CRISPR Tech Could Bring Cheaper Beef to Your July 4 Cookout

As beef prices increase, biotech could provide a cheaper and tasty alternative.


Grilling on the Fourth of July is as American as apple pie, but as burgers and steaks get more pricey, fewer Americans can afford to pay up. Thankfully, biotech is working on a solution.  

The California-based biotechnology startup SCiFi Foods is in the process of building its pilot plant to develop cultivated beef using CRISPR technology, with plans to release the product to a select group of a half dozen restaurant partners by the end of the year, SCiFi CEO and co-founder Joshua March tells Reason.

CRISPR targets and cuts genetic material to manipulate the code of organisms, enabling the suppression of some traits and the enhancement of others.

"CRISPR allows us to make tiny changes to [beef] cells to optimize their behavior," explains March. This allows SCiFi to target the high costs of cultivated beef by developing beef cells in single-cell suspension (a technique that has been used in the past for chicken and fish cells, but not beef), allowing the cells to grow in large-scale bioreactors without the need for microcarriers. This tech drastically reduced SCiFi's production costs and enabled the company to forgo expensive cell growth media components—gels or liquids used to support cellular growth in artificial environments.

"We've already dramatically decreased the cost of our ground beef through this process, and have a clear route to get to price parity with conventional beef (and to eventually be even cheaper)," says March.

The company says this tech makes its cell-based beef a thousand times cheaper to produce compared to other cell-based beef, and it aims to sell burgers for $1 each on a commercial scale. 

It's safe to say that consumers would welcome cheaper beef. In 2016, Americans spent more than $800 million on beef during the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July weekend, and "beef and veal prices rose 1.5 percent in May 2023, the largest monthly increase since October 2021," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

March recognizes that some consumers may hesitate to switch to CRISPR beef but feels that the size of the industry and the production-associated benefits (CRISPR beef doesn't require deforestation or factory farming) will win over meat lovers.

"When studies explain cultivated meat to consumers, about 1/3 are really excited to try it 1/3 are neutral, and 1/3 say they would never touch it," says March. "Given that meat is a [trillion-dollar] market that's continuing to grow rapidly around the world, and that it will take some time to fully ramp up production, I really think that the challenge for us will be how quickly we can ramp up supply, not lack of demand."

March says taste won't be an issue because SCiFi mixes real beef cells with plant-based ingredients.

"While a portion of them are made of plant-based ingredients, we also add real beef cells which, even a small percentage, provide the same sizzle, smell, taste, and function of a conventional ground beef burger," notes March. "Plant-based products like Impossible and Beyond took us a long way, say from Boca Burgers, there is still something lacking—that genuine fat—and even a small amount makes a big difference in the overall experience of your burger."

SCiFi's next step is to get regulatory approval, a process that has become easier due to a USDA ruling that delineates CRISPR-made products from those with GMOs. Recent regulatory rulings signal a positive precedent for SCiFi; last week, the USDA approved the production and sale of lab-grown chicken for the first time.

"Thus far, out of about 150 companies in the entire space, only two have gained [Food and Drug Administration] approval. This is just a process that takes time," explains March. "It's great that the USDA [doesn't] consider CRISPR to be a GMO technology, and this certainly helps streamline our approach to regulatory approval (our use of CRISPR doesn't make it any longer to get approval than any other cultivated meat company)."

When regulators step out of the way and allow biotech companies to make tasty, cheap beef alternatives, consumers have a little extra cash to splurge on fireworks and mini American flags.