Cellular Agriculture

The next technofix promises synthetic, cruelty-free “meat”

by Élisabeth Abergel

The term cellular agriculture (CA) encompasses a series of technological processes for producing animal products from cells instead of animals. The technology also allows the production of materials like leather and animal tusks. Developments in this field coincide with renewed interest in alternative proteins, including plant-based meats and insects, as sustainable means of countering the effects of intensive animal agriculture on the climate (land use, water use, greenhouses gases) and as promoting a more ethical treatment of animals.

There are two types of cellular agriculture: the first one aims to produce edible tissues biofabricated into hamburgers, nuggets, and even steaks, starting from cells collected from live animals; the other uses acellular processes (meaning that animal proteins are produced in genetically engineered yeast or bacteria using fermentation techniques) in the making of “dairy” products and egg whites. In both cases, cell-based meat and animal proteins are created and assembled into final products in the laboratory. The goal for CA promoters is to shift production from the countryside to the city, using the brewery as a model for large-scale manufacturing of cell-based meat.

Alt-meat

According to the Good Food Institute, a US-based cellular agriculture advocacy organization, laboratory-grown meat is currently shifting from pilot scale production (hundreds of metric tons) to demonstration scale (thousands of metric tons). There were 107 cultivated meat and seafood companies worldwide in 2021. While the cultured meat products are not yet available at your supermarket, start-ups like Mosa Meats (Netherlands), Memphis Meats, Upside Foods, BluNalu (all US) and Aleph Farms (Israel) are among the first to occupy the alt-meat space. Canadian cultivated meat companies Appleton Meats, Future Fields and Evolved Meats are developing products. In addition, large agrifood and meat companies like Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and Maple Leaf Foods have made major investments in alt-proteins (both cell and plant-based) to capture market opportunities. Silicon Valley billionaires and tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Richard Branson have also funded CA, contributing to the hype surrounding its desirability.

The global market for cultured meat is predicted to reach USD$25 billion by 2030, at which time the industrial scale (millions of metric tons) could be reached. However, important technical, scalability, affordability, regulatory, and consumer acceptance issues have yet to be overcome.

Singapore is the first country to grant regulatory approval for Eat Just’s cell-based chicken nuggets, featured on the menu of an exclusive restaurant and now available directly to consumers. Currently, the US can approve ingredients produced by CA through the Food and Drug Administration and US Department of Agriculture joint regulatory framework. There are no specific policies surrounding the approval of CA products in Canada.

We need to ask how cell-based meat alters our relationship to food, community, animals, rural futures, and Nature.

CA combines all the elements of what is known as the promissory economy, relying on the convergence of cutting-edge technologies (biotechnological innovations such as synthetic biology and tissue engineering) as well as venture capital to create a greener, more sustainable, cruelty-free, just, and healthy future. It is the ultimate techno-fix, since it is presented as a practical solution to a series of deeply-rooted and complex problems involving animal agriculture and climate change. It relies on the transformative powers of technology to resolve these, while at the same time making important moral claims such as ending animal suffering and, in some cases, world hunger.

CA also recasts the problems surrounding industrial animal farming as techno-centric debates, foreclosing the search for other potential solutions. It avoids dealing with the structural failures within industrial agriculture and our global food system, and excludes focusing on solutions that already exist.

The techno-fix

Laboratory, slaughter-free, synthetic, clean, cruelty-free, or in vitro meat as an example of a techno-fix, is portrayed as a disruptive solution to factory farming and the conventional food system. But CA represents an extension of the industrialization of agriculture by other means.

Technological solutionism, the techno-fix, defines problems using technological logic to solve them. Put another way, new technologies are called upon to fix the problems created by old technologies. This means that those who define the problems create solutions according to their understanding of the problem, and solutions might be motivated by profit rather than the common good. To recognize a techno-fix, we need to analyze CA from a non-technological perspective – to explore future expectations and visions as well as the social, economic, and institutional infrastructures constructed to materialize it. We also need to ask how cell-based meat alters our relationship to food, community, animals, rural futures, and Nature, and whether it promotes social and environmental justice.

