At an inaugural conference, pioneers in the growing industry met to discuss the future of meat made without animals
In November of last year, the cellular agriculture movement hit a milestone: The Food and Drug Administration for the first time made a determination that a U.S. lab-grown meat, a cultivated chicken product from Upside Foods, was safe to consume.
While the company now awaits approval from the Department of Agriculture, which is set to put forth guidelines for labeling and inspection, the news shows how quickly the industry has become viable. In characterizing the industry as it was 10 years ago, cardiologist and Upside CEO/Co-founder Uma Valeti, referred to the Apgar health score routinely given to babies at birth. Out of a possible ten, Valeti said, “Our Apgar was zero to one.” Dire, in other words. Now the industry’s health was, he figured, closer to seven.
During panels at Tufts University’s first Cellular Agriculture Innovation Day on January 19, more than 100 researchers, business leaders, educators, and other stakeholders met at District Hall in Boston’s Seaport to showcase and explore the latest in sustainably created food.
“We’re all here today because we see that cellular agriculture is an important core platform for creating a more just and sustainable food system,” said Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco. “We understand the urgency for sustainably created food that meets the nutrition and safety needs of the world’s growing population as it faces increasingly limited access to land, water, and energy, and other resources.”
Now that the industry has launched, said Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting research in cultured animal products, the next step is to ensure the industry stays on a course that is healthful for both people and the planet.
“When you think about this next phase of growth, what are the values that we’re going to advance cellular agriculture with?” asked Datar. “How are we going to raise cellular agriculture so that it does what we want for the environment?”
Public perception was also on the panelists’ minds. “Consumers are ready for this,” said Mark Post, chief scientific officer of Mosa Meat, speaking at a session on the current business climate of cultured proteins. “They’re at least ready to stay away from their original choices. We all have meat eaters—I’m one of them—who have this simmering guilt feeling. We want to get rid of that while at the same time not giving up our consumption pattern.”
"When you think about this next phase of growth, what are the values that we’re going to advance cellular agriculture with? How are we going to raise cellular agriculture so that it does what we want for the environment?"
What makes cultivated meat guilt free? The production involves humanely retrieving a sample of cells from a live animal. The sample is then fed a mixture of nutrients known as cell culture media and placed in a series of vessels, or bioreactors, wherein muscle and fat tissue is allowed to grow. After several weeks, the tissue is harvested as cultivated, “slaughterless” meat and ready to be prepared and served.
According to the Good Food Institute (GFI), growing meat directly from cells rather than through conventional farming methods would dramatically reduce the amount of land needed for grazing livestock, conserve water resources, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Having fewer animals living in close confinement would also cut the risk of fecal contamination and the subsequent overuse of antibiotics and mitigate the emergence of zoonotic diseases.
“If you look at the Paris Climate Agreement, the scientific consensus is that if there is more animal agriculture, we're going to blow past the 1.5 degree goal,” said GFI Founder and President Bruce Freidrich.
“There is no Plan B,” he continued. “We're not going to convince the world to consume fewer animal products, so we need to figure out how to deal with that issue.”
With a recurring theme of the need for more funding, both to support further research and to build the infrastructure necessary to enable cellular agriculture to scale up, Friedrich added, “Our global battle cry is that governments should be incentivizing private sector activity … in the same way they’ve been funding and incentivizing renewable energy and electric vehicles. We need to get the NGO and the policy community that cares about climate, biodiversity, global health, and global development to recognize that this is essential to their goals.”
Nicole Tichenor Blackstone, an assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, stressed the importance of clean power to make cultivated meat widely available as a consumer product. “These technologies are not going to be sustainable unless they are coupled with renewable energy sources. As your plants are being developed and things are being studied, we need to be thinking about, ‘What’s your grid behind it?’”
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On the challenges of attracting consumer buy-in, Kyongbum Lee, dean of the School of Engineering, asked researchers how best to increase appeal and counter shoppers’ skepticism of cultivated meat. Rachael Floreani, an associate professor at the University of Vermont, said she regularly collaborates with food scientists and chefs to improve upon her lab’s final product.
“They're able to respond to the materials and the meat that I give them and cook it and tell me, ‘You know what, this isn't frying right. You need to have more fat or this texture,’” she said. Floreani also mentioned partnering with household names. “People love listening to celebrity chefs. If we can get them on board, that is another way to reach consumers.”
“We see a lot of partnerships, both in academia and industry,” said Tufts Provost and Senior Vice President ad interim Caroline Genco. “But I also see the potential for more,” including cellular agriculture research that draws on undergraduate and graduate students, engineers, chefs, and professionals from across disciplines. “There are lots of other talented people that we need to bring in.”
David Kaplan, Stern Family Endowed Professor of Engineering and director of the Center for Cellular Agriculture at Tufts, closed the conference by saying that it is the younger generation that will determine the success of these new technologies, just as it has been throughout history.
“They’re driven by a different metric than most of us up here today,” said Kaplan. “We can argue whether the reactors are going to be ten pounds per liter or 100—it doesn’t matter. What matters is the people driving the process.
“The students are the catalysts,” he said. “They always have been and they always will be. It’s up to us to give them the tools and the opportunity.”