Cellular Agriculture: The Frontier of Alternative Proteins

February 12, 2023
Science Magazine

Old MacDonald had… some cells? While the term agriculture has been associated with traditional farming practices like tending fields and raising livestock, groundbreaking technology is bringing a whole new meaning to the word. 

What is Cellular Agriculture?

According to the Cellular Agriculture Society, a non-profit dedicated to advancing the field, cellular agriculture is “the process of farming animal products from cells instead of animals.” Although the process is known by other monikers — clean meat, cultured meat, lab-grown meat — the term cellular agriculture has risen to prominence in part for its aesthetic appeal but also to encompass a larger range of products besides meat. The field can be divided into two main categories: tissue growth and protein replication. 

The tissue growth method of cellular agriculture essentially involves growing meat directly from individual cells. To begin this process, a ‘starter’ cell line is obtained from an animal, typically by biopsy. To be used for cellular agriculture, these cells must be able to reproduce indefinitely. Some cells already have a predisposition for this type of replication, while others may require genetic modification. Whether the cells can continually copy themselves without intervention or not, they all require growth media for the replication process. Growth media is a mixture containing everything a cell needs to grow: nutrients to fuel development, growth factors (natural signaling compounds that drive cell division), and porous scaffolding structures to facilitate growth into a tissue composite. This intricate growing mechanism takes place in a series of bioreactors, or tanks that contain the components necessary for the tissue growth process. 

Above: Infographic depicting the process of culturing animal cells into meat. Courtesy of New Harvest

The other method used in cellular agriculture, protein replication, is based on innovative uses of animal DNA. In this sister process, animal protein genes are introduced to a fungal or bacterial host organism. When this host organism is cultivated industrially, it produces the animal protein at a large scale. Put simply, DNA is used to manufacture proteins via proxy microorganisms without the need for actual animals. 

Above: Infographic depicting the steps of protein replication cellular agriculture. Courtesy of Good Food Institute.

These techniques have already been utilized to make a range of food products, the most well-known of which are versions of commercially popular animal goods such as meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs. However, these technologies can produce any compound derived from animal cells or genetics — not just the ones we eat. Cellular agriculture has been used to synthesize leather and fur, as well as insulin, gelatin, omega-3 fatty acids, rennet (cow enzymes needed to turn milk into cheese), and vanillin (the characteristic molecule of vanilla flavoring). This list is not exhaustive and, in theory, anything that stems from living tissue could be manufactured through cellular agriculture. With so many possibilities, cellular agriculture has the chance to revolutionize the way we consume animal products. 


Since cellular agriculture products are derived from or made out of actual animal cells, these products provide advantages over other types of alternative protein sources, most of which are plant-based. In order to replicate the flavors of meat, plant-based alternative meats are typically high in sodium content. However, these same products usually lack many of the nutrients and vitamins found in real meat. Since meat made through tissue growth cellular agriculture is compositionally the same as traditional meat, these nutritional issues do not arise.

Generating animal products with cellular agriculture also eliminates the need to raise and slaughter animals to obtain these goods. By getting rid of livestock inputs for animal products, this new technology could assuage animal welfare concerns. Cellular agriculture also eliminates a number of risks associated with industrial animal processing, such as contamination, antibiotic and hormone inputs, and spillover of diseases to humans. 

Cellular agriculture is also poised to make substantial environmental impacts. Data indicate that the field is significantly more sustainable than traditional agriculture: a 2011 study by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit found that “cultured meat could potentially be produced with up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45% less energy, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use than conventional meat.” To put these numbers into perspective, the U.S. utilizes 654 million of its 1.9 billion acres for cow pasturing and 127 million acres to grow their feed. By area, cattle rearing represents the largest use of land in the nation — and all livestock rearing accounts for 41% of U.S. land use. With these figures in mind, it's evident that anywhere near the potential 99% land use reduction for meat production with cellular agriculture would be enormously consequential. It’s not hard to imagine that decreases in water use, energy, and emissions would likewise occur on a colossal scale. Increased sustainability in meat manufacturing could play a critical role in slowing environmental destruction and combating climate change.

