Cultured proteins for healthy children and a healthy planet
Image from Waschulin V, and Specht, L. Cellular Agriculture: An Extension of Common Production Methods for Food. Washington D.C.: The Good Food Institute; 2018. Available at https://www.gfi.org/images/uploads/2018/03/Cellular-Agriculture-for-Animal-Protein.pdf
Soy, almond, oat, and even hemp milk! The pick is yours—at least in high-income countries. Consumer demand for and acceptance of plant-based milks have soared over the past few years. According to a recent market analysis report by PATH, plant-based milk sales grew 9% in 2018, while sale of cow’s milk declined 6%. Similarly, sales of plant-based meats grew by 24%, while sale of animal meats grew by only 2%. However, plant-based substitutes are not the only cleaner and greener alternatives. The demand for more climate-friendly alternatives to traditional animal products has also propelled companies to develop technologies to grow meat and dairy proteins in laboratories. Cultured protein products, such as lab-based dairy, have the potential to benefit the planet and improve nutrition in low- and middle-incomes countries.
What is cellular agriculture and what are cultured proteins?
Cellular agriculture refers to the manufacturing of animal products from cell cultures under controlled conditions. There are generally two categories of cellular agriculture: tissue engineering and fermentation. Tissue engineering-based cellular agriculture creates lab-grown meats from animal cells. Fermentation-based cellular agriculture grows products like cultured proteins without animal input. In the second method, genes that carry the blueprint of animal proteins such as casein and whey are introduced into a starter culture of microflora made of fungi or yeast. The culture is then fed, such as with sugar, in controlled fermentation tanks to grow. Once the desired proteins are expressed, the proteins are separated from the starter culture and only the purified “cultured” proteins remain.
Why grow animal proteins in the lab?
Animal source foods (ASF) are a source of high-quality proteins that are essential for growth. The introduction of lab-based proteins, such as dairy products, could help improve child health among populations vulnerable to malnutrition in low-income countries while also reducing the environmental impacts of traditional livestock farming.
How can they help the environment?
A collaborative research project between PATH, IFPRI, Duke University, and The Nature Conservancy estimated that if cultured proteins were to take over 15% of the global dairy market by 2035, the price of traditional dairy products and the number of dairy cows would decrease. This exploratory market scenario would make products more affordable and increase the overall demand for dairy in LMICs. More affordable dairy options would help vulnerable families purchase the necessary foods to ensure their children’s growth and reduce the prevalence of stunting and wasting. Environmentally, fewer dairy cows would also mean a reduction in crop area to grow animal feed as well as reduced agricultural water use. An additional benefit would be seen in reduced methane emissions from cows, a powerful greenhouse gas, which would result in significantly fewer premature deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular disease by 2050.
Cellular agriculture products were recently introduced in high-income countries and can be consumed in the form of ice cream, smoothies, protein powder, cream cheese spreads, and chicken nuggets. In the future, they could be used in humanitarian settings where fresh milk and storage facilities are not available.
Our findings indicate that a shift to cultured protein would have dramatic benefits for both human and planetary health. Understanding the interlinked health, agricultural, and environmental implications of food system interventions is crucial to address the challenges of climate change, water scarcity, food insecurity, and child health, particularly during those critical early years of life.