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Future of Cellular Agriculture

Eating meat is harming our environment! 

Yes, you read the above title correctly, meat consumption and its production are one of the biggest concerns today, considering the negative impact it has on our environment. Meat is rich in nutrients like proteins and some vitamins, which are essential for an overall balanced diet. But meat production accounted for nearly 60% of emissions of greenhouse gases from total food production, with emissions from beef production topping the charts.

Raising livestock animals generate approximately 13 billion tons of waste every year worldwide. Production of just 1 kilogram of beef alone requires 15 tons of water, and meat production requires 2300 trillion tons of water every year, in a world wherein a country like Eritrea, 80.7% of people lack basic clean water services!

With the world already amidst a severe freshwater crisis, emerging global warming threats, and waste management concerns, responsible authorities need to come together to manage the impacts the meat industry is causing as well as try making food production more efficient. We too as responsible habitants should raise our voices and look for required alternatives to fix matters when there is still time.

What is Cellular Agriculture?

Cellular agriculture is the method of production of agricultural products from cell cultures. It focuses on the creation of new methods of manufacturing proteins, fats, and tissues utilizing a combination of biotechnology, molecular biology, tissue engineering, etc. It is a field of bio-economy, i.e., economic activity including the use of biotechnology and biomass in the production of services or goods; and the most well-known establishment of cellular agriculture has been the concept of cultivated meat or cell-based meat developed in labs using animal cells.

The fulfillment of proteins in our diets, previously solved by hunting, then domesticating livestock and slaughter, can now be fulfilled in a much eco-friendly manner without having to mass kill animals. Cellular agriculture is further classified into two methods, cell cultivation (cellular) and precision fermentation (acellular).

In cell cultivation, tissues are made outside the body using tissue engineering where cells are sampled out and assembled with serum (nutrients for the cells to grow), where they multiply and grow into muscle tissue, the main component of meat.

Precision -fermentation method uses microorganisms to produce products like milk and is different from general fermentation as it is directed to produce a specific product. The microbes are engineered to produce the required product and then cultivated in mass quantities and fed nutrients for growth. 

Problems cellular agriculture solves

Study shows that lab-grown meat may result in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 78-96%, reduction of land use by 95%, and water requirements by 82-96% compared to traditional meat production. Cultured beef would require 45% less energy to produce. These figures are not cemented and vary with varying types of meat, methods, equipment, etc but overall, it is deemed way more efficient and eco-friendlier than the conventional methods of farming and agriculture. Cultured meat and fish help prevent hunting, slaughter, resulting in restoration of marine life, and promoting animal welfare.

The use of sterile culturing environments eliminates the use of antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics used in conventional farming to prevent diseases in animals, caused problems like antibiotic resistance in animal pathogens which can be passed on to humans. Hence cellular agriculture might be the perfect solution to all of this.

Lastly, cultured meat or animal products can be produced with a desired nutritional composition, like cultured seafood will be free from plastic or mercury, two of the most common contaminants. 

Cellular products

Cultured Products:

Produced using tissue engineering methods, Singapore Food Agency approved the sale of lab-grown meat products in 2020. It is the first-time cultured meat has been cleared for sale in the world. The world’s first sale of cultured meat occurred at a Singapore restaurant named 1880 in December 2020, which was produced by the US-based start-up Eat Just.

Dairy:

Many start-ups are making lab-grown dairy products, like the production of mozzarella cheese using casein protein and microbes by San Francisco-based company New Culture; Perfect Day, a company making dairy from yeast, and Germany-based Formo making dairy products using microbial fermentation.

Eggs:

Every company, formerly called Clara Foods, an American company is developing proteins, by using yeast to convert sugar into proteins (precision fermentation technology) and has successfully made the first animal-free egg white for commercial use. 

Coffee:

US-based Atomo company has launched the world’s first synthetic coffee product in 2021. They claim their product utilizes 94% less water than conventional coffee production and emits 93% fewer carbon emissions. It might also solve large-scale industrial coffee farming causing deforestation and unsustainable land use.

Fish:

Organizations like Finless Foods and Wild Type are working towards developing marine animal food products through cellular agriculture, deriving from the tissue of aquatic species.

Fragrances:

Ginkgo Bioworks is a US-based biotech company that is developing cultured fragrances and customed microbes. It can be a better alternative to flavors and fragrances extracted from botanical sources as it solves the dependency of extracts on weather and other events that cause supply fluctuations.

Pet food:

Companies like Because Animals and Bond Pet Food are manufacturing pet foods made of cultured meat that are equally nutritious and more sustainable compared to conventional pet foods. 

The cellular agriculture industry is surrounded with a controversy of its own, ever since its inception, with some deeming it as the future of food production, while others labeling it as just another science experiment. Like it or not, cell-based products have managed to carve their way to the market, with the cultured meat industry securing nearly $366 million of funding by 2020!

The debate and the controversy seem to be engulfed in many misconceptions and confusion like, is lab-grown meat even real meat or is cell-based food ethical or not, and the vegan stance about cultivated meat. The affordable nature of cell-based food products is uncertain, as the production costs and expenditure on its development are relatively high, but many are claiming that cultured food products might reach price parity with conventional food soon.

Also, there are questions on the environmental impacts cellular agriculture might still have like accelerating climate change and potential concerns over its regulation like safety standards. With so many doubts and uncertainty over the future of cellular agriculture, it is yet to be seen whether cellular agriculture will be successful for the motive it was created for or not.

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Gitanjali Deka
Gitanjali is an engineering student at NIT Silchar. She is an ardent art enthusiast and a cinephile. She likes informative writing and coming across new topics in the process.

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