What role, if any, should insects play in the future of agriculture? In this talk from EA Global 2018: London, Nicole Rawling of the Good Food Institute, Nick Rousseau of the Woven Network, and Kyle Fish of Tufts University offer their varying perspectives.
A transcript of this talk is below, which CEA has lightly edited for clarity. You can also read this transcript on effectivealtruism.org, or watch it on YouTube.
I work with the Good Food Institute, which is a nonprofit that works internationally to remove as many animal-based products on the market and replace them with plant-based alternatives. We have operations in the United States, India, China, Brazil, Israel, and we're looking to hire in Europe, so if you like what we do, come talk to me afterwards. We're all here for the same reason, right? We want to reduce the impact on the world of animal agriculture. I think everyone at EA Global understands the problems behind animal agriculture, so I'll go through them quickly.
First, animal welfare. Over 56 billion farmed animals are killed every year for human consumption, and that doesn't even include aquaculture, where we have trillions of tons of animals killed. The other issue is global poverty. Animal agriculture is vastly inefficient in producing food for human consumption. You have to feed plants to animals to get the calories for humans. One example is that it takes nine plant-based calories to make one calorie of chicken. That is a huge amount of food waste, and when we're trying to feed the world population, what we care about is calories. Why feed them to a living breathing animal that has to grow and live before eating it? Let's just take those calories and give them directly to humans.
The same with human health. I'm sure most of you know that antibiotics are fed towards farmed animals, to either keep them from being sick or to keep them growing. Over 80% of antibiotics are fed to farmed animals. That's causing a massive health crisis, that we are going to have superbugs that are going to affect humans, and we're not going to be able to cure them, because antibiotics won't work. And finally, environmental degradation. The UN has said that animal agriculture contributes to some of the world's most pressing environmental issues, including deforestation, including loss of biodiversity, and water and air pollution.
So at the Good Food Institute, we have a theory of change. All of us want to change the food system, but we aren't doing it by talking to consumers. We're doing it by changing the marketplace. We believe that if people have access to products that taste the same or better than animal products, are around the same price, and are convenient, that people will buy them, because people really want good-tasting, convenient food.
So, we're working with governments, academic institutions, entrepreneurs, existing companies, and scientists, to try and develop new products. And as you might know, the current products on the market tend to be soy or wheat based. That's really the old technology, so now companies are looking into things like pea protein or mung bean protein. Scientists are examining a lot of different ways that we can use plants to mimic these animal alternatives.
We haven't actually dealt much with insects before. Currently, I can tell you what we're thinking. We think that in order to solve the world problems caused by animal agriculture, we think plant-based and clean meat are more direct, rapid solutions to our global food problems than insect protein. In order to make the most change as soon as possible, we think we should go with plant-based and clean meat alternatives. And honestly, we worry about the insects as well. I mean, we're talking about trillions of living beings. We don't really know if they're sentient or not, but imagine if they are. We would be causing massive, massive amounts of suffering that go far beyond what exists in the current animal agriculture system.
So, all of us are working towards this goal: how can we effectively reduce meat consumption? These are all plant-based products, and I've had them all, and they're delicious. And omnivores like them. Our entire goal is to produce products that omnivores would like to eat. So yes, I am vegan. I don't care about vegans. I don't care about vegetarians. They're choosing these products anyway. I mean, most of you probably have been vegetarian and vegan for a very long time. You've eaten, excuse my language, really crappy products, right? Because you're going to eat them, you're not going to eat the meat. But it's going to take products that really mimic traditional animal products for us to get omnivores to switch, and right now, those products are on the market.
I had the Moving Mountains Burger for the first time here. Has anyone had that yet? No? Oh my goodness, you have to try it. So it's based out of mushroom. I love mushrooms. This burger has a real mushroom taste, but it's a burger. It's available in over 500 locations in the UK, and absolutely delicious. So, I went out with an omnivore for dinner to have it, and he was so skeptical, and he really didn't want to hear about what I did, and he was talking about his work. And I was like, "Oh, try a little bit." And really, he was shocked. Like, he really was shocked, because they don't expect that we can mimic the taste and create products that they really enjoy.
So, we strongly believe there needs to be direct substitution. We don't think that people are going to eat insects in replace of a burger, or a sausage, or a piece of fish. People are going to continue to eat those products, right? If they are going to eat products like insects, they tend to be more snacks, or a novel food, that's kind of fun, "Oh, let's go eat some crickets." It's not, "Okay, let's go out for a burger. You know, oh, I think I'll have a scoop of worms instead." Right now, there isn't that direct substitution, and we've seen that in the plant-based market as well. If you cannot replicate the animal products that people are used to eating, then they aren't going to buy them, so we strongly believe there needs to be direct substitution.
So right now, with insects, it does tend to be a lot of indirect substitution, so snacks, or protein bars, or protein powders. Now, those might be great for the market. There might be a huge market for them, but for us, it's not solving the problem that we're looking to solve. We want to create substitutes for traditional animal products. Nick might know more about this: I have heard that there was a cricket burger that just didn't seem to be very tasty, and people weren't big fans of it. There is a bolognese sauce that Nick brought, that's really tasty, but our position is still that all of us are effective altruists. We want to spend our money in the most effective way. We want to spend our time in the most effective way. Plant-based products and clean meat products are already proven concepts. Clean meat isn't on the market yet, but plant-based products are on the market and successful, and clean meat, we've proven the concept, and it will be on the market soon. So why put money and resources into something that hasn't been proven?
