Just when you think that the news regarding space exploration couldn’t get much more exciting, recent events at the International Space Station (ISS) have seen NASA reaching another milestone. On Friday last week, two American astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, became the first to engage in all-female EVA – Extravehicular Activity – commonly known as a spacewalk. Venturing outside the safety of the station for more than 7 hours, Flight Engineers Koch and Meir spent their time replacing a failed battery component on the exterior of the craft and performing several additional tasks. Garnering a congratulatory call from the President, along with what could arguably be considered his characteristic flubbery, the women paid tribute to prior female spacewalkers who had broken not only the ‘glass ceiling’ but also the ‘gravity ceiling.’ However, it takes more than guts and predecessors to create a successful NASA mission like theirs. It takes a large team with diverse skills and expertise and sometimes those who play a significant part do not get to stand in the limelight. We’re thinking about the scientists whose contributions help power the journey – and we don’t mean in terms of the fuel mechanics. We’re talking about food. Space food. Dinner in zero gravity. Let’s give a brief summary of our articles to date, take a closer look at subsequent developments, and speculate on how the face of food in space is changing…
Drawing on the popularity of the movie The Martian, in ‘What Do Cleanrooms Mars, and Cooking Have in Common?’we looked at the extent to which the Mars One project is researching the concept of growing food on the Red Planet. And T.C. Boyle’s The Terrenauts was the inspiration for our discussion ‘Spuds in Space – Can New Tech Launch Potatoes as the Next Interstellar Food?’, noting how cleanroom technology can be leveraged not only to feed space travelers but also the growing population planted firmly here on Earth. With that said, the majority of our readers were most inspired by our thoughts on pizza in space – 3D bio-printed pizza, that is. In ‘Pizza, Hot and Fresh – Direct from the…3D Printer?’, we presented the case for additive manufacturing technologies using robots to craft the perfect slice. And while certain concerns still arise – robot sterilization and cleaning protocols, ISO conformance, the re-use of waste food, and the nutrient density of printed foods, notwithstanding – the future was certainly looking bright.
So it was with all of this in mind that we relished learning about recent developments by Israeli cellular agriculture start-up Aleph Farms. In an article in Food Dive, Aleph cited a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that highlighted the degree to which conventional meat production contributed to climate change. Considering the 10,000 to 15,000 liters of water needed to produce 2 pounds of conventional beef – water that is, of course, not available in the extra-terrestrial environment – lab-grown proteins and 3D printed meats are a significantly more sustainable option in the harsh environment outside of our atmosphere. And according to a very recent article published in AgFunderNews, a news source dedicated to information on venture capital funding in the foodtech and agtech sectors, Aleph has succeeded in bringing the International Space Station one step closer to becoming the ‘International Space Steak Station.’(1) In ‘One small steak for man, one giant leap for space-grown meat!’ columnist Richard Martyn-Hemphill described how a September 26th experiment succeeded in producing steak grown from cell cultures abroad the ISS. According to an examination in Business Insider, for Aleph the process of cellular agriculture ‘starts by extracting cells from a cow through a small biopsy. The cells are then placed in a “broth” of nutrients that simulates the environment inside a cow’s body. From there, they grow into a thin piece of steak.’(2) But in microgravity the process is a little different: ‘First, they placed the cow cells and nutrient broth in closed vials. Next, they loaded the vials onto the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft in Kazakhstan. On September 25, the spacecraft took off for the Russian segment of the International Space Station, orbiting about 250 miles away from Earth. When the vials arrived at the station, Russian astronauts […] inserted them into a magnetic printer from the Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions. The printer then replicated those cells to produce muscle tissue’(3) Sadly, no-one had the chance to taste the product: Hazza Al Mansouri, an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates, was charged with returning the morsel to labs in Rehovot, Israel, for analysis. And even if this lab inspection had not been necessary, the steak would have failed to present any degree of gastronomic satisfaction.
But does it all seem like science fiction? It might feel like that if this development is intended solely for the rather niche market of space travelers – albeit within the enormous market sector of the entire solar system? But that’s really not the case. Since Aleph was co-founded with food-tech incubator The Kitchen which invests in start-ups that add value to the food chain on a global level, the company ‘remains grounded in the earthly challenges of climate change despite its latest space adventure.’(4) As Jonathan Berger, CEO of The Kitchen emphasized, the plan is very much rooted in science, not fiction: ‘We will start building bio-farms and work toward a limited launch within three to four years. At Aleph Farms, this is not science fiction. We’ve transformed the vision into reality by growing a steak under controlled conditions.’(5) In other words, although the glamor of extraterrestrial agriculture may propel the technology in the public imagination, it is one that will be leveraged in creating a source of sustainable nutrition for a growing terrestrial population.
