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Cell-based Protein Podcast Transcript

Cellular agriculture is the science of growing animal proteins in cell cultures rather than livestock. Learn more from Yadira Tejeda Saldana, Jennifer Coté and Ahmed Khan.


 

Avery Parkinson

Welcome to in the Weeds, a podcast dedicated to discussing everything to do with food, sustainability and urban agriculture, indoor growing food, insecurity, resource consumption, and anything else we think is exciting or important. I'm your host, Avery Parkinson.


Today we're going to be talking about cellular agriculture. Cellular agriculture is the science of growing animal proteins, including meat, cheese, eggs, and milk in cell cultures as opposed to livestock. In other words, it's a possible way of producing many of the things we currently eat, only using a machine as a machine rather than an animal as a machine. The field is young, but growing fast. Last December, Ontario Genomics released a report saying that this industry is estimated to be a $12.5 billion opportunity for Canada alone. Some of the reasons it's being promoted is that it will be able to produce the same things consumers enjoy eating, only with fewer emissions, less land, water, and energy consumption, and at a reduced risk to antimicrobial resistance. This might seem like some kind of science fiction fantasy, but I can assure you it's a very real thing. We first spoke with Jennifer Côté, who is the founder and CEO of BetterMilk. 


Jennifer Côté

Hello, I'm Jennifer Côté, and I'm the CEO and co founder of BetterMilk. And we make milk with mammary cells -  specifically cow milk. We started BetterMilk in September of 2020, so it's been a year and a half now already. We’ve been working on changing the future of dairy by basically offering our consumers sustainable, animal free milk that tastes and feels exactly like traditional dairy. 


Avery Parkinson

Can you give an overview of the science behind your products? 


Jennifer Côté

We use, as I mentioned, cow cells. So these cells are then immortalized so that we never have to go back to the cow ever again. And then we basically grow these cells in a bioreactor that mimics the architecture of what we would have in the cow udder. So this is basically like replicating the cow's body, and we give them some vitamins, amino acids, basically food, and then they grow. After they've grown, we give them lactation hormones, which are prolactin, mainly prolactin, which is also found in the human body and the cow body. Basically, any mammal body that lactates will have prolactin produced by the brain and given to basically the cells to make milk. So we induce lactation by just adding that into our medium, and then the cells actively lactate. We harvest that milk, and this is the milk that we'll be selling to our consumers. 


Avery Parkinson

What inspired you to start BetterMilk, both from the perspective of entering the cellular agriculture industry, but also with focusing on dairy specifically within that space?


Jennifer Côté

What inspired me is basically just offering a product that is sustainable and animal free to consumers that still tastes like dairy. This was really important for me because I know how hard it is to quit dairy. I basically quit dairy two years ago now, and I miss cheese and I miss how it functions and how it tastes on pizza and other foods like that. So I think that the main reason that we did this is that we understand how hard it is to adopt a vegan diet and to remove dairy from our diets, especially with the current alternatives not offering that taste and texture that we're looking for. So we really wanted to create a product that would be an alternative product but also doesn't feel like one. It was very important for us to exactly offer a dairy product that would not compromise on taste and texture, but still offer sustainability and ethical components to it. 


Avery Parkinson

What are the biggest challenges that you face as a startup working in the cell based protein space? 


Jennifer Côté

The biggest challenge I would say, is that everything is new. It's never been done before. So we have to basically invent everything in this process. Everything is new in Canada. We are the only one working on cell-based milk. So I guess it's just going through that landscape. Being the first to work through and lay track as we go for this kind of development of technology would say it's the biggest challenge. 


Avery Parkinson

What do you hope to see for the future of food production in Canada, and how does your work fit into this? 


Jennifer Côté

I would definitely want to see more companies in our space. I think that power is in numbers. The more companies that we have in Canada, the easier we can create a landscape for these kinds of technologies, not only in milk, but also meat, seafood, textiles. There's so many things that we can do with these kinds of technologies, not only using cells, but also using yeast and bacteria and all kinds of microorganisms. So I think that we need to change how our food system is currently operating by finding alternatives to the products that we love, while not necessarily compromising on taste and texture. I mean, there's not a one size fits all when it comes to these kinds of products. I think that as long as they're sustainable and better for the environment and easy to implement in society, and that also offers flexibility, like year long in terms of production. We're not limited to the weather when it comes to these technologies. Everything is done inside. There's so many possibilities that can be done, and there's a bunch of different products that we can produce that can fit any of the consumer's desires. 


