Cellular agriculture enables production of animal protein without the need to raise and manage livestock. This is an alternative which could help meet the challenges facing the agricultural sector, given the need to produce more food because of demographic changes and growing urbanisation.
The world’s population is increasing inexorably. According to the United Nations, the planet will play host to 9.7 billion inhabitants by 2050 and and cities and towns will be accommodating the majority of the population. Back in 1960, city dwellers accounted for 34% of the world’s population, but this figure had risen to 54% by 2014 and the number of people living in cities is expected to rise by 2% per year on average until 2030. These two billion extra mouths to feed and the concentration of people in urban areas means that the entire food production and distribution chain will have to be re-thought.
The environmental stakes are also high. NGO Global Footprint Network has calculated that if we continue growing at the same rate as we are now, we will need two planets to provide us with sufficient natural resources by 2030.
Agriculture, the sector immediately impacted by this population growth, will need to produce more against a background of limited reserves – due inter alia to depletion of the soil and lower water tables. And there are particular issues when it comes to rearing livestock: some 18% of global CO2 emissions arise from meat production alone and it takes 1,670 litres of water to produce 500 grams of beef. Meanwhile meat consumption is growing at an astounding rate. In developing countries, where the population is growing fastest, meat consumption has increased by 5 to 6% per year over the last few decades, and dairy consumption has risen by around 4%.
The pressure to produce more animal protein is giving rise to intensive industrial livestock farming, which is highly polluting. In the United States, the size of dairy production facilities doubled between 1997 and 2012, while the average size of cow-calf operations – cattle destined for meat production – increased from 3,800 head to over 4,000.
The challenges of agriculture, from the report "AgTech: Will technology feed and save us?" by L'Atelier BNP Paribas
A variety of solutions are now emerging in an attempt to address these challenges. AgTech, coupled with data-driven agriculture, is a way of enabling farmers to optimise their efforts. Urban, vertical agriculture, whether inside or outside, is another way of responding to the requirement to supply the ‘smart cities’ of tomorrow.
Now however, we are beginning to hear about another, more disruptive alternative, originating in California, a region that both has lots of agricultural land and is a hotbed of innovation. The new technique is called cellular agriculture. On the back of advances in tissue engineering and synthetic biology, this new approach is designed to produce meat, eggs, dairy products and also leather, plus potentially a lot of other animal-derived products, by replacing traditional animal breeding with lab-derived cell cultures.
This laboratory-based ‘farming’ can produce two types of output: non-cellular products – i.e. organic proteins and compounds such as vanillin, gelatin, ovalbumin and casein – and cellular products such as meat, offal and leather.
The final product, whether it comes from growing vegetables or raising animals in the traditional way or from a laboratory culture, purports to be the same. It is only the production process that is different, claims New Harvest, an NGO that finances projects in this field and is trying to forge a community of scientists and interested parties to help spread the word on this subject.
Insulin, the first amino acid produced in a Petri dish
A similar scenario can be observed with cheese production. At the core of cheese production is rennet, a natural coagulant, originally extracted from the fourth and final stomach of calves’ known as the rennet-bag. Nowadays, animal-derived rennet is no longer the only coagulant used in cheese-making. The agrifood industry also uses lactic acid fermentation, and since 1990 – when the US Food and Drug Administration approved the process – a large number of American cheeses have been made using rennet sourced from yeast and bacteria grown in the laboratory.
Cellular agriculture processes explained by New Harvest
The First ‘in vitro’ burger
These are not brand new techniques, but they have been enhanced recently by the latest progress in the field of biotechnology. In 2005, the first scientific research was carried out in the Netherlands and in 2009, the first-ever laboratory meat was created. In 2013, Mark Post, a Dutch researcher at the University of Maastricht, caused a sensation when he revealed to the world the ‘first in vitro burger’, which a group of scientists had been working for two years to create…at a total cost of just $350,000!
