4 Mins Read
One of the biggest hurdles for cell-based meat to land on dinner plates everywhere is the lack of open source technology. That’s the argument that Elliot Swartz, senior scientist at the Good Food Institute (GFI), is making in a recent interview. Without it, it’s going to be a tougher journey ahead for the industry to scale and make slaughter-free, sustainably-grown animal meat available to mass consumers.
Food scientists are in dire need of open-source cell lines. Without them, researchers can’t make and develop more cell-based meat. Swartz laments in an interview with the Guardian that he gets swarmed with questions about where to find them, but it’s a struggle, given that there aren’t any cell lines available to the public.
Lack of open source cell lines
Right now, cell lines are concentrated within companies and startups in the space. Some of the most famous players in the space include Mosa Meat, the Dutch company that pioneered the industry, and Upside Foods, which recently rebranded from Memphis Meats. There’s also Eat Just, the San Francisco startup that won the race to become the world’s first to sell its cultured chicken bites in Singapore.
These cell lines are kept private within these food techs, and there are other startups wholly dedicated to selling cell lines too. Cell Farm Food Tech, for instance, sells its cell lines to other businesses that want to use them to produce cell-based products.
Why cell lines are so vital is because they’re the building blocks to produce cultivated meat. And cultivating meat in labs rather than raising them on large farms and slaughtering them is going to be vital if we are to sustainably feed a world of 10 billion, proponents of the industry argue.
According to GFI, which works to support the entire alternative protein ecosystem including fermentation and plant-based startups, cell-based meat is far more sustainable than its conventionally produced counterparts. In a recent study, GFI estimates that cultivated meat has a 92% smaller climate footprint.
GFI is helping to build open source cell-based tech
That’s why Swartz and GFI’s global team are working to build open-source cell-based tech. The organisation has launched an initiative that funds research into cell lines, which will then be made open to all through a repository.
Private companies and non-affiliated researchers can deposit their findings into the database too, which is managed in partnership with Boston-based reagents company Kerafast.
But it’s going to take some time for cell lines to be openly accessible to all. “The lines being worked on in academic groups are still in development, which is why we haven’t got that many yet,” Swartz explained.
And until then, innovation in the area is going to be slowed down. Without cell lines, R&D into media, scaffolding, and bioreactors is far more difficult. Essentially, open source cell-based technologies can lower the hurdle for innovators to come up with new sustainable protein solutions.
“Open source research is going to be really important for bringing new ideas on how to scale this technology or lower costs,” Swartz told the Guardian.
Public funding needed
For many industry watchers and alternative protein proponents, it isn’t the companies’ fault that they’re keeping their cell lines private. It’s mainly because the majority of startups in the space are funded by venture capitalists.
According to GFI data, only $12 million of the record $360 million raised by the cell-based meat industry in 2020 came from the public sector. At the time the report was published, GFI APAC acting managing director Mirte Gosker highlighted that government funds were falling way behind.
Describing the investment into alt-proteins as a “clear vote of confidence for smarter ways of making meat”, Gosker said that countries—now far more wary of the vulnerabilities in their food supply chain and the health and environmental danger of livestock farming—must “match the enthusiasm of the investment community by redoubling their support for plant-based and cultivated meat R&D.”
Emma Osborne, founder of and CEO of plant-based recruitment agency Citizen Kind, emphasised that the cultivated meat industry isn’t to blame for the dearth of publicly available cell lines.
Cautioning against “paint[ing] the whole cultivated meat industry as selfish and money-grabbing”, Osborne wrote in a post: “It’s the governments’ reluctance to regulate or acknowledge these products which is holding up the industry, not the companies themselves.”
Lead image courtesy of Good Meat / Eat Just.