Modern agriculture and the agri-food system’s impact on the global food industry is multifaceted and significant.
“While modern agriculture has enabled increased food production and improved efficiency due to automation, it has also given rise to a range of challenges and concerns like environmental issues and the associated impacts of climate change,” Katharina Burdorf, team lead for product management at Hydrosol says.
“Modern agriculture and its associated agri-food system leave an enormous environmental footprint.”
Sustaining our global food system
A 2021 study published in Nature Food shows that food production and consumption are responsible for 35% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with animal products such as meat and milk accounting for 57% of production-related emissions. Animal products, however, contribute to only 37% of the protein supply and cover only 18% of the calorie demand, researchers in a 2018 study found.
These results are consistent with the prevailing scientific view that the current food system conflicts with the goal of sustainable development and that animal products are central to the problem, Burdorf details.
“Livestock production causes many negative environmental externalities,” says Burdorf, who is also PhD candidate at the University of Vechta, Germany where she conducts acceptance research on innovative foods with a focus on cultured meat.
Grazing is one of the central causes of rainforest deforestation in South America, for example. The conversion of vast areas into cropland and pasture to feed livestock releases large amounts of the GHG carbon dioxide bound in wood. Livestock is also a significant driver of biodiversity loss.
In addition, livestock, directly and indirectly, emits other GHGs such as methane and nitrous oxide, which are particularly harmful due to their global warming potential compared to carbon dioxide, which amounts to 28-fold and 265-fold respectively, over 100 years, Burdorf says.
While methane is produced during ruminants’ digestion, such as those of cows and sheep, nitrous oxide is mainly produced by microorganisms in soils of arable and pasture land and is influenced, among other things, by applying fertilisers. The latter also leads to the release of ammonia and pollution of the air and groundwater by excess nitrate.
Collaborate to create a sustainable food system
“The food industry holds the potential to play a pivotal role in advancing a more sustainable food system through diverse avenues,” Burdorf says.
These avenues encompass pivotal elements like embracing sustainable sourcing practices, adopting environmentally conscious packaging solutions, curtailing food wastage, and demonstrating a proactive eagerness to invest in groundbreaking innovations such as cellular agriculture.
“This pertains particularly to the commitment of valuable resources, including time and manpower, towards propelling innovation rather than fostering resistance to transformative change.”
Cellular agriculture approaches
Cellular agriculture is an emerging field of research whereby agricultural products – especially animal products – are produced through processes at the cellular level.
Two fundamentally different approaches exist within cellular agriculture: cellular and acellular methods. The cellular approach starts with animal cells, which can, for example, be obtained through harmless biopsies. This method is mainly used in meat production, commonly known as cultured or in vitro meat.
The acellular approach does not involve animal cells. Instead, microorganisms such as yeast or bacteria are used and modified to produce specific molecules otherwise found in animals or animal products. Accordingly, this approach, also known as precision fermentation, makes individual ingredients rather than whole products.
Precision fermentation technology has been used since the late 1970s and is the same process used today in producing most medical insulins and rennet for cheese. “It is, therefore, already widely used, in contrast to the cellular approach,” Burdorf says.
Embracing cellular agriculture in R&D and manufacturing
Cellular agriculture offers multiple opportunities for companies within the food industry. Precision fermentation can produce various ingredients currently limited or subject to fluctuating qualities, for example.
“Products containing cultivated meat can open up an exciting potential growth market and complement the portfolio of plant-based alternatives,” says Burdorf. In turn, it can appeal to a broader mass of consumers. “Provided renewable energy is used for production, cellular agriculture products also offer the food industry the opportunity for more sustainable production.”
“Radical innovations such as cellular agriculture present both a technical and a social challenge,” says Burdorf.
The technical challenge is about achieving market readiness in addition to technical feasibility. For example, the transfer of production techniques from laboratory scale to industrial production. Socially, implementing this step is also a typical prerequisite for offering corresponding innovations at competitive prices.
“The social challenges of radical innovations lie primarily in the level of attitudes toward them,” Burdorf says. “Innovations require social legitimacy to be successful in the market,” Burdorf adds. The importance of social legitimacy is particularly evident in consumer acceptance, which forms the basis for purchasing processes.
Studies show, for example, that in the international context, there is a varying degree of willingness from consumers to try cultured meat. In addition, the willingness to try something can be regarded as the lowest level of acceptance. “The next biggest hurdle would be to buy something, and the highest level is to consume something regularly and replace consumers’ usual products with it. Furthermore, radical innovations in the field of food require regulatory approvals due to their high degree of novelty.”
Cultured meat from certain companies is currently only approved in Singapore and the US. Precision fermented milk proteins are already approved in a few more countries. In addition to Singapore and the US, Israel, India and Hong Kong have also approved these ingredients for sale. In Europe, initial applications for the approval of cultured meat have been submitted in Switzerland and the UK and thus outside the EU.
“Within the EU, the process is long and involved, with little clarity for applicants regarding the required information.”
Pursuing cellular agriculture
There is currently a lot of momentum in the cellular agriculture research field, Burdorf says. Engagement in research involves the products’ regulatory approval in individual countries, which is a positive signal for all companies active in the field. “I, therefore, expect further approvals to follow in the next 12 months and further applications for approval to be submitted.”
“I can imagine that regulatory approvals in this field will, in turn, positively impact consumer acceptance. This is because risk-benefit perception is central to the acceptance of radical food innovations, and legal approval that includes a safety assessment can send a signal of safety to consumers.”
Cellular agriculture is a “very complex field of research, which is why it is necessary to work together”. In the relatively new but growing field, it is important to recognise where an individual’s strengths lie and to bring in other experts when it comes to questions that do not correspond to an individual’s expertise.
In concrete terms, if you want to produce cultured meat, your expertise may lie in developing a particular cell line but not creating a ready-to-eat (RTE) end product from the biomass produced. “Here, good collaboration is an advantage to reaching the goal faster,” Burdorf adds.
“Ultimately, most companies working on this topic are mission-driven, so there are good opportunities here to work together to pursue the mission and remove animals from the equation as much as possible in the production of animal products,” Burdorf details.