Answering sustainability challenges with (a)cellular agriculture

FEATURED SPEAKER Fi Conference 2019 
Cellular and acellular agriculture can answer some of the sustainability and health challenges faced by the food industry. The development of high techno-functionality proteins, plant-based sweet proteins or the use of microbes to make dairy proteins augurs exciting new product developments, explains Emilia Nordlund, research team leader at VTT Food Solutions.

Emilia Nordlund

What is cellular and acellular agriculture? Are these new production methods or have they been used in the past to some extent?
“Cellular agriculture refers to the use of single cell organisms or cell cultures for food production. People have usually heard of animal cell propagation techniques known more commonly as cultured or clean meat. However, cellular agriculture also covers other cell-based or microbial food production systems. Take for instance the use of cultured plant cells as fresh food or the use of microbial organisms for single cell protein production and recombination of protein technologies. By fermentation, these techniques enable large-scale production of functional proteins like animal proteins in heterologous expression systems.”

“When the cells are used for food like single cell proteins and plant cells, we can talk about cell-based food ingredients. On the other hand, when we harness the microbes to produce a certain protein or component and purify it from the cell mass and culture media, we talk about acellular food ingredients.”

“Quorn and spirulina are existing examples of cellular food products on the market. Enzymes used in food manufacturing as processing aides are typical acellular products that have long been used by the food industry.”

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What are the advantages of these methods of food production?
“When we harness microbes and vertically scalable bioreactors for food use, we can clearly decrease the carbon footprint and land use of the food production. if we can provide alternatives for meat and animal-based products, the environmental benefits can be significant. For ethical reasons, giving up animal farming should be our final target. Cellular agriculture can also provide safer and more controllable production of food as we are not dependent on climate and soil quality, and do not need to use antibiotics!”

Are they scalable? When will we see such products on the market? Do they have the potential to appeal to mass consumers?
“When we benchmark these products against industrial enzyme production and other industrial biotechnology solutions (e.g. chemical production) whose volumes are already very high, we can see that the infrastructure is already there. However, for food ingredient production, the technology still needs development to enable high enough yields and feasible down-stream processes. Nevertheless, I think that we’re not that far away.  For instance, Perfect Day in the US launched the first ice-cream containing dairy proteins made by microbes. The Impossible Burger also contains a hemp compound (which brings the meaty flavour) produced with yeast.”

“Regarding mass consumption there should not be any problems. For example, the animal proteins produced by microbes are identical to the ones produced by the animals, so the products are close to identical. Regarding single cell protein products, cultured meat and plants, the situation might be different as these products can sound novel to consumer (particularly regarding sensorial aspects). Generally, communication and education is of the utmost importance as consumers should be informed about these new technologies. The benefit lies in the fact that these technologies are already used by the food industry.”

What kind of products can be developed through cellular agriculture and what products could soon be a possibility? Can microbial fermentation help develop new products?
“Technology can be used to produce highly functional performance ingredients (e.g. foaming, gelling, emulsifying) that can be used as additives (and nutrients) in different food products to make appealing and stable food items. This is what we typically call acellular component production technology. Examples of these products are egg and dairy proteins. Furthermore, nutritionally important components (e.g. proteins, lipids, bioactive) can be produced to complement the nutritional requirements of special diets for instance. We can also produce proteins that are very sweet and can be used as sweeteners (by using plants containing highly sweet proteins). The sweet proteins may help us tackle health challenges related to sugar consumption.”

“In addition to the high-performance component production, cellular agriculture can be used to produce microbial biomass/cell mass that can be used as raw food materials (single cell proteins, cell cultures of meat and plant). These raw materials can be used for meat-like product formulation for example with Quorn being a commercial example. An interesting concept of single cell production is Solar Foods (a spin-off company of VTT) and their Solein product that is made by using solar power and CO2 as a carbon source. Generally, finding sustainable feedstock and energy sources for the cell factories is of course the most important. Solar Foods seems to be on the right track there.”

“Regarding the new food production concepts described above, they fall under the EU’s novel food regulation. This means they need to go through the EFSA evaluation process. However, as mentioned earlier, Perfect Day has launched an ice-cream with dairy proteins produced by microbes while Quorn is already on the market. In theory there should not be any critical obstacles that would stop the market entry as long as safety can be ensured.”

“Then again, when we start designing the perfect proteins (with a really high techno-functionality and the perfect nutritional quality for instance) and other components by genetic engineering, we are in a longer route and more specific safety considerations (e.g. allergenicity) should be included.”

“Could we remove the allergenic properties of some proteins? Probably. While the GMO discussion in the EU is ongoing and EU legislation is still under-developed, hopefully EFSA will be open-minded and will evaluate the newly emerging technologies from the point of view of their potential regarding sustainable food production.”

What are your predictions for the F&B industry over the next 3-5 years?
“The trend to launch more plant-based foods as dairy and meat substitutes will continue. This is essential as we try to find ways to mitigate the climate challenge and the loss of biodiversity. Based on MyData and new food manufacturing technologies using robotics and machine-learning, I also forecast that new personalized food services and products will appear. As for CellAgriculture, I think we will see new launches in the US. And I hope this technique will be allowed in the EU and other markets. The F&B industry is making real efforts to provide more sustainable and healthier products and I think this is positive.”

Don’t miss Emilia Nordlund’s presentation ‘Hybrid ingredients with high functionality for plant-based foods’ at the Fi Conference 2019 on 4 December at 11:30.