New report says Canada can be global leader in cellular agriculture

Canada could lead the cellular agriculture industry and create a $12.5 billion sector if it invests in building the infrastructure now, says a genomics expert.

Dr. Bettina Hamelin released a first-of-its-kind Canadian report, ‘Cellular Agriculture — Canada’s $12.5 Billion Opportunity in Food Innovation,’ at the virtual 2021 Canadian Science Policy Conference held in late November.

“Cellular agriculture products are already on the grocery shelves in several countries around the world,” said Hamelin, Ontario Genomics’ president and CEO. “The response has been growing consumer demand and huge industry momentum for these new and innovative products made in sustainable ways.”

Why it matters: Cellular agriculture is touted as a compelling alternative to produce protein and ingredients to augment the global food system and ease pressure to feed a growing global population.

“This is an alternative to build our food supply chain,” said Hamelin. “The longer we wait, the longer it will take, and we will be the ones buying the product from others. So really, we don’t have any time to lose.”

Projections indicate the global need for protein could grow by 90 per cent over the next 20 to 30 years, said Hamelin.

“Cellular agriculture right now is adding to our traditional approach to production. It’s not taking away … (it’s) adding and complimenting, not cannibalizing our traditional ag sector that is so strong.”

Traditional agriculture intersects with cellular at various levels, whether via protein biopsies for the growth of cellular-based proteins or the biomass required to feed cells, often garnered from low-value agricultural waste products.

“This is a huge opportunity, and the reality is it will either happen in Canada, which is what we’re promoting, or it will happen to Canada because we will be buying these products,” said Hamelin.

She said the trend is already evident via the Impossible Burger, which is produced using Canadian ingredients.

About $9 billion in venture capital has been invested into the cellular agriculture field, including the Canadian Pension Fund and Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund, which led a significant investment round in United States-based companies.

“It’s recognized by investors in Canada that this is a huge opportunity,” Hamelin said. “So, let’s create the critical mass and the companies right here so that we can capture the investment here and actually commercialize our own start-ups.”

Developed in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of Fraser Valley and led by Ontario Genomics, the new report provides a roadmap to a lucrative Canadian cellular agriculture landscape. 

At the heart is how Canada, through public and private investment and partnerships for research, development and commercial growth of a Made-in-Canada cellular ag product, can increase food security through low-carbon manufacturing and advanced health technologies. 

“With all the right ingredients, Canada is well-positioned to act on this window of opportunity to step up and enhance resilient food supply chains, at home and abroad,” said Hamelin. 

“The key thing that we really need to develop and invest in is the scale-up of our facilities.”

Canada is the fifth largest exporter of agricultural and agri-food products globally, and cellular ag could provide $7.5 billion a year and provide up to 86,000 jobs by 2030. That could increase to $12.5 billion with 142,000 jobs achievable in the long term, said the report.

“To compete in this multi-billion-dollar global market, Canadian entrepreneurs need support towards commercialization of their cellular agriculture technologies and to attract venture capital funding,” said Alison Sunstrum, CNSRV-X Inc. CEO and founder. 

“This is one of few emerging sectors that could create an entirely new market. To thrive, companies need access to capital, infrastructure, mentorship and talent.”

That includes an incentivized, outcome-driven national vision and strategy for the Canadian cellular ag industry in the short term and a plan for implementation in the short-, medium- and long-term. As well it will require a transparent, innovative and agile regulatory framework for products in Canada and supporting mechanisms for research and commercial development including training, company creation, scale-up and growth.

The report’s analysis suggests conventional agriculture and the existing food industry can develop together and augment each other.

Dr. Michael von Massow, economic analyst for the report, said Canada has an enormous opportunity to capitalize on cellular ag, including diversifying and creating new product categories for domestic and international markets, supporting company creation and generating Canadian intellectual property.

“It is reasonable to expect that the market for cellular agriculture products will be in the billions over the next 10 years, and with exponential growth, even in the 10s of billions,” said the University of Guelph associate professor. 

“As consumers in Canada and beyond diversify their food choices, Canadian-made cellular agriculture product will both lessen Canada’s dependence on imports of these goods and increase our capacity to export to the world.”

The report said expansion could include an extensive food and beverage industry, free-trade agreements covering 60 per cent of global GDP, readily available feedstock and world-class expertise.

“This market will develop, and it’s just a question of whether Canada gets its share of that market,” said von Massow. “The opportunities lost are not only in terms of the revenue from producing these products but also from the science of developing these technologies.”