Growing bacon in a bioreactor instead of a barn?
New funding program supports cellular agriculture projects
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
Four genomics and engineering biology projects focused on cellular agriculture recently received almost $1 million in research funding from Ontario Genomics and the Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN).
The funds were awarded through the AcCELLerate-ON competition, which was created to help innovative companies develop new technologies to meet growing global food demands.
Cellular agriculture – often popularly called “lab-grown” or “animal-free” – uses animal cell cultures, tissue engineering or precision fermentation-based techniques to create products like meat, dairy and eggs that have to date always come from traditional livestock production.
The funding recipients are Ardra Inc. to develop fermentation-based production of heme as a natural flavour ingredient; Cell Ag Tech to scale up manufacturing of fish muscle stem cells; Evolved Meats to create cultivated pork belly that is identical to conventional pork belly; and Dr. Michael Garton of the University of Toronto who is collaborating with MyoPalate to establish foundational tools for cultivated pork production.
A report by Ontario Genomics last year identified cellular agriculture as a $12.5 billion a year opportunity in Canada over the long-term. By 2030, the budding sector could represent $7.5 billion annually and support up to 86,000 jobs.
The report notes that an ever-increasing global population combined with the negative effects of climate change on food production is expected to lead to an expected 76 per cent increase in food requirements by 2050. This means current food production methods must be supplemented with new technologies and innovative approaches.
It was this potential that brought Ontario Genomics together with the newly created Canadian Food Innovation Network to develop and launch Canada’s first regional cellular agriculture competition late last year.
“We’ve been a big supporter of traditional agriculture for years with over $80 million in projects, but we are also working to drive new opportunities for Ontario and Canada, particularly in the area of global food security,” says Dr. Elaine Corbett, Director of Sector Innovation and Programs at Ontario Genomics. “This aligns with the vision of Canada being a global protein provider and opens new opportunities for Canada to be part of a new product category.”
Cellular agriculture products could include flavouring, pigments, fermented foods and product ingredients, as well as products like poultry or seafood-style that include cellular-based ingredients, she notes.
“We see this as a new opportunity for Canada to make things we haven’t made before, and that it’s both complementary and supplementary to traditional agriculture,” she adds. “Conventional agriculture will continue to play a role in feeding the world, but consumers want choice and although that varies by country and cultural preference, it presents a real opportunity for a multi-cultural country like Canada.”
Funding recipient and Southern Ontario start-up Evolved Meat, backed by Maple Leaf Foods, a multinational that wants to be the world’s most sustainable protein company, is tackling the pork belly as its first focus.
“When you look at what the pig is used for, bacon is huge in North America and pork belly underscores many Asian dishes, so it has broad purview on the market,” explains co-founder John Cappuccitti. “What we do is recreate the actual muscle tissue and transition it into meat, the same as the aging process that occurs in the muscle. We are creating functional muscle tissue and growing the fibrous, marbled meat.”
The company is anticipating it will be a few years before their product is available on the market. That’s mostly because Canada doesn’t yet have regulations in place to govern cellular agriculture, and both Cappuccitti and his co-founder Alireza Shahin are keen to see a strict framework put in place.
“Nobody knows how to regulate this, but we want strict regulations, so we are starting to work towards creating an industry association now so we can have those conversations with government,” Cappuccitti says.
The CFIN/Ontario Genomics funding will help further refine their processes and start the scale-up process. Ideally, Evolved would like to collaborate with various traditional meat companies to develop new products in the space and also partner with someone – like farmers – who can provide access to high quality cell lines.
“We will need to introduce new cell lines so by raising higher quality livestock, this could be a royalty opportunity for farmers for example,” he says. “There will still be a need for meat, though and we see a bigger opportunity for smaller herds and higher quality in particular.”
For Shahin, who started his career in the regenerative medicine space, the potential of cellular agriculture goes far beyond food. Being able to grow cells cheaper and more efficiently will revolutionize medicine, he believes.
“What we are doing here can be adopted into the pharmaceutical and regenerative medicine sectors and give us more efficient drugs that can improve human life,” he says. “That’s my ultimate goal.”
According to Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC), an organization that drives innovation through the livestock value chain, cellular agriculture could become a key source of food in the future if the technical difficulties can be resolved.
“The livestock industry needs to be aware of this new potential competitor and always strive to improve in the areas of healthy products (for people and the environment) and animal welfare,” says CEO Mike McMorris. “That will ensure that livestock production remains competitive well into the future.”
This article is provided by Livestock Research Innovation Corporation as part of LRIC’s ongoing efforts to report on research developments and outcomes, and issues affecting the Canadian livestock industry. It was first published in the June 14, 2022 edition of Ontario Farmer.