Jennifer Côté

Is there anything you think could go wrong with cellular agriculture? 


Jennifer Côté

Since we're still very early in the development of this technology, there's so many things that we can leverage. I think we can basically do everything with this technology, and it just has to be explored. I think we have to not be afraid of taking risks and trying things out. Maybe some won't work and maybe some will end up working, and that's what we have to look forward to. This field is still so young. It started seven years ago. 


There are so many more companies being created every month, every day, that we are gaining a lot of momentum right now and we need the support from everyone to accelerate these kinds of research, not only in the private sector, but also public sector. 2022 will be a really big year for us where we will be rebranding. We'll be changing our identity really soon in January. So that is very exciting. We're going to have a brand new website with a bunch of new announcements that we're planning to share. We're also going to do a new fundraising round, so be sure to check out LinkedIn for the info for that. And yes, so a lot of things are coming and we're really excited and I never thought I would be doing something like this and I just followed my passion and I decided to do it one day and if I can do it, anyone can. It's a fascinating field and I really recommend that you just get involved in any way you can because this is the future and you'll want to be part of it. 


Avery Parkinson

That was Jennifer Côté, founder and CEO of BetterMilk. For more information about her and her work, visit bettermilknow.com.


We also spoke with Ahmed Khan, who is the founder and editor of CellAgri.


Ahmed Khan

So my name is Ahmed Khan and I am the founder and editor of CellAgri. CellAgri is a news and market insight startup that focuses on the future of food with cell agriculture. While our focus is on the future of food side of this novel technology, we do track the wider applications of cell agriculture such as biomaterials, textiles and even plant cell culturing. As this field continues to grow we focus on essentially how agriculture can help become part of the future of bio manufacturing, so to speak. CellAgri began back in 2017 and we've been tracking the field ever since by promoting and tracking all the different companies and players and ecosystem as they work to build our future with cell agriculture. 


Avery Parkinson

What inspired you to start Cell Agri? 


Ahmed Khan

So when I first heard about cell agriculture, it was back in 2017. I have a background in cell biology and at the time I was blown away by the cell application potential of cell culture technology to produce food products in the future. The idea of environmental sustainability really stood out to me as well as the food security implications. So in 2017, I wanted to learn more about this field, but I was having a problem. There was no one stop platform that had all the news and analysis on what I was looking for about this field. It was hard to even find a listing of all the different companies and players out there and what information was even new and what wasn't, and that's how CellAgri began to be that player to track and promote all the different companies and players in this ecosystem. We actually revamped the CellAgri website back in 2020 to become a home page for this ecosystem where people can come to learn anything and everything they want to about the agriculture, what it is, and how it works to a listing of some of the different companies and players in the ecosystem, as well as different resources to help people first learn about this field and then get further involved in it as well. 


Avery Parkinson

Can you give an overview about the current landscape of cellular agriculture worldwide? 


Ahmed Khan

So when CellAgri began back in 2017, this field was very focused around San Francisco. Seemed like all companies in the world were just based around the San Francisco Bay Area, and they are the main players working on building the future of food with this technology, primarily on the cell cultured meat side, as well as a few other protein applications as well. 


But since then, what's been really exciting about this field is the scientists and entrepreneurs all around the world jumping into this space to build the future of food with this technology. Outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, we're seeing a lot of movement and new players entering the field across Asia, actually, from Israel all the way to Singapore and Southeast Asia. The interest in Singapore is no surprise. Back in December 2020, they became the first country in the world to give regulatory approval for this technology. So it's really good to see many more entrepreneurs and scientists looking to jump into this ecosystem and start developing the technology over there. It's really fascinating to see some of these new companies coming out from that part of the world. Shiok meats, for example, are looking at doing cell based shrimp dumplings as a way to apply the cell's technology into local cuisines, for example. And that's how this field has grown. We also see a lot more players enter the ecosystem around Europe as well. The field is still relatively new around the world, so I'm sure in the next few years we'll see even more players all around the world trying to enter it. 


Avery Parkison

What do you find most exciting about cellular agriculture? 


Ahmed Khan

I think what's really exciting about this technology is how it's able to address so many global challenges all in the same go from the environmental sustainability viewpoint of being able to be a more sustainable way to produce the same animal products that we all want and need to eat. We need this technology to meet the growing demand for meat, so we need this technology in that way. But also along with that, there's some other interesting areas that cell ag can apply to as well from the public health implications of being able to potentially make food products more healthy and being able to produce foods in sterile environments, we may avoid some microbial contaminations that currently have happen with some animal products on the market. 


