Alberta company hoping to drive a lab-grown meat sector

Meat ‘cultured’ in a lab is hugely expensive, but an Edmonton company working to change that

You’ve been hearing about lab-grown meat for years, but an Edmonton-based company is one step closer to making cultivated meat a reality.

Future Fields has been working to create food products grown from cells for three years.

“Most people know this industry as lab-grown meat, but it’s now known as cellular agriculture or cultivated products,” said company co-founder Lejjy Gafour. “Companies are doing everything from milk to leather to pork to fat and beyond.”

The first cultivated meat product, created by a Dutch scientist in 2013, was a hamburger that cost about $300,000. Future Fields, one of 50 companies worldwide working in cellular agriculture, was able to bring that cost down considerably when it began culturing chicken — but not by nearly enough.

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“We ran into the same problem that a lot of the other companies ran into — our costs were too expensive,” said Gafour. “When we first did it, it cost about US$3,500 per pound, which doesn’t seem feasible when chicken is around $1.44 a pound.”

There are three initial stages in the process. First, you need some cells for the product you want to build — bovine ones for beef, porcine ones for bacon. The cells then need something to feed on, usually referred to as a cell growth media. The third thing needed is “scaffolding,” the material on which cells are grown before being sent to a bioreactor.

Future Fields opted to specialize in one area — growth media — which initially was made from animal blood, typically fetal bovine serum. Using an animal product not only subverts the purpose of creating so-called ‘clean meat’ but is hugely expensive ($400 a litre and up).

“It makes the costs unfeasible for commercial application,” said Gafour.

Future Fields originally created a cultivated chicken, but has turned to making affordable growth media for lab-grown meat.
photo: Supplied

Future Fields has developed technology to produce a “serum-free” growth media that is only a small fraction of the cost, he said. It is now selling what it calls that product to companies in the U.S., Asia Pacific and around the world that want to produce cultured meat on a commercial scale.

“We sell this material to them, to enable them to put it in their own products,” he said. “We’re in a better position to help them achieve their vision and make the industry real by providing a solution to everyone in this space.”

As part of its work, Future Fields — a company of five people, two of which have PhDs — has also been talking to consumers about cultured meat.

“Many consumers are willing to try (cultivated foods) and are looking forward to buying these products around a few specific lines,” said Gafour.

Consumers want cultivated meat to taste like the real thing, be affordable, and deliver environmental benefits, he said.

The possibility that an Alberta company might play a key role in the creation of a cultivated meat industry may seem odd. But Gafour, who grew up on a mixed farm in southern Alberta, doesn’t view the technology as a replacement for traditional agriculture.

In fact, cultivated agriculture could be complementary, he said.

“From an individual farmer perspective, there is a vision of a future where a farmer might be able to do both,” said Gafour. “If they have a specific line of cattle that they’ve had for some time, it could well be that you could use the cattle and their cells and turn it into its own product line. This is future vision science fiction kind of stuff.”

But cultivated food — not just meat but also fish, seafood, and dairy products — is on its way, he said, adding he expects the commercial launch of cultivated chicken nuggets or ice cream within three years.

“It’s going to be a small release (at first), but then it will be everywhere in the next five to seven years,” he said.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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