Penn State researchers exploring this question believe cellular agriculture will either serve up food alternatives that provide a positive alternative, or trigger even greater socioeconomic inequalities.
The technology harnesses the power of computer science, food science, biopharma, and tissue engineering to produce meat and dairy products using animal cells, or genetically modified yeast.
According to one of the authors of the Penn State study, Robert Chiles, assistant professor of rural sociology, College of Agricultural Sciences, large companies are the ones who are primed to benefit most from this burgeoning area of innovation.
“Nonetheless, new technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart agriculture, bioengineering, synthetic biology and 3D printers are also being used to decentralise and personalise food manufacturing,” he said. “They have the potential to democratise ownership and mobilise alternative economic organizations devoted to open-source licensing, member-owned cooperatives, social financing and platform business models.”
The study raises concerns that power could be concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, with farmers, fisherman and ranchers forced out. Limiting public participation in this way, the researchers say, might knock out some of the environmental upsides of the technology: reduced land and water use, fewer greenhouse gasses, improved food security, and less animal slaughter.
Chiles cites a lack of proper research into the mechanisms that could be used to realise a ‘just and equitable development of this sector’ but after interviewing innovators, early adopters and key experts, as part of the Penn State study, he made some suggestions about what the priorities should be.
“Government investments in publicly accessible digital infrastructures could help to facilitate a more just transition, as could public policies that protect workers’ rights and consumer privacy,” Chiles added. “Stakeholders who are concerned about the justice and equity implications of cellular agriculture may ultimately find more success by engaging with how these technologies are being developed rather than avoiding them or trying to eradicate them.”
Inside cellular agriculture
In a recent Inside Ideas podcast, Marc Buckley spoke with Ahmed Khan, the co-founder and member of the board of directors of Cellular Agriculture Canada, a non-profit organisation advancing and promoting the cellular agriculture industry in Canada.
Talking about the why of cellular agriculture, the founder and editor of CellAgri, told Marc: “From studies done in the past – if you explain to the public the ‘why’ – from the environmental and sustainability aspects: that this requires less resources than conventional animal agriculture for the same products, as well as the potential public health implications of the clean and sterile environment of using cells directly, people can understand why. It’s all about that communication, and radical transparency to make sure that people understand their food system. Context is everything and with food it matters so much more.”
For more on Ahmed’s take on the sector, catch up with the full podcast.