The impacts of cellular agriculture on meat production could significantly alter another realm of life: the food supply. The United Nations predicts that the global population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Not only will there be more mouths to feed, but the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN also notes that “income growth, urbanization, relative price changes, technological change, value chain developments and globalization have all contributed to an increase in per capita calorie intake, as well as to a shift in the composition of diets … with food consumption preferences characterized by a greater demand for meat, fish and dairy products and other more resource-intensive items.” Together, these factors risk creating a food crisis. Although exact numerical predictions are unreliable due to the large number of factors at play, global food production will have to increase at a significant rate to support the growing number of people and increasing demand for animal products. By boosting resource use efficiency and freeing up pasture land for human use or cropland, cellular agriculture could offer a solution to these food scarcity woes. 


Despite significant benefits to animal and human health, the environment, and the food supply, cellular agriculture faces substantial opposition from the traditional meat industry. To date, a number of states — including Ark., Kan., Ky., Miss., Mo., Mont., N.D., Okla., S.C., S.D., and Wyo. — have passed legislation putting restrictions on what can be labeled as meat. The laws have various minutiae, but all of them either bar alternative protein products (including cellular agriculture) from being marketed as meat or require companies to include disclaimers that products are not ‘true meat’ derived from livestock. These regulations came about at the behest of agriculture and livestock lobbies aiming to prevent alternative meat companies from gaining a foothold as competitors in the commercial meat market. 

But cellular agriculture’s barriers to success extend beyond clashes with the traditional meat establishment. The industry faces serious practical challenges before it can become a prevalent part of our diets. Due to high production expenses and the ongoing need for technology refinements, cellular agriculture is not yet at large-scale production. While many opportunities for improvement remain, this lack of infrastructure prohibits the industry from emerging as a commercial force. Cellular agriculture also faces difficulties resonating with consumers. It is difficult to gauge genuine public interest in goods not yet on the market, but a general lack of knowledge about biotechnology processes is likely to lead to suspicion about the methods used to produce goods via cellular agriculture. Difficulties making inroads with buyers will be further compounded by issues with commercial visibility in groceries. While placement with traditional meats would highlight that meat produced via cellular agriculture is compositionally identical, it would also cloud the fact that cellular agriculture products have significant differences, prompting mistrust and confusion in consumers. 

Even if the cellular agriculture field solves these problems, another trial awaits: affordability. So far, cellular agriculture products have been exorbitantly expensive — $330,000 for a hamburger! — although few are actually on the market. Current estimates place the lowest price range for cellular agriculture-derived meat at $17 to $23 per pound in the future. While a huge reduction in cost, this comparatively high price point would put these goods far out of reach for the average person. If cellular agriculture products are not a cost-effective option for consumers, the industry will not be able to gain a significant client base. Current outlooks on placing price levels on par with traditional meat remain mixed, yet some remain optimistic that technological advancements will lower production costs.  

Above: The world’s first hamburger cultured via cellular agriculture, produced by Mosa Meat in 2013. Courtesy of Eat This, Not That.  

An Emerging Industry

In spite of these hurdles, cellular agriculture has a bright future. In November 2022, chicken products cultivated through cellular agriculture by Upside Foods received pre-market approval by the Food and Drug Administration. The product still needs to pass inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which co-regulates the industry, but marks an important first step in cellular agriculture products being offered to consumers. 

CellAgri, a cellular agriculture news site, identifies 46 cellular agriculture companies — representing 17 countries — currently working on production, introducing novel technologies, and brewing up new marketing strategies. These start-ups span most of the globe — and the alphabet! With teams of innovators working to improve and refine cellular agriculture, it may not be long before the next steak you eat comes not from life — but from a lab.

Lydia Cox

Lydia (Trinity '25) is from Charleston, SC and is majoring in Biology. She enjoys nature photography, arts and crafts, and game/movie nights with friends!

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