There is also, of course, the animal welfare side of it as well. And in light of COVID-19, another interesting application that is getting more attention in North America and Europe is food security. Food security is actually one of the major reasons why there has been an explosion of interest for this technology across Asia, from Singapore and Japan, all the way to the Middle East. By being able to produce food directly from cells, you don't need all that land or all that arable land to produce all this food. All you need is a facility where you can culture these cells, grow them in their cell culture media formulation, and the output can be meat or any other animal product that you need for your country. And that way eliminating the amount of resources you require. You could, in theory, produce the cultured food products anywhere on Earth or even in outer space if we need to. So that's one of the really exciting applications of this field. That's what really gets me excited about agriculture, the way that this technology is executed correctly, if it can be done at a proper scale and can address all these challenges in one go, that really excites me about this technology and this field. 


Avery Parkinson

What are some of the biggest challenges in this space and what are some of the things that need to happen in order to overcome them? 


Ahmed Khan

So there are two ways of looking at this. One side is the more technical scientific challenges that this field will need to address moving forward. And the other side is also the bigger picture in terms of policy and ultimately consumer acceptance to touch on the scaling and the technological aspects. 


Right now, companies looking to do cell culture specifically are looking to address four main scaling challenges. We have cell line development, this idea of ideally creating an immortal cell line that can divide indefinitely to keep on producing more cells, i.e. more meat products down the line. That's one of the challenges companies in this field are looking to develop. 


Then you have other key aspects of the production process, like the cell culture media formulation, which is going to be the nutrient broth that these cells are grown in to make sure they get the right nutrients and as well that they can grow and become these meat products or any other products that we desire. 


And then you have other parts of the scaling challenges, like Scaffolding, to provide support for these cells. 


And lastly, buyer to technology. Ultimately at a larger scale, the way these facilities producing cell cultured meat could look like large breweries, for example, having these large buyer actors producing cell cultured meat or any other cell cultured food product. These are challenges companies right now are looking to develop and develop, to move from lab bench scale all the way to initially pilot scale and then commercial production levels. These are scaling challenges that ultimately through time, if it can be done, will be addressed. You have incredible scientists around the world looking to address these from within the ecosystem as well as Interestingly, a lot more newer players are entering the field as well, either from more traditional former biotech ecosystems through partnerships with cell ag companies, or what's really interesting these days is the new number of supply chain players looking to enter the ecosystem - i.e. new startups looking to specialize in one of those four pieces of the puzzle and provide that and address that challenge and provide that as a service to the wider cell cultured meat ecosystem. 


So that's how players on that side are trying to address those technical challenges of the field. 


One of the other main challenges for this field is the bigger picture. We can address these scaling challenges. We can make the large buyer actors make cell culture media formulations much more affordable in the bigger picture. But at the end of the day, consumers don't want it. What's the point? Consumer acceptance is going to be one of the biggest things moving forward once this field comes to market. And what companies need to do to address that is just be very clear and upfront with communications about not just what they're producing and how they're doing it, but the why as well. 


I think context is everything, but with food, it matters so much more. It's all about the why. Why are companies using cells to produce my food product in the future when we have animals already out there that can do the exact same thing? Why are we doing this? So I think that consumer acceptance and consumer perception is going to be one of the other challenges that people need to address moving forward. 


When we look at any novel technology, policies need to be done in an appropriate manner that addresses some of the concerns or any risk per se, any knowledge technology, and also promoting the positive benefits of the technology as well. So policy is going to be really interesting on that side to make sure that you can address all the correct safety concerns and hazards as well, making sure that this field is done correctly.


 So that's one area that the field hasn't necessarily looked into too much just yet, as most of the companies are still in the R and D and scientific exploration at this point in time. But as the field continues to grow and there's more discussion with different policymakers and stakeholders about how can this field come to market? How can this field be done correctly? There'll be a lot more policies on making sure that everything is done in an appropriate manner for this field to come to market in an appropriate way, but also to actually make those benefits I described earlier come to be as well. There are a lot of different pieces there, but hopefully this can be done. 


Avery Parkinson

How do you hope or see cellular agriculture fitting into your idea of the future of food production? 


