For all its promise, synbio and lab-made food need to overcome a number of challenges and not everyone is convinced it will be the solution to the problems of conventional animal agriculture. This gives New Zealand at least a small window of respite while it assesses a potential road ahead without the farm.
“What we eat is so heavily influenced by culture, taste, preference, and cost,” says Paul West, co-director and lead scientist at Global Landscapes Initiative, Institute of the Environment, at the University of Minnesota. “Even if something works really well on paper, it doesn’t mean that it’s accepted.”
Rational arguments regularly fail to trump emotional forces (emphasis on Trump). And humans have a long history of unquestioningly continuing seemingly nonsensical, often unethical, environmentally-dubious practices if they are firmly engrained, rather than look for alternatives. For one, many are squeamish about biotechnology in their food and the “ick” or “creep” factor that many people associate with lab-grown alternatives – especially those produced from animal cells – will have to be overcome. For some in the baby boomer generation, who have grown up with a more nostalgic view of food provenance and production, the idea of eating a lab-grown meatball may even seem heretical. So a key hurdle for both lab meat and plant-based food companies will be making these radical feats in technology palatable enough so the world’s billions of consumers actually want to eat them.
The sanitised, unnatural aspect of growing meat or culturing food in the lab versus “outdoors” also appears to creep out many new to the idea of cellular agriculture.
“We have white lab coated science producing meat. This does not seem like a natural process for most people. What seems natural is to kill an animal,” says Sam Harris, a globally renowned neuroscientist, philosopher, and best-selling author.
Lab-made food may conjure up images of dystopian sci-fi movies, but the reality is that synthetic biology and cellular agriculture have been in our food for more than 20 years.
“There’s a lot of ick factor things in animal agriculture already but we just choose not to think about them,” says Specht. Rennet, enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminant mammals used to separate milk into solid curds for cheesemaking and liquid whey, is one of the most widely used food applications of synbio today. And for years companies have been using synbio-derived enzymes in baking ingredients and to break down the cloudy components of fruit juice.
Most consumers are so far removed from the production process that they have little idea, or at least consideration, of their food’s provenance. For many urban children, meat and dairy products come from the supermarket, not from the farm. But when you’re trying to completely transform the global food industry, maybe this ignorance and apathy could work in the favour of synbio – if the products aren’t too much different from what people are already consuming.
“Today people eat cheese with no problem, but if people knew about things like pus in milk and that rennet is sourced from the lining of a stomach from a calf, then [clean meat] would seem pretty good. If it’s gone through certain regulatory hurdles, if it can reach price parity with current meat prices, and other people are eating it, I think the ick factor will go by the wayside fairly quickly,” says Specht.
A matter of taste
Challenges around consumer acceptance appear to be far from insurmountable – in fact, quite the opposite. In February 2016, Harris put an out informal poll on Twitter to over 14,000 respondents asking “If cultured meat is molecularly identical to beef, pork, etc., and tastes the same, will you switch to eating it?” His survey was potentially preaching to the converted, but the response was a resounding yes, as it was last year when Memphis Meats held a taste test of its meatball and posted a video of it on social media. It went viral and the company received overwhelmingly positive interest in the product.
“If there’s any stress on us at all, it’s how fast can we get this product to market. It’s not how can we convince people to eat it,” says Valeti.
Reactions to plant-based proteins have been similar for Impossible Foods, with eager diners happy to book in advance, and even queue for the burger. And Beyond Meat’s launch of its plantbased patties in Whole Foods Market Colorado in 2016 sold out within minutes, leading to a nationwide roll out of the product. Now mainstream US supermarket chain, Safeway, has agreed to stock the burger across its California, Hawaii and Nevada stores.
David Lee, COO of Impossible Foods, believes millennials will be the first to embrace such alternatives. “The millennials are really seeking out this alternative. They, more than any other consumer demographic, really want to be able to experience and know about the origin of their food. They also happen to be the largest consumer of ground beef.”
