What does it take to get a piece of steak or chicken to someone's table? The amount of time, energy, water, land, and the resulting carbon footprint may be surprising. Today, scientists are exploring the farms of the future, including the generation of meat products through cellular agriculture. These animal-based proteins have plenty of pros, including sustainable production, and groups, ranging from U.S. government to the meat industry, are investigating the future of cellular agriculture.
INTRO: One of the challenges to traditional livestock agriculture is that it is not sustainable moving forward. So when we look at land use, land resource, water use, energy consumption, production of greenhouse gases—I think those are some very tangible challenges that are facing traditional livestock agriculture.
HOST: Welcome to Growing Impact, a podcast by the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State. Growing Impact explores cutting-edge projects of researchers and scientists who are solving some of the world’s most challenging energy and environmental issues. Each project has been funded through an innovative seed grant program that is facilitated through IEE. I’m your host, Kevin Sliman.
On this episode of Growing Impact, I speak with Josephine Wee, an assistant professor of food science at Penn State. Her work focuses on food microbiology and genomics of food-associated fungi. Josephine’s recent seed grant project, titled “Development of Innovative Materials and Technology for Cellular Agriculture,” examines the emerging agricultural production practices for cellular agriculture where meat products are grown in labs instead of on the farm.
HOST: I'd like to welcome Josephine to Growing Impact.
Josephine Wee (JW): Hi, Kevin. Thank you for having me. Hi everyone. I'm Josephine Wee, I'm an assistant professor of food science at Penn State. I'm trained as a food scientist in the area of mycology and fungal biology. So what I do every day is study mushrooms, yeast, and mold. And I study them within the context of fermentation, within the context of spoilage and toxic production.
HOST: Could you please describe your project?
JW: The goal of this project is to use cellular agriculture to develop new bio-materials for use in food. So what is cellular agriculture? Cellular agriculture is the production of animal-source foods or materials from cell culture. Similar to the production of beer, for example, in large vessels, imagine that one day on a farm of the future, we may be producing animal-source foods—chicken, pork, beef—using large fermentation vessels.
HOST: Can we dive into that a little bit? So…
HOST: Can you talk about the science of it a little bit? So what does that mean? We're going to be building proteins in fermentation vessels? So tell me about that, what does that mean?
JW: Yeah, so I think this also ties into the motivation of why I got into this in the first place. So I grew up in Asia where when we think about animal-source proteins—the meats that we consume, chicken, pork, beef—a lot of the whole animal is consumed. But when we look at this production in the United States, we've come to this really large production of animal and meat proteins where—depending on which source you look at—the percentage of meat harvested from an animal varies, but essentially not the whole animal is used. So depending on where you look at, maybe 40 to 60% of the animal is harvested as meat and the rest of it, we don't really have a good source to reuse the remaining part of the animal. So in my mind, I think this form of animal production or this form of meat production could come off as inefficient. When you look at cellular agriculture, what cellular agriculture is trying to do is to be more efficient in this process by shortening supply chains. For example, if I have to purchase meat and rely on agricultural production in, let's say, the South. Can I shorten this production chain? Let's say if I'm living in a town or a city, can I get my animal-source protein from a large fermentation vessel that I build in the middle of the city where I'm taking animal muscle cells and growing them in a vessel to form complex muscle proteins. Essentially the outcome of the food product is the same, it's just produced in a different way. So this is somewhat of a futuristic thing to kind of envision. But that's essentially what we're trying to do, is to take the production out of land into cities, for example, and shorten the food supply chain.
HOST: This fermentation process, so literally, so this is using cells from animals and then using science to then reproduce these cells to then create meats essentially or meat products of some sort, correct?
HOST: I am a very picky eater. So I think about this, and I go, what kind of things do we as a society need to overcome? Have you thought about this? Has this been any part of the conversation? So what kind of things do you have to overcome to be like, “Hey, this is my iChicken” or whatever it is. How does that work? Have you had any experience with that?
JW: Yeah. So that's a great question. When we think about these foods, they somehow fall in the category of "Future Foods." So you can think about it similar to like insect protein that no one has ever eaten, right? There are a lot of terms for this. Some people call it like franken-food. Some people call it lab-grown meat, right? I think ultimately, in my mind, having an option for an alternative approach to produce food is important despite consumer choices, right? I have a really close colleague and collaborator. Her name is Dr. Helene Hopfer that works in the same department. She's a sensory scientist as well as a food chemist. So what she does is she breaks apart these and then she compares the traditional meat and then these future cuts of meat to ask, okay, from a chemistry level, are they similar? From a volatile—from when you when you cook it and you smell it—does it taste the same? So, imagine if they did taste the same. Would you still eat it? Consumers differ on that front, right? If we ask them, if they both taste the same, which one would you eat? I think it depends on the consumer. If you are starving and you need food to eat, you might say, "okay, just give me my source of protein." But if you're a consumer that is of high socioeconomic status and you're like "no, I want to choose my steak and potatoes that I grew up with." Then you might, you might opt for the traditional cut of meat. I think for me, if you look into contexts in America, I think our meat, our animal agriculture is deeply rooted in our historical and political landscape. So when you take that into consideration, as well as consumer choices, you see a huge spectrum where there will be consumers that will be ever ready to try the new foods. And there will be consumers that will always stick to the conventional way of production.
