Beef without cows? The next frontier in food with Cellular Agriculture Canada

Jackie Gill - February 28, 2020 Yadira Tejeda Saldana, co-founder of Cellular Agriculture Canada, says cultured meat is an ethical and sustainable alternative
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It was 2013, and the world was about to meet the most expensive hamburger in history.

One hundred reporters from around the world descended on London U.K.’s historic Riverside Studio – the former home Dr. Who for a couple of years in the 1960s – for a landmark press conference.

The audience watched with anticipation as the chef at the centre of the studio removed a five-ounce pink puck of ground beef from a petri dish and placed it on a frying pan. Grilling it was a one-shot deal (and the chef was, reportedly, suitably nervous). After all, this burger cost €250,000 – the equivalent of $385,701.57 in Canadian dollars today.

It looked like a regular burger. It cooked like a regular burger, too, according to the chef who served it naked on a plate alongside a bun, some lettuce and a couple of slices of tomato. The first taster took a bite. “It’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper,” she said. The second took his turn and added, “The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there’s a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger.”

So why all the fuss, and why the hefty price tag? Simple. It was the first cultured meat burger ever served. Created from 20,000 protein strands from bovine stem cells in a Maastricht University research lab led by professor Mark Post over two years, it was all beef but no cow.

It’s Yadira Tejeda Saldana’s dream to eat a burger like this.

The only problem? All of the demos have happened either in the U.S. or overseas in countries like Singapore, she says. None in Canada. Tejeda Saldana wants to change that. “I’m really working hard so that I can get to try Canadian cultured meat!”

Cellular agriculture, from cell to plate

Tejeda Saldana, a PhD-holding food scientist, is co-founder and executive director of Cellular Agriculture Canada, a not-for-profit organization spearheading the cellular agriculture movement in Canada. She and her team are all about raising public awareness, advocating for fair policies and building a community among practitioners in the field.

To understand what that means, we need a quick science lesson. Cellular agriculture is a farm-meets-laboratory field that creates animal products from their most basic building blocks, without using livestock.

That includes meat, milk, eggs, cheese, leather and even rhino horn, Tejeda Saldana says. “The advantage of cellular agriculture is that technically you can produce any agricultural products using cells, starting from a small, tiny sample the size of a pinhead.”

How? There are two basic processes, she explains. If you’re producing meat, you start with some stem cells from an animal. (In the case of Post’s very expensive burger, those cells came from a cow’s shoulder.) Next, you need a growth medium that’ll provide nutrients to those cells so they become the right kind of cells – in this case, muscle and fat – and reproduce. Finally, you need a bioreactor to keep everything at the right temperature and growing conditions. Basically, you’re tricking those cells into thinking they’re still part of the animal, and they grow in the same way.

Other animal products like cultured milk undergo a different process. Insert the DNA for a specific protein into bacteria or yeast, and they will act like a cellular printer, expressing that protein over and over. Purify the result, and you’re ready to make a delicious cheese or an ice cream cone.

“Technically you can produce any agricultural products using cells, starting from a small, tiny sample the size of a pinhead.”

– Yadira Tejeda Saldana, co-fouder and executive director of Cellular Agriculture Canada

The idea of creating meat from scratch may be relatively new, but cellular agriculture isn’t just a novelty, Tejeda Saldana adds. Not only does it address ethical problems around animal welfare and factory farms, but “If we start thinking about all the news we’ve heard about climate change and how we only have a few years to try to solve this big issue, cellular agriculture can be a solution, an alternative to that.”

Take everything that goes into livestock farming, she says. Animals need to eat, so we grow feed for them. Feed requires land and water. Animals need land and water, too. Then, we process and ship the products. And cattle are notorious producers of methane. All in, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Association clocks total emissions from global livestock production at 14.5 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

And the demand for meat is increasing steadily with no end in sight, says the World Economic Forum. By 2050, we’ll need to feed a global population of 10 billion people. “It is widely recognized that the current trajectory of the food system will not allow us to meet these goals,” the organization states in a report called Meat: The Future.

“The resources that you need [with cellular agriculture] are much less than what you need for cattle, and the waste is also less.” Tejeda Saldana says. “The greenhouse gas emissions are also less compared to current agricultural practice.”

Global livestock production accounts for 14.5 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

– Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Plus, lab-controlled facilities can manufacture products anywhere in the world, regardless of climate or (to a degree) local resources. In other words, cellular agriculture stands to make healthy food more widely available in areas that need it most, she adds.

