Industries in Depth

How to maximize the impact of cellular agriculture for sustainable food production

side view of a man eating cultivated beef made by cellular agricultre

Cellular agriculture can enable widespread production of animal proteins, particularly cultivated beef. Image: Unsplash/Emerson Vieira

Didier Toubia
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Aleph Farms
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • Animal agriculture is an important source of nutrition for billions, but food production has a severe negative impact on the climate and environment.
  • As global demand for animal proteins continues to rise, new methods of production can help relieve the tension between scale and sustainability.
  • Cellular agriculture can enable widespread production of animal proteins, with cultivated beef well-positioned to become a sustainable consumer choice.

Animal agriculture is a crucial source of nutrition for billions of people, but many of its conventional practices have passed their maximum scale. The food production systems that fed 1.6 billion people at the turn of the 20th-century are today stretched thin trying to feed 8 billion people and counting.

Food production’s impact on soil degradation, deforestation, the depletion of natural resources, and emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases have become more severe over time. Climate impact, in turn, exacerbates strain on the production systems themselves, which rely on climate conditions remaining steady.

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As alarming as anything else is human-induced biodiversity loss. The fast pace at which animal and plant species are disappearing has prompted scientists to declare that we are already in the midst of a sixth mass extinction.

Intensive agriculture is the main culprit; food production – with its heavy reliance on intensive animal farming – is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, responsible for the vast majority of cases in which animal and plant species are at risk of extinction.

Production of animal proteins and fats needs to diversify

As global demand for animal proteins and fats continues to climb, introducing complementary methods of production – alongside the transition to more sustainable methods of conventional production – can relieve the growing tension between scale and sustainability.

In the face of climate change, resource scarcity and a rising human population, cellular agriculture is well suited to help diversify production of animal proteins and fats. Just as animal agriculture has replicated animal reproduction and growth under controlled conditions for millennia, cellular agriculture continues this same practice at the level of individual cells – the building blocks of animals (and animal meat).

Instead of domesticating an entire animal by nurturing it in a feedlot, cellular agriculture involves domesticating animal cells by nurturing them in a cultivator – a tank that emulates the inside of an animal’s body with significantly enhanced resource efficiency and without methane emissions.

Production takes weeks instead of months or years and happens in closed systems geographically close to consumption, including places where raising large numbers of animals is not feasible.

This enables decentralized, short and predictable value chains, reducing pressure on current methods of production and lessening animal agriculture’s overall susceptibility to supply chain shocks, such as wars, extreme weather events, animal disease outbreaks and global health crises. This resilience and diversification help maintain supply and stabilize prices, further enhancing food security.

For cellular agriculture to achieve long-term growth and success, its first applications should be well-positioned to maximize both impact and value. In this regard, protein and fat products grown from cow cells fit the bill.

Importance of cultivated beef in tackling emissions

Cattle have the highest environmental footprint across all of animal agriculture. Cultivated beef can mitigate a lot of this impact by enabling fewer and better managed cows.

For instance, cows are the biggest contributor to livestock-induced methane emissions, which account for 37% of all anthropogenic emissions of this greenhouse gas.

Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 over its first 20 years in the atmosphere. Cutting these emissions is the fastest way to slow down and reverse global warming, and fewer cows is the most direct way to achieve this.

In addition, a complementary production system for cattle products is key for countries and communities looking to establish food sovereignty despite difficult climate conditions, lack of suitable land or insufficient water resources.

Currently, the production of beef is more concentrated than that of any other common animal protein, forcing many countries in Asia and the Middle East to remain heavily reliant on imports from Australia and the Americas. This over-concentration is set to get worse as heat waves intensify and premiums on land and other resources become more pronounced.

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Producing cultivated beef in closed systems can take place irrespective of climate or the availability of local arable land. It can happen geographically close to consumption to help alleviate food insecurity, empower local communities and spur economic growth.

Moreover, when cow cells can be grown directly into high-quality food items in a matter of weeks and with incredible precision, the only resources required for production are those needed to grow just the edible parts of the animal. This stands in stark contrast to conventional production, where the meat that is commercialized amounts to only 30-35% of a given cow.

Requiring less space and fewer resources also means less of a need to infringe on natural ecosystems to acquire land and resources in geographies where cattle farming is common today. Maintaining these ecosystems protects biodiversity, which is existential for human survival in the long term.

Pairing impact with value to drive price parity

In similar fashion to other innovations like electric vehicles and solar panels, cultivated beef will be expensive at first before economies of scale and longer-term process improvements come into play.

This is true for all cultivated meat: across different species, the cost of production is more or less the same and initial product costs for consumers will be similarly high. What separates beef is that compared to other common protein products from land animals, it delivers more value in global markets, commanding higher prices per unit than other species.

As a result, cultivated beef has a shorter path to price parity vis-à-vis conventional beef, increasing its capacity to drive both consumer acceptance and positive margins more quickly.

Beyond impact and value, there’s another factor that separates beef from the rest of animal agriculture: current manifestations of regenerative agriculture provide beef with very little room. Regenerative cattle farming, where cows are part of an ecosystem’s natural carbon cycle, requires far too much land to be able to meet demand for beef.

For this reason, with cattle products, cellular agriculture has an extra foot in the door. For these products in particular, no other technology – conventional or transformative – has the potential to complement regenerative farming and pair sustainability with scalability.

Other applications of cellular agriculture

With consumption of high-quality animal products on the rise, developing and implementing systematic strategies for diversified production becomes all the more necessary.

Cellular agriculture is poised to enable the widespread production of animal proteins and fats from cells of numerous land and sea species, all of which will contribute to making food systems more secure, resilient and sustainable.

Cultivated beef is singularly well-positioned to complement sustainable methods of conventional beef production. Its success could pave the way for cultivated meat more broadly – including applications of animal cells from other species – to be a viable and sustainable choice for consumers.

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