A model of agriculture that focuses on the production of animal proteins from cell cultures. The field uses tools from scientific fields of biotechnology, genetics, molecular and synthetic biology to create products such as meat and leather that would traditionally be produced by animals.
A discipline that focuses on the creation, restoration, maintenance or improvement of biological tissues through the combination of biomedical and engineering sciences.
The programming of microorganisms like bacteria or yeast to produce specific, complex biological molecules such as enzymes or proteins.
What is Cellular Agriculture?
Cellular agriculture refers to a set of technologies that are used to produce animal products without raising the animal from birth to maturity. Although cellular agriculture is a very new industry, many of the technologies in this industry have been around for decades. For example, bioengineered microorganisms have been used to produce insulin for diabetics and in commercial cheese production since the 1980’s.
There are two distinct technologies mainly used in cellular agriculture: 1) tissue engineering methods which are used to make products such as meat and leather. In this method, a sample of cells is drawn from a living animal and placed in a nutrient medium which provides the ingredients needed for the cells to grow. The sample is then placed in a special environment that promotes tissue scaffolding and controls the direction and pattern of the cells’ growth leading to the desired tissue product for harvesting. 2) Precision fermentation, where genetically altered microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast are used as tiny factories and are engineered to produce a desired product (New Harvest, n.d.). This process occurs in a controlled system, using specific nutrients, temperatures, and other desired conditions to support the growth and multiplication of the cells. For example, cellular-derived milks can be made in a similar manner to beer production (New Harvest, n.d.).
Challenges Associated with the Existing Animal Protein Industry
Current issues in the Canadian animal protein industry have opened the door for greater public interest in alternative protein sources including cellular agriculture. Livestock production in Canada has historically been associated with challenges including narrow profit margins, labour issues, government policies, and currently fewer small farms being passed down to younger generations (Qualman & NFU, 2019). It is anticipated that by 2050, less than 1% of Canadians will be working on farms, and that the total number of farms and young farmers will decrease by 50%. Despite this predicted decrease in farming, the global population is projected to reach 9 billion by the same year (Qualman & NFU, 2019).
There are also sustainability issues associated with the existing livestock industry including resource inefficiency, environmental pollution, as well as ethical and public health concerns. The livestock industry uses significant amounts of natural resources such as energy, water, and arable land, and accounts for more than half of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Canadian agriculture (Fouli et al., 2021).
Furthermore, conventional livestock agriculture is linked to public health, food safety concerns resulting from consumption of certain animal products, increased risk of disease outbreaks from animals to humans, and excess use of antibiotics in animal farms. Finally, there are ethical questions surrounding livestock agriculture where millions of animals in Canada and billions worldwide are slaughtered for consumption annually. The issues outlined above have fostered the exploration of alternative methods of animal protein production to improve the resilience, sustainability, and safety of current production systems.
Way Forward: Addressing Current Barriers for Cellular Agriculture’s Success
Cellular agriculture faces significant challenges that must be addressed to be successful as an affordable, sustainable, and safe food supply. The first major barrier impacting the industry is the substantial capital and product costs. Production processes in cellular agriculture require advanced facilities, technologies, and skilled human resources which affect the price point of products. This is in addition to the high cost of some raw materials used to make foods in the industry. For example, ingredients such as the nutrient medium for cell culture can account for approximately 55-95% of the total cost of production of some cellular agriculture foods (Specht, 2020). The costs of cellular agriculture products must come down to the level of conventional products or below to be accessible to the public.
Secondly, significant research is required to; 1) replicate product qualities that are attractive to consumers, and 2) understand the environmental impact of production. Cellular agriculture products still face the challenge of replicating attractive qualities of conventional products, for example the taste and texture of steak. Research and development efforts are still required before many cellular agriculture products can reach the commercial phase. Furthermore, questions regarding energy requirements and industrial waste in cellular agriculture must be studied. The cellular agriculture industry should invest in using environmentally friendly technologies and renewable energy resources before scaling up to be considered as an improved and sustainable food system (Odegard et al., 2021).
The third barrier surrounding cellular agriculture is regulations. Clear guidelines, labelling requirements, and other important regulations for cellular agriculture products have yet to be developed (Ontario Genomics, 2021). In addition to being safe, these regulations should ensure that the nutritional composition should be similar to the animal-derived counterparts in order to ensure that the health of Canadians is prioritized.