10 min read

Food: Synthetic Biotechnology and Cultured Meat

Abstract: While the current methods of meat production are unsustainable, the demand for meat is said to continue rising with the growing population and emerging middle-class population whose spending capacity will also be on the rise. Cultured Meat offers the best route in tackling both sustainability in the meat industry and large-scale high-quality meat production.

Introduction

In his book Catching fire: how cooking made us human, Richard argues that learning to cook food was the hinge on which human evolution turned and how it made us the social, intelligent and sexual species we are today. Food was merely a requirement to provide us with energy but became a commodity that shaped human civilization.

A Brief History of Food:

The quest for spices and ingredients historically defined trade routes, expeditions and slavery. Tea, which originated in China, was never drunk with sugar. Europeans introduced sugar in beverages like tea, chocolate and coffee. As the global demand for sugar increased, plantations were set up in the Caribbean and Brazil where Africans were brought over as enslaved workers.

And it was the hunt for spices in the Middle Ages that dictated Vasco da Gama and Columbus in discovering their source in India. Although one of them headed in the wrong direction and discovered a whole new world.

Going back even further, it was the ability to control the source of food that led humans to shift from nomadic hunter-gathering lifestyle to a settled lifestyle. Humans discovered agriculture and started cultivating plants, breeding crops and domesticating animals for food. Called the Neolithic period, it saw an increase in population density, with large groups of people living close to one another and to domesticated animals.

Nearly 10,000 years ago, homo sapiens began domesticating animals for meat, dairy and fibre. The major reason to herd animals was to secure a regular supply of fresh meat in contrast to hunting (where surplus food got increasingly unpleasant if more animals were killed than could be immediately consumed.)

With progress and new jobs, the Industrial Revolution saw the large scale centralization of the food industry and the mass production of animal agriculture. The meat and dairy industry, a trillion-dollar economy, is a massive market today that is deeply broken and in dire need of radical innovation.

While the scale and sophistication of the effort have grown, the basic formula hasn’t changed at all. We selectively breed animals for the traits we want. We feed them for months to years. We slaughter them. We leave behind a terrible economic footprint. We are using animals for technology inputs like protein and convert them into products that we can consume(eat, drink or wear).

As compared to the leading companies, FAANG(Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) where R&D spending is roughly 13-15 %, big companies in this industry are not innovative with only 1-2 % in R&D spending. The current state of the industry is failing to feed the world in terms of affordable nutrition, not offering the healthiest options, and their production processes are prone to microbial diseases while causing harm to the planet and other species.

There is a number of reasons why we need a radical shift in creating food solutions :

  1. Rearing livestock and agriculture feed for the livestock consume more than 80% of the arable land across the globe while producing less than 20% of the world’s calories and less than 40% of protein supply.
  2. Large scale deforestation for industrial and single-crop agriculture, given that 80% go to feed livestock, is also the leading cause of global biodiversity loss.
  3. There are a number of concerns about the impacts of industrial meat production on human health. Bacterial and viral infections that can be transmitted to humans can spread through large farms. The huge amount of antibiotic consumption in agriculture has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant microbes that pose a huge threat to human lives.
  4. The ethical impact of torturing and killing animals in highly dense farms.
  5. The water footprint left behind by the meat industry is a huge cause for concern as around 70 per cent of all water used by humans is used for agriculture. And within agriculture, livestock use between 24-32 per cent of agricultural water.
  6. The meat industry produces 15% of greenhouse gases and is one of the leading causes of water pollution.
  7. Dairy products contain several unwanted pollutants such as growth hormones and antibiotics by virtue of the process of milking mothering cows and are thus not the most suitable for human consumption,

(Some of these stats related to environmental impact are debatable and often caught in the land of controversy. However, for purely ethical reasons as well as increasing demand for clean food and advances in technology, synthetic meat is likely to become a reality.)

While the current methods of meat production are unsustainable, the demand for meat is said to continue rising with the growing population and emerging middle-class population whose spending capacity will also be on the rise.

