Cellular Agriculture: What Is It & Who's Doing It?

illustration of a scientist

Animal agriculture is one of the top contributors to greenhouse gases, and producing 1/3 pound burgers requires 7 pounds of grain, 1250 gallons of water, and 50 square feet of space.

To add that to that, factory Farming is a serious problem, especially in the US. In 1990, the EPA reported a 100-fold increase in air and water pollution since 1940 due to animal agriculture. Factory farms create extremely toxic environments for the animals that are raised there, who are given drugs that cause them to gain weight faster, but also make them very sick. Several ethical and environmental concerns arise from these large-scale farming operations.

Rapid innovations are required in the field of agriculture to make animal husbandry and the rearing of animals for meat a more ethical and eco-friendly process. The current technologies for this, however, are still decades behind animal-based meat production. However, scientists and startups have come up with innovative methods of growing meat without slaughterhouses or factory farming. They can take a small number of cells from an animal and reproduce that into meat and milk. This process is widely referred to as cell-based agriculture or cellular agriculture.


What is Cellular Agriculture?

Cellular agriculture is a rapidly developing field that can potentially solve several problems associated with the overconsumption of animal products and the agricultural system. Instead of breeding animals for their meat, cellular agriculture allows creating muscle tissues from cell cultures in bioreactors, which is currently done with progressing efficiency. This technology could satisfy all kinds of meat demands and change people's eating habits in the long term.

The idea of ​​growing meat in laboratories has been around for more than a century, but it is only now that some recent scientific progress has made the production of cultured animal products feasible. While plant-based meat substitutes are already available on the market, they still have problems with taste and texture, which is where cultured meat may come in: its realistic and familiar taste and texture make it a desirable product for consumers.

The environmental benefits of replacing livestock farming with cellular agriculture are not to be ignored; A large percentage of global agricultural land is currently used for animal feed production (about 80% in the USA). Cultured meat requires neither food nor water for its production.

The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming increasingly urgent, which is another reason why cellular agriculture may help the planet. The FAO reports that livestock farming accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while other organizations state that it can be up to 51%. Cultured meat does not require either breeding animals or large fields to grow animal feed.

The Different Types of Cellular Agriculture

As it stands, cellular agriculture can be of three different types.

• In vitro meat production is based on growing muscle cells in a bioreactor.

• Cellular scaffolds are made from edible synthetic materials, such as plant proteins. They imitate the structure of animal meat and aim to provide a familiar texture to cultured meats. With this technology, it is possible to produce protein-based foods (such as sausages or burgers), without having to resort to FBS (Fetal Bovine Solution) or other products or to use bioreactors.

• Cellular milk is produced by extracting cells from the mammary glands of cows, goats, or sheep and then multiplying them until they produce quantities that can be industrialized. Their products are not suitable for vegans but their production does not require animals.

The Production of Cultured Meat

Cellular agriculture is a general term for the production of animal products without breeding animals. The goal is to produce meat, eggs, and dairy products directly from cell cultures in bioreactors through tissue engineering.

Manufacturing cultured meat involves taking cells from an animal and growing them into muscles which then become food. This technology can be applied to all kinds of animal cells and tissues, including those from the liver, pancreas, or even bone marrow. The method is similar to the production of antibiotics for medical use.

In practice, muscle cells are extracted from animals through a biopsy procedure at a slaughterhouse. In the laboratory, they are placed in a nutrient solution where they can multiply and turn into muscle tissue. To achieve the required animal flavor, the cells need to be cultured in media with fetal bovine serum (FBS).

Fetal bovine serum is produced by extracting fluid from unborn calves' blood. These animals are slaughtered when they are only a few months old for their meat or bred specifically for their serum. Although the amount of fetal bovine serum necessary is relatively small, this imposes a major ethical problem on cultured meat production.

What are the Benefits of Cultured Meat?

Cultured meats benefit both human health and animal welfare, as well as the environment. The latter is mainly by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, beef farming emits 115 kg of CO2 per ton of meat produced.

Not only this, the welfare of animals would be improved because there would be no need to breed or confine them. Imagine a future where local or regional supplies of cultured meat could be developed to meet the needs of specific populations. Under these circumstances, a rise in consumption would no longer lead to an increase in animal herds and a corresponding rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Producing Dairy Without Animals - Is It a Possibility?