Ahmed Khan

When we look into the future of food, there's going to be a lot of different options and a variety of choices, which is really exciting. When you imagine going to the grocery store in the future to the meat aisle or any animal product aisle, you'll see a wide range of choices. You'll have your conventional meat options that will still be there. You also have your cell cultured meat, your cell agriculture meat products. Then you also have a range of other alternative proteins there as well, plant based, fungi based, whatever you imagine. If it can be done at a scale, we'll have that option there. So that's how I see our future food system. We'll have a lot more options there where agriculture is one of those options on the table for consumers should they choose to accept it and are they’re interested in those products. It's going to help transform our food system to meet the growing demand for animal products like meat, but also give consumers a sustainable option as well. 


Avery Parkinson

That was Ahmed Khan, founder and editor of CellAgri. For more information about his work and actually just for the cellular agriculture fields in general, visit www.cell.ag.


Finally, we spoke with Yadira Tejeda Saldana, who is the research collaboration director at New Harvest.


Yadira Tejeda Saldana

My name is Yadira Tejeda Saldana, and I'm the research collaboration director at New Harvest. My background is in food science, but my role here at New Harvest entails mostly building bridges between different stakeholders and the team at New Harvest, but also with the community, the seller community. I also try to support individuals and teams that share the values that we have a New Harvest so that we can create a really close community, a close community, or a select ecosystem that we really want to see. We want it to be and create a positive impact in the world. 


Avery Parkinson

So what is the state of the cellular agriculture field in Canada and then also in the United States? 


Yadira Tejeda Saldana

Yeah. So I would say in the US, for example, we know that's been a hub for cell agriculture, and we know there's a lot of things happening there. A lot of companies are being created. And we also know that the FDA and the USDA announced that they will work together in a joint regulatory framework for culture meat, poultry and seafood. So definitely there's a lot of things going on there. I would say here in Canada we are behind. But we've also seen that companies are starting to be created here in different regions across Canada. And what is also really exciting is to see that there's attention drawn to the field through other organizations, like, for example, Ontario Genomics, which is an organization that recently launched a competition for encouraging more innovation in the field of solar agriculture. And we also saw that they published a report talking about the opportunities that this field could bring to Canada. So I feel that all these initiatives are starting to bring more attention to the field. 


Avery Parkinson

How long do you think it'll be before consumers are starting to see cellular agriculture products on shelves? 


Yadira Tejeda Saldana

I think we really need to understand the role that cell agriculture is going to play in our current food system. I also feel that we have been more focused on developing the technology, and we haven't really looked much at the actual impact that it could have in our society and in the livelihoods of a lot of people, especially the ones that work or are involved in our food system. So I think that these conversations need to happen in order to understand how cellular agriculture is going to integrate with our current food system. That's something that I feel we need to start talking more about. 


Avery Parkinson

What kinds of things do you think are being left out of the current cellular agriculture conversation? 


Yadira Tejeda Saldana

There are two things that I feel need to be more that we need to consider more.


So one of them is the societal impact that select could have. I feel that that conversation hasn't happened much, and I feel that we can develop a great and really successful technology. But if we don't assess the impact that it will have in the communities we live in, the positive impact that we want this technology to address is not going to be seen. So I really feel that we need to start thinking about talking to different groups that are also involved in our food system. We need to think about how this technology can affect the livelihoods of communities as well and think about what we don't want to see as a product of cellular agriculture. So we really think that this technology is going to help us feed the world, that is going to help us create a better system. But we really need to think about what are the elements that we need so that we can actually achieve those goals. 


And the other thing that I feel it's also an important conversation to have is the safety of these products. I feel that right now we're looking a lot at trying to get to the market, but I feel that we need to ensure that those products that go into the market are safe, and we need to understand what are the requirements that are needed to make those products safe. They are so new and there are so many things that we still don't know about them that I think we need to find ways to obtain all the data and all the information that we need so that regulators can make informed decisions and can ensure that everything that is going to reach the shelves is going to be safe for consumers to eat. And I think that will require a lot of openness and a lot of transparency and collaboration between different stakeholders. So I feel those are two conversations that are really important as well. 


Avery Parkinson

That was Yadira Tejeda Saldana. For more information about her and her work, visit new-harvest.org.


We hope you enjoyed this episode of our podcast. If you're interested in learning more about Just Vertical and our work, follow us @justvertical on Twitter, @just.vertical on Instagram or visit our website, www.justvertical.com. Stay tuned for the next episode where we will be discussing more about urban agriculture, food, sustainability, or really anything else important or exciting that we feel like talking about.



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