HOST: What are some of the goals you hope to accomplish? You listed at least reducing the supply chain. What other elements are you looking for in your project?
JW: Kevin, I like this question because it's a huge one to accomplish, right? So the way I think about it is that I’m a food scientist, but I'm trained in fungal biology. So the way I approach this project is to ask how can we grow, produce, and use fungal mycelium as food materials? Fungal mycelium are these entangled networks of fungi that resemble the roots of a tree. When they're grown in the lab, they really look like mats of cotton candy or sheets that resemble animal hide. In my mind, one of the goals of this IEE seed grant is to ask, “how far can we push our boundaries with fungal materials?” Remember these animal muscle cells that I told you about? These cells are also known as adherence cells. What does that mean? It means that these cells need a platform to grow on. So they can't grow—if you put them in a vessel they’ll just spin around. They’re free-floating cells. What the fungal mycelium does is it provides a platform for these animal muscle cells to grow, so that then you can grow muscle cells on a platform in a sheet that resembles an animal tissue. So that's one of the goals, the scientific goals at least, that we're trying to accomplish with this project. How far can we push the boundaries of fungal bio-materials for use in cultured meat and animal source meat.
HOST: So this is the second project I have talked to someone about mycelium, which is so crazy. I didn't realize that, so that’s very cool. I didn't realize that that was going to be part of the platform. And maybe you're already part of this and I don't even realize it. So like LiMC2, right? The living materials group.
JW: Yes, I am part of that group, too.
HOST: And Benay Gursoy, do you work with Benay by any chance ever?
JW: I do. So she works mainly with the architecture piece. So I'm like the food side.
HOST: Very cool though, right? So looking at mycelium, what a versatile or potentially versatile material that's able to provide a building block of food and a building block of literal architecture. How wild.
HOST: What are the challenges to traditional livestock agriculture?
JW: Food production by means of traditional agriculture accounts for one of the highest contributions to environmental impact and resource usage. So I say this very loosely, right? I mean, there are the stats that come with it. So I think the important part here is that one of the, one of the challenges to traditional livestock agriculture is that it is not sustainable moving forward. So when we look at land use, land resource, water use, energy consumption, production of greenhouse gases—I think those are some very tangible challenges that are facing traditional livestock agriculture.
HOST: I look at some of the individuals who do research on just the management of manure. And it's like the amount of waste that we need to manage to ensure that it is disposed of properly, not contaminating waterways, could be useful in the future in some way. It's an amazing amount of money that we're pouring into it and time and energy, literally energy, right? And trying to figure out how to manage the waste. There's so many components of traditional agriculture that are challenging, especially on a scale that is feeding America and/or the world.
JW: Correct, yeah, and you bring up a great point about waste as well. It is one thing to manage the waste, but at the same time—not but—and at the same time if we can reduce that waste, that's also another solution to the problem, right? Like we can manage the waste that we generate, but at the same time we can actually decrease the waste that we generate.
HOST: You referred to earlier, America grew up with this livestock idea, and so we think about small farms and local producers, which maybe they have a small herd of cow or something like that. But we think about when you see the industrial level of production that is necessary to maintain, to feed, we'll just use America as the example. I mean, it's astounding.
JW: Yeah, and I think it's a complex issue like you pointed out, it's a complex landscape. And on top of that, if you account for population increases and as well as our aging population that actually needs high-quality protein for muscle support. So I think a combination of population increase and the need for high-quality protein is really pushing us to think of ways that we can increase production of animal-source proteins without putting a strain on our existing system. One of the big issues with COVID was animal packing houses in the U.S. And I think it's important to also make the distinction between small farmers, so small farms and large commercial settings. There are what I'm referring to mostly as large commercial settings, large production. I mean, it came with the Industrial Revolution, like this increase of large-scale production of meat.
HOST: What solutions does cellular agriculture bring to the table?
