Not a week goes by without Elliot Swartz receiving at least one request from researchers asking him where they can find cell lines (a cell culture developed from a single cell) for use in cellular agriculture – an essential tool for creating lab-grown meat. “One of the most important things that cell lines offer is that they enable researchers to just get started in this new field,” says Swartz, who works in New York as a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute (GFI) – a nonprofit focused on advancing cellular agriculture and bringing its products to our shelves and stomachs as quickly as possible. Helping researchers is a core part of his role. In the case of cell lines, however, there’s very little he can do.
Swartz’s response to the researchers is unfortunately always the same: at the moment, publicly available cell lines relevant for cellular agriculture don’t really exist. That doesn’t mean that they’re nowhere to be found. Upside Foods (previously Memphis Meats) has submitted several patents to protect cell lines it has developed, and companies such as Cell Farm Food Tech have built a business around selling cell lines for profit. Keeping discoveries behind closed doors is a pattern of behaviour found in private companies across the industry, which many believe is slowing down innovation.
Cellular agriculture is the use of animal cells or microbes to grow animal products, such as meat or milk, in bioreactors. The field gained prominence after Dutch scientist Mark Post unveiled the first cultured meat burger in 2013. Since then, cultured meats have been touted as a sustainable alternative to livestock farming, which is the leading cause of habitat destruction. Global demand for burgers and bacon is to increase over the coming decades, meaning more ecosystems will be bulldozed to accommodate the expanding market. This, in turn, will increase the risk of future pandemics, as biodiversity loss is linked to the emergence of new diseases. Moreover, efforts to cut carbon emissions will also fall short of Paris targets if we don’t reduce our meat consumption, according to a special report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2019.
There is some progress. In Singapore last year, Eat Just became the first cultured meat company to gain regulatory approval to sell its product. But many technological, social, and economic hurdles remain before our supermarkets are filled with a variety of cultured cutlets. To surpass these hurdles, organisations including the GFI are pushing for a more public exchange of data, tools and ideas. As it stands, most research in the field is done by private companies which seem keen to protect their intellectual property.
Swartz says the lack of publicly available cell lines “is a gatekeeper in getting people into the field, even though there’s a lot of interest,” adding that this isn’t really an issue in other industries. Scientists looking for stem cells for research or clinical purposes can go to the government-funded UK Stem Cell Bank, and across the Atlantic, the nonprofit American Type Culture Collection hosts a reserve of cell lines that are mainly open access. Although repositories like this do include animal cells, that doesn’t mean they’re suitable for generating meat.
What makes cell lines themselves so useful is that they are immortal and can multiply indefinitely, so they can be used as a standard model across the industry. “We’re not going to understand if our findings are true if different groups are using different cells with different features,” Swartz continues. “So cell lines are the first piece of the puzzle for getting cultivated meat to become an actual field of study.” The GFI is filling the cell-line-shaped hole in cellular agriculture by funding the creation of lines that will be openly accessible, and making a repository to store them in. Kerafast – a Boston-based bioresearch company – will maintain this repository. Researchers not involved with the GFI are welcome to deposit cell lines too, as are private companies; anyone looking to use the cells must pay a small fee to cover the costs of storing and maintaining them. So far, only one academic group has deposited a cell line. “The lines being worked on in academic groups are still in development, which is why we haven’t got that many yet,” Swartz says.
The reluctance of private companies to share their cell lines may in part be because of how they are financed – a GFI report found that of the $366m invested in cultured meat in 2020, only around $12m came from public sources. Controlling the vast majority of the capital in the industry means that the private sector can comfortably dictate the pace and direction of innovation, which the Breakthrough Institute’s food and agriculture analyst Saloni Shah sees as an issue. “With the government and public sector funding research you can set criteria and standards, and make sure the right kinds of technologies get funded so that the development of the sector accelerates and improves,” says Shah.
The complaint that governments need to start investing in more sustainable food options is echoed by Isha Datar, the executive director of New Harvest – another nonprofit focused on advancing cellular agriculture. She thinks one of the reasons the field lacks government funding is that it is a mix of tissue engineering, which is medically oriented, and food science. “Cellular agriculture is kind of homeless and so it falls in between the cracks of the existing pillars of funding and how we think about science being separated,” she says. Swartz also agrees that more public funding is needed, but he thinks it will only come after the technology has been scaled up. “‘Does this industry scale?’ is going to be the key to opening the floodgate for governments funding this technology,” he says. “Open source research is going to be really important for bringing new ideas on how to scale this technology or lower costs.”
Swartz also complains that secrecy is holding up the industry-wide adoption of other cheaper, more efficient materials. For example, all of the nutrients needed for animal cells to grow into chunks of meat are contained in the cell culture medium, but the industry standard foetal bovine serum is expensive, and must be extracted from the foetus of a slaughtered cow. Many startups claim to have developed alternatives, but they remain trade secrets. “Companies tend not to patent these things, because by patenting a cell culture medium you have to include everything that’s in there, which is open sourcing what the ingredients are,” says Swartz.
Even if the cell line problem were solved, there would still be technological hurdles holding the field back from large-scale commercialisation. Using computer modelling to address these hurdles and accelerate the intensification of cultured meat production is a central goal of the Cultivated Meat Modeling Consortium (CMMC).
Modelling is a useful tool that allows researchers to simulate experiments before entering a laboratory. This helps to save on time and resources. In order to run more complicated simulations, however, modellers first need data from simpler experiments that detail the fundamental biological processes behind cultured meat production – to understand the sum of the whole, we must first analyse the parts. “We’re experiencing quite some difficulty in getting the information we need to actually build models,” says Jaro Camphuijsen, a researcher associated with the CMMC. Private companies they work with have shown resistance to sharing data and running certain experiments. “We have been talking to a cultivated meat company quite a lot, and we often ask: ‘What happens if you do this experiment?’ The answer is usually: ‘We don’t know,’ and ‘We aren’t going to do that because the cells will die,’” Camphuijsen explains. But failed experiments, he says, can provide useful data points that often reveal more than successful tests. “Experiments that go wrong actually provide lots and lots of information if you want to find out how these tiny systems of cells are behaving.”
When asked to respond to accusations that industry secrets were slowing down innovation in the field, Uma Valeti, the CEO of Upside Foods, wrote in an email that the firm “kickstarted the cultured meat movement when we were founded in 2015. Without that, the industry wouldn’t be in the place it is today, where there are hundreds of companies, NGOs, academic groups and government institutions focusing on cultured meat, across every continent but Antartica.” She adds that Upside is “actively supportive of more open access research on cultured meat,” and it has “actively supported the development of public research institutions like the Cultured Meat Consortium”.
Responding to the same accusations, Robert E Jones, head of public affairs at Mosa Meat, wrote: “Few companies have done more than Mosa Meat to contribute to the open advancement of cellular agriculture.” He adds that Mosa “hoped the 2013 burger would trigger a moonshot level of public investment in research,” and that “there is something to be said for an innovation ecosystem that includes both private capital and public investments for a challenge as big as reforming the food system.”
The idea that governments need to start investing in more sustainable food options is echoed by Datar. She has concerns about a field that lacks an academic basis and publicly accessible information. “It means cellular agriculture is going to have to be more transparent than other industries,” says Datar. “I think we need a lot more data sharing and a lot more transparency if we are to create a better food system.” Will private companies heed this call for more transparency and build on their claims that they are supportive of more open access research, or will they follow the approach in other sectors where financial gain has been prioritised over societal benefits? Campaigners hope the answer is one that puts the planet before profit margins.