In 1990, scientists successfully engineered rennin, an enzyme used for making cheese, making it the first product genetically engineered for food consumption. This simple enzyme revolutionized the cheese industry, and even today nearly 90% of all cheese is made using rennin. Now nearly 30 years later, cellular agriculture has advanced to the point where it can impact society in a much broader way.
Cellular agriculture is the production of agricultural products like food and materials from cell cultures rather than whole plants or animals. Many modern companies are working on completely cell-based products such as meat, dairy products, leather, and silk, with proponents claiming that adoption of cellular agriculture will lower the ecological impact of food production. But before being hailed as a cure-all, an examination of the projected regulatory measures, potential public perception, and environmental impact is needed.
When will we start seeing cell-based foods on the market?
Once a pipe dream in the minds of hard-core environmentalists, the production of cellular agriculture has come a long way since 1990. In fact, many think that it has progressed to the point that we will see actual sales starting as early as this year.
Currently, no more than 1,000 people have eaten cell-based meat, but many companies are optimistic that they will get their products out to the public in the next few years. JUST Meat, a San Francisco based company, is hoping to unveil a cellular-based chicken nugget in the Hong Kong market by the end of the year. While 2019 is an admittedly bold timeline for the beginning of an ambitious new product, other startups such as Mosa Meat and Memphis Meats have set 2021 as their launch dates for their first products.
Once the meat becomes available to the public, it will likely be hard for it to initially compete with the much cheaper conventionally raised meat on the market. The first products to compete with traditional food will most likely be high-end seafood. Fish, as cold-blooded animals, are easier to produce than their warm-blooded counterparts. Finless Foods, Wild Type, and Blue Nalu are currently producing expensive fish such as bluefin tuna. Because the traditional meat itself is so expensive, this kind of cellular agriculture could challenge the marketplace immediately.
How are governments planning on regulating it?
As with many new products, cellular agriculture will have to face the restrictive might of regulations. Cellular agriculture is especially vulnerable to future changes in regulations as the current laws were not drafted with this kind of industry in mind.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently reached an agreement to regulate cell-cultured food products. The agreement focused on how exactly cellular agriculture should be differentiated between agriculture and drugs. In this agreement, the USDA will take over oversight from the FDA after the cell harvest stages.
In a recent statement, the FDA stated: “This regulatory framework will leverage both the FDA's experience regulating cell-culture technology and living biosystems and the USDA's expertise in regulating livestock and poultry products for human consumption. USDA and FDA are confident that this regulatory framework can be successfully implemented and assure the safety of these products.”
While the regulatory path forward seems may seem clearer, some are withholding caution when it comes to regulation in the United States. The main concern is the conventional agricultural industry and the pull they have with U.S. government officials. Some experts in the industry are fearful of a push for onerous regulations that could lengthen the process by a few years.
As much progress as the U.S. has made in regulating cellular agriculture, the best bet for its initial release is elsewhere. In Europe, the path remains much clearer than in the U.S. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has a special provision on cultured meat in which a process is initiated where a company has 18 months to prove that a product is safe.
Outside of the Western World, Japan and Hong Kong are likely targets for cellular agricultural startups to launch their first products. Hong Kong seems especially likely with market not expected to increase regulations for cellular food. Companies looking to release cellular based food into Asia include: Avant Meats, a Hong Kong based company developing cellular-based fish; Shiok Meats, a company from Singapore; and Shojinmeat, a Japanese company which uses fertilized eggs as its main means to grow cell-based meat.
What is the potential environmental impact?
Currently, 25% of the world’s surface is used for livestock farming, while 30% of global fresh water usage is taken up by the production of meat and dairy products. There is clearly a space for cellular agriculture to thrive by offering a much more sustainable alternative to the food industry. But recent research has shown that, in its current state, cellular agriculture may not be the environmental magic potion its been made out to be.
When compared to beef, lab-grown meat is much more economically viable to produce. But when compared to chicken or plant-based alternatives, it actually requires more energy to create. Until companies can produce cell-based food with reduced emissions, plant-based products are simply much more viable in the short-run.
There's also been evidence that cellular agriculture can actually make climate change worse in the long run. While its true that methane gas production is lower in cellular agriculture, cell-based food production releases more carbon dioxide. While methane is more harmful in the short run, it only stays in the atmosphere for 12 years while carbon dioxide remains for a millennia. While it has potential, the manufacturing will have to change in order to truly witness substantial change in environmental impact.
What does the public think of cell-based foods?
The controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) proves that cellular agriculture may be a controversial topic for many who refuse to eat anything ‘unnatural.’ However, cellular agriculture innovators are aware of this danger and have adopted a much more open and transparent approach to what they do, hoping to engage and educate consumers.
In the United States, studies have shown that the majority of consumers would be willing to try cellular-based food, with around a third willing to eat it consistently. However, others point out that the number of people willing to try it varies between surveys, reducing the credibility of this number. Public perception can only accurately be gauged once it has been released.
The initial stages of the release are the most crucial. If early returns of the product are subpar, it can stigmatize the entire category of cellular agriculture for generations. In a study from Maastricht University, price, safety, and issues with traditional farming remain major concerns of the public. However, many are aware of the benefits of the technology, with ‘personalized nutrition’ for individual people at the forefront.
While the expected price and ecological impact of cellular agriculture make it unlikely to drastically change societal habits overnight, a slight change in efficiency could allow cell-based foods to take over the food industry. Perhaps we will look back on today as being a make-or-break point for an industry that could transform the food industry entirely.
Andrew Thomson is the founder of VentureRadar, a platform that monitors data on innovation around the globe, discovering and ranking companies to make them visible to potential partners, customers, and investors.