Farming cells, not animals

First, we domesticated animals. Now we can domesticate the cell itself. A new GFI resource explains!
Fermentation tanks

The agricultural revolution was made possible by the domestication of animals. Since then, we have worked to eek out as much efficiency as possible from farm animals, leading to the modern factory farm system. This is a system that causes enormous damage to the planet, public health, and animals.

Today, we stand on the cusp of the next agricultural revolution, where we will harness the cell itself to produce animal products — without the need for factory farms or slaughterhouses. 

Motivated by the conviction that a more sustainable and humane future of food is possible, GFI SciTech intern and biotechnology MSc from the University of Copenhagen Valentin Waschulin is using his knowledge to accelerate the cellular agriculture revolution. In partnership with GFI’s Science and Technology Department, Valentin has published a review of cellular agriculture and its present and future applications within our food system. 

Cellular agriculture: an extension of common production methods for food cover

[Check out the full report here!]

I asked Valentin to pay a visit to our blog to explain the what and why of cellular agriculture — and how this innovation will impact our planet and our plates. 

Q: “Cellular agriculture” and “recombinant protein production” sound intimidating. What do these terms actually mean?

Put simply, cellular agriculture is just a method of making foods that conventionally come from animals, but without those animals. It’s based on looking at the biological processes that happen on a cellular level when, for example, milk is made by a cow, or an egg is made by a hen — and then replicating that process. For meat, this can mean growing muscle cells in tanks to produce clean meat, while for milk, this can mean making milk proteins in an organism like yeast by using recombinant DNA technology.

Cultivating meat infographic

DNA contains the information to assemble all the proteins that an organism produces. Recombinant DNA technology, which has been in use since the 1970s, allows the information on protein production from one organism to be shared with another. Therefore, you can take the information for producing milk protein from a cow, put it to the genome of baker’s yeast, and that yeast will produce the exact same milk protein. This is where we get the term “recombinant protein.”  

The same process can be applied to enzymes, which are proteins that make chemical reactions happen, like breaking down starch into sugar. Enzymes make up the bulk of recombinant protein production today and are widely used in food production.

Q: What are some examples of other foods where recombinant protein expression plays a role?

Recombinant proteins are actually very common in food production! For example, about 80% of all cheese produced in the U.S. is made with recombinant chymosin B. This is an enzyme originally found in the stomach of young calves. It is the main enzyme in rennet paste, which was traditionally used to curdle the milk for cheese production. To obtain the rennet paste, the stomachs of slaughtered unweaned calves were scraped out. 

But there simply is not enough rennet in the world to keep up with the production of cheese. In the 90s, recombinantly produced chymosin B came along and quickly took over cheese production.

Cheese production in vat

Nowadays, you can find recombinant enzymes in virtually every kind of food processing, from breadmaking to beer brewing to fruit juice extraction.

Cellular agriculture timeline graphic

Q: What’s so different about these proteins compared to the proteins produced by animal agriculture?

Well, there are actually more similarities than there are differences. Since the processes to read DNA and assemble proteins are basically the same in all domains of life, a yeast cell is capable of building the same protein as a cow. This means that it has the same amino acid composition, the same nutritional profile, and the same functionality. In the case of casein, that functionality would be the melting and stretching of cheese, and in the case of egg white it would be foaming, binding, etc. 

While cellular agriculture proteins are essentially the same as animal-derived proteins, they wouldn’t necessarily come with all the other components usually found in animal products such as lactose, antibodies, immune cells, or bacteria.

Q: What’s the motivation for producing proteins this way instead of sourcing proteins from live animals?  

An important benefit of directly harnessing the cellular processes for producing animal food is that it is not necessary to raise and feed a whole animal that lives, breathes, and walks around — microorganisms are much more efficient. Therefore, the calorie conversion can be improved, meaning that we could produce more food with less energy (think: feed) input. Considering the huge problems associated with animal feed such as deforestation, water use, and land degradation, I see this as a great improvement.  

Cattle in a field

We also wouldn’t have to deal with the greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental pollution caused by farming such an astronomical number of animals as we do today.

Q: On a more personal level, what got you interested in the study of this space?

The environmental and ethical problems associated with industrial animal farming led me to go plant-based a while ago, and I think it’s an important issue to address the problem of animal product consumption. But just telling people what not to eat is not the most effective approach. In fact, while many groups and some governments are telling people to cut back on meat, dairy, and eggs, worldwide consumption is going up. 

Per capita availability of meat to rise to all-time high in 2018 graph

I studied biotechnology, so cellular agriculture brings together my scientific knowledge with something I deeply care about. I hope that cellular agriculture and plant-based foods will eventually make factory farming obsolete.

Q: How do you see this technology changing the food system in the near future? 

I think it will become a lot easier, tastier, and more convenient to choose better alternatives over animal-derived foods, so more and more people will make that choice. Some big players in animal agriculture are already aware of the coming shift and are investing accordingly. Plus, regulators are interested in streamlining the path forward for cellular agriculture on the market, in part because of its high-growth potential and food safety benefits. 

For me, this is a sign that the technology is already stirring up the food system, and will hopefully fulfill its great potential to reduce the environmental and ethical costs of animal products.

Thanks, Valentin! We agree: The next agricultural revolution can’t come quickly enough.

To dive deeper into cellular agriculture, visit this link. And click here to learn more about GFI’s work to build and support a healthy, humane, and sustainable food supply! As a 100% donor-funded nonprofit, we can’t do it without you. 


The good food institute icon in white on a seaweed circle background

Emily Byrd