cellular agriculture

"Cellular farming", the future of food?

Last July, a conference was held in San Francisco on cell agriculture. Cell agriculture, according to the conference organizer, New Harvest, is the artificial production of animal products in the laboratory, without breeding, using synthetic biology and tissue engineering techniques. The conference provided an opportunity to take stock of innovations in this field.

What is cell farming?

On July 13, 2016, a conference on cell agriculture was held in San Francisco. organized by New Harvest. New Harvest is a non-profit organization that advocates for and helps fund more research in the field of cell agriculture. According to New Harvest, cell agriculture, a term that is still little used in the scientific community, includes methods for the in vitro synthesis of animal products (meat, leather, milk, eggs, etc.). These methods would make it possible to reproduce identical, at the cellular and molecular levels, the key food products, without having to resort to animal husbandry. New Harvest distinguishes between two categories of methods: cellular production and molecular production. acellular production.
Cell production makes it possible to reconstitute animal tissues by culturing cells directly taken from the animal in a suitable medium, using methods already commonly used in regenerative medicine in particular. This is the method that was used in 2013 by Prof. Mark Post of the University of Maastricht to manufacture minced steak in vitro. For this purpose, adult stem cells (myoblasts) were taken from the muscle of a cow and multiplied in a culture medium containing fetal calf serum. This medium, rich in growth and survival factors for the cells, allows the differentiation of the stem cells into muscle cells, which develop into small bands of muscle fibres. Approximately 20,000 bands have been used to make the 5-ounce burger (about 142 g). This process can vary, both in terms of the types of cells collected and the culture conditions. Memphis Meats and Modern Meadow, two American startups, use the same initial mechanisms to produce, conversely meatballs and leather. Such a method does not make it possible to reconstitute all the elements that make up a piece of meat (adipose cells, vessels, etc.), but it does make it possible to obtain a mass of cellular tissue, of the muscular type, thus making it easier to obtain minced meat rather than a specific piece of meat.
So-called acellular production methods, on the other hand, make use of synthetic biology techniques. Most often, microorganisms such as bacteria or yeasts are used to directly synthesize the desired molecules/proteins. To do this, the gene coding for a given protein is identified and cloned into a microorganism that will then be able to produce it.
These techniques are also widely used in other fields, including the medical field. Several startups are deploying these techniques in the United States in the food industry. One San Francisco-based startup, Muufri, for example, has developed a process using these techniques to produce milk in vitro. DNA sequences coding for casein proteins in cow's milk have been cloned in yeast cells that will produce caseins identical to those found in cow's milk. After a few days of culture, the milk proteins are recovered and mixed with fat, obtained in parallel from vegetables, and modified at the molecular level to obtain the structure and taste of the milk fat. A mixture of sugars and minerals is then added to obtain an in vitro milk very close to cow's milk. In a similar vein, Clara Foods, another San Francisco-based startup, is designing egg whites with the help of genetically modified yeasts.

What are the advanced advantages of such production methods?

The products synthesized in this way are intended to replace animal products from farms. Because of the environmental, animal welfare and health safety disadvantages that can result from certain farming techniques and the global consumption of meat, which is expected to increase in the coming years, many researchers and entrepreneurs are trying to develop substitutes for mass-market animal products. While some companies offer substitutes based on plants in particular (plant-based milks, plant-based steaks, etc.), cell-based agriculture differs in that it does not attempt to reconstitute animal products from plant products but, on the contrary, to imitate the manufacturing processes used by animal organisms.
On the environmental front, an initial study by Oxford University in 2011 estimated that in vitro meat production would save the main resources devoted to livestock farming, such as cereals, land, water, energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 78 to 96%.
Another study, this time by American researchers and published in 2015 in the same newspaperThe Commission, however, qualifies these results and argues that substituting "conventional" meat for meat produced in vitro could have a combination of adverse environmental effects, in particular by energy consumption. Indeed, energy will have to be consumed in the laboratory to ensure the functions normally performed by the animal's organism (circulation/provision of nutrients, protection against possible contamination, etc.). Nevertheless, as no in vitro meat manufacturing "plant" exists to date, the two studies do not fail to point out that their results are based on numerous hypotheses, in particular on the processes and inputs used, which may distort the conclusions.
This method of production would also reduce the exposure of the meat to bacteria and disease, as the growth medium is perfectly controlled and sterile. In addition, some researchers working on this method of meat production ensure that neither antibiotics nor growth hormones are used, some of which are considered by some to have harmful effects.
Finally, it would also make it possible to modify the composition of the meat thus produced and to limit or eliminate undesirable components (components responsible for a potential risk of cancer, saturated fats, etc.). As a result, the meat thus produced could present a higher hygienic quality.

Dynamism of cell farming in the United States

In the United States, the startup ecosystem is particularly dynamic in conducting research on these issues. It is interested in a wide variety of animal products, such as leather (Modern Meadow), meat (Memphis Meat), milk (Muufri), eggs (Clara foods), gelatine (Gelzen), etc. The startup companies are also interested in a wide variety of animal products.
New Harvest, an organization created in 2004, has also rapidly become a major player in thecell farming in the United States. The organization, through individual donations, manages to finance a number of projects in this area. Above all, however, it is its role in making cell agriculture a scientific field in its own right that should be noted. Since its inception, New Harvest has been advocating the potential of this field and has been actively working to obtain more funding from both public and private sources. This is done through the organization of events, such as the San Francisco conference, and extensive communication, with the aim of giving more visibility to this field.
Evidence of the dynamism and growing interest in cellular agriculture, more and more investors are taking part in its financing and have enabled several startups to raise significant funds. One example is Modern Meadow, which has raised more than $13 million in 2015, notably from Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and has just raised another $40 million.


It is still difficult to say how long it will be available for consumption. In addition to advances in research, it also depends on other key factors such as cost, the regulatory framework that will be put in place for these products and their acceptance by public opinion.
Indeed, to date, these products are not competitive and require several tens of thousands of dollars to be produced, particularly in the case of products obtained via cell cultures. Significant efforts will have to be made on both the raw materials used and the process itself if these products are to achieve commercial profitability.
In addition, these products will have to fit into a regulatory framework put in place by the FDA and/or the USDA. If "cultured products" are already regulated, whole foods that could be produced in this way are not. These new production techniques are such that the resulting products fall outside the regulatory framework currently in place both by the USDA that the FDA. The current revision of the legislation on biotechnologies could be an opportunity to consider these products.
Finally, in view of the current debates on agriculture and food (GMOs, local agriculture, etc.), entrepreneurs will have to convince consumers of the benefits of their products. A 2014 Pew Survey survey on future technologies shows that 78% of Americans do not believe that their products are good enough. wouldn't eat meat produced in a laboratory.
Chloe Bordet, Assistant Attaché for Science and Technology, Chicago

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