in Oxford — we opened the first and biggest pilot plant in Europe, which is the proof of concept for a larger production plant. It’s filled with steel tanks that are the bioreactors or fermenters where the cells grow — the largest is 600L. It looks a bit like a craft brewery, but instead of brewing beer, we’re brewing meat.

A lot of people already eat fake meat — how does grown meat compare?

Well grown meat is real meat. I’ve tried a lot of the plant-based alternatives and some of it is good, but some can be quite processed with high sodium content in order to try and mimic the taste of meat, which is not ideal. It’s definitely getting better but the transition to plant-based is not quick enough because people love not only the taste of meat, but also the nutritional value.

And that’s what we can provide. We can control the type and amount of fat in it: less saturated, more unsaturated fat, omega 3, iron levels and vitamin B12. The meat we will offer is a really nice bridge for people who want to eat meat, but care about it being better for the planet, better for the animals and better for human health.

Wins all around! Where’s the market at right now with cultivated meat?

Right now, cultivated meat is only regulated and declared safe for human consumption in Singapore and the US. These countries are already benefiting from a clearer regulatory path that supports their domestic cultivated meat industries.

If I’m honest, I think Europe and the UK are behind some other countries on food technology regulation and will probably need to reinvent their framework. It’s been a year since the government’s announcement that the UK’s novel food regulations will be reviewed to make them more ‘transparent and effective.’ While this is a step in the right direction, there needs to be a greater sense of urgency from the government to provide the Food Standards Agency (FSA) with the support, resources and expertise to follow through on these intentions, overhaul the regulations and optimise this opportunity.

Despite the opportunity of becoming a global leader in the space, the UK runs the risk of being left behind if a more regulatorily conducive process is not put in place soon. This is why we’re looking at other potential launch markets, such as the US or Asia, where the regulatory environment will enable us to get our products to market sooner rather than later.

It’s a little worrying seeing that Italy is potentially going to be the first country to ban cultivated meat. There is clearly some resistance to the product — how have you found the consumer reaction so far?

At least when I came into the industry a couple of years ago, I thought the consumer reaction was going to be a big challenge. Most of the media would refer to it as lab-grown meat, some going as far as alluding to Frankenstein. But what we found is that younger consumers get it, whereas the older consumers are less interested — they expect the food on their plate to come from traditional methods.

A couple of years ago at a COP26 event, we cooked the world’s first cultivated hotdog live in front of in-person and online audiences — we made a hotdog because everyone knows how a hotdog should taste! We had Michelin-trained TikTok chef Poppy O’Toole prepare, cook and taste it and give her feedback — she loved it! Around 10,000 people tuned in online and the feedback was 98% positive, which was great.

You can’t go wrong with a good hotdog! In terms of getting the product to market, what challenges are you currently facing?

There are some barriers to bringing the cost down and scaling up quickly. The cost of plant-based food for cells is a big one. No one’s really grown mammalian cells to eat before. The only other industry that grows mammalian cells is biopharmaceutical, and that would be to make vaccines and antibodies etc. But because vaccines are tiny and people aren’t having them every day, the scale of that is quite small, and also the pharma industry can charge very high prices so don’t worry about the costs too much.

Then you think about how cheap it is to feed an animal. The input costs for food versus biopharmaceutical is so drastically different. Yet right now, the only inputs that we can buy are from the biopharmaceutical industry. So we’re working with certain providers, suppliers, supply chains to get the food for cells at food grade purity and food grade costs, plus in bulk quantities. It’s just not quite there yet, but it’s a challenge that can be overcome with time.

What are the next steps for Ivy Farm?

We recently announced a partnership with Dennis Group to establish a manufacturing plant overseas in a market such as the US. We’re hoping to have our products available in small-scale, premium restaurants in the near short term, followed by the aim of reaching supermarket shelves for all consumers to enjoy, in later years.

But as with any nascent industry, the initial costs will be high due to limited availability. As the industry scales and more competition and products enter the market however, we expect cultivated meat to be priced competitively and eventually reach price parity with traditionally produced meat products.

And lastly, what do you predict for the future of the cultivated meat industry?

I think in 10 years’ time, buying cultivated meat will be as normal as buying meat today — it’ll be in the same form as products we buy everyday, such as sausages, burgers, gyozas and in ready meals. It’ll look and taste exactly the same, be affordable and be part of consumers’ regular diets — people will be able to continue enjoying eating real meat, but without a side order of environmental guilt.

Find out more about Ivy Farm and its innovative, cultivated meat here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s