Sunday, August 14, 2022

New role shifts from paddock to cell

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For generations New Zealand’s agricultural academies have had a pastoral focus, usually with dairy and meat production at their heart. The decision by AgResearch and the Riddet Institute to recruit a professor for cellular agriculture research highlights how times are changing. Richard Rennie reports.
AgResearch science group manager Stefan Clerens says the new chair is not geared to getting another burger on the market but about understanding the science behind the biotechnology. Photo: Supplied

The past decade has brought a number of conflicting food descriptors to the vernacular of consumers and farmers, including non-meat “meat”, non-mammal “milk” and even non-feathered “chicken”.

For many people this is their first contact with the burgeoning business of cellular agriculture, what Stefan Clerens describes as the lab-based production of food.

The new chair in cellular agriculture research is being jointly funded by AgResearch and the Riddet Institute. Like AgResearch, Riddet is focused on advanced food research and will host the new position.

Clerens acknowledges that the position description conjures up images of bubbling vats of synthesised proteins and yeasts, when in fact it calls upon many of the skills the New Zealand pastoral research community already has, and can apply to this disruptive technology.

Many of the cellular food companies in the sector may not quite be household names in the way more traditional branded food items are.  

But firms such as Beyond Meat, Nothing Naughty or Impossible Foods have garnered a high profile in a short period, to at least stick in the minds of many consumers for novelty, if not as committed meal options.

Clerens agrees it could be seen as ironic for pastorally focused organisations to be seeking a professor to head such a disruptive sector. “It could come across as head in the clouds academics telling us what to do, how to farm etcetera.”

But he says the trend is not likely to fade away as some sort of food fad, with estimates that the entire alternative proteins sector could be worth almost US$1 trillion by 2040 as the world moves to try to increase its food production by 60%.

“As a Crown Research Institute, we would not be doing our jobs if we did not prepare for it and understand it better,” Clerens says.

The jury is still out on to what extent the sector will make conventional food production redundant, he says.

However, after an initial melee between conventional producers and new disrupters, it appears more parties are coming to the conclusion there will be enough room for new and conventional production systems in light of growing demand, particularly for protein.

“It is likely traditionally produced food will always have a place, maybe more for special occasions, whereas cellular type products maybe more for your everyday meals.”

An area of particular interest for Clerens is the level of processing non-meat products undergo, and to what extent this affects their nutritional value.

“These are all firms that have moved just out of the start-up phase, and are still working hard to generate cashflow. Issues around the impact of processing and nutritive value on what are often heavily processed products are worth looking at.

“We are interested in whether it would be possible to turn the dial in some way to reduce the impact that processing may have upon the product’s final food value.”

He says some intriguing processes are evolving in attempts to emulate genuine cows’ milk synthetically.

“With milk’s nutritional and functional nature determined by casein structures and whey proteins that only animals can produce, it would be good to know to what extent are these cellular milks real, to the extent they can re-create those compounds, or if it will ever really be possible.” 

One high-profile example is the non-dairy “dairy”-based Perfect Day ice-cream.

Clerens says NZ’s conventional farming systems could provide some of the raw feedstock for cellular food production. One example is supplying foetal bovine serum as the startup base to “grow” lab-produced muscle meat cells.

“But there is the issue of economic viability, and just how acceptable that would be to consumers.”
The potential to look at how pasture itself could contribute is another area the professorship may touch on. 

Work has been done in NZ on extracting proteins from forage crops to develop alternative proteins for human food, and to create low-emission biofuels.

“Depending on who gets appointed, emissions reduction could also feature in the work. This is an opportunity to put the entire subject into a New Zealand context.”

The brief for the research professorship role is broad within the cellular agriculture subject and Clerens says the partners have an open mind about the ideal candidate.

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