Canada could be good place for cellular agriculture production, panel says

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Dairy products created through cellular agriculture and fermentation will be the first products of their type to reach the market.

Meat proteins created from cellular cultures has to look and perform like meat from animals so consumer adoption will be more challenging, a recent seminar put on by Ontario Genomics, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph heard.

Why it matters: The production of meat and dairy proteins in a laboratory could help reduce the impact of meat protein consumption on the environment, but could have profound implications for meat producers.

The creation of proteins that act like animal proteins is accomplished through fermentation of cell cultures.

It also often involves genetic engineering of cellular cultures for greatest efficiency, as is done to create insulin.

Cellular agriculture products are made “much the same way your beer, wine or insulin is made,” through fermentation, says Christian Delos Santos, a co-founder of Biofect Innovations, a Toronto startup company working to create animal-derived ingredients without using animals.

Santos’ company is working to creating heme — the iron molecule that occurs in high volumes in animal and human blood and to a lesser extent in plants. It’s what gives meat its reddish colour and artificial heme in non-meat Impossible Burger is what makes it look like meat.

Biofect ferments heme using microorganisms, which allows the product to be compatible with plantbased products.

Dairy and egg replacements will be the first products to hit the market, says Isha Datar, the Canadian executive director of New Harvest, a research institute dedicated to funding early-stage research in cellular agriculture. New Harvest was founded by one of the pioneers in the area, Jason Matheny.

Perfect Day Foods is a company already selling ice cream in San Francisco made from proteins created without a cow. “It is not milk…but it has the mouth feel of ice cream,” Datar said as part of the online panel.

“We have seen some products trialed in the U.S. to the public,” says Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley. “I think we’re going to see them expand rapidly. It is easier to make a liquid than a three-dimensional state like a burger.”

She calls dairy products created from cell cultures “yeast dairy.”

Egg replacements will be created in a similar way to yeast milk. Without the proportions of yolk to albumen in the egg itself, makers will be able to create as much yolk or egg white as needed.

“You can tailor the supply and demand,” says Datar.

Next steps

There are numerous companies researching cellular agriculture, including in Canada, and the panel was convened to create discussion about where Canada wants to fit in the potential market.

Datar says there is a lot of infrastructure missing to encourage cellular agriculture.

“You can’t be a high school student and say you want to be a cellular agriculture scientist today. There are no programs and no federal labs,” she says.

There’s also little public academic research, which means few independent experts to speak on and evaluate safety and policy implications for the technology, says Datar.

So far, the leading countries in cellular agriculture are small and dependent food imports such as Singapore, Israel and Japan.

Canada, however, has an abundance of the plant-based feed stocks needed.

“Do we want to export to other countries or own this new form of agriculture?” asked Datar.

There’s a lack of regulations for marketing and processing. A large amount of fermentation capacity would have to be developed to process a significant amount of the cultured products.

Other areas that have developed such capacity include brewing and ethanol. Datar says pharmaceutical companies with their experience in scaling lab-created products could be the natural fit for producing cultured food.

Public acceptance could be a challenge

Many products in cellular agriculture are genetically modified. That’s given the Impossible Burger some marketing challenges due to continued public concern about genetically modified food.

However, Newman says food and technology trends have a long arc of acceptance.

“It will happen. Technology always wins. You can’t ride a horse to the grocery store to buy whale oil,” she said, referring to once-common practices and products that are no longer used.

One of the major questions is how governments will regulate cellular agriculture products. The route to approval will determine how easy it is to reach the market.

Transgenic animals have been possible for more than 25 years, but there are few markets in the world where their production is allowed.

Canada is unusually situated to excel in cellular agriculture, says Datar. The feedstocks for the processes are protein and sugars and Canada already produces a lot of both.