More recently, young tech startups have been getting into this vibrant area of development. L’Atelier has identified 21 US startups that are specialising in cellular agriculture. Over the last five years, these companies have attracted funding totalling no less than $567.2 million. Bill Gates has invested in California-based startups Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. This latter company has also received backing from the two Twitter co-founders. The startups working in this field are taking one of two possible approaches: some are working to culture meat, eggs, dairy products and cheese from animal stem cells; while others draw proteins and other organic substances from the plant world and then reconstitute the look, taste and nutritional properties of the food they wish to produce.
‘Cultured meat’ – i.e. meat developed from animal stem cells – is the speciality of San Francisco-based startup Memphis Meats. The firm has recently raised $3 million in capital to pursue its production of beef and pork, which is based on real cells from cows and pigs but without going the route of traditional animal rearing. Memphis Meats, with whom L’Atelier met up at the New Harvest Conference in San Francisco in July, is planning to distribute its products to restaurants by 2021.
“It takes between fourteen and twenty-one days for the cells to mature in a bioreactor,‟ revealed David Kay, the company’s Business Analyst, explaining: “Contrary to what one might think, this is not meat that has been grown in a lab, with all the negative associations that might arouse. It’s more accurate to see this new way of producing food as a brewery technique, but for producing meat rather than beer!” Today it would cost Memphis Meats $18,000 to produce 450 grams of beef. “We’re trying to automate our processes in order to reduce our costs,‟ Memphis Meat co-founder Uma Valeti told Fortune magazine in May.
Professor Mark Post holds the first-ever in vitro burger (Photo: David Parry/AFP/Getty Images)
Meanwhile Impossible Foods, a firm founded in 2011 which has so far raised a total of $182 million in capital to finance its expansion, has come up with a minced steak made entirely of plant matter. The company’s bio-engineers have found in cereals, beans and leaf vegetables all the nutrients required to put together a steak. They are able to isolate leghaemoglobin, a haemoprotein found in the nitrogen-fixing root nodules of leguminous plants with a structure that is very close to haemoglobin, which enables them to recreate the texture and colour of beefsteak as we know it. They then add amino acids, vitamins and fats in order to reconstitute the nutritional components. The Impossible Foods burger is expected to be available on the US market this year. However, minced steak is just the beginning. The Redwood City, California-based startup is planning to produce other types of meat and also cheeses.
These methods can also be used to produce fish-type foodstuffs. Another Californian startup called New Wave Foods, which has just graduated from Indie Bio, the noted Ireland and California-based startup accelerator for synthetic biology companies, is taking a similar approach to Impossible Foods, i.e. looking to plants for the proteins required to create fish – in the first instance synthetic prawns.
Putting an end to the chicken-and-egg paradox
Meat production is not the only goal of cellular agriculture. Some firms working in this field are looking at ways of recreating eggs in the laboratory. Given that it takes around 2,270 litres of water to produce a dozen eggs, ‘eggs without chickens’ would seem to be a worthy objective.
San Francisco-based biotech startup Clara Foods decided to take on this particular challenge. Last year the company raised $1.7 million in capital in order to pursue its research in this area. Clara Foods CEO Arturo Elizondo told the audience at L’Atelier’s June event in San Francisco on the future of food that the market for egg white is growing. In the United States it attained a value of $8 billion in 2015. Demand comes first and foremost from the agrifood industry, which is keenly interested in its potential.
Egg white contains 90% water and 10% protein and is thus perfectly suited to in vitro production. Whether used for its emulsion properties, for colouring or for binding together a variety of ingredients, the A, B and C protein groups it contains all come into play. The approach Clara Foods is using is fermentation, a traditional and very efficient process, to recreate these proteins in Petri dishes.
In 2011, San Francisco-based food tech startup Hampton Creek began to produce egg-free mayonnaise using vegetable substitutes such as the Canadian yellow field pea. In 2013 they started selling the product in California under the name ‘Just Mayo’. This ‘mayonnaise 2.0’ is now being sold throughout the United States. With a price point 10% below both traditional mayonnaise brands on the market and those labelled ‘cholesterol-free’ or ‘vegan’, Just Mayo sales increased by 350% in 2015!