And why is it important to find alternate sources of food for our population here on Earth?
As the IPCC report issued last month warned, by 2050 the human population could reach 10 billion people, adding increased demands on an already strained eco-system. With climbing temperatures, rising sea levels, climate change, desertification, and land degradation, the pursuit of innovating ways to feed us all becomes a pressing matter. On a very basic level, high quality nutrition must be available to all if we are to avoid the kinds of social and economic breakdowns associated with food insecurity or famine. And then there’s also the raft of higher level concerns such as the rise of anti-biotic resistant pathogens which pose an increasing threat to the public health. Since living animals are not involved in lab-grown meat there is no requirement for the use of antibiotics to keep them hale and hearty prior to slaughter. Similarly, the use of pesticides and insecticides on crops becomes a non-issue for those yields that would have been used to feed livestock. And, of course, crops already grown on our ever-dwindling amount of fertile land would no longer be diverted to feed animals and instead be available to nourish the human population.
Predictably, financial backers have zeroed in on the promise these new technologies seem to offer, placing companies like Aleph, Memphis Meats, CUBIQ Foods, Mosa Meat, and JUST (formerly Hampton Creek), firmly on their radar. In May 2019, Aleph was granted almost $12 million in Series A (‘seed’) funding by VisVires New Protein, a venture capitalist company based in Singapore. VisVires New Protein invests in technologies that result in the creation of improved and more sustainable protein sources, the mitigation of food waste, and that promote food as a vector of health – not only for the human consumer but also for animals and the environment. Additionally, and perhaps intriguingly, it is not only backers wishing to disrupt the traditional agriculture paradigm that are interested in Aleph. Agribusiness behemoths Cargill and Tyson Ventures have also begun looking into lab-grown meats as well as plant-based proteins, presumably with the idea of appealing to both consumers who abstain from traditional animal-based meat for health reasons and from ethical concerns.
But will the early promise live up to expectation? This is a multi-billion dollar question and one that relies to a great extent on one factor: market traction. Within the food manufacturing industry there is the concept of ‘social license’ which basically describes how consumer acceptance enables product commercialization. When poorly pursued, social license can result in the public rejection of a type of product or technology – an obvious example being the controversial and largely unsuccessful introduction of genetically modified foods, or GMOs. However, when successfully leveraged through smart messaging and persuasive marketing, social license has the power to propel a product or technology into the social mainstream, making it a phenomenon that any company in the business of promoting alternative proteins – whether cell-based or plant-based – must confront. But using business intelligence to craft persuasive messaging around a new product is an investment of time that is calculated to pay off. After all, according to statistics also noted in AgFunderNews, ‘[a]s many as 66% of Americans are willing to try cell-cultured meat, according to a survey of 1,185 adults by Faunalytics, a nonprofit animal rights research organization, [although] only 25% of survey respondents had heard the terms “clean meat,” “cultured meat,” or “in-vitro meat.”’(6) And let’s not forget that this is not only applicable to the domestic market. A 2018 survey of 3,030 consumers found that ‘30% of US consumers, 59% of Chinese consumers, and 50% of Indian consumers were very or extremely likely to purchase cell-based meat regularly’ exposing the potential for a truly global market.(7) In short, the profits are there to be made.
Start-ups like Aleph are well worth watching closely as they accentuate the pace of change and disrupt an industry mired in traditional values and processes. By creating lab-grown and/or plant based alternatives to animal-derived proteins, they are not only forging a path to greater food security but also to global safety. In an era where nationalistic drives are increasingly pitting nations against one another, the ‘minute steak’ project demonstrated the possibility of global cooperation. As Aleph Farms stated: ‘It is time Americans and Russians, Arabs and Israelis rise above conflicts, team up, and unite behind science to address the climate crisis and food security needs. We all share the same planet.’(8) We do indeed.
Lab-grown meat or plant-based protein – what would you prefer to see on your dinner plate? We’d love to know your thoughts!