laboratory inspection of food

Within 20 years, there will be 2 billion more people than today — over 9 billion people in total. The impact to the environment could be severe. Just feeding that population using current methods is problematic.

On average, cattle ranchers need 100 times more land than corn growers to produce a gram of food. So, if that hungry world continues to eat meat like we do, the demand for land — and fresh water — will be daunting, not to mention the environmental impact of raising so many animals. Meat production aside, the large-scale monoculture of crops like corn usually results in damaging terrestrial pollution from pesticides and soil depletion. The impact to the oceans is equally perilous, with overfishing endangering entire ecosystems already stressed by runoff and pollution.

Can Factory Food Save the Future?

Enter cellular agriculture. Instead of farming animals, fish and plants, cellular agriculture grows the proteins and nutrients we consume from a culture, cell by cell. With this alternative approach, the consumable meat and plant tissues produced don’t need to be harvested from animals or plants. It’s food production on an industrial scale, and if that seems creepy, the positive effects may be worth it: Imagine a world where everyone is fed without the environmental degradation caused by current agricultural methods, and the oceans are an untouched ecosystem.

The technology to do this is not new. Growing meat from a scaffold embedded in growth culture is no different in theory than making bread from yeast. The vast majority of insulin for diabetics is already manufactured by genetically engineered bacteria, as is the rennet used to culture cheese. In the past 10 years, this approach has been pioneered with a variety of foodstuffs: milk, eggs, beef, chicken, fish — even coffee.

Cellular agriculture grows the proteins and nutrients we consume from a culture, cell by cell.

Making Food to Taste

To succeed, cellular agriculture must overcome 6,000 years of established dependence on traditional agriculture, and it has to do so via one of the most finicky human senses: taste. No one will eat manufactured meat or fish if it doesn’t have the same sensual satisfaction generated by the grown version. So, in addition to all the technical challenges in creating edible tissues from cultures, the startups pioneering this approach are working diligently to make their products tasty. Impossible Burger is probably the most well-known example of the approach. Although their burger meat is not cultured (it is derived from plants), the “blood” and texture of the burger is manufactured by taking a soybean gene that encodes the heme protein in blood and transfers it to yeast. Other companies, such as Memphis Meats, are taking a more direct approach and using stem cells to grow the meat itself.

stacks of burgers and fries
Cellular agriculture pioneers are working diligently to make their products tasty.

The cellular agriculture approach is so promising that it is attracting a fair amount of venture capital funding, and a variety of companies are developing products. In addition to the San Francisco–based Memphis Meats, there is the European startup MosaMeat, which debuted a grown “clean” meat burger in 2013; SuperMeat, an Israeli company making cultured chicken meat; and Finless Foods, another Bay Area startup growing fish meat from cultures. And there are companies using cultured technology to develop synthetic versions of products harvested from animals. Bolt Threads in California is making silk without silkworms or spiders, and Sothic Bioscience, out of Ireland, is synthesizing limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), a protein marker usually harvested from horseshoe crabs that’s invaluable in medical tests.

A Promising Approach

The possibilities for cellular agriculture are seemingly limitless; it may be possible to grow human organs for transplant using the method. But it is still early days. Tufts University in Massachusetts became the first institution in the U.S. to offer a doctorate in the discipline in 2004. The company that co-sponsors that initiative, New Harvest, also held the first conference on cellular agriculture in 2016. In the short term, manufactured meat is coming. Memphis Meats is planning on selling its product in stores by 2021.

By Vic Bondi

Vic Bondi is the president and an owner of Earth Media Partners, LLC, publisher of Earth911. He has a long history of working in the tech industry and web publishing and plays a little music on the side.