Meat and Dairy Production - Our World in Data

Plant based-diet challenges

The primary and most feasible route currently is switching to plant based alternatives. The products can be a great alternative for consumers who avoid animal products for ethical reasons but are looking for alternatives that are as close as possible to real milk and real cheese as well as free of hormones and antibiotics. But most often, neither do these products mimic the taste and texture nor do they provide the necessary nutrient quantity.

To realistically disrupt the existing dairy market, the solution needs to be cost efficient while matching the taste, texture and nutrient standards, otherwise, it risks succeeding in producing better alternatives but still failing overall.

The other interesting field of alternate Foods is Insect Farming. Although they are likely to be a much more sustainable form sourcing food and feeding the world, the ethical questions around whether insects feel pain or have sentience remains? There is no definitive answer or consensus among the scientific community. And as the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The only viable option, in the long run, seems to be synthetic meat and dairy.

Technical Landscape

The theoretical possibility of growing meat in an industrial setting has long captured the public imagination. In his 1931 essay Fifty Years Hence, Winston Churchill wrote: "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

The scope of creating clean meat through Synthetic Biology has been on focus since 2013. The process is similar to making livestock meat, except the cells required to create the meat grow outside(in vitro) the animal’s body rather than inside the body(in vivo). The entire process involves no genetic modification. The process roughly works as below:

  1. Cell Sourcing: A sample of stem cells is taken from an animal through biopsy under anaesthesia.

Usually, cell lines are immortalized (cells are modified to escape senescence and multiply continuously through a variety of techniques such as gene introduction, artificial expression of key proteins, isolation from tumor cells) when a large number of cells are required in the process. However, there are tradeoffs such as high population doubling time required during cell differentiation.

2. Cell Harvesting: Then the same function to proliferate stemcells into trillions, just as inside an animal, is made to occur externally by placing the cells in a medium containing nutrients and naturally-occurring growth factors. The optimum conditions such as pH, temperature, nutrient cycling rate etc. are optimized for efficient cell proliferation.

Similar to the bioreactors for yeast and beer, a bioreactor is used for the growth of these stem cells. All normal tissue-derived cells are anchorage-dependent cells and need a  surface/cell culture support for normal proliferation.

To increase the total surface area of the bioreactor onto which these cells could anchor, micro-carrier beads are introduced into the process.

3. Cell Differentiation: The proliferated cells are then differentiated into muscle or fat tissues by regulating the growth factors. Growth factors, as the name suggests, refer to the diffusible signalling proteins that stimulate cell growth, differentiation, survival, inflammation, and tissue repair.

4. Formation of Product: These muscle cells are placed in a gel that is 99% water to allow them to naturally merge into muscle fibres called “myotubes” to ensure optimal muscle protein expression. These fibres contract and put on bulk to grow into a strand, supported by a scaffold matrix. Millions of strands when combined and processed using standard food technologies form meat.

Source: Animal Agriculture Alliance

However, the challenges are not easy to overcome.

The price of cultured meat in its current state is extremely expensive. In order to make it low cost and scalable, the entire process needs to be automated while identifying low-cost inputs for culture media and supporting gel for tissue formation.

The sourcing of primary cells used to grow the meat has potential technological challenges associated with it - sub-culturing, passaging, misidentification and continuous evolution are just some of the problems that can occur using cell lines. The sourced cells may show different growth rates.

Micro-carrier beads introduced for cell anchorage come with their own set of problems: Excessive cell clumping around the beads (which degrades the health of cells at the center of the clump that are cut off from nutrient access) and additional steps involved in removing micro-carrier beads before the final cell harvesting.

Another challenge is the required isolation of the desired cell type from the harvested tissue, both with regard to homogeneity and cell numbers; this can be technically challenging, costly and often result in insufficient numbers of cells for any meaningful data to be acquired. Furthermore, inter-sample variability will impact growth behaviour and response to the culture environment.