“We really think it has a lot of potential.”

READ: How Acorn Biolabs saves your cells to save your life

A taste of home

Tejeda Saldana believes Canada has a key role to play in reaching that potential.

“Some of the top universities in the world are here. That means that we have really high-quality researchers and opportunities here,” she says. Entrepreneurs and lawyers around the country are hard at work, too.

We just have to solve one problem of our own: bringing those minds together.

Tejeda Saldana first noticed that problem after wrapping up her PhD at Western University. She stumbled across an article about cultured meat and fell in love.

She already knew she wanted to work with food. “I feel that food is essential, but it’s also part of our culture, our traditions,” she says. Plus, “It gives you the opportunity also to be creative, to have fun. So I thought it was perfect. It had everything I wanted in a field.”

By then, Tejeda Saldana had already completed her undergraduate degree in food chemistry in her hometown of Mexico City. Wanting to explore other cultures, she traveled to the Netherlands to earn her masters in food safety. There, she learned more about the social and policy implications of food on top of her technical knowledge.

“Food is essential, but it’s also part of our culture, our traditions.”

– Yadira Tejeda Saldana

Food was a comfort on hard days away from home, too, she says. “Food connects you with your history. Back in the Netherlands, every time that I was feeling a little bit homesick, the first thing that I would start to look for was Mexican food,” she remembers. “It was a little bit of a taste of home.”

When she started looking for work after her PhD and post-doctoral fellowships, she hit the internet and reached out to organizations involved in cellular agriculture. “There were no opportunities because of funding,” she remembers. “There wasn’t much going on here in Canada.”

So Tejeda Saldana took another approach. “I think about the phrase, ‘if you can’t find a way, just make it,’” she says.

She started a LinkedIn group. She scoured online for entrepreneurs working with cultured meat. She reached out to researchers and experts in the field. And that’s how she met Ahmed Khan, the founder and editor of a news and insights startup about the future of food called CellAgri.

Together, the pair organized a meet-up for people interested in cellular agriculture. It was pretty informal – a group of seven people at a coffee shop in Toronto exchanging experiences and ideas. But it made one thing clear: Canada needed a community that could bring more people together and spread the word about what’s they’re working on.

“If you can’t find a way, just make it.”

– Yadira Tejeda Saldana

“We realized that here in Canada there was nothing like that,” Tejeda Saldana says. “We thought that it would be important to have a community in order to support [cellular agriculture] and promote it.”

Since last year, when Cellular Agriculture Canada officially formed, its board has grown to five members. Their community includes researchers, entrepreneurs, lawyers and students – the next generation of cellular agriculturalists, Tejeda Saldana says. They’ve even been turning heads in other countries, promoting Canadian efforts and opportunities for collaboration.

“Thinking about the current situation in the world, we need to make it a priority to produce our food in a way that is sustainable,” she says. “I really feel that Canada has that potential. It’s just a matter of bringing it up and creating the environment for entrepreneurs, students and others to get involved.”

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The future of food is around the corner

Before we declare the global food problem solved, there are still some issues to iron out.

When it comes to cultured meat, there aren’t any commercial products on the market just yet – though companies around the world are developing prototypes and methods to make them more affordable and “meat-like.” Shiok Meats in Singapore, for example, produces a line of cultured shrimp dumplings and wants to find a plant-based growth medium to replace the current, costly standard. Other companies are working to get the mix of fat and muscle just right or replicate connective tissue to produce meat grain.

Then, another big one: “We can’t bring the products into the market if people are not aware of them and if people don’t perceive them as beneficial,” Tejeda Saldana says.

Startups in the space need funding. So does research, she says. They need human resources, too.

“We can’t bring the products into the market if people are not aware of them and if people don’t perceive them as beneficial.”

– Yadira Tejeda Saldana

But she and her team won’t shy away from those battles. After all, it’s an emerging science and there are still a lot of unknowns – which means there’s a lot more to discover. “If I look at the global stage of the industry right now, the important thing is getting the products from the prototypes they have developed into bigger production,” Tejeda Saldana says.

“Everything has been done at the lab scale, so if these companies are able to show that it’s possible to create bigger batches of products, that may be really encouraging for the whole industry.”

That $385,701.57 burger was just the first taste of what’s to come.

Photo credit: Jules Hall

DRAFT CARD

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  • Name: Cellular Agriculture Canada
  • Solution: An interdisciplinary community supporting and promoting the cellular agriculture industry and research in Canada.
  • Founded: 2019
  • Contact: [email protected]
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