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Cellular Agriculture – The New Food Revolution

July 24, 2020

FFAC board member and microbiologist Raphael Roccor discusses the rising technologies that may revolutionize the way we produce food.

The new field of cellular agriculture (or cell ag) is striving towards taking animals out of our food system, molecule by molecule, cell by cell, food by food.

When I was a kid, I loved watching Star Trek, especially The adventures of Captain Picard and his crew. They vivified my dreams of living in advanced societies that used highly sophisticated technologies and have solved all of our current struggles. A particularly  neat tool they had was the replicator - a  device that created any kind of food instantly. With modern biotechnology, we may be  getting closer to that ingenious technology. For example, 3D-printers that can print cells and create meat almost instantaneously are not tales of the future anymore.

Ending factory farming is at the core of FFAC’s vision and mission. Arguably, without innovation, this future will not be realistic. The new field of cellular agriculture (or cell ag) is striving towards taking animals out of our food system, molecule by molecule, cell by cell, individual by individual.

Earlier this month, we had a great webinar with Amy Huang (University Innovation Specialist at the Good Food Institute, GFI), Patricia Bubner (Cofounder and CEO of the cell-based meat startup Orbillion Bio), and Chris Bryson (Investor and startup mentor in the cell ag space). Here are some learning outcomes from this event and further details on cellular agriculture and the new food revolution. Find the full recording here.

Food evolution and technology

The next step in the evolution of our food will be the replacement of animal products.

Food has been a higher technology product since the beginning of industrialization. Advanced breeding techniques and genetic modifications of crops are means to select and introduce new traits. Food is highly processed by extraction, extrusion, or blending using sophisticated machines to make your favorite cereal or snack. We also use fermentation techniques and isolated enzymes to alter the texture, flavor, or color of our food.

The next step in the evolution of our food will be the replacement of animal products. Vegetarians and vegans have increased demand for  more alternatives to meat and milk especially since the counterculture and green movement in the 1960s and 70s. Initially, these products were far away from being viewed as commonly acceptable or dominating the meat and milk aisles in the supermarket. One might say that the anti-capitalistic nature of these movements did not prioritize conquering new markets and mass production. Today, as we are becoming more aware of the impacts of animal agriculture on our environment and our health, as well as  the ethical issues surrounding massively farming animals, high-tech and big business are utilized to revolutionize the agricultural and food industry. New technologies are being developed to not only simulate meat and other animal products, but to recreate and exactly match these. Meat is one of the most desired foods, ingrained in culture and traditions, and brings many people pleasure. The hope is that consumers will not only accept these alternatives more readily than your traditional Tofurkey as a replacement but actually prefer them over the real animal-derived ones. So, how is this being done?

What is cellular agriculture?

Cellular agriculture may be broadly defined as the application of (plant-based) biotechnology and related fields (synthetic biology, molecular biology, tissue engineering) to recreate products that traditionally come from agriculture. A big focus lays on cultured meat.

One way to replace meat and other animal products is to use plant-derived proteins and recreate the texture of meat with more sophisticated blending and extrusion techniques. This strategy is applied, for example, by the famous Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Throw in some science-based flavoring and you have your meaty plant-based burger. Impossible Foods is using another trick to create an even more realistic flavor. They include the blood molecule heme which they derive from yeast. Here is where  novel biotechnology comes into play. The yeast, commonly used for brewing beer, is genetically modified to produce an equivalent of hemoglobin (leghemoglobin from soybean root nodules), a protein containing heme which functions as an oxygen carrier in our blood. The isolated hemoglobin is the key ingredient in the Impossible Burger. It goes through an interesting process when you cook it and gives their burgers a very meaty taste. The technology for producing this molecule is also referred to as recombinant, meaning recombining the genetic nature of an organism. It is a very common method in research and in the biotech industry to produce specific enzymes or molecules (e.g. insulin) from one organism with, most commonly, a robust, easy to grow microbial strain (e.g. yeast or bacteria). This technology is used by other new companies in the food space to recreate various animal products. Perfect Day, for example, is using a fungus to brew the milk proteins casein and whey. Geltor is utilizing a common bacterium to craft collagen, the protein that is traditionally isolated from skin and bones as a by-product of the meat industry, and can be transformed into gelatin used as a gelling agent in gummies and other food products. Clara Foods is making eggs without hens by introducing the genetic code for egg albumen into yeast cells and fermenting them to extract that protein at mass scale. All these fermentation, microbe-based products are also classified as acellular products (because the product is an isolate and does not contain any cells).

