Cellular agriculture makes waves in protein production

Canadian government investment, cellular food policy strategy and regulation are missing yet

Although Canada has the potential to lead in the cellular sector, it lacks significant investment in engineering biology education or research.

Scalable cell-based meat production is a reality now that the world’s first industrial cultured meat facility has been launched. 

Israel-based Future Meat Technologies (FMT) opened its plant last month and aims to have products on the market by 2022. The facility marks new market potential to compete against traditional agriculture and aquaculture sectors. 

Why it matters: Scaling up production and creating a consumer-friendly price point has been a significant challenge for the cellular agriculture industry. 

“There are the two tipping points,” said Dr. Bettina Hamelin, Ontario Genomics president and chief executive officer. 

“The technology is ready to be scaled up, and there’s this investment that’s flowing into it, and we could do that at home.”

To gain market share, lower prices, and prompt a food policy strategy and regulation development, the industry needed a scalable fermentation facility, said Hamelin. 

The FMT industrial line can produce up to 500 kilograms of cultured product (chicken, pork and lamb) a day without animal serum or genetic modification and is working on a beef product. 

FMT says it can reach production densities 10 times higher than the industry standard while generating 80 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions, using 99 per cent less land and 96 per cent less water than traditional meat production.  

“Clearly, these products are coming on the market and if we don’t produce them, we will buy them more expensively than we could otherwise provide them to Canadians,” Hamelin said. 

Related: Could COVID vaccine development speed change the game for food?

There’s a massive return on investment potential, she added, and an opportunity to sell Canada as solid contenders for FMT’s global expansion plan. 

Canada is rich in researchers, start-ups, entrepreneurial spirit, scalable technology and, most of all, the biomass ingredients required for production and Made in Canada branding, Hamelin said. 

More start-up companies, accelerators, innovation hubs and partnership creation with large companies would help accelerate the cellular sector.

“We want to create that size, that critical mass so more companies can be successful,” she said, adding suitable investments will also attract talent to Canada.

Canadian venture funds such as the Canada Pension Plan and the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Fund have collectively invested several hundred million dollars into cellular agriculture and food research and development. 

Although Canada has the potential to lead in the cellular sector, it lacks significant investment in engineering biology education or research, which is the sector’s foundational platform, said Dr. Steve Webb, executive director at the Global Institute for Food Security.

“Not to say that we haven’t made investments. (But it’s) investing smartly in both those public-private partnerships and the infrastructure that’s needed to support and incubate these types of new business opportunities,” he said. 

There hasn’t been enough information sharing on how bio-economy technologies and platforms are the basis of the fourth industrial revolution, said Webb. It can be leveraged to impact biomaterials, the environment, health and other areas. 

Leading protein-processing companies are also investing in alternative proteins to diversify their portfolios. 

“Tyson Foods was one of the biggest investors behind the Beyond Burger, and they’re also deeply involved in looking at cellular production,” said Lenore Newman, director at the Food and Agriculture Institute and Canada Research Chair for Food Security and Environment.

Canada needs a national protein strategy and transparent policies and regulations for cellular products if it wants to stay competitive globally, said Newman.

While market-ready cellular meat products are likely five years away, cellular dairy is already knocking on the door. 

U.S.-based Perfect Day created a genetically modified plant-based whey protein that replicates the taste and mouth-feel of traditional ice cream.

“I would expect within a year or two we’re going to be buying products made with whey that is not coming from actual animals,” Newman said. 

“The launch of the Perfect Day ice cream, under the brand Brave Robot, was one of the leading product launches of last year. It’s growing that fast, and they’ve achieved a price point that’s about equal to a pint of Häagen-Dazs.”

Newman said plant-based whey is on the cusp of being used to produce sour cream, yogurt, ice cream and cheese with what she says is the same taste and feel derived from animal-based products.

“It won’t be very hard to regulate because mainly you’re talking about ingredients, and we have a pipeline for adding ingredients,” she said. “Where it gets trickier is on the agriculture cellular culture side, where you’re cultivating cells to create meat without an animal.”

Cellular meat products appeal primarily to meat-eaters, which will likely be disruptive to the traditional meat industry. 

In the long run, plant-based meat and dairy products will cost less to produce, have a lighter environmental footprint and divert waste products into nutrition options, which improves the bottom line for these companies, said Newman. 

“We can’t underestimate the environmental storm coming for the meat industry,” she said. 

“You can see it happening. People who are broiling under climate change or getting flooded out … they’re thinking about products that promise a better environmental outcome, better labour outcome and better animal welfare.”

Add in a better price point and that’s a win. 

Cellular agriculture is on a steep climb, and for those who doubt the technology will catch on, Newman suggests they revisit how the adoption of the car played out against horse-drawn vehicles. 

She predicted the next 30 years would show a 90 per cent reduction in animal agriculture in favour of cellular protein and dairy. 

“Don’t waste time fighting on labelling or fighting the introduction of the product, because I will tell you one rule that has held for 10,000 years – technology always wins,” said Newman. “The seas are changing; build a different boat.”

About the author

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Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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