By Ashley Grabill

New Harvest 2016: How will science shape the future of food?

posted on August 11th, 2016

A few weeks ago, Breakout Labs Ambassador, Calvin Schmidt, attended the first ever New Harvest conference in San Francisco. The event focused on cellular agriculture, specifically how to grow our food in test tubes instead of in the field.

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 3.20.40 PM

Panel at the New Harvest 2016 conference. Photo credit: New Harvest

The topic is gaining more and more traction in the industry (hence the timing of this conference) and though scientists still face a significant amount of work before cellular agriculture becomes mainstream, progress has been made and the future looks promising.

“What I saw at New Harvest has the potential to change the way we feed humanity,” said Calvin. “It can also advance our ability to engineer biology.”

Here are his three main takeaways from the conference:

1. Traditional agriculture still rules

Most of the products in this space are still far away from commercialization, and once they are available, they will have a hard time competing with the scale and price points offered by traditional agriculture. For example, fermentation companies, those engineering microbes to produce nutrients and proteins, need to be able to grow, produce, and purify large amounts of product quickly and cheaply.

As Calvin observed, “Entrepreneurs in the area will have to focus on high-end, niche markets that can handle the higher prices necessary for profit while the technology matures.” David Zilber, a sous-chef and head of the fermentation lab at the world-renowned Noma restaurant, shared that sentiment during his panel and stated that high-end markets will likely be the first to carry products produced by cellular agriculture.

2. To be successful, it will take more than science

In addition to the considerable technical advancements that need to be made, there are also cultural hurdles to overcome to make cellular agriculture a viable business proposition. Calvin expressed, “The prevailing attitude towards food is moving in the direction of more natural food sources, and most consumers are highly suspicious of foods produced in any other manner.”

Some companies are trying creative marketing campaigns to get consumers on board. Soylent recently put up “Pro GMO” billboards that proudly proclaim their use of GMOs. Other companies are trying to emphasize the ethical and environmental benefits of switching away from animal products. However, until consumers shift their perception of lab-grown food, entrepreneurs in the field will struggle to reach mass market adoption.

3. Developments in cellular agriculture have widespread impact

The scaling and pricing pressures associated with cellular agriculture are forcing companies to develop systems for growing microbial and mammalian cells in dense culture, and producing proteins in high volumes. These techniques are also applicable to other fields in biological engineering, namely industrial biotechnology.

Additionally, through the development of mammalian culture technologies, scientists are uncovering methods that allow mammalian cells to grow and differentiate in ways that mimic animal muscle systems. “The ability to grow cells in a way that resembles natural organ systems will be useful for researchers looking to develop organ-on-a-chip systems or grow organs in the lab,” wrote Calvin.

Visit Calvin’s blog to read the full recap of his experience at the New Harvest conference and let us know what you think about the role science plays in shaping the future of our food.