Cellular agriculture is here – why are we so afraid of it? (tipping point 2 of 3)

“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.” Georg C. Lichtenberg

* This is part 2 of a 3 part series inspired by attending the Environmental Defense Society’s (EDS) conference Tipping Points.

Before moving to Aotearoa New Zealand I always thought of it as a ‘clean, green, ecological paradise’.  I envisioned that I would be living amongst environmental stewards deeply connected with their land and water and fully aware of the particular fragility and vulnerability associated with their unique biodiversity and ecological naïvety.  It was going to be an ecological utopia!  I definitely missed this New York Times 2012 article that suggested that ‘pure middle earth’ didn’t align with its reality.  It didn’t take long to discover that while there are some people deeply connected to the environment, the only thing truly accurate bit of my perception was fragility.  Aotearoa New Zealand was moving at lightening speed towards an ecological tipping point that has the potential to be devastating on so many levels.

Aotearoa New Zealand Agricultural Context

I know I sound like doomsday(er) and this post was supposed to discuss cellular agriculture. It will, I promise. However, I felt that it was important to provide some agricultural context first;  Aotearoa New Zealand is facing a serious biodiversity and water and air quality crisis.  A big contributor to the nation’s ecological degradation is the intensification of animal agriculture, led by the dairy industry.  I am fully aware that the dairy industry is not the lone contributor to this crisis.  I am sure I will write about the role we play as urbanites at some point, but this post is focused on agriculture, so don’t waste your time asking “what about them or what about those people?”…nope, we are focused on agriculture, the current state of the state of agriculture today and the evolution of cellular agriculture.

Big Cattle Numbers Near Unprotected Waterways

Aotearoa New Zealand is the world’s largest exporter of dairy, contributing to more than 1/3 of world’s dairy trading. Dairy is the nation’s largest export sector, averaging  $14.4 billion/year.  In order to grow this economic engine, the country has quickly moved from traditional pasture farming to an intensive corporate model requiring more irrigation, land conversion, fertilizer application (38 fold increase) and cattle numbers (70% increase over the last 20 years).  As a result the following statistics are worth noting:

  • Air and Climate: Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from the agriculture industry have increased 10% and 25% respectively, since 1990.  Together, they contribute to 50% of the nation’s green house emissions. While methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas (25 x more potent than Co2), nitrous oxide is even worse (300 x more potent than Co2).
  • Water Quality: Currently, 60% of monitored water bodies are not safe to swim in.  Again, I will note that dairy is not the only contributor this water quality statistic and the government has set some big targets for improvements by 2040.
  • Land Conversion: 40% of land is dedicated to pastoral farming (this is a similar statistic in the US for comparison) and 25% of forestry land is slated for conversion to dairy, contributing to future soil erosion, loss of fertile soil, loss of habitat for native species and a decline in climate and air regulating services.

The graphic below tells the story of high inputs and impacts of intensive agriculture vs lower inputs and impacts of ‘smart’ pastural farming.  Ignore the biased titles, its from Green Peace so you have to expect a strong environmental angle.  Besides, this is a blog so my biases are pretty loud and clear.

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 8.35.03 AM
Inputs And Impacts

The intensification of the agriculture industry reminds me so much of the coal industry in Appalachia Region of the United States. It is a culturally significant profession with a multi-generational history that has now become near-singularly economically focused, with short term gains that will yield long term loss. However, it is potentially more dangerous, because it comes wrapped in a pastural landscape against a scenic backdrop that is iconic in Aotearoa New Zealand. Unlike Appalachia that has passed an ecological tipping point, it seems that the ecological threshold, although near, has yet to be crossed here.

Scenic Agriculture

I fully understand that I am presenting a very one-sided, bleak future about the intensification of dairy here. However, it is a side worth serious consideration and it dominated many of the presentations at the EDS Tipping Points Conference (which is important to note as this blog progresses).  The intensification of dairy and changes to improve farming’s environmental impact is a big debate here. Many farmers feel that some of the proposed environmental protection measures, such as fencing or reduction of cow stock would simply be too costly for them continue.

Cellular Agriculture

It turns out that a call for environmental protection may not be the only challenge for the dairy (and greater agriculture) industry, there is something else poised to disrupt the entire farming industry; cellular agriculture.  Dr. Rosie Bosworth from Rethink X was an EDS conference presenter suggesting that pastoral agriculture is a flawed business model and that cellular agriculture was the ‘next generation of farming’.

So what exactly is cellular agriculture? Cellular agriculture refers to the production of agricultural products (animal or plant) from cell cultures grown in a controlled and artificial environment.  Basically, it is a new way of producing existing agricultural products from the removal of cells from animal and plants that doesn’t require the slaughtering of animals or harvesting of entire plants.

