Agriculture, Food and Beverage

Is cellular agriculture the climate-friendly answer to growing food demands?

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Cellular agriculture uses individual cells from plants and animals or single-cell organisms to make agricultural products. Image:

Ilija Aprcovic
Division Chief Executive Officer, Liquid and Powder Technologies, GEA
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  • Cellular agriculture is poised to fulfil growing nutrition demands with minimal environmental impact.
  • Further investment and commitment are required to scale up production and bring costs down.
  • Transparent communication is needed to build trust and encourage consumer uptake.

The World Resources Institute estimates that global demand for beef and other ruminant meats could increase by 88% between 2010 and 2050, driven by a growing middle class and world population, which is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. To meet overall nutrition requirements in the future, the The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that food production must increase by 70%. In parallel, consumer preferences are shifting as people make more deliberate food choices.

Cellular agriculture is a key pillar in the fast-paced “new food” sector, which also includes plant, microrganism and insect-based alternatives. Positioned for rapid growth over the next decade, cellular agriculture will play an important role in fulfilling future nutrition requirements while taking pressure off current food production systems and the environment.

How does it work?

Cellular agriculture uses individual cells from plants and animals or single-cell organisms to make agricultural products. These include meats, seafood, dairy and other protein-rich foods and functional ingredients which are produced either through tissue engineering or precision fermentation without the need to “cultivate” entire animals or plants.

Tissue engineering is employed to make cell-based or cultivated meat, seafood and milk. To produce cell-based meat and seafood, natural or genetically modified stem cells are taken from a live animal and grown in nutrient-rich conditions in a bioreactor, utilizing nature’s own growth and repair mechanisms. The cells differentiate into types – either muscle or fat cells – then are grown on a scaffold or further processed as ground meat.

Tissue engineering is employed to make cell-based cultivated products such as this salmon nigiri. Photo by Wildtype / CC BY.
Tissue engineering is employed to make cell-based cultivated products such as this salmon nigiri. Photo by Wildtype / CC BY.

A similar method is used to produce cell-based milk. In this case, mammal milk gland cells are immobilized in a hollow fibre bioreactor. As a result, the cells secrete whole milk which has the same macronutrient profile as cow or human breast milk, depending on the cell source.

Precision fermentation extends well established methods widely used by the food and pharmaceutical industries. The process involves taking the gene that encodes, for instance, a target protein from a donor organism, such as a cow, and inserting it into the DNA of a host. The host, often a single-cell organism, like bacteria or yeast is cultivated in a fermentation tank, causing it to produce the target in large quantities. The resulting protein is separated from the host cells, purified and typically dried to create a powder, which can be used as sweetener, an ingredient in dairy-based ice cream, egg white protein or collagen, for example.

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Similarly, precision fermentation is utilized in the production of plant components, such as soy heme. Here, DNA is taken from a soy plant and inserted into a yeast via gene engineering. Following fermentation, the soy heme, which is similar to animal heme, can be used in meat analogues to impart a red or pinkish color, a meat-like- texture and taste.

The same method is applicable for making enzymes, silk and leather – which are also protein-based – or to create non-protein ingredients such as fats or human milk oligosaccharides for breast milk substitute.

What are the advantages?

Cellular agriculture has the potential to provide the nutrition and other non-food products our growing population requires, without encroaching on additional lands or further stretching our natural resources. Because the production processes occur within a controlled environment and are largely based on established technologies, the benefits are wide-reaching. Cellular agriculture foods:

  • Have a high feed conversion ratio and deliver similar or identical nutrition profiles.
  • Meet high standards of consistency, safety and hygiene.
  • Ensure increased food security given independence from seasonal and climatic changes.
  • Avoid animal antibiotics, thus minimizing antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
  • Allow for selection of cell lines from animals with best traits or from hard to culture species or those facing extinction.

What are the challenges?

Achieving industrial scale capacity and price parity for cellular agriculture products requires overcoming specific hurdles.

For tissue engineering this includes:

  • Lowering material costs by using precision fermentation to produce culture media components (e.g. peptides), recycling media and using less demanding cell lines.
  • Increasing production efficiency by designing fit-for-purpose bioreactors that are large and scalable yet minimize cell damage.

For precision fermentation this includes:

  • Improving host productivity and efficiency.
  • Reducing sterility requirements to lower production costs.
  • Recycling metabolic heat and capturing CO2 for reuse to increase energy efficiency and minimize GHG emissions.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

How can we maximize it?

Achieving the full potential of cellular agriculture will take decades, however there are steps we can take to gain momentum. One is to start going after low-hanging fruit, such as pre-approved yeast strains in precision fermentation processes. Another is hybrid products, which combine cell-based components with plant-based foods, improving the taste, texture and nutrition of the latter. Also, fungi and plant-based scaffolds can be used as supports to grow muscle cells, reducing production costs.

On a macro level, regulatory agencies should have discussions now about what is required to bring new foods to market before applications arrive. This would be beneficial to all stakeholders and improve the efficiency and speed with which products enter the market. Another obvious and important factor is increased investment in start-ups and companies focused on cellular agriculture to speed up R&D and scale up production – and of course ensuring renewable energies are utilized throughout.

Lastly, building consumer trust is imperative for these products to gain traction. This requires transparent and regular communication about how these products are made and how they relate to foods and medicines that people already enjoy and depend on daily – whether that’s cheese or insulin. A forecast from McKinsey & Co sees cultivated meat, for example, achieving cost parity with conventionally produced meat by 2030. That means the time to be having these discussions is now.

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Agriculture, Food and BeverageFood Security
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