If consumer acceptance does proves to be as smooth sailing as the market currently suggests, there are several other fairly major hurdles confronting companies reinventing food in the lab. The first being their ability to scale up to actually feed the amount of people they proclaim they want to feed.
With the exception of plant-based food companies, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, whose products are already on the market, most startups working in this space are still working in laboratory settings – meaning scale and economies are an issue. Mass production of animal cells in the quantities required needs meat bioreactors – or fermentation tanks.
Not only this, but supply chain inputs including cell “media” (the scientific term for the broth of soupy nutrients required to grow and multiply cell lines into nutrient dense meat) and “scaffold” (the structure on which cells grow and which also gives meat such as steak its differentiated shape, texture and taste) will also need to be scaled up in order to replicate cells and meat en masse.
“There simply don’t exist enough players right now to produce it in the quantities we need to scale that would be needed to make a dent in the meat market,” says Specht.
Michael Morey, general manager operations and country manager for MP Biomedicals New Zealand, a biotech company that develops animal-based media to manufacture stem cells for the therapeutics and diagnostics industries, is sceptical that this scale up will happen anytime soon – if at all.
He thinks that cellular agriculture startups like Mosa Meats and Memphis Meats have a long road ahead to overcome the challenges of scaling supply chain inputs – especially if they aim to ultimately use animal-free inputs such as media and scaffold.
While supply chain considerations will be key, many in the industry are optimistic scaling issues will be quickly ironed out in the coming decade, even in a matter of years.
“That supply chain will need to develop alongside,” says Specht. “It’s possible that a significant amount of new infrastructure will need to be built to scale this – especially around tissue perfusion [or, for the layman, creating meat that looks and feels like steak or chicken breast, not just mushy mince meat]. But I wouldn’t say it is holding things back right now. There still are a few years of R&D to get the production system in place. And an area the Good Food Institute is really intent on making sure of is that the supply chain is being bolstered in parallel so that it doesn’t become the bottle neck in the future.”
Even if the full suite of technologies necessary for cellular agriculture to produce tasty, affordable and scalable options for the consumer can successfully come together, will it get the regulatory approval? Will regulators consider such new and novel synbio-led food innovations safe for human consumption and allow them the right to be called “milk” or “meat” or whatever they claim to mimic? Deep-pocketed Big Food and the agricultural industry are very familiar with lobbying regulators to protect their industries and, for many of them, this new wave is a very real threat.
To tackle this, an increasing number of specifically cellular agriculture advocacy and research organisations (including US-based New Harvest, the Good Food Institute and the Modern Agriculture Foundation in Israel) are directing their efforts to industry-wide collaboration to minimise regulatory hurdles and to ensure its road to market encounters as few roadblocks as possible.
“Whether it qualifies as a food ingredient or as a novel food, or whether we can substantiate it as an equivalent to meat and argue it should be regulated as meat itself – all of these are open questions,” says Specht.
Says Bogan: “In my view, there’s not much difference between the nutrients in clean meat and in traditional meat. The regulations will need to consider and discuss this. There’s not much difference between the way yeast is grown in big fermenters and turned into beer, and the methods used to culture chicken for food.”
The Good Food Institute also has a dedicated policy team and food law professor to help the industry specifically map out what the various possible regulatory routes are that cellular agriculture and clean meat might take.
A recent report Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology, which was commissioned by the White House, went so far as to recommend regulatory agencies develop “single point of entry” to streamline the regulatory approval process for the imminent entry of clean meat and cellular agriculture products onto the market. Specht is also optimistic big food interests will be no barrier for cellular agriculture’s day in the sun.
“I think that regulatory approval will be a process, but I don’t see it being more difficult because of industry push back,” she says. “Maybe that’s naive, but actually we’ve seen a lot of interest from industry exploring whether this is an investment route they want to go into, or might want to transition some of their business prospects to. So I’m hoping that if we can continue to maintain that relationship and they stand to profit as well then they won’t be obstructionist in that way.”
Bogan even sees big food as another funding avenue to bolster progress in the sector and get a slice of the action.