Food security is of growing concern with a rapidly growing world population. In response, recent efforts to develop synthetic foods offer a solution to limiting the environmental costs of increasing food production yet challenges impede the widespread implementation of synthetic food.
Synthetic Food. Image Credit: Axtem/Shutterstock.com
Synthetic foods on the rise
At current rates of increasing food production, estimates of agricultural production would only supply 8 billion people by 2050, which would not meet the needs of the global population predicted to reach over 9 billion. The concern of limited food is exacerbated by issues including environmental change and increasingly limited space availability. In response, synthetic foods have become a solution of key interest for consumers and stakeholders.
Synthetic foods can be defined as food substances or products that are produced artificially rather than through natural processes. Also referred to as artificial foods, these generally imitate the characteristics of natural foods including appearance, texture, and taste, and are typically manufactured under controlled laboratory conditions.
The production of synthetic food relies on identifying the genetic sequences of food items that provide its characteristics. The sequence of interest is then reproduced in vitro and inserted into yeast or bacterium components, which replicate the target proteins. Meat is produced slightly differently, relying on the multiplication of animal stem cells, which can differentiate into other cell types, eventually replicating to form artificial meat tissue.
Within this process of production, key tools provide the support to develop the characteristics of target food items.
First, pluripotent stem cells are essential as they allow the tissue to develop into a range of specialized cells. Second, the food is grown in media containing growth factors, which are central to controlling the rate and quality of artificial food. Finally, scaffolds are also used in the growth media to help the cells expand and form the texture, size, and rigidity of the target food item.
Therefore, the growth media, also known as the culture media, provides the building blocks to growing the target tissue. It contains the necessary carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and salts needed to grow cells into cell populations that increase exponentially before reaching the desired product.
This process has produced a range of items currently available for consumption around the world from the impossible veggie meat burger and shrimp made of algae, to a range of vegan cheeses.
Insight into genetically modified food.
Early origins of synthetic food manufacturing
As a discipline, synthetic biology was first developed to address other issues and only later used as an approach for food production. Medicinal products, functional bacterial cell lines to treat oil spills and contamination, as well as the production of biofuels, were some of the first uses of synthetic biology, which has now expanded in methodology and application.
Only in the 1950s did the concepts of artificial foods begin to shape with the first developments originating from NASA, which aimed to produce foods in space without the need for animals to lengthen missions into space.
From the initial products, early developments also included the use of microorganisms such as yeast. These are particularly useful organisms that can grow on mediums like sugar, or non-food media such as petroleum hydrocarbons, giving them the ability to become a widely available and mouldable source of protein and an invaluable tool for synthetic biology.
Are synthetic foods a sustainable and suitable alternative to meat production?
Within contemporary agricultural practices, the meat industry is recognized to generate several long-term issues, from greenhouse gas emissions to requiring a considerable extent of arable land. Looking forward, meat production would need to increase between 50 and 73% to accommodate for the population growth in 2050, exacerbating existing issues.
In a collaborative study by Australian and French scientists published in 2017, authors reviewed the major challenges facing the meat industry when attempting to supply a growing population and the emerging solutions to these challenges.
Specifically, researchers were able to highlight alternative solutions imposed by current limitations on meat production to reduce the environmental impact while increasing overall yield. Within the meat industry itself, promoting available technologies include selective breeding, agroecology systems, animal cloning, and genetic modification, may be particularly beneficial.
Finally, meat products could be produced using in vitro culturing and three-dimensional printing techniques. The researchers predicted that it is likely that meat substitutes will increase market share through competition with low-grade cuts of meat, sausages, ground meat, and processed meat.
However, issues related to synthetic meat systems were also discussed including potential barriers to commercialization and widespread adoption, including consumer opinions, that may affect their popularity in the market.
Frequent praise of synthetic meat systems is the reduction in environmental costs associated with its production. One study explored this recognized benefit by comparing the environmental footprint of synthetic and natural meat production, now and into the future.
The study by John Lynch and Raymond Pierrehumbert from 2019 used climate models simulating the behaviors of greenhouse gases without relying on carbon dioxide equivalent metrics. Results comparing the temperature impact of beef cattle and cultured meat production over 1000 years demonstrated that cattle systems are associated with the production of all greenhouse gases, while cultured meat emissions are almost entirely CO2 from energy generation.
Although such findings are to be expected, the authors suggest that cultured meat is not impervious to environmental repercussions as it depends on decarbonized energy generation. Thus, although adopting synthetic meat production may limit further greenhouse gas emissions, synthetic foods also rely on other energetic sources that may also generate limited, yet unpredictable, changes.
Challenges in the future of synthetic foods
In the future, synthetic food is predicted to face key challenges before its widespread adoption. In a study from 2018, Stephens et al. discuss the 5 central issues with successfully implementing widespread synthetic foods including cell sourcing, standardized culture media, imitation of the in-vivo myogenesis environment, the choice of animal-derived and synthetic materials, and the bioprocessing for commercial-scale production.
The study also presents how the societal perspective has often been reduced to ethics and consumer acceptance when transitioning towards novel processing systems, yet the political, economic, and institutional circles may be just as valuable when replacing the current meat industry with one based on synthetic meat.
Such a transition was further discussed in a study by Rob Burton in 2019, who examined the potential repercussions of such a change by comparing it to previous historical substitutions. Indeed, synthetic meat production would not be the first of such changes, and previous transitions have sometimes led to the rapid decline of agricultural industries, namely: alizarin (madder), indigotin (indigo), and vanillin (vanilla).
The risk of detrimentally affecting farmers and stakeholders may further increase the doubt of such a transition yet the study remarks that rather than a complete substitution of the meat industry, a divided market with various classes of protein production is more likely to emerge in the future.
- Bonny, S. P. F., Gardner, G. E., Pethick, D. W., & Hocquette, J. F. (2017). Artificial meat and the future of the meat industry. Animal Production Science, 57(11), 2216. doi:10.1071/an17307
- Burton, R. J. (2019). The potential impact of synthetic animal protein on livestock production: The new “war against agriculture”? Journal of Rural Studies, 68, 33–45. doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2019.03.002
- Lynch, J., & Pierrehumbert, R. (2019). Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 3, 1. doi:10.3389/fsufs.2019.00005
- Stephens, N., Di Silvio, L., Dunsford, I., Ellis, M., Glencross, A., & Sexton, A. (2018). Bringing cultured meat to market: Technical, socio-political, and regulatory challenges in cellular agriculture. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 78, 155–166. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2018.04.010