As the world’s demand for protein grows, food production needs to keep pace. Now a team led by a Tufts professor has received a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop an alternative food source: meat produced not from farm animals, but from cells grown in bioreactors.
The team, led by David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor of Engineering, and his team of graduate students, will combine the efforts of engineers, biologists, nutrition researchers, and social scientists at Tufts and other universities, all in an effort to enhance food sustainability, nutrition, and security.
Cultivated-meat production is emerging as an alternative source of sustainable protein to help address nutrition and food safety for consumer choices. Kaplan, who is a Distinguished Professor at Tufts and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and his team have led some of the early work in the field.
He says that this new industry could provide nutritious and safe foods while reducing environmental impact and resource usage—with a target of significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use than traditional meat production.
To achieve these goals, the interdisciplinary teams will also work together to evaluate consumer acceptance of cultivated meat, measure the environmental impact of the manufacturing process, assess the economic viability compared to farm production, and prepare the next generation of the industry’s workforce.
“Part of our research will look at improving the nutritional content, shelf life, and other qualities of cell-based meat, along with assessments of impact on consumer perceptions and acceptance,” says Kaplan, whose team of Ph.D. students—Natalie Rubio, Andrew Stout, John Yuen, Michael Saad, Sophie Letcher, and Jake Marko—will be working with him on the effort.
Tufts Now recently spoke with him to learn more about the project.
Tufts Now: It’s interesting to see how this program is set up to address cellular agriculture from multiple angles, not only from a technological standpoint, but also consumer acceptance, economic analysis, and environmental impact. Who will be working on all of these issues?
David Kaplan: This is definitely not just a Tufts engineering effort. We will be working with colleagues Sean Cash and Nicole Tichner-Blackstone at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, who will get a better read on consumer acceptance of cultivated meat.
They also will provide a scientific basis for understanding what the total costs will be from beginning to end and how it compares to current methods of meat production.
They will also be conducting life-cycle assessments, examining all the inputs that go into growing meat from cells, including the ingredients, the energy required, the resources needed such as water supply and transportation of materials, and also the waste that comes from the process, including greenhouse gases.
Merredith Portsmore at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach will help develop educational programs in grades K-12 to both inspire and prepare students to learn about cellular agriculture and the technological advances that could reshape the industry in the future.
And of course, our lab and our engineering colleagues will develop the underlying science and technologies and the undergraduate and the graduate level education programs for workforce development.
Who else is involved with the research program?
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts will be supplying the animal biopsies to start our cell lines, and there are many supporting collaborations with faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences.
Joining our effort are six other institutions that will contribute in different ways, with Tufts taking the lead. Virginia Tech will be carrying out research in many of the same areas as Tufts, such as cell isolations from other species, improvement of the meat in terms of authentic flavor and texture, nutritional analysis, and consumer acceptance.
The University of California at Davis will be focused on food science, while the University of Massachusetts, Boston will gather data on sustainability of cellular agriculture. Research at Virginia State will be focused on the nutritional aspects of the new products. MIT will be focused on AI and modeling approaches to optimize media formulations for cell culture. All of our collaborating institutions will be developing educational programs to facilitate workforce development, too.
Companies in Israel, Japan, and the U.S. are working on producing cell-cultured meat resembling beef, chicken, and seafood. How close are we to having an industry with large-scale production of cultivated meat?
One of the companies, called JUST, has released their cell-grown chicken in Singapore, so that’s a product you can order in some restaurants, but not yet widely available. That’s the first and only publicly released product so far from cellular agriculture. There are many companies worldwide now pushing forward on the technology—but how soon their product will be on the shelf, I don’t know.
The commercial and academic laboratory efforts have so far mostly produced small-scale amounts of cell-grown tissues for meat from a laboratory setting, but we are looking at industrial-level scale up in the future and how this might be accomplished.
The challenges are huge. From an engineering perspective, every time you scale to the next level there are new limitations in terms of energy requirements, moving and combining materials, dealing with safety and contamination issues.
Do you have any initial thoughts about whether consumers will be receptive to this new source of meat in their diet?
That’s still an unknown, and that’s why we included consumer acceptance as an important part of our study. The only data point we have so far is the overwhelming receptivity of consumers to plant-derived meats, like the Impossible Burgers and Beyond Burgers.
You see those in supermarkets everywhere now, far exceeding anybody’s projections. So whether it’s a similar response to cell-based meat or not we don’t know. We are anticipating positive views, but we can’t be sure.
Part of our research will look at improving the nutritional content, shelf life, tastes and flavor, and other qualities of cell-based meat, and that may also have an impact on consumer perceptions and acceptance. If life-cycle analysis shows significant advantages in sustainability and environmental impact, that could also have a positive effect on acceptance as well.