Producing dairy without using cows is already possible. The company Perfect Day unveiled the first cultured milk, which is based on yeast cells that are used to replace cows in the dairy industry. This alternative was created by modifying microorganisms with bovine DNA that allows them to produce certain proteins found in cow's milk. Subsequently, these components are refined into a white liquid similar in taste, appearance, and nutritional properties to cow's milk.

The process of cell-based dairy production is different from the cellular agriculture of cultured meat. It requires fewer resources since it does not require fetal bovine serum or huge bioreactors to multiply animal cells in cultures.

Cultured milk can be used to make yogurt, cheese, and cream. This new type of dairy product will not only provide the same benefits as traditional milk but also others such as improved freshness, extended shelf life, or greater versatility in cooking.

Cultured milk is also more environmentally friendly than cow's milk because of the reduced water footprint - only 2% of that is required for conventional dairy farming.

What are the Benefits of Cultured Milk?

Producing cultured milk has several benefits, including animal welfare, human health, and environmental protection. First, cows used for normal dairy farming usually have strong genetic traits which make them more susceptible to infections and diseases. In addition, they are artificially inseminated and must give birth every year for milk production.

Cows raised for cultured milk would no longer go through this process. The product itself is different from cow's milk because it does not use hormones or antibiotics to enhance production.

Startups at the Frontier of Innovations in Cellular Agriculture

Leading the way with the invention of the world's first milk protein generated without animals is Perfect Day. Their product has already been commercialized and is used in dairy products that can be bought in stores today! They have managed to invent an animal-free dairy product with the same taste, texture, and nutrition as traditional dairy.

According to their impact assessment report, if their partners were to use Perfect Day's milk protein in place of traditional dairy only 5% of the time, we could save enough water to grow 9.3 billion watermelons and the greenhouse gas equivalent of 140,000 round trip flights between SFO and JFK.

Motif FoodWorks is another startup that has developed a technology platform that allows them to "decode" animal proteins. Their goal is to produce synthetic versions of these proteins without necessarily having to resort to animals, through fermentation by yeast. For example, they have already succeeded in producing a milk protein from yeast that performs the same as the animal version.

Among the companies working towards cultured meat production, there are some notable actors. The Israeli company, Aleph Farms, 1st cultivated beef steak in 2018. their 1st cultivated meat was grown in space in 2019 and they have managed to produce the 1st cultivated ribeye steak in 2021.

Upside Foods (Previously, Memphis Meat) was founded in 2015 and has already started selling its products. They brought to market the world’s first cultured beef meatball in 2016, followed by the world’s first cultured chicken and duck in 2017. Now, their immediate goals are to commercialize the product on a large scale. Their pilot plant facility is their first step towards commercial-scale production and they hope to bring their first product to market by the end of 2021.

Dutch startup, Mosa Meat is another food technology company working on bringing the first cell-cultured beef burger to market, along with other names such as New Age Meats, SuperMeat, and Mission Barns.

What does the future of cellular agriculture look like?

In addition to the technological challenges associated with commercialization and scaling, major obstacles include consumer resistance and regulatory issues.

For example, research has shown that people who eat meat and fish think about the corresponding products as "real". On one hand, this perception is linked to a higher degree of animal welfare and safety than other alternatives such as plant-based meats. It also protects international markets for traditional meats and imposes trade barriers on cultured meats.

On the other hand, some people reject these products because they reject technological progress, which they associate with genetic modification and artificial food production.

These fears may be reinforced by projections published in authoritative scientific journals such as Nature and New Harvest. These show that cultured meat will not replace traditional meats anytime soon because it costs too much to produce.

An excerpt from Nature,

Although in the future the costs of scaling could decrease, it will depend on the markets and their acceptance of cultured meats. In addition, regulatory issues may arise in terms of labeling or even regarding the term "meat". In some countries, it is already difficult to use words such as "milk" or "steak".

Cultured meat production would also have to compete with traditional meat products, whose cost of production is lower. At the moment it may be difficult for cultured meats to gain a significant market share in countries where tradition plays an important role in dietary habits.

Even though cellular agriculture could be a huge breakthrough for our food system, we should consider the implications of its large-scale implementation and avoid blindly trusting that it will solve all problems associated with meat production today. Cellular agriculture may, however, help us rethink our eating habits and make them more sustainable in the future.