In the last decade, trailblazing companies like Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, and Aleph Farms have made tremendous advancements in recreating real meat. The process of growing animal tissue in a bioreactor is what most people understand as cellular agriculture and the product is referred to as cultured or cultivated meat, cell-based meat, or sometimes clean meat and slaughter-free meat. How does this process work? It begins with taking a tiny tissue biopsy from an animal to isolate stem cells. These cells can then be precultured in the lab to multiply them many times and then transferred to a bioreactor or cultivator tank for meat production. The cells can be loosely grown as layers or conglomerates for ground meats or turned into structured tissues using scaffolds onto which the cells can adhere. To get the cells growing, the conditions in the living animal need to be simulated. That means feeding the cells the essential nutrients and growth factors to proliferate. In biopharmaceutical research, the cultivation of animal cells is often relying on media with growth serum derived from the blood of a cow fetus. However, these media are very expensive, not reliable, and arguably not ethical, defeating the purpose of creating a new industry without the exploitation of animals. Synthetic media has been developed that emulates this fetal growth serum and can be produced much more cost effective. Nevertheless, the growth medium is still one of the most expensive component for cultured meat production and more innovation as well as building the infrastructure needed at scale will be critical to make this type of meat affordable.

What about genetic engineering?

In general, acellular products require genetic engineering (as described above) and cellular ones may not. The cells that are used for cultured meats simply perform without modification in a bioreactor like they would in the animal. However, components added to the cell culture for growing them may include ones derived from genetically modified cells. And in future developments, the animal cells could be modified to create certain traits. How concerned should we be about using these techniques? The debate about the potential benefits or risk of producing and consuming genetically modified/engineered organisms (GMO/GEO) is vast and tense and would go well beyond the scope of this post. Both sides of the spectrum have good arguments but are also biased by preshaped opinions and uncritical review of the evidence. This much can be said, though, the technology is a tool and thereby inherently impartial. Take a knife, for example. It can be used to slice a tomato or to hurt someone. Thus, the more important questions are, how do we use this tool and how do we regulate it and ensure its safety? An outright ban or avoidance would be unjustified.

Are these options healthier, safer, better for the planet?

The impact on the environment by cellular products is far less compared to any animal product.

In contrast to traditional animal agriculture, cellular agriculture products are made in a tightly controlled, clean, and isolated environment. No excessive antibiotics are needed and no infectious diseases can be bred, thereby reducing the risks of major global health threats. In fact, factory farming is using the vast amount of our antibiotic supply to increase their meat output and as a preventive measure to cope with the unhygienic and intense confinements the animals are held in. This antibiotic overuse is associated with the rise of pathogenic bacteria resistant to common antibiotics and a staggering percentage of meat products in supermarkets was found to be contaminated with these bugs. On top of that, intensive livestock farming can be a breeding ground  for emerging viruses and several outbreaks have also spread to humans posing an ongoing risk for the next pandemic.

The other positive thing about cellular agriculture is that the nutritional profile can be modified. For example, the cells could be engineered to produce more vitamins, antioxidants, or essential omega-3 fatty acids. Factors associated with health risks, such as cholesterol or cancer promoting substances found in meat, could be reduced.

The consumption of cultured meat should not impose any direct health concerns. However, the safety of these products will still need to be proven. In the U.S., the general safety of the cultured meat products will be rigorously tested and assessed by the Food and Drug Administration before they reach the customers. But as with regular meat, consumption should be limited (everything in moderation) and enjoyed as a weekly treat instead of a daily staple. It is still meat, which may have some negative health impacts if consumed excessively. If in doubt, a whole food plant-based diet is probably your best and safest option.

The impact on the environment by cellular products is far less compared to any animal product. Growing cells directly into meat products is just much more efficient and, therefore, less resource intensive than growing a whole animal. Depending on the type, cultured meat can reduce land use by a minimum of one third to up to over 95%. Freeing up land that has been used directly or indirectly (for cultivating feeding crops) for animal farming can play a major role for fighting climate change. Replacing beef has the biggest impact and can reduce climate change emission by almost 90%. Enormous amounts of manure can be eliminated by cellular agriculture and water and air pollution will be alleviated. Because cultured meat is not produced at scale, yet, the impact and life cycle analysis for those products are still based on estimates and we can only clearly state their environmental footprint once they enter the production phase. A good overview of the basic facts can be found here.

