By Elisabeth Abergel, University of Quebec, Montreal
Montreal (Canada), June 29 (360info) A food crisis like few have ever seen could be the impetus for thriving lab-grown foods and other dietary alternatives. But it will not be without its own challenges.
Climate-related disasters, pandemic fallout and the war in Ukraine are a toxic triple combination for food security.
A recent global report estimated that the number of people in food crisis has doubled since 2016. The problem is exacerbated by rising fertilizer and energy costs and declining regional grain supplies due to droughts.
Supply chains are impacted by these cascading effects, making it difficult for food systems to adapt sustainably. But tech startups and big food companies are finding new ways to disrupt traditional food systems and supply chains — for many, the toxic triple combination offers an opportunity.
Affordable and sustainable alternative protein foods are gradually becoming a commercial reality. We are now seeing meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs produced entirely from plant analogues or lab-grown foods. One company is even creating alternative proteins from the air we breathe.
Lab-grown meat involves a combination of tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, biomedical engineering, and biomaterials science allowing stem cells harvested from living animals to grow and proliferate in a bioreactor.
As the cells assemble into tissues, a natural or synthetic scaffolding material enables cell attachment, replicating the 3D multicellular structure of meat. Depending on the complexity of the final product, whether ground meat or steak, the tissues may be harvested directly from the bioreactor or may undergo further design steps before final assembly.
Scientists are also producing meat using 3D bioprinting technology, where successive layers of cells (or bioink) are deposited onto a substrate using computer-aided design and formed into muscle fibers. Japanese scientists from Osaka University recently created Wagyu beef using bio-printing, replicating the unique and beautiful design of Sashi marble. They aim to automate cell-based meat production by 2025.
But all that glitters is not gold. While some companies aspire to end hunger and the farming of animals in large, industrial manufacturing facilities — like Upside Foods’ new California meat plant — others envision “micro-carnery’s,” similar to craft breweries, focusing on niche markets and urban consumers. Either way, this signals a shift in the production of cellular products from rural to urban centers.
Despite progress, the field of cell culture faces high production costs, flaws in bioreactor design, and food safety issues. Many cell-based startups still rely on fetal bovine serum as a nutrient source, undermining the industry’s animal-free ethical claims.
Lab-grown products combine new technologies developed for biomedical purposes with food production. Their arrival in the food space raises challenges regarding adequate regulations and labeling requirements.
Plant-based analogues represent another sustainable dietary route. Advanced fermentation technologies are currently being used in the production of plant-based meat, dairy and egg substitutes using synthetic biology or genetically modified proteins in yeast or bacteria.
Fermentation provides large quantities of raw materials at relatively low cost, but also plays a key role in supporting the plant and cultured meat industries. For example, the bleeding in the Impossible Burger is created by leghemoglobin, a soy protein engineered into yeast. As the production of cultured meat increases, fermentation will produce large volumes of nutrients and ingredients for cell culture.
While these new food technologies may seem promising, plant-based meats still have unsustainable aspects. The narrow focus on protein as a solution obscures the diversity of animal and other agricultural practices that can contribute to climate-smart food security.
As startups race to standardize alternative protein products in our diets, massive layoffs in the biotech sector could threaten the expansion of these industries or at least reduce the number of companies currently operating in the space.
Another possible solution involves genome editing techniques such as CRISPR, which aim to increase crop yield and create disease-resistant animals. The American company Recombinetics has recently bred genetically modified Angus cows to have short, smooth coats, which makes them more “efficient” in hot climates.
Gene editing promises to be cheaper than GM technology and faster than conventional breeding. Meat from genetically modified animals is also on the horizon.
Gene editing does not insert foreign genes into plant or animal genomes; however, the technique may introduce unintended effects and potential risks with unknown health and environmental consequences. The US and UK do not require a thorough review process to bring these plants and animals to market, however, the EU plans to regulate them as GMOs and requires stricter regulations.
While the promises made by tech foods to save the planet and feed the world hinge on changing consumers’ eating habits and their willingness to eat foods never before eaten, the extent to which they will disrupt the global food system remains. uncertain.
The challenges facing the foods of the future revolve around the feasibility, transparency and reality of the technology to effect social change and solve environmental problems. (360info) SCY