Skip Navigation
       

Cellular agriculture: What is it and how does it work?

You may have heard the terms “cultivated meat,” “lab-grown meat,” or “cultured meat” come up in conversations and been left wondering what they mean. All of these terms refer to products that are made using cellular agriculture, a process that leverages cells to produce meat and other animal product without requiring that a living being loses their life or suffers the immense harms of industrial animal agriculture. Already this technology is gaining traction in a number of different industries, and companies seeking to create the same animal products we love using cruelty-free cellular technology have proliferated all over the world.

What is cellular agriculture?

The industrial agricultural systems that we currently maintain to produce our food have serious consequences for human health, the environment, and animal welfare. Cellular agriculture is one method by which advocates and scientists are seeking to change the state of agriculture and reduce our food industries’ negative effects.

Cellular agriculture consists of producing animal products using cells, instead of through the breeding, rearing, and slaughtering of living, sentient animals. Cellular agriculture creates an end product that by any metric is just as real as the products derived from the bodies of animals. This makes it a promising alternative to animal-derived meats for those who are not satisfied with the taste and texture of plant-based alternatives. Cellular agriculture can be used to produce meat, eggs, dairy products, and even gelatin—all without the animal suffering and environmental damage of traditional production methods.

How does cellular agriculture work?

Animal cells have been reproduced for years within the fields of biological research and medical sciences, but food is a more recent application of these existing technologies. There are two primary methods of cellular agriculture: either products are created using cell lines, or through the fermentation of proteins.

What is the process of cellular agriculture?

The process for producing animal products using cellular agriculture varies depending on whether the product is an animal derivative, such as dairy or gelatin, or if the flesh of an animal is being cultivated. Most animal derivative products are created using methods that ferment and multiply proteins, whereas meat is produced using cell lines.

Protein fermentation

One of the primary issues that many consumers have with plant-based products is that they do not fulfill every single characteristic of their animal-derived alternative. For example, plant-based cheeses may struggle to fully replace both the fat content and meltiness of animal-derived cheese, meaning that vegan pizzas may not have as impressive a “cheese pull” as their nonvegan counterparts. Protein fermentation, a process by which the proteins present in cheese are proliferated, allows for the making of products that are identical to animal-derived products but with minimal animal involvement. In fact, the only time an animal is involved is to produce the original product from which the protein is taken. Once that protein has been collected it is placed into a plant-based host (such as bacteria or yeast) which then recreates the protein.

Cell lines

Meats produced via cellular agriculture tend to be produced using cell lines. A cell line is a population of cells that is stable and reliable in the ways that it behaves and reproduces. A successful cell line must also be capable of proliferating indefinitely. Stem cells can also be used, which can replicate a variety of cell types. These cells can then be placed into a medium where they will eventually create meat. The only requisite involvement of animals in the creation of meat via cellular agriculture is the initial collection of DNA.

What is the purpose of cellular agriculture?

Proponents of cellular agriculture point to several different reasons why producing animal products using cellular technology is better than traditional farming methods. Perhaps one of the most frequently cited reasons is that billions of animals would no longer need to spend their lives suffering on factory farms. Another benefit claimed by proponents is that cellular agriculture has a much smaller impact on the environment than traditional farming, as it requires less land and there is no need for animals to be housed, fed, and cared for from birth until their slaughter, a process that is extremely calorically inefficient.

What are cellular agriculture products?

There are several animal and animal-derived products that can be successfully produced using cellular agriculture. In fact, because cellular agriculture is such a promising alternative to the products of so many different industries, some are concerned that the level of research and development required to perfect each product will slow down cultured meat’s ability to replace the many animal products that it technically could. Some of the products being created using cellular agriculture are:

  • Pork
  • Seafood
  • Chicken
  • Lamb
  • Beef
  • Dog Food
  • Cheese

Cellular agriculture companies

Despite being a relatively new industry, the number of companies working within the cellular agriculture space has grown significantly in recent years. Some companies choose to focus on producing a single product using cellular technology while others have a more varied approach in which they explore the possibility of creating a wider range of animal products.

  • Meatable. Meatable, a cellular agriculture company out of the Netherlands, recently revealed their first cruelty-free meat, pork sausage.
  • BlueNalu. BlueNalu focuses on creating seafood using cellular agriculture technologies. One of their premier products is cell-based yellowtail. The company has seen a few big successes lately, including a partnership with the largest sushi restaurant operator in Japan earlier this year.
  • Future Meat. Perhaps one of the most prolific cellular agriculture companies presently in existence, Future Meat recently unveiled lamb produced using cellular agriculture. This new addition joined their existing chicken. Though based in Israel, the company has plans to open a facility in the U.S. in the near future.
  • New Culture. A more recent startup, New Culture aims to produce cow cheeses. The first product they plan to launch is fresh mozzarella.

Cellular agriculture: Pros and cons

Cellular agriculture represents an opportunity to markedly lessen the prominence of factory farming as a means of producing food. However, the reality is that the transition to cruelty-free meat and other animal-derived products will not happen overnight. It is likely that once products made using cellular agriculture hit grocery store shelves there will still be a sizable number of people who still choose to consume products that are derived directly from animals. Because of this, cellular agriculture cannot be treated as a sufficient solution to the suffering of animals on factory farms. It must be pursued in conjunction with a raising of welfare to the highest possible level for those animals who will continue to be farmed, and efforts to make factory farms accountable for their true costs. Following the widespread introduction of products made using cellular agriculture, the number of animals raised to meet the remainder of demand should go down significantly, but advocates must still give them the attention that they deserve and ensure that their lives are as pleasant as possible.

What are the disadvantages of cellular agriculture?

Some of the enduring disadvantages associated with cellular agriculture include cultural and religious considerations and the expense involved. When it comes to culture and religion, the primary concern rests with religions that require animals raised for meat to be slaughtered in specific ways. Questions remain concerning whether meat produced using cellular agriculture would be edible under these standards. Further, there are many individuals who will not want to consume products made using cellular agriculture simply because they are new, unfamiliar, and thus may be regarded as unnatural. Another area of concern is the cost of products made using cellular agriculture which, as of now, is considerably higher than for comparable animal-derived products. As cellular agriculture continues to scale, however, the cost of production should come down.

What are the benefits of cellular agriculture?

There are numerous benefits likely to come from the widespread adoption of cellular agriculture. Some of these include:

  • A decrease in the number of animals suffering on factory farms
  • Potential for reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • Reduction of the amount of land used for agriculture
  • Decreasing water pollution and water usage for agriculture
  • The ability to control the composition and quality of meat
  • Potential to reduce the prominence of obesity and heart disease

What are the obstacles to cellular agriculture?

While there are plenty of obstacles that are still facing cellular agriculture, including reaching price parity in a market shaped by subsidies for traditional farmers and securing the funding to scale up production, perhaps one of the most challenging obstacles that must be overcome is cultural. Several interest groups are fighting against the success of cellular agriculture. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has made comments disparaging cellular agriculture and farmers have tried to ensure that the word “meat” can only be used on packaging for products that come from a farmed animal.

Conclusion

Cellular agriculture has the potential to be a huge step in the right direction for the animals raised to produce food. Already, several companies based in nations all around the world are in the final stages of launching their initial products, but barriers still stand in their way. Once these revolutionary products do become available on grocery store shelves, they will bring benefits to animals, the environment, and the communities currently impacted by factory farms.