To reduce dependency on animal products, serum (which contains a wide range of growth factors, hormones, vitamins, amino acids, fatty acids, trace elements and extracellular vesicles required for cell growth) needs to be removed from the whole culturing process. The manufacturing of a sustainable, animal-free, affordable muscle cell culture and scaffold media are major challenges as they are expensive and prohibitive on the large scale.

High R&D work is still pending on these fronts.

Challenges:

In The End of Animal Farming, Jacy Resse argues that there are four N-worded reasons why the fight against factory farming is challenging. Natural. Normal. Necessary. Nice. While the first two are psychological and can take a long time, the latter two can be addressed through technology in a relatively shorter time frame.

The use of the word “meat” for synthetic meat is still unclear. There is huge lobbying by livestock industries to protect their businesses by demanding the need for labelling only real animal products as meat. It is likely that the response on regulation will take time, and it is possible that the definition of “meat” will vary from country to country.

On the technical side, the role of blood vessels and blood, nerve tissue, intramuscular fats, and connective tissue in the taste and texture of the meat is still not well understood. The nutritional quality, as well as content of cultured meat, can be theoretically controlled in the medium by adjusting the composites. The research is currently under development for the micronutrient composition of cultured meat.

Additionally, the impact of cultured meat consumption on human health still needs to be documented and assessed. The regulations, both legal and technical are bound to consume a lot of time before the industry can be commercialized. The biggest challenge may yet be to replace the vast variety of dairy products and mimic them in taste.

Another challenge is industrial-scale fermentation which is usually achievable when the desired genes and proteins are similar to those that already exist in the fermentation microbe. As New Culture co-founder Inja Radman points out, the animal genes that produce casein are very different from those of yeast, bacteria, or fungi.

Market Landscape

Almost 40 startup lab meat and dairy companies and over $500 million dollars have been invested in lab grown meat. The growing list can be found here. Most firms are still at the lab stage and will need more funding, plus partnerships with food or food ingredient companies.

Mosa Meat was co-founded in 2016 as a spin-off company from Maastricht University by Peter Verstrate and Prof. Mark Post, who in 2013 presented and cooked the world’s first cultured beef burger in London.

The earliest company founded in this space was Memphis Meats in 2015. With recent fundraising of 160 Million $, the company plans to build a pilot production facility with the funds. Cargill, Tyson Foods, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Kimbal Musk are the big-name investors in the company.

Eat Just is the first company to enter the consumer market with regulatory approval from the Singapore government which permits them to sell lab-grown chicken meat.

Shiok Meats is building the first-of-its-kind commercial pilot plant in Singapore, from which it plans to launch its minced shrimp product in 2022.

A spin-off from Cambridge University, Meatable is the first startup to use pluripotent stem cells that proliferate in bio-reactors using a patented technology that was initially developed for the purposes of human medicine. There are different startups that are focused on different sources of animal foods.

Resources and Recommendations:

Agronomics is a publicly listed company in the London Stock Exchange that is focused on opportunities within the nascent industry of modern foods, which are environmentally friendly alternatives to the traditional production of meat and plant-based sources of nutrition. They have stakes in Blue Nalu, Live Kindly and Mosa Meat among others. Canadian-listed fund EatBeyondGlobal has stakes in Eat Just, Good Natured and Turtle Tree Labs.

End of Animal Farming is a fascinating book that not only illustrates and articulates the problem of animal farming but also provides a compelling list of solutions to the problems. The author explains why the end of animal farming doesn’t have to mean the end of meat and charts a roadmap that will radically change the industry.

Good Food Institute works with scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs to make groundbreaking good food a reality.

Cellagri: A news and insights platform that explores the future of food with cellular agriculture. They offer a number of resources to help visitors learn more about cellular agriculture and how it can help us develop a sustainable food system for the future.

Start Life is an accelerator based in the Netherlands focused on agri-food tech startups shaping a sustainable food system.

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