Designing dairy products without animal content
Next in line after meat and eggs comes milk and milk-derived products. The number of startups working in this field, offering alternatives to cow’s milk, is growing fast. Ripple Foods makes dairy-free milk by combining proteins, vitamins and natural sugars from yellow peas, sugar cane and sunflower oil. The Silicon Valley-based startup claims that its milk is up to eight times richer in proteins than almond milk, is cholesterol-free, and has only half the sugar content of cow’s milk.There are also a smaller number of ventures underway in the field of milk protein culture. Muufri, which has set up in San Francisco, uses yeast cultures to create lactose-free milk. The food tech startup, which honed its business proposition at the Indie Bio accelerator, draws on a range of proteins and fatty acids to recreate the taste, texture and nutritional components of milk.Meanwhile some companies are taking on the challenge of creating non-dairy cheese. Kite Hill, a fledgling San Francisco firm, has managed to raise $18 million to finance the development of cheeses made from almonds. Kite Hill produces four types of cheese, five flavours of yoghourt and two cheese spreads, which can currently be bought from the shelves of some Whole Foods Market stores, the largest supermarket chain for biological products in the US. With a view to making their products accessible to the general public, the founders are planning to distribute their products through other supermarket chains as well.
The common goal: traceable, environmentally-friendly alternative foods
Whether they are working on alternative meat, eggs or dairy products, an increasing number of startups are now getting into cellular agriculture. So what are the promises it holds? The first potential benefit is for the environment. From an environmental viewpoint non-animal foods have much less impact than current farming and ranching methods. In vitro meat production consumes 90% less water and land, and 50% less energy, claims Memphis Meats. The impetus behind this alternative food movement is precisely the growing realisation among the general public that our current agricultural system is running out of steam, that the pressure to increase livestock production is becoming too high and that this is all having serious consequences for the environment.
And underlying all these alternative food initiatives is a common desire: to produce food in a fully transparent manner. “Cellular agriculture provides an extraordinary opportunity for transparency while at the same time protecting intellectual property,‟ argued Arturo Elizondo at the New Harvest conference. This goal is shared by consumers. Last year a survey by Deloitte, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association revealed that 51% of all US consumers polled want clear precise labelling, showing the provenance of food products. This means, for example, that genetically modified foodstuffs must be labelled as such. Moreover, 47% of all respondents said they wanted precise information on product ingredients and clear traceability.
So where does all this leave farmers? “We should see cellular agriculture as an opportunity to go and talk to farmers. It’s crucial to open up a dialogue during agricultural events and to show that this is an opportunity and an alternative to animal production rather than a threat,” stressed Dr Marianne Ellis, a bio-engineering specialist at the University of Bath in the UK. For her research into in vitro meat culture Dr Ellis has teamed up with an English farmer who specialises in raising pigs and producing cooked meat products. “In the UK, agriculture is part of rural life, it shapes our countryside and must not just disappear. In vitro meat could rejuvenate local agriculture, which today is losing ground,” argued Ellis, sharing her view that cellular agriculture can also be a means of creating added value for traditional meat production in agricultural markets.
Many hurdles to overcome
At the moment, food produced via cellular agriculture is still very cost-intensive so it is not surprising that startups working in this field are keen to enable large-scale production. “Developing our products carries a substantial cost. Reducing this cost is one of our priorities. If we wish to make an impact on as many people as possible, it’s vital that we succeed in automating our processes so we can reduce our costs,‟ Muufri co-founder and CEO Ryan Pandya told the conference.
Cellular agriculture has a number of challenges to overcome: developing a legal framework, foodtech startups’ ability to produce on a large scale, project funding, consumer trust and media exposure
One basic challenge is that an enormous amount of work will be required to develop a legal framework to support the development of these food solutions. The European Commission classes cellular agriculture products as ‘Novel Food’, which is defined as “food that has not been consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU prior to 1997”. Putting these new foodstuffs on to the market in the United States means going through several types of approvals – relating to food safety and nutritional food values, plus also market competition rules – involving a scientific assessment prior to authorisation at federal level and, further down the line, a formal decision on the part of each state. In Europe the Dutch government has already invested several million dollars in research in this field. In the United States, the legal framework is rather more complex and it is more difficult to obtain research grants for work on cellular agriculture.
