Cellular Agriculture: A Sustainable Solution?
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In 2013, the world’s first-ever lab-grown burger was created by professor and scientist Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands by growing small stips of muscle tissue from stem cells harvested from cows. It was eaten and reviewed by two food critics at a news conference in London. One said it was “close to meat, but not that juicy,” while another mentioned that it tasted like a real burger. Aside from differences in flavour compared to the conventional burger, researchers say this production may be a sustainable solution to meet the global demand for meat. Although lab-grown meat is not commercially available yet, it may become a common consumer choice someday soon. According to a Labiotech article, many cultured meat companies, like two startups Mosa Meat and US-based Memphis Meats, with the most funding, share the same goal of launching their first product in 2021. With cultured meat starting to hit the shelves, is cellular agriculture a step towards a greener future?
What Exactly Is Cellular Agriculture?
According to researcher and agriculture economist Monica Saavoss, cellular agriculture refers to the use of animal cell culture technology to grow animal tissue directly from animal cells or yeast, bacteria, or fungi to synthesize proteins in animal products such as eggs, gelatin, or milk. There are two main methods of cellular agriculture: tissue-based engineering and protein-based engineering. Tissue-based engineering is used to produce cell-based beef, poultry, and seafood. This technology replicates an animal’s complete cell, resulting in a product that is molecularly similar to animal-based meat. On the other hand, protein-based engineering is used to create leather, dairy, and egg analogs. This approach replicates proteins found naturally in animal products while also using plant-based ingredients like vegetable fats.
Furthermore, New Harvest Canada says that cultured products are divided into two distinct groups: acellular products and cellular products. Acellular products are made up of organic molecules, such as proteins and lipids, and they do not contain any cellular or living material. Cellular products are created using living or once-living cells.
Cellular agriculture depicted in a diagram. Animal, plant, and microbial cells are examples of host organisms. On the left, examples of cellular products are shown, and on the right, examples of acellular products. (ScienceDirect)
Benefits of Cellular Agriculture
A Havard study called ‘90 Reasons to Consider Cellular Agriculture’ outlines various benefits in investing in the development of cell-based meats. It states that “cellular agriculture has the potential to address problems of public health, the environment, and human/animal rights at a remarkable scale, positioning it in an unprecedented class truly capable of revolutionizing the world.”
Health benefits include a reduced risk of contamination, eliminating antibiotic use, and supplying animal products to an increasing world population. In addition, when compared to traditional farming, cellular agriculture utilizes 80% less land and 94% less water overall, emits 76% less greenhouse gas emissions on average, and gets rid of the need for pesticides and herbicides.
The study also identifies many human and animal rights issues, including the threats to endangered species due to habitat loss and pollution, seafood bycatch, injustice and slave labour of workers, and animal suffering, all of which may be solved by transitioning to cell-based meat production.
Furthermore, other justifications focus on the cellular agricultural industry’s financial advantages. Using this production avoids carbon taxes due to lower environmental impact, ensures greater product consistency, reduces dairy waste, and saves money because “there would no longer be mass chicken cullings, antibiotic resistance, and product contamination that cost American taxpayers millions.”
Although there are quite a few benefits of cellular agriculture, numerous disadvantages and impacts are associated with the industry. In Monica Saavoss’s article, she mentions that several major technological obstacles are now being addressed by the industry. Firstly, the bioreactors currently used for cellular agriculture were initially designed for medical application, so more research is required to build new bioreactors that can scale up to commercial production levels. Secondly, fetal bovine serum was used in the original media used to grow cell-based meats. This approach was originally created from biomedical applications of tissue engineering. However, its high costs and worries about animal cruelty have prompted companies to avoid animal-based media and develop serum-free methods. Moreover, while existing technologies can make ground meats and patties, producing well-structured layers of proteins, lipids, and connective tissues present in specific cuts of meat, such as steaks, remains a difficult task. Aleph Farms, for example, revealed the first cellular agriculture steak, but the prototype was thinner than a traditional steak.
There are several environmental drawbacks as well. Researchers have estimated that cellular agriculture uses more industrial energy than traditional animal agriculture. They did, however, estimate that the human-edible energy return on investment and discovered that cellular agricultural products provide a higher percentage of edible energy relative to the energy invested than any of the livestock products compared. Not to mention, although cultured meat had a reduced global warming potential than that of beef, pork and poultry were found to have a higher global warming potential.
Consumer perceptions of cellular agriculture, like with other food innovations, will be a key factor in the industry’s success. Because these products are not in the market yet, consumer acceptance literature depends on survey data. Bryant and Barnett looked at 14 studies that used premarket consumer acceptance metrics, including surveys, focus groups, and online comments. Their investigation concentrated on cell-based products like cellular agriculture meats instead of protein-based products, including egg and milk analogs. Overall, they found that while most consumers were ready to try cellular agriculture products, only a small percentage would prefer them over conventional meat or plant-based alternatives daily. Another group of researchers says that when focus group participants were told about possible environmental and public health advantages, they were more willing to try the products.
Will Cellular Agriculture Solve Our Agricultural Problem?
According to an article in Guardian, if cellular agriculture is to outperform the industrial system it is replacing, it must expand without increasing costs to employees, consumers, or the environment. It may also be a considerable gain for labour, public investment, land use, and sustainable agriculture if it is connected to progressive industrial and agricultural policies. There is no fix for the many impacts of food production, but cellular agriculture is a starting point towards a more sustainable future. Additionally, certain obstacles must be overcome for this production to succeed in the food market.
With multiple nations committing to be carbon neutral by 2050, the goal is for everyone to consume a substantially more plant-based diet by 2050 and for animal consumption to be reduced. In order for this to happen, lab-grown meat is likely going to gain popularity to meet the expected rise in consumer demand due to the increasing rate of world population growth.
Article Author: Tanya Kor
Article Editors: Stephanie Sahadeo, Maria Giroux