This article was originally published in December 2017. Last updated in June 2020.
In 2013, food critic and writer Hanni Ruetzler took a taste out of a dish costing more than $300,000 and remarked how it was "close" to tasting like real beef. The dish in question was not a plant-based meat alternative; it was in fact real beef - beef that was made in a lab! This taste test was the first lab-grown beef dish, and it was created by Dr. Mark Post and his cellular agriculture research team in the Netherlands. Cellular agriculture encompasses the fascinating field of growing agricultural products, like meat and milk, from cell cultures in a laboratory setting. This innovative process eliminates the need to use livestock to obtain the same products and, consequently, cellular agriculture is being explored as an alternative to the present livestock agricultural system.
Cellular agriculture is the field of growing agricultural products directly from cell cultures instead of using livestock. At the moment, the primary research has revolved around growing meats (beef, pork, poultry) as well as animal products (milk and egg white) in cell cultures. Instead of raising, for example, a cow from birth for milk and meat, cellular agriculture presents an alternative way to get the same product without all of the problems associated with raising livestock.
Cellular agriculture can be broken up into two categories: cellular and acellular agriculture. In this context, cellular agriculture refers to growing agriculture products that are based on living or once-living cells, such as meat. To put it simply, growing meat is the process of taking the cells that make meat from the animal of interest and growing them in a cell culture media to become meat. The cell culture media and how the cells are grown are important aspects in this process, because they help the cells become the same meat that comes directly from animals.
Acellular agriculture involves growing and harvesting a product that the cell cultures make. This is used to make products such as milk and egg white. Just like egg white, milk is a mixture of different proteins and fats. These different components can be grown without using animal and, instead, by using microbes, like yeast. For example, to grow casein, which is a key protein in milk, a copy of the casein gene from a cow is inserted into yeast. The yeast will then make many copies of the specific animal’s protein (casein from a cow) that can be used to formulate dairy milk that is identical to the milk made from a cow. Without requiring a cow.
The process of using yeast to grow a protein of interest is not novel to cellular agriculture; this process has been used since 1978 to make insulin for diabetes treatment. It is also used to make rennet and vanillin.
Besides the incredible fact that it is possible to make animal meat and milk without requiring an animal, cellular agriculture is critical in developing a sustainable livestock agricultural system. The present system has produced enough to meet current demands. But it will not be able to keep up with future demands. Especially with a growing population.
It is predicted that the global population will be between 9 and 11 billion people by 2050. The global demand for animal-based foods will skyrocket by at least 70%. Almost doubling from current levels.
How can a system that already requires so many resources sustainably produce that much meat?
The growing global demand for meat and animal products illustrates that people are not ready to change their eating habits from meat to plant-based alternatives. Instead of urging people to eat more plant-based diets, the next best option is to find a better way to produce meat. That is exactly what cellular agriculture offers.
It is shocking how many resources, like land, water, and electricity, are consumed in livestock agriculture. To produce one 8-ounce (0.23kg) steak, not only is 1.6 kg of feed required, the production process requires enough energy to fully charge one laptop sixty times as well as 3,515 liters of water. In addition, 4.54 kg of carbon dioxide is released into the air as various greenhouse gases, which is the equivalent of the emission of 2 liters of gasoline.
These numbers reflect the resources required to produce one 8-ounce steak. Not an entire cow.
After cattle farming, sheep and pig farming consume the next most resources, respectively, followed by poultry farming.
The large amount of resources consumed by livestock agriculture reflects its large environmental footprint. Approximately 25% of the earth's surface is taken up for livestock farming. This is approximately 70% of all land used for agriculture. The production of animal products constitutes about 30% of all fresh water usage.
Most alarmingly, livestock agriculture generates 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Considering all that has been done in the automobile industry to reduce carbon emissions, it is shocking how livestock farming contributes such a significant proportion of all greenhouse gas emissions with little done to reduce it. Until now.
Cellular agriculture has the potential of helping reduce global greenhouse gas emissions as well as promote more responsible uses of natural resources.
Compared to livestock agriculture, cellular agriculture provides an alternative that is more environmentally friendly and more sustainable. Meat produced via cellular agriculture would use approximately less than a tenth of the land and water. This meat would also produce significantly less greenhouse gas emissions.
Beyond the environmental impact, cellular agriculture would impact animal welfare. Without requiring livestock, cellular agriculture (obviously) reduces the number of animals used in the food production process.
Furthermore, as the global demand for meat increases, large factory farms would be put under more pressure to produce even more animal products. It’s likely that animal welfare conditions would worsen from their current state, including increased confinement and imperfect slaughter conditions, to meet the demand. By providing another method to meet the global demand without worsening livestock conditions, cellular agriculture provides an opportunity to improve livestock welfare.
Regarding human health, meat produced via cellular agriculture would not be fed the large amounts of antibiotics given to animals. In the US, nearly 80% of all antibiotics sold go to animal agriculture. Antibiotic usage in animal agriculture has led to various health issues, such as the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
In addition, most bacterial contaminations that cause food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli and salmonella, often occur through interaction with infected animal feces. By cutting out livestock in cellular agriculture, there will be no E. coli or salmonella from livestock that could contaminate the meat or other products.
Considering how many resources producing meat requires, it is not surprising that many cellular agriculture companies are focusing on growing meat in a more sustainable fashion. The first lab-grown burger was made by Dr. Post, and he founded Mosa Meat to further develop cell cultured beef.
Memphis Meats is the first cellular agriculture company that made the first cell-based meatball. They are also the first company to make cell-based poultry, specifically chicken and duck. Another early company exploring cell-based poultry is Just (formerly known as Hampton Creek), and their initial goal was to have the first consumer-ready meat product ready by 2018. Another company in cell-based meats is Finless Foods, the first company working to produce the first lab-grown fish products.
Memphis Meats' cell-based meatball
Beyond growing meat, several companies are using cellular agriculture to make products that are usually associated with livestock. Clara Foods focuses on producing the first animal-free egg white product, and Perfect Day Foods (formerly called Muufri) revolves around producing animal-free milk and milk-derived dairy products. Another company in this field is Modern Meadow, and they strive to grow and make animal leather products via cell cultures.
Since the field's early days, there are now many startups and companies all around the world working to make the future with cellular agriculture. From meat and acellular food products to novel biomaterials, there are so many companies around the world looking to cellular agriculture to revolutionize how we produce animal products.
The first lab-grown beef burger cost $330,000 to produce in 2013; by the end of 2017, the price fell below $12 for each cell-based beef burger. Since 2017, there has been a steady growth of new startups and investments in the field looking to change the future of food with cellular agriculture.
Prior to cellular agriculture, there had not been an environmentally friendly and sustainable alternative to the livestock agriculture system for meat. While research projects the energy required to produce meat via cell cultures is greater than conventional poultry, cellular agriculture is more sustainable when comparing land and water use and greenhouse
emissions. It is no surprise that cell-based meat has also been called "clean meat".
There are still many obstacles to overcome before cellular agriculture products become commercial. One of the most difficult ones to overcome will be challenging any negative public perception of food that come from cell cultures instead of from animals.
To overcome this, it will be important to inform the public on what cellular agriculture is and how this field provides a solution to an unsustainable livestock agricultural system. It will also be very important for all actors in the field to be transparent and clear about all of their scientific findings and all aspects of the manufacturing processes.
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