When we turn environmental and ethical priorities into engineering problems, animals are reduced to a repository of cellular material. The focus on cells as the main production unit for meat means that animal bodies, life cycles, and undesirable behaviours no longer create inconvenient complications for humans.

Moreover, there are no limits to the kinds of meats that can be cultivated: Primeval Foods intends to make exotic meats such as lion or tiger burgers, Biomilq has produced cell-cultured human milk “outside of the breast” using human cells, Finless Foods is working on cell-cultured sashimi and seafood and, in 2019, Aleph Farms produced muscle tissue from cow cells on the international space station using a bioprinter.

Farmers tend to be excluded from these discussions – even though this industry carries important social, cultural, and economic consequences for farmers and consumers.

Invariably where there are techno-fixes, hubris is not far behind: humans can transform life and nature into an extension of human design. Industry leaders claim that they can make meat better, more efficiently, and faster than the animal or that they can “trick” cells into behaving as though they are still part of the animal to optimize growth. As animals disappear from agriculture and are progressively dematerialized, nature also disappears into a series of technological projects (cell meat, geoengineering, etc.), alienating us further from the environment we seek to protect.

In the laboratory, tissues and cells are “cultured,” cells are “harvested,” etc. – these are all terms that could be associated with farming. It could also be argued that all life is cellular or cell-based. However, the agri in Cellular Agriculture, is misleading and eludes critical analysis. The solutionism it rests on makes specific assumptions about the realities of agriculture and, more importantly, how it should work. Generally, farmers don’t participate in the direction of Cellular Agriculture and tend to be excluded from these discussions – even though this industry carries important social, cultural, and economic consequences for farmers and consumers.

Many believe that cellular agriculture (including seafood and fish) can coexist alongside other meats and alt-meat products, while others envision an end to animal farming by the year 2100. Others still predict small meat factories along the lines of artisanal meats or craft breweries intended for niche markets.

Both lab-grown and plant-based alternatives are highly processed to look, taste, and feel like “real” meat, and contain ingredients that have never been part of the human diet. The company Impossible Burger uses a soy product called leghemoglobin in their plant-based products to replicate the bleeding of a conventional beef burger. Soy heme is inserted into genetically engineered yeast and fermented in order to produce high quantities of the substance. Many question the safety of Impossible Foods’ heme product as it has been approved in the US without undergoing rigorous testing. They use genetically engineered soy, which raises concerns about herbicides like glyphosate harming people and the environment.

As for lab-grown meat, its claims of slaughter-free or animal-free meat may be misleading. The cells used for tissue culture grow optimally in the blood of dead calves known as Foetal Calf Serum or Foetal Bovine Serum (FBS) collected in slaughterhouses. Even though Eat Just’s cultivated chicken sold in Singapore uses small amounts of FBS, and Mosa Meats developed a cheaper animal-free growth serum derived from plants, other companies still rely on this product. Because mammalian cells, including human cells, require hormones and growth factors to sustain growth, it is unclear what effects these may have on human health over the short and long-term (Chriki and Hocquette, 2020).

Finally, I believe that animal agriculture and farming systems that use animals can be part of the climate solution and humane practices. Resources that help farmers adapt to low-input animal models might be better for the environment and rural economies than industrial animal-free meat. Agroecology and regenerative approaches where animals are part of a whole ecosystem that restores soil nutrients and land might also have long-term benefits on biodiversity and carbon capture.

Cell-based meat eludes the difficult questions about what kind of agriculture we need to sustain people and the planet, and what our commitment to meat should be. It promises some replicated technologized versions of animal-free “meat.” This creates the belief that consuming these products becomes a moral and an environmental act while in fact it may be the opposite.


Dr. Élisabeth Abergel is an associate professor in the sociology department and the Institute of Environmental Sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).  Her research focuses on the relationship between biotechnologies and social and environmental change. She is currently finishing a book on cellular agriculture due out next year.


Sources:
Good Food Institute (2022) According to the Good Food Institute

Chriki S and Hocquette J-F (2020) The Myth of Cultured Meat: A Review. Front. Nutr. 7:7. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2020.00007

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