Eating Goldfish in Space: A Brief History of Cellular Agriculture
The farming industry is responsible for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
This is nearly a quarter of our total emissions, and nearly 1.75 times the combined emissions of all transportation. Cellular Agriculture is a rapidly developing field which has the potential to reduce these emissions by 96%!
Cellular agriculture is based on the idea of creating animal products (meat, cheese, eggs, leather…etc.) without of the animal! It is, in essence, the lab grown food of science fiction. However, instead of being a far off substitute for conventional products, these products are literally genetically identical to their farm cultivated counterparts. They are meant to look, smell, taste and feel EXACTLY like conventional products, but their production will have fewer repercusions on our environment. Besides the obvious implications for increased animal welfare, cellular agriculture will limit our resource and energy consumption, land use, and yes — has the potential to eradicate about 23% of our global emissions! For these reasons, cellular agriculture is expected to disrupt food production as we know it today.
Despite being refered to as an “emerging technology”, cellular agriculture has been developing for the greater part of the last century. Here is a brief history of the field!
1932: Fifty Years Hence
In his essay Fifty Years Hence, Winston Churchill wrote that “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Churchill basically predicted the existence of cellular agriculture — although he was a little off with the timing :).
1950s: William Van Eelen gets an idea for cultured meat
When Dutch scientist William Van Eelen was a child, he suffered from starvation. This lead him to be passionate about food production as an adult.
Van Eelen later attended the University of Amsterdam, where he at one point sat in on a lecture discussing the prospects of preserved meat. This, combined with the discovery of cell lines earlier in the decade sparked Van Eelen’s idea for cultured meat — talk about insight!
Although, it was only until 1999 that van Eelen was actually able to obtain a patent for this concept.
2001: NASA cultures meat
In 2001, NASA conducted an investigation into lab grown meat as a potential way to feed astronauts during space travel — because somehow anything can be applied to space travel :).
In partnership with Morris Benjaminson of Touro College, they were able to culture goldfish muscle, and later, turkey cells. However, because culturing meat was REALLY expensive, it wasn’t feasible to implement it in the space program at the time.
2003: SymbioticA inspires ethics conversation
There are many ethical conversations to be had around the idea of cultured meat — and of course, no one can harness moral dilemma quite like an artist!
In 2003, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from the Tissue Culture and Art Project collaborated with Harvard Medical Center to culture frog cells into a steak. Their public display was meant to provoke cultural debate regarding the status of lab grown meat — was it ever alive?, was it ever killed?, is it disrespectful to an animal in any way to throw it away?
2004: Jason Matheny founds NewHarvest
In the early 2000s, American public health student Jason Matheny traveled to India and visited a chicken farm. Sounds pretty innocent, right? It wasn’t. It was a factory farm — debatably the epitome of the unsustainability of our current farming methods. Matheny was shocked by what he saw: tens of thousands of chickens crammed together in tiny cages stacked on top of each other and coated with their own waste. From a public health perspective, he was appalled by the implications this system had for human health.
Upon returning to the United States, Matheny teamed up with 3 scientists involved in NASA’s quest to culture meat. The four commenced research on the commercial prospects of lab based meat, and their findings were later published in Tissue Engineering as the first piece of peer reviewed literature on the subject.
Matheny later coined the term “cellular agriculture” (we’re getting there, Churchill) and founded the non for profit organization New Harvest. Today, New Harvest is directed by Isha Datar, and aims to encourage the development of the field by connecting experts, educating the public, and funding unconventional research — for instance using decellularized spinach to simulate the patterns in meat texture (turns out those leafy greens are pretty important after all)!
2013: The first lab grown burger
In 2013, Dutch scientist Mark Post and his laboratory created the first lab grown burger. The product took 3 months to produce and cost a staggering $330,000. Once again, we have Google to thank for yet another technological innovation — the project was completely funded by Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of the company.
The burger was even tested on live television in London, and was deemed to nearly resemble conventional meat!
Then, in 2015, Post announced that the expenses had dropped 27,500 times to under 12 dollars.
2011–2017: Founding of Several Cellular Agriculture Companies
Up until now, cellular agriculture has been — for the most part — a theoretical idea rather than a practical one. Between 2011 and 2017, many companies were created in order to change this! Such companies intend on bringing cultured animal products to grocery stores, restaurants and markets — bringing them to consumers so that we can fulfil the potential the technology has.
A number of these companies received Series A funding from prominent figures including Tyson and Cargill, Richard Branson and Bill Gates — and when Bill Gates gets involved, you know it’s a big deal!
Arguably, these are some of the most important years in the history of cellular agriculture. Firstly, because of the public recognition the idea is receiving from both intellectual and economic influencers. Secondly, because these companies will be the ones impacting the way billions acquire their food in the future!
The future of cellular agriculture
As technology develops and becomes economically viable, cultured animal products will begin making their way to mainstream markets — the long discussed benefits of the field will actually be put into practise! Memphis Meat, for instance, predicts that they will be able to sell their cultured chicken and meatballs in stores by 2021.
There is also significant potential for cellular agriculture in domains where livestock management is unquestionably infeasible or unreliable. These may include feeding communities in extreme climates, military operation and space travel.
That being said, despite the promise cellular agriculture holds, the topic still needs to undergo several legal, political, ethical and public opinion conversations before it will disrupt the way we produce our food. As companies, authors, institutions, and prominent figures bring cellular agriculture closer to the public eye, it is sure to be a topic of much discussion.