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Cellular agriculture: An introduction to a much-discussed approach to food production


The first demonstration of a cultivated beef burger in 2013 by Dr. Mark Post, sparked interest and popularized the term “cellular agriculture”. Cellular agriculture is a model of agriculture that uses cell cultures to produce proteins that are analogous to traditional animal proteins. Products currently being developed through cellular agriculture include beef, fish, milk, and leather. With more people than ever shifting to diets with greater proportions of plant-based and alternative proteins, consumers are seeking out foods that meet their dietary demands but still taste and look like animal products. It is thought that cellular agriculture will help fill this demand. With this new system of deriving animal products, can cellular agriculture fit into the future of Canada’s protein industry?


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.

Can Cellular Agriculture Address These Challenges?

There are four potential ways cellular agriculture could help address the existing issues in conventional livestock agriculture. The first major benefit is the potential for reducing the impact on climate change. This is because animals such as cattle, pigs etc. would no longer need to be raised on a largescale which would lead to 1) significant reduction of energy required to maintain livestock from birth to maturity, 2) significant reduction of GHG emissions, for example, methane from cattle. It should be noted, however, that cellular agriculture processes also consume a considerable amount of energy that could impact climate change. To make significant progress, production processes used in the new industry would need to tap into renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or nuclear energy.

Secondly, cellular agriculture has the potential to reduce the amount of natural resources used in conventional livestock agriculture. For example, livestock agriculture is reported to consume up to 30% of the Earth’s usable land surface and 16% of global freshwater (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2010; Foley et al., 2011; Gerber et al., 2013). Cellular agriculture can significantly improve resource efficiency, and with the right policies, the saved land can be turned into conservation areas.

The third potential benefit is human health and food safety. Animal products are known to be excellent sources of highly digestible and high-quality proteins, vitamins and minerals that are key to maintaining good health. However, consumption of some animal meats is associated with health issues such as cardiovascular diseases due to high levels of saturated fats, cholesterol, and carcinogenic compounds (Battaglia et al., 2015). Production methods in cellular agriculture can create products that contain desirable nutritional components while reducing or completely removing undesirable nutrients. Cellular agriculture would also reduce concerns of animal to human disease outbreaks (for example, avian influenza) and overuse of antibiotics that are associated with conventional livestock agriculture.

Finally, cellular agriculture has the potential to address the ethical concerns in conventional livestock agriculture. The removed requirement for raising livestock on a largescale would significantly reduce the number of animals killed for consumption. The reduced livestock per farm could also allow for better health and nutritional care, leading to overall improved quality of life of individual animals.

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.

Potential implications and adaptation strategies for the Canadian animal protein industry

It is very difficult to predict the exact implications of cellular agriculture’s success on the future of the Canadian animal protein market. Depending on how these technologies advance, the industry may grow into a niche market, causing minimal disruptions, or, alternatively, capture a large market share of traditional animal products and pose a significant threat to farmers. It is important that farmer concerns be addressed and that they can provide input on the future progression of cellular agriculture to help mitigate any negative implications. Successful farmer adaptation will require active efforts from all stakeholders, including both cellular and traditional livestock industries as well as the government. The cellular agriculture industry can participate by regularly providing unbiased, transparent information on the status and predicted trends of technologies. Livestock farmers can monitor the path of cellular agriculture using the provided information and make decisions to adapt. Adaptation strategies may include more farmers becoming involved in the cellular agriculture industry, such as by selling crops typically designated for animal feed for feedstock for microorganisms instead. Farmers could benefit by investing in cellular agriculture stocks should companies become publicly traded.

The government will need to play an active role in creating an even playing field for farmers by providing regulatory monitoring. Regulations can be established for naming of products so that confusion does not arise regarding the distinction between cellular and animal-derived products. Regulations should ensure cellular products are not only nutritious and healthy, but also that the industry delivers on promises of positive impacts on the environment and animal welfare. The government should put systems in place to support farmers who express interest in pursuing cellular agriculture as an alternative income stream. Given the uncertainty surrounding the future of the animal protein industry, it is important to invest in comprehensive research evaluating the impact on farmer livelihoods in addition to monitoring the potential implications of cellular agriculture on the environment, public health, food security, and animal welfare.


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Foley JA, Ramankutty N, Brauman KA, et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature. 2011;478(7369):337-342. doi:10.1038/nature10452

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Gerber PJ, Steinfeld H, Henderson B, et al. Tackling Climate Change through Livestock: A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities.; 2013. https://www.fao.org/3/i3437e/i3437e.pdf

Mekonnen MM, Hoekstra AY. The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products. In: Value of Water Research Report Series No. 48. Vol 2. UNESCO-IHE; 2010.

New Harvest. (n.d.). What is cell ag?. https://new-harvest.org/what-is-cellular-agriculture/

Odegard, I., Sinke, P. & Vergeer, R. (2021, November). TEA of cultivated meat. Future projections for different scenarios. CE Delft. https://cedelft.eu/publications/tea-of-cultivated-meat/

Ontario Genomics. (2021, November). Cellular agriculture: Canada’s $12.5 billion opportunity in food innovation. https://www.ontariogenomics.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/CELL_AG_REPORT_FULL-FINAL.pdf

Qualman, D & National Farmers Union (NFU). (2019, November). Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis: A Transformative Strategy for Canadian Farms and Food Systems, discussion document. https://www.nfu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Tackling-the-Farm-Crisis-and-the-Climate-Crisis-NFU-2019.pdf

Specht, L. (2020). An analysis of culture medium costs and production volumes for cultivated meat. The Good Food Institute. https://gfi.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/clean-meat-production-volume-and-medium-cost.pdf