On July 13, 2016, cellular agriculture advocacy group New Harvest hosted their first conference educating interested parties on the current state of the field. The field of cellular agriculture is solving the problem of how to make our food in test tubes instead of in the field. This can take multiple forms, from the production of essential proteins and nutrients using yeast to lab-grown meat cells. There are significant strides that need to be made in this field, both in terms of scientific and cultural progress, before cellular agriculture becomes mainstream, but the technologies displayed at this conference and the people working in this field have the potential to both change the way we feed humanity and advance our ability to engineer biology.
The economics of food still significantly favor traditional agriculture. Most of the companies that presented at the conference are not close to having a market-ready product, but they will likely have a hard time competing with the scale and price points offered by traditional agriculture. Fermentation companies, those engineering microbes to produce nutrients and proteins, need to be able to grow, produce, and purify large amounts of product quickly and cheaply. Cultured meat companies still have to solve the problem of growing mammalian cells quickly and densely. However, this does not necessarily make a cellular agriculture venture an impossibility. Entrepreneurs in the area will have to focus on the high-end, niche markets that can handle the higher prices necessary for profit while the technology matures. David Zilber, a sous-chef and head of the fermentation lab at the world-renowned Noma restaurant, led a panel at the conference and seemed very bullish on the potential of product from microbes. It is high-end markets like these where products of cellular agriculture will first be viable.
Making cellular agriculture products viable will require more than just scientific advancement. In addition to the considerable technical advancements required to make cellular agriculture a viable business proposition, there are also significant cultural hurdles that need to be overcome. The prevailing attitudes towards food are moving in the direction of more natural food sources, and most consumers are highly suspicious of foods produced in any other manner. Many companies are working hard to determine the best marketing angle for their product in order to allay consumer fears. For example, Soylent has embraced the fact that they use GMOs, even going as far as to put up a billboard about it. Other companies emphasized the ethical and environmental benefits gained by switching away from animal products. However, until the general attitudes regarding natural foods and genetically modified organisms shift, entrepreneurs in the field will be fighting an uphill battle to reach the majority of the market.
Advancements in the field will impact other fields concerning biological engineering. Those focused on other areas of genetic engineering would do well to keep an eye on the technologies being developed by those working in cellular agriculture. The scale and price pressures are forcing companies to develop systems for growing cells - both microbial and mammalian - and for producing proteins at incredibly high scales. These are techniques that are very applicable to the field of industrial biotechnology. In addition, the groups developing mammalian culture technologies are uncovering methods that allow mammalian cells to grow and differentiate in ways that mimic animal muscle systems. The ability to grow cells in a way that resembles natural organ systems will be useful for researchers looking to develop organ-on-a-chip systems or grow organs in the lab.
Overall, it is apparent that cellular agriculture has the potential to change the way we feed people. The extent of that change will depend on how well the technology matures in terms of improving the scale and bringing down the price of production. In the meantime, entrepreneurs and investors should be keeping an eye on the attitudes of consumers regarding “non-natural” foods to determine if a significant market for products from cellular agriculture materializes.