By Avery Parkinson
As promising as cellular agriculture may be for making our food production system more environmentally sustainable, ethical and healthy, the field is definitely not without its challenges.
The main challenge this technology faces is the cost — the world’s first cultured burger, which was produced by Dutch scientist Mark Post and his lab in 2013, cost about $330,000.
It currently costs around $50,000 to produce one pound of meat in vitro, and that’s mostly because of the culture media. Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), which is probably the most important ingredient, can cost up to $1000 per litre!
Additionally, FBS comes from cow fetuses. Due to the (very painful) way it is sourced, it does not align with the ethical intent of cellular agriculture — to be unreliant on animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has devised a comprehensive list of plant-based substitutes for FBS– however, scientists maintain that fetal bovine serum is still far more effective than the proposed alternatives.
Besides the essential nutrients, most mammalian cells require things called “growth factors” to grow. In an animal, these growth factors are supplied by the animal’s blood, so using FBS is an intuitive way to conveniently source them all.
If we want to eliminate the role of the animal entirely, our current alternative is recombinant protein production which involves synthesizing each growth factor individually. This is usually very expensive.
But luckily, researchers are starting to demonstrate the effectiveness of “serum-free culture media” (media that doesn’t include animal byproducts) and are also considering how to produce them cheaply.
Continuing in this vein, as much as cellular agriculture aims to be unreliant on animals, since it by definition entails culturing a set of animal cells, we can not be completely animal independent. We can, however, limit the number of cells that we do directly take from the animal.
Ideally, we could improve the technology to the point where one group of cells produces all the meat we ever need! This requires sustaining one cell line indefinitely. Unfortunately, this is impossible because of the Hayflick limit, which implies that cells can not replicate forever. Satellite stem cells, which are just a specific variation of stem cells, can duplicate at most 40 times.
One way we can get around this is by creating stem cells called Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs). These cells are created by taking a normal specialized cell and editing its DNA so that it returns to being a stem cell — kind of like reverse engineering.
On the end of a DNA strand, there is a protective telomere cap. When our cells divide, these telomere caps get shorter and shorter until they are nonexistent and the cell becomes senescent cells — which for our purposes, basically renders them useless. When we reverse engineer our cells, we can make the telomere long enough so that it exceeds the Hayflick Limit and our cells are effectively immortal!
Beyond the actual technical challenges of cellular agriculture, there are also societal ones that may prevent finished products from reaching consumers.
Firstly, few countries actually have any set guidelines and regulations which govern the production and selling of cultured meat– although recently, the USDA and FDA announced a joint responsibility for cellular agriculture products with each organization overseeing part of the process. The Good Food Institute is assisting various governments in coming up with their own policies that can support the industry. For starters, many existing laws are somewhat problematic. For instance, when used in marketing, terms such as “meat” and “meat products” specifically refer to animal slaughter.
Then there’s public acceptance. As the technology is quite new and unfamiliar to people, it will take some getting used to in order for consumers to feel comfortable enough to want to buy it. Like with anything, this can be done through education and awareness. Organizations like CellAgri and Cell Based News aim to do this by keeping people up to date with what’s going on in the industry.
Once these challenges are overcome, we may one day see cultured animal products available at the grocery store. Luckily, there are a whole bunch of startups, non for profits, and research institutions working on solving them!