What about the animals (and the farmers)?

Farmed animals are still required to make cell-based meats. Stem cells need to be taken from the animals for a constant supply of fresh cells that can be multiplied. However, this biopsy is arguably not harming the animals in a way that conventional farming is, very few animals are required, and they can live a much happier, adequat life. Technology may also advance and enable us to constantly replicate the stem cells, eventually making these biopsies obsolete and cell-based meat production completely  free from animals.

At scale, cellular agriculture can replace factory farming. Abating animal agriculture is an important step but we will likely not completely eradicate animal farming. And some argue, farmers whose livelihood depend on this industry have to be included in this journey. Orbillion Bio, the company of our panelist Patricia Bubner, for example, wants to work with small-scale farmers. "For generations, livestock farmers have carefully selected and bred animals with desirable characteristics. We continue the work of these farmers by taking cells from unique heirloom breeds for the meat we cultivate”, Bubner added for this piece. They see that small-scale farmers will play an important role and “want to honor their work and contributions to the food system”.

What is missing from this food revolution?

Cellular agriculture is a burgeoning industry. The potential to replace the trillion dollar global meat industry is huge. Some experts say that production at scale is just a couple of years away. Others argue that we cannot say for sure when the first cultured meat products will be found in the supermarkets, especially at a price point affordable for most people. Important pieces of the infrastructure for this industry are still missing. For example, the supply of sufficient volumes of growth media is lacking and big enough bioreactor tanks need yet to be developed. More know-how and talent for making various meat products is critically needed. This was one of the major points that our panelists raised. We need more scientists and engineers who can advance the innovations and the scale-up. Animal cell lines require different growth and differentiation methods. Also, some species have been neglected in stem cell research and several cell lines have yet to be developed. Cultured fish, for example, has large potential and replacing fish is an urgent necessity to save our oceans from overfishing and pollution by aquaculture. But due to the lack of expertise and resources in research of cells and tissue from fish, cultured fish is lagging behind. Basically, you need a new company for every meat-alternative product you want to develop.

The bottom line

When adopting these new technologies, we also need other important debates around the issue of food sovereignty and justice.

We live in the interesting time of rapidly changing industries. The food industry is no exception. Driven by mission aligned entrepreneurs, philanthropic investors and consumer demands for more ethical, cleaner, and healthier products we may experience a very different food system in the next few decades. But technology is not the end all be all and is only as good and ethical as we will make it. When adopting these new technologies, we also need other important debates around the issue of food sovereignty and justice. How do we ensure that we have a just and democratic food system? How do we include local, small-scale producers and communities in this movement? How do we make sure we supply culturally appropriate foods that are accessible and affordable for everyone without creating food monopolies? Who will supply the nutrients for the cell cultures to grow meat and other products? Because cellular agriculture is high-tech, involving traditional farmers may be challenging. But because it is a new start and the movement is driven by startups, we also have the chance to rethink how our food system is structured. Cellular agriculture is one step towards revolutionizing our food system and eradicating factory farming. But it is not the only one. For now, going vegan and adopting a whole foods plant-based diet is the most immediate action we as individuals can take in the interest of our own health, the health of the planet, and the lives of billions of animals.


Further resources - A comprehensive explanation of cultured meat - A short analysis on sustainability of cultured meat - A brief overview on cellular agriculture - An outlook on the future of meat - News about cellular agriculture and list of cell ag companies - A good collection of short answers to the most frequent questions about cultured meat - An outlook study on our future food system

Raphael Roccor is currently finishing his PhD degree in Microbiology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. His research interest is in designing microbes to transform waste materials into renewable chemicals that can replace petroleum or other unsustainable sources. During his studies, Raph co-founded a company to create new oils for the personal care industry that are usually derived from unsustainable palm oil. He also led the Vancouver Chapter of Startup Grind for one year and helped inspire and connect local entrepreneurs during monthly ‘fireside chat’ events. Raph ultimately aims to apply his skills in developing alternatives to animal-based products using biotechnology. He also sits on Factory Farming Awareness Coalition's Board of Directors. .