How do we provide a healthy and sustainable food supply to an ever-growing world population? According to some scientists and innovators, cellular agriculture is one solution and Canada is in a position to play a leadership role in advancing this early-stage technology.
What is cellular agriculture?
Cellular agriculture is a biotechnology that allows us to harvest agricultural products grown from cell cultures instead of harvesting from animals. For decades, a similar technology was used to culture insulin for people with diabetes using insulin extracted from the pancreas of cattle or pigs. Synthetic biology revolutionized insulin synthesis in the 1980s.
There are two cellular agriculture methods used to create different types of food:
Acellular products, like milk and eggs, are made through a protein-based process. Yeast is altered and fermented to produce the proteins found in these foods, not dissimilar to the process used to make beer. But instead of an IPA you’ll get a nice, cold bottle of 2% milk.
Cellular products, such as meat, require a small sample of cells from the animal whose tissue you want to create, which are then cultured and grown to produce meat. This process is often referred to as tissue engineering.
Feeding a hungry planet
The world’s population is expected to rise to almost 10 billion by 2050. Concerns around how to feed that population within the limits of conventional agriculture have spurred a search for technological alternatives.
“What we are going to obtain with cellular agriculture are the exact same types of products we get now, we’re just taking the animal out of the equation,” explained Yadira Tejeda Saldana, research collaborations director for New Harvest.
Founded in 2004, New Harvest is a non-profit organization focused on advancing the field of cellular agriculture and maximizing its impact. New Harvest has offices in Canada and the U.S.
“It could be one of the solutions to help us build a better food supply chain,” said Tejeda Saldana. “We need to find a way to produce (food) that is more sustainable for people and the planet.”
Reducing environmental impact
The ability to obtain meat, eggs and dairy without having to raise or slaughter animals is a big deal, especially to consumers who, due to their moral or ethical beliefs, try to avoid eating animal products.
Globally, the livestock supply chain accounts for nearly 15 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases (GHG), with cattle (raised for beef and dairy) being responsible for a part of it. Tissue engineering could help reduce this total by only producing the cut you want to eat and not the less desirable parts of the animal, and by streamlining parts of the supply chain that generate GHG.
Bringing new products to market
Those researching the field are optimistic about its potential; students at Harvard University have even published a paper listing 90 reasons to consider cellular agriculture.
Early consumer research suggests that while those from the Boomer generation may be more wary of cellular agriculture, younger generations have no issue with having these products on the market.
Some pioneering companies have brought cellular agriculture products to market in other parts of the world. Silicon Valley start-up Perfect Day released their animal-free ice cream in 2019 and saw rapid success; the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board invested $50 million in the company in 2020. In December, Singapore approved the sale of cellular chicken made by Eat Just, another California start-up.
Innovations in the industry are also taking place here at home. Researchers from McMaster University recently developed a new method for producing cultured meat and have formed a start-up company, CaroMeats, to commercialize their tissue-engineering technique.
The technique involves layering paper-thin sheets of muscle and fat to create the tissue, which researchers Ravi Selvaganapathy and Alireza Shahin-Shamsabadit said gives the meat a more natural flavour and texture. The layers can be stacked into a solid piece of any thickness, Selvaganapathy says, and “tuned” to replicate the fat content and marbling of any cut of meat – an advantage over other alternatives. The team has developed prototypes with mouse and rabbit meat (only conducting taste-tests on the latter).
The opportunity for Canada
“Cellular agriculture is exploding right now,” said Lenore Newman, who has been following the field for years.
Newman holds the Canada Research Chair for Food and the Environment and is Director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of Fraser Valley in British Columbia.
As part of the B.C. food security task force, Newman stresses the importance of governments being prepared to integrate foods produced by cellular processes into the larger ecosystem of animal agriculture, and being proactive in developing the policies and regulations that will see them to market.
Currently, Canada has a handful of start-ups in the field, but lacks the venture capitalist-style investments that are seen south of the border. And while countries like Singapore, Israel and the Netherlands are becoming global hubs for cellular agriculture, Canada has yet to make the same strides.
Newman argues Canada can, and should, be a big player.
“Cellular agriculture requires fermentation ingredients, and Canada’s a winner because we have feed stock,” stated Newman. “These technologies work on sugar, starch and their derivatives. We’re one of the world’s biggest grain producers, and Alberta has a thriving sugar beet industry.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the supply chain in our food system and has increased interest in ramping up local production capacity. Cellular agriculture can be done anywhere and could be a way to secure local food systems.
For example, dairy made through acellular agriculture is an area where Newman sees great opportunity. First, it would be easier to produce than cultured meat. In addition, the bulk of dairy and associated proteins produced in Canada are used as ingredients in other food products, such as powdered milk or whey protein used in cereal bars, making it easy to substitute cellular dairy.
Traditional and cellular agriculture: Working together
Whether it’s driven by government investment, venture capitalists or current meat and dairy manufacturers looking to expand, the cellular agriculture industry will be disruptive.
“A billion people depend on animal agriculture. Figuring out pathways to transition is going to be an enormous job in the next 20 years,” explained Evan Fraser, executive director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.
Like his colleagues, Fraser is excited for the sustainable and ethical potential of cellular agriculture. He sees an opportunity for Canada to make it a priority through policy and investment incentives.
Fraser also feels a sense of responsibility in providing infrastructure for conventional food producers when the new biotechnology becomes widely used.
“We have to be thinking holistically,” said Fraser.
He stresses that he cannot see animal agriculture being abandoned because of its important place within cultural and biological contexts. However, biotechnologies like cellular agriculture could be one part of a sustainable solution, and he suggests programs supporting re-training, or the government purchasing sunk assets could alleviate some possible disruptions.
Both Fraser and Tejeda Saldana envision a future with a food ecosystem comprised of animal and cellular agriculture.
“The technology is here to supplement the work conventional farming is doing”, said Tejeda Saldana, “It is not ‘this’ or ‘that’, it’s an ‘and’ to help us build a sustainable food system”.
The field of cellular agriculture is just getting started, and it is showing huge potential. There is still a lot of research and work to be done to grow the industry, and Canada should be taking the opportunity to grow with it.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.