JW: One I brought up earlier where, in my mind, cellular agriculture can shorten the supply chain. So what I mean by that is instead of relying on meat source from, let's say Texas or out in California. Perhaps you could imagine a farm that's in the middle of a city, right? So imagine New York City can support its own folks living in the city by setting up these vessels in the middle of the city. So one solution that it brings us is to shorten the supply chain. The other one is to provide an alternative to traditional animal production. So when we think of traditional livestock production, you asked the question about challenges earlier, is the use of antibiotics to treat animals. And that has also been met by a lot of pushback from consumers wanting clean label, wanting to know where their food comes from. So imagine if you can control all of this, you can grow these cells in large vessels without the need to add antibiotics to grow the cells. So that's just an idea, right? The science is far from this, but that's the other solution that cell ag brings us potentially—we can really tailor what we put into these vessels. And I also brought up the limited resources so we can make these proteins with less use of water, land, potentially less use of land, water, and carbon footprint.
HOST: Who is most likely to benefit directly from cellular agriculture?
JW: I think this is a difficult question to answer, but if we take the time to consider stakeholder input, I think we would only know this answer once we do a cost benefit analysis, right? Or socio-economic analysis. But directly if I can think of two sectors, if you will, that would directly benefit from cellular agriculture, it would be the new industry. There are tons of start-up companies now that are focused on cell ag. That's their main message, producing food sustainably through cellular agriculture. So this new industry would definitely benefit by creation of jobs and investments coming in. And I think consumers are the next segment, if you will, to benefit because now consumers have a choice. I think of my little ones that I am raising. If they asked me, mom where does this chicken nugget come from? I think in the past, you would say, okay, this chicken nugget came from a chicken, an animal. But in the future, the chicken nugget would come from perhaps a large fermentation vessel. I think consumers, or at least this generation that is conscious about sustainability, conscious about where their food comes from, can benefit from the choice that they are allowed to make now with this option.
HOST: What was the inspiration to look at cell ag as a possible solution?
JW: The inspiration came from a call from a writer. Her name is Larissa Zimberoff. She was writing a book on future foods that really perked my interests. I think I spent that Christmas season really thinking about what can I do as a food scientist that's trained in mycology and fungal biology. So I'm also really motivated by this question, how can we make our food production more sustainable? Where do we move forward from here, right? So I think related to the previous question that you asked, this project really asks how can we grow, produce, and use these fungal mycelium as food materials for cellular agriculture. The inspiration really comes from how can I give back to society? The science is really cool. But if I'm not doing something that can benefit the consumers we talked about, segments of the population that can benefit from this. I think one of the beauties of this is getting feedback like this call from the journalist and the writer. How can we help as scientists? I think the inspiration comes from many areas. I think predominantly the science itself is really fascinating. At the same time there is this benefit or impact to society.
HOST: So scientists are looking at this. The government is clearly interested in this. Have you seen it in industry? Are big groups like Tyson, Tyson meats, are they looking at this? Are they thinking about this? And are they working on it?
JW: Yeah, absolutely, That's a great question. So when you look at those startup companies that I shared with you earlier that are in cellular agriculture. If you look at who their big funders are, they’re large meat companies like Tyson and Purdue Foods and many other meat companies that are investing in this. So absolutely, like the large producers are also keeping their pulse on it.
HOST: Can you talk about plans for this project?
JW: Yeah, sure. We have several initiatives to move forward with this project. I'll give you a couple of examples in a little bit, but I think to point out how we're thinking about moving forward. So in 2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine really identified cellular agriculture as an area of high potential. And then fast-forward four years later in 2021, in the middle of a global pandemic, the USDA formed a new advisory committee on urban food systems, including emerging agricultural production practices, really imagining these farms of the future. So we know that our scientific community, the government in our nation, is really keeping an eye on this area of cellular agriculture. So to give you some examples on those initiatives that I talked about to move this project forward, our team was also part of a Novozymes Myco-Protein Challenge. So that's a challenge that's put forward by the industry. So really looking at a large industry, really keeping an eye on cellular agriculture as well. And in addition, we also are in the process of seeking funding from the National Science Foundation, NSF. They have a call for future manufacturing, which is really in line with this project as well as the USDA. So the USDA is really interested in this idea of what the farms of the future look like. And this project really fits nicely with that. And part of this conversation that we're having today, will also go into a publication, a review that we're working on based, really catalyzed by this seed grant that IEE put forward.
HOST: Thank you, Josephine for having a great conversation about your research on Growing Impact.
JW: Thank you, Kevin. Thank you so much for having me. This has been a really fun podcast, and I hope that everyone enjoys the show.
HOST: You have been listening to Growing Impact, a podcast by the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State. I’ve been your host, Kevin Sliman. To learn more about IEE and to hear previous episodes of Growing Impact, please visit iee.psu.edu. This has been season three, episode 3. Thank you for listening.