There are two kinds of ‘cellular agricultural’ products, acellular and cellular. Acellular products are made of organic molecules like proteins and fats and contain no cellular or living material.  In acellular production, microbes such as yeast or bacteria are used to produce fats and proteins such as milk or eggs.

Acellular Products

Cellular products are made of living or once-living cells.  These products are made of large quantities of cells that are combined to produce food or materials.  For example, muscle and fat cells can be turned into meat and skin cells can be turned into leather.

Cellular Products

Unlike products made of plant-based substitutes that try to mimic the taste and texture of meat and dairy products, cellular agriculture products are molecularly identical to those those products.  Wow science!  You always amaze me.

Benefits of Cellular Agriculture

Besides the apparent ethical benefit (more on this later), there are heaps of environmental, financial, and human health benefits of cellular agriculture. Compared to conventional agriculture production, below are a few of these benefits:

  • Environmental: (source1, source2, source3) *ranges dependent on product
    • 82 – 98% less water usage
    • 7 – 65% less energy consumption
    • 91 – 99% less land use
    • 78 – 96% less green house gas emission
    • no use of pesticides (also partially true for organic food with only non synthetic pesticide application)
  • Economic: (source1, source 2) * a future flair applied
    • Non weather dependent (this likely will be a big factor as effects of climate change are more widely realized).
    • Market cycle does not depend on animal gestational terms and cropping seasons.
    • Not dependent on rural areas, but can occur within urban centers reducing transportation costs.
  • Human health: (source 1, source2, source 3)
    • All of the same environmental benefits can translate to human health benefits.
    • Reduction in food borne illnesses from bacteria e.coli and salmonella.
    • No antibiotics or hormones required (also true for organic food)
    • Proteins and fatty acids can be altered to reduce risk of chronic disease.
    • Potential to reduce nutrient deficiencies in areas without access to a range of food options.
  • Additional Food Source:  
    • It is estimated that the planet will have over 9.7 billion people by 2050.  Our current food system will not be able to provide for this growing population with the animal proteins it demands.  Even if the entire world became vegetarian (good luck with that, eating meat is ingrained in so many cultures), we will likely still run out of a food source within today’s agricultural model.

Disadvantages of Cellular Agriculture:

So what are the drawbacks of the cellular agriculture industry?  I honestly struggled to find articles discussing the negatives, maybe its infancy has yet to reveal many these? Below is what I have been able to dig up.

  • Cost of production: It is bloody expensive (hehe) (source)
    • The first lab grown meat patty produced in 2013 cost $333,000.
    • The Memphis Meatball produced in 2016 cost $1000 (note that this price drop is signally that meat produced by cellular agriculture will be cheaper than conventional methods by 2021).
  • Unviable product due to human preferences: (source)
    • 2005 EU survey: 54% of Europeans would “never” approve of artificial meat.

    • 2012 YouGov survey: 62% of British say they “probably would not eat” artificial meat”.
    • 2014 Pew Survey: 78% of Americans say they would not “eat meat grown in a lab”
    • 2017 EDS Conference: 82% of EDS conference attendees said they would rather eat conventionally produced meat over cellularly produced meat (more on this later)
  • Ethical issues: (source) This future still needs to be written and it depends on where you draw your line of animal ethics regarding age and dead or alive status.
    • The serum required to grow cell cultures can be taken from adult, newborns, or fetal sources.  If cellular agriculture claims to have an advantage of not waiting until the animal is fully grown, this means that babies and fetuses are fair game.
    • The process for taking the serum is invasive and can still be considered a form of animal cruelty.

Highly Debatable Component Cellular Agriculture:

While everything is debatable (including the benefits and disadvantages I just covered) there are a few more highly controversial topics that are worth mentioning.  I present these along with my opinion about them:

