The idea of using laboratory techniques to create food sounds like something out of science fiction—think of the food replicators depicted on Star Trek. But the concept of lab-grown food is gaining traction as entrepreneurs and scientists look for ways to make more animal products while also diminishing the food industry’s impact on the environment.
This technology, called cellular agriculture, aims to create “meat” and animal products independent of an animal by using cells and proteins produced in a lab. Though it’s still early days, companies are pursuing these technologies to address current consumer demands, according to Paul Mozdiak, a North Carolina State University professor of poultry science who is researching ways to produce meat in the lab.
“People have choices,” Mozdiak said. “One of the choices is they want animal products without animals.”
Mozdiak spoke on a cellular agriculture panel Tuesday during the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s AgBiotech Summit in Chapel Hill, NC. He said that a growing number of agtech startups pursuing cell culture meat products are drawing attention from investors. Companies pursuing “alternative proteins,” a category that includes cellular agriculture, raised $88 million across 10 deals in the first half of 2016, according to AgFunder. But this investor interest is a new development. In the last 25 years, there hasn’t been much talk about cellular agriculture because there hasn’t been much financial support. Traditional funding mechanisms don’t apply—there’s still no way to get a federal grant to support cultured meat research, Mozdiak explained.
New funding mechanisms have taken root besides traditional venture capital. New Harvest, a New York-based non-profit organization that supports cellular agriculture research, awarded Mozdiak $118,800 to support his research. The group also supported San Francisco-based Perfect Day, which is developing dairy products made from dairy-free milk proteins. The company, which recently changed its name from muufri (pronounced “moo free”), can produce milk proteins in cell culture by fermenting genetically engineered yeast, co-founder and CEO Ryan Pandya explained. To turn those milk proteins into milk, Perfect Day next adds plant-based sugars, fats, and minerals. This approach produces milk without lactose or saturated fats, which could address the allergy and health concerns that some consumers have with dairy products.
Pandya recalled that as a college student studying chemical and biological engineering, one of his professors could not find funding to support research on cultured meat. That professor was only able to support his cultured meat research by setting aside funds from another project. Pandya said that one of his goals for Perfect Day is to “normalize the field” of cultured food and bring the technology into wider acceptance. Cellular agriculture needs more funding, and the research it supports should not be conducted in secret, he said.
Hultz Smith, principal scientist at Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN), is in favor of cultured meat research. Traditional animal production isn’t going away, and Tyson does not see these cultured meats as competition for poultry, he said. As the agriculture industry looks for ways to feed more people more efficiently, Tyson believes that meat produced by cell culture can offer consumers another choice.
Consumers may not be expressly calling for cell culture meat as one of these choices, but their market behavior is pushing the food industry toward cellular agriculture, Pandya said. Grocery shoppers who want an alternative to milk can easily pick up a carton of soy milk these days. Many of those same shoppers head back to the dairy aisle for cheese because they don’t like the taste of vegan cheese. Consumers want dairy-free choices, but they also want those choices to more closely resemble animal-based products, he explained.
Cellular agriculture can address the additional consumer demands for products that are local and food that is traceable to its source, Pandya said. The technology creates an opportunity to produce food close to where it will be sold, which improves the traceability of the products and reduces its environmental impact. If cultured meat becomes commercially viable, Mozdiak sees this meat being shipped to stores where consumers could shop for it the way they buy meat now. But it also offers the possibility of making meat a high-end, premium product sold in small shops.
“You could have craft meat shops the way you have craft breweries,” Mozdiak said.
Companies are still a long way from providing meat as a craft food. Cells can only grow to about half a millimeter in culture, so cultured meat forms as ground meat rather than as steak, according to New Harvest. The first cell culture products to reach consumers will be something relatively easier to make, like milk or cheese. If all goes well with Perfect Day’s technology, those options could come soon. Pandya said his company’s first dairy-free product should be ready for the market by late 2017.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Health Gauge via a Creative Commons license.