Conventional agricultural food production methods currently seem unlikely to be able to provide for the food requirements of the world’s increasing population.
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Projection models indicate that the requirements will be about two-thirds higher than now in 30 years, yet the proportion of land left available to accommodate this is a mere 2 percent.
Changes to the industry that will cater for this growing demand, whilst minimizing the damaging impact that conventional methods have on the environment are both urgently needed and inevitable if the UN Sustainable Development Goals are going to be met.
How can industrial biotechnology help?
One potential alternative to conventional agricultural methods is to introduce biotechnological manufacture into the food system.
Industrial biotechnology is a field that could not only provide a solution to ensuring safe and sustainable food supply, but it could have positive impacts on societies and economies by providing new biomaterials for use in fields such as cosmetics and medicine.
As part of a themed issue on plant biotechnology recently published in Current Opinion in Biotechnology, a team from the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland has provided a review article assessing the potential of a biotechnological field called “cellular agriculture.”
In the agricultural industry, products may be acellular and composed of components such as proteins and fats, or they may be cellular and composed of living or dead cells.
Biotechnologies are categorized as “red,” “green” or “white” and their use in the manufacture of both acellular and cellular products has already had a large impact on societies and economies, with cellular agriculture emerging as a field that is going to expand in years to come.
White, red and green biotechnologies
White and red biotechnologies are mainly focused on the manufacture of acellular products that have a wide range of applications in industrial processes. They are used as compounds in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, as pigments and flavor enhancers in the food industry and as building blocks in fuel manufacture.
Green biotechnology is mainly focused on cellular agricultural applications and has already revolutionized crop production. This technology has hugely boosted yield by generating new breeds with higher nutritional content, increased plant height and a greater ability to resist disease, for example. More recently, attention has increasingly turned to the potential use of cellular agriculture as a replacement technique for making products that would otherwise be generated by farmed animals and crops.
Three potential cellular techniques
In their review, Heiko Rischer, Geza Szilvay, and Kirsi-Marja Oksman-Caldentey describe three main cell types for use in biotechnologies that could reduce the environmental footprint resulting from the production of foods and materials.
They also touch on the challenges involved in achieving their large-scale implementation and the areas that need to be addressed to overcome these.
The authors begin with the concept of meat products cultured from animal cells as a potential new way to provide animal-based proteins, before moving onto plant cells as an alternative raw material that would provide nutritious foods.
Finally, microbial cells are discussed as a potential source in the production of various biosynthetic materials.
How animal cells could be used
Referring to the huge contribution that conventional animal agriculture makes to greenhouse gas emissions, including a very high level of methane, “cellular agriculture offers great opportunities for keeping the environment healthy,” writes the team.
Meats produced through cellular agriculture contain skeletal, muscle, fat and connective tissues generated from multipotent stem cells that have been taken from animals and cultured in a bioreactor. However, although the genetic make-up is no different from the conventionally produced meat, structural aspects make it difficult to produce meat with the same flavor, texture, and appearance.
Another major challenge is that animals are still needed to provide the original cells and the serum required for the growth medium that is used for the culturing process that takes place in the bioreactor.
How plant cells could be used
The authors say the negative environmental impacts of crop farming as a result of high-volume manufacture, food waste, and food loss are also an important driver of the interest in biotechnological techniques for plant-based foods.
The growth medium needed is primarily composed of inorganic substances such as salt, sucrose, and vitamins and is less expensive and complex than animal cell-based mediums.
Since so many cosmetic products are already cost-effectively produced in this way, it is feasible that products such as chocolate could also be generated from plant cells.
In their review, the authors touch on a proof-of-concept study they conducted using a medium derived from the lingonberry plant. It included both acellular and cellular components and demonstrated versatility for a range of potential applications in food production, says the team.
“Plant cells could serve as material constituents, too,” they suggest “although even less work has been published in this area.”
How microbial cells could be used
Finally, the reviewers discussed the use of microbial cells for generating polymers and their precursors and the potential use of these in the production of synthetic materials.
The problem faced here, however, is how to regulate the growth and shape of the cells to fabricate materials that resemble tissue closely enough for them to be used in fields such as regenerative medicine.
Furthermore, the fabrication of these synthetic materials is genetically guided by the cultured cells and the role this plays will be essential to factor into the design of these novel materials.
That said, the authors point out that progress has already been made in this respect with new techniques demonstrated that should pave the way for their production.
In summary, commenting on the emergence of cellular products as potential game-changers in the manufacture of foods and materials, the authors emphasize the importance of ensuring their benefit, regulation, and safety in terms of end-user acceptance.
Once all these conditions are met, sustainability is proven, and economic cases are drawn up, then the technology could face a real breakthrough,”
Plant Sciences. Agronomic Traits. North Dakota State University. Available at: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/plantsciences/research/durum/agronomic-traits
Red Biotechnology Genetic Engineering. Act For Libraries 2017. Available at: http://www.actforlibraries.org/red-biotechnology-genetic-engineering/
Oksman-Caldentey, K et al. Cellular agriculture — industrial biotechnology for food and materials. Current Opinion in Biotechnology 2020;61:128-134 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copbio.2019.12.003