  • Loss of Culture: The cultural component of agriculture is an important part of human heritage.  We have been cultivating crops and domesticating animals for roughly 10,000 years.  Agriculture enabled humans to move from nomadic lifestyles to settlement and has influenced our settlement patterns since. For a nation that seems to hold agriculture as important to their identity, cellular agriculture may not only be perceived as a threat to an industry, but a way of life. However, I would argue that the corporate agricultural model is 1) not as culturally significant to Aotearea New Zealand, but a recent trend that has only been around for a few decades 2) based on efficiency over ethics and quantity over quality, which doesn’t benefit the farmer, the animal, or the people of NZ.  I personally can’t imagine cellular agriculture being something that replaces traditional land use agricultural models, but maybe one that can complement them (no source, just opinion). Could it possibly replace factory farming while driving up the demand for small scale farms?  If that is the case, couldn’t farmers return to a focus on animal husbandry or explore diversification of their agricultural practices to include bees and horticulture? Wouldn’t that be a better way to retain agricultural heritage?
  • Social justice: If prices for cellular agriculture fall as expected we will likely see a future where pasture agriculture products (not the corporate model) will be the premium brand that only wealthy would be able to afford.  If you don’t see a difference between the two, this is a nonissue.  However, if you view cellular agriculture to be inferior, this translates into a social justice issue. Of course we can’t ignore that this conundrum already exists today.
  • Job loss: Whenever change happens in an industry people tend to focus on the jobs that will be displaced rather than also looking at new ones that will be created and transferrable skills between old and new industry sectors.  There is actually research that reveals that over the last 140 years, technology has created more jobs than it is destroyed.  Finally, is corporate agriculture really helping jobs here?  The agricultural industry was hit hard with big losses in 2015.  The industry’s contribution to nation’s GDP and employment (% of total employment) have both been declining since the mid eighties.
  • Slippery slope towards the highly unnatural: This one always comes up with industry disrupted by science and technology.  Can you imagine, if we go down this road, will we one day be pill popping, skipping the food experience all together?   I totally understand that fear and it is a worthwhile question to ask. However, I do think as humans no matter the technological advance, we will always require that sensory loaded experiential journey to be a part of our life.  If our world one day becomes completely artificial, might this be because of personal preferences rather than because technology forced us to? Or will this again be a social justice issue where only the wealthy can have these experiences?  I don’t know, but I am not really one to halt progress over fear, just keep those conversations going and demand processes remain transparent.

I am missing so many other talking points like should we be altering food to live longer? or how will it impact global trading and who will get exploited?, etc., but this is getting lengthy, so in attempts to wrap this up, I will offer some closing thoughts.

I will admit my first reaction to Dr. Bosworth’s presentation was mixed.  I was pleased to see the potential for cellular agriculture to reduce the environmental impact of food production and I am fully aware that the way we are currently growing food for the world is not sustainable. However, I was a little creeped out by tissue-engineering, material sciences, bioengineering, and synthetic biology in my food. But why? Agriculture has a history of being an early adopter with avant-garde technologies. Didn’t cellular agriculture perfectly align with this model?  I accepted this in modern medicine with ease, so why would I be drawing this line when it comes to food?  Plus I am no food puritan.  Although I am a vegetarian I scarf down processed food like a champ.  I love chips and I am a recovering cheese-oholic (I recently gave this up and it is a daily struggle).  I also consume bread, beer and wine, all products produced by biotechnological processes. I would be a big time hypocrite if I didn’t accept this reality and better yet, support it.

So how exactly did I end up being a minority in a conference that was calling for intensive dairy to clean up their ways and that was critical of farmers for not accepting new methods?  Remember that statistic I mentioned earlier, 82% of conference attendees would rather eat meat in today’s system rather than from cellular agriculture?  I was not part of this large majority that would rather support an industry they seem to oppose for a number of environmental reasons over one that could help mitigate many of these.  Or did they? Did they imagine a world consisting of solely organic farms with fenced streams?  I should note that this does little to eliminate the animal that brings big land, air and water quality issues and fencing does not protect groundwater and aquifers from agricultural impacts. Maybe they were simply answering the question in support of cellular agriculture, but considered themselves the premium consumer with wealth to eat organically produced meat?  Without further knowledge, we will never know their motivations. I wish we could have continued this conversation, because I sure was curious.

What I can say is that I see corporate farming killing the planet and its inhabitants (us) and I don’t see it disappearing any time soon.  Simply thinking about meat, if it is only a collection of muscle, fat, and tissue, why are raising an animal to harvest it when we could just start with the basic unit of life, the cell?  If rennet, a key ingredient used to make cheese, produced via acellular agriculture, why couldn’t we just make the entire cheese this way?  It seems that cellular agriculture is an important step towards moving food systems toward a sustainable future and, ultimately, sustaining the future of farmers as well.  Since I am already consuming products made by the same processes, I don’t see a reason not to expand this product base.  But I am always open to learn more and change my direction.


Author: angie campbell

I am an expat from the United States living in Wellington, New Zealand. My love affair with landscape, culture, and learning has led to a life filled with travel and academic institutions. Endowed with endless curiosity, I spend a great deal of time philosophizing about anything and everything, but very often pertaining to environmental issues. I should note that I am not formally trained in environmental philosophy, nor do I have the vocabulary competency to pass for someone who has. My writing is a somewhat tongue and cheek. I am using this blog as a means to work through some of this thinking and to follow my own pathway of inquiry, while providing (hopefully) some meaningful insight of what it is like to live as an American in Aotearoa New Zealand. I am sure at some point there will be some interesting travel photos once I make the leap from iphone to fancy camera. There is a secondary tab to the this blog spot. Reflections of the Watering Hole is an old blog I started during one of my academic stints studying the social and environmental impacts of oil and natural gas development in the Denver Julesburg Basin in the United States. While some of the information is a bit 'dated' (I started it in 2013), many of the conundrums remain relevant today.

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