Judging by the latest guidelines of the US Department of Agriculture it appears that cellular agriculture is not one of the Department’s priority areas. Federal government support for research in this field is minimal, something about which a number of speakers at the New Harvest conference complained. Raising funds can therefore be a headache for academic researchers and young companies. Fortunately, solutions are emerging. Non-profit organisation New Harvest provides research grants. It is also grant-funding the first PhD post in cellular agriculture, starting this month.
Google co-founder a believer
Cellular agriculture resonating far beyond the agrifood business
PIn seeking to attain its ambitious goal of developing food products in a sustainable manner without recourse to livestock farming or intensive cultivation methods, cellular agriculture is promoting the development of tissue engineering and synthetic biology. And the advances being made in these two areas are likely to have an impact on a number of other industries and fields as well.
The medical sector is the first to benefit from tissue engineering. Already it is possible to create stable human tissue, such as skin, bone and cartilage, which augurs well for reparatory surgery and organ transplant surgery going forward.
Meanwhile synthetic biology is opening up new horizons for the pharmaceutical industry. This technique, which involves either reconstructing biological systems already present in nature or creating biological systems not found in nature, enables humanity to reconcile desirable advances in research with the need to safeguard natural ecosystems. Sothic Bioscience, an Irish startup, is now recreating an organic substance known as Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) that is present in the blood of the horseshoe crab, which lives in the waters off North America. LAL is a key component in the production of medicines, being mainly used in the testing phase to verify that the new drug does not represent a danger to human health. However, points out Sothic Bioscience founder Stephen Geary, three quarters of this crab species have died out over the last ten years or so. To remedy this situation and reduce the threat of extinction hanging over the horseshoe crab, Sothic Bioscience uses living organisms, such as bacteria, to create the organic component of LAL.
Synthetic biology also holds a great deal of potential for the textile sector. Modern Meadow has managed to create synthetic leather by reconstituting collagen, a naturally occurring protein in animal skin cells. Depending on the end use of the product, the structure and aesthetics of the leather can be recreated all in one go. Japanese firm Spiber has been working for eleven years to reproduce ‘spider’s silk’, i.e. the fibres spun by spiders for their webs. Working in tandem with outdoor wear manufacturer The North Face, the company has produced the first-ever synthetic spider’s silk jacket, known as the ‘Moon Parka’. Spiber CEO Kenji Higashi, who was at the New Harvest event, explains the process: “We use microbes to develop our synthetic proteins, which are the basis of our fibre. This is different from the fibres created naturally by the spiders, in that we slightly modify the properties so that we can obtain longer strands, with a thicker diameter, which makes it easier to manufacture clothing. Today synthetic biology enables us to control the properties and characteristics of the materials ad so speed up the manufacturing process, while having much less impact on the environment.”
The synthetic fibres commonly used today by the textile industry are obtained by synthesising chemical substances – almost exclusively from hydrocarbons such as petroleum, natural gas and coal, which are all exhaustible fossil resources. Spiber’s value proposition seems to offer a sustainable alternative to this approach. Modern Meadow and Spiber share the same vision: synthetic leather and synthetic spider’s silk are just the first of many potential opportunities for biosynthesis of materials.
In short, by drawing on advances in biotechnology, cellular agriculture offers a viable, environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional animal-based production. However, it will not be able to make headway without supportive action by governments, which are uniquely placed to pass legislation governing the production and sale of cellular agriculture-based products. The scientific community will also need to encourage the authorities to move in this direction. Considerable promotional work will also be needed on the part of both governments and private sector players to familarise the general public with with this new approach to agriculture. Its success will also depend on its willingness and ability to clearly explain the techniques being used to reconstitute proteins and other organic substances. These days the consumer vociferously demands this kind of clarity and openness.
Laboratory-based cellular agriculture, which requires far less space than traditional farming, may well be the ideal solution for supplying the cities of tomorrow, which are set to be by far the main concentration points for the world’s population.