So again, all of us are trying to reduce the climate impact of animal agriculture. How do we do that? So, we all know about food waste, right? There are massive amounts of food waste. Right now, insect farming can actually alleviate some of that issue. Some of the insect companies will take our food waste and feed it to insects. But there are a couple issues once you start to scale. Again, our goal is to reduce meat consumption. When we start to reduce meat consumption, we also start to reduce agricultural waste. That agricultural waste is a lot of the products that are going into feeding insects right now, so there will be less of that, which means there'll be less feed for insects. So part of the issue is that we're reducing the supply of waste anyway, and then a lot of the insects that we're using for insect protein can't always survive on all the waste from agriculture, and need a more consistent feed. Some insects really do need more consistent sources of food than whatever we're throwing away.
Then the question is how do we feed the world population. Animal agriculture is inefficient, so we should be feeding plants directly to humans. We have a couple concerns with insect farming as an alternative. Number one, what happens if the insects get out? I'm from the United States. We just had massive hurricanes in the South, and pigs in the agricultural system escaped, and they were just left wild to get around, because the hurricanes took down those facilities. Now, pigs are big. You can catch pigs. They're also on the ground. You can round them up. What happens if there is some sort of natural disaster, which will continue to occur with problems in climate change, and the insects get out? That's a real concern, not just because these insects are out and continue breeding, potentially in areas where they're not native. They can also be near agricultural systems where they could destroy nearby agriculture systems.
Our other worry is changes in animals from selective breeding. These insects are going to be bred very quickly. They obviously have short lives. This is what's happened to chickens without genetic modification. I don't know if you can see very well, but going to market in 1957, chickens were 905 grams. In 2005, they're 4,202 grams, and they even cut the amount of time it took for them to grow to that size. This wasn't through genetic modification. This was just through selective breeding. These are very different animals. Now, I'm not saying that this necessarily will occur with insects, but when you understand the agriculture system, people want to make the most amount of profit. That's the way all businesses work. It wouldn't surprise me if this would also happen within the insect world.
Then how can we create a more humane food system? I think this is a really important question, especially for all of us, who do think about these philosophical issues. Like, do insects suffer? We don't actually have a lot of information on that right now, but is it really safe to make the assumption that they don't? And considering the impact, when we're talking about trillions of animals, do we want to make the wrong decision here? If they can suffer, we really are causing massive, massive amounts of suffering. So, I don't know if any of you know Lewis Bollard from the Open Philanthropy Project. He's a huge supporter of a lot of EA causes. So he said, "I'd be hard-pressed to assign less than a 10% probability to insects being conscious, and even at that level of 10%, we really should be concerned."
Thank you so much.
I've got some products which you can come have a look at afterwards if you're interested, and some details about my network. I won't say too much about myself, because time is limited, but I guess the main thing to say is that I personally have a commitment and interest in sustainable food systems. I've formed an organic food-growing cooperative, and that's what first got me interested in the excessive amounts of waste and food material that goes to waste that could be better used. I then joined a thing in Sheffield called The Junk Food Project, which again was around reducing food waste. And that connection between the need to feed the community globally and the amount of waste is what brought me into insects as an area of interest.
So I formed the Woven Network. It's there to stimulate and learn about what opportunities there are, and to explore them. My argument isn't that insects are going to feed the world, but that they can have a role to play. They can bring some extra dimension, which may not be possible through a purely plant-based approach. I imagine that many of you will have seen headlines, news articles about insects, typically with someone about to put a cricket in their mouth.
It's very sensationalized, and the media, you know, has a tendency to kind of dramatize everything. But it's a growing and changing landscape, and I want to give you a bit of a sense of where things stand at the moment, so that you can make your own judgment about your engagement with it now and in the future.
It started in 2013, with a UN report from the Food and Agriculture organization, that consisted of a lot of research looking at our global food challenges, particularly around access to protein, many of the points that Nicole made, and suggested the insects could have a role, significantly influenced by the fact that insects have been consumed through the centuries in many different cultures around the world, but obviously, they're not currently in Western, developed country diets.
Again, I think we'd all agree with Nicole's point about the unsustainability of the current food system, and that the vegan lifestyle and diet is recognized as being the basis for the most sustainable option, because it cuts down on carbon emissions, it cuts down on land use, it cuts down on water use, cuts down on a lot of the negative impacts of livestock farming.
This is my family. This is my wife. There is no way on God's Earth that she's going to become a vegan, I'm afraid. So my argument is you'll need to have a number of alternatives, and I think many of them will be plant-based, and I'm very interested in that, and I think that's a good thing, but food choices are made by a whole range of things. I had the opportunity to go to California recently, and there's an exhibition in San Diego Museum about the way in which people's perception of animals and creatures changes as they become wild, domesticated, pets, on their plates, and it's a sort of complex area, but I think the point I'm making is that choices are partly about availability, convenience, what you can get in your stores, and partly about price. Certainly that's a big issue. Also about flavor, the experience of eating it, what you like. Religious and social issues can have a bearing on your food choices.
Issues of right and wrong, I think, are increasingly on people's minds. I find it a real struggle when I go into a supermarket or a shop now to determine, "Am I going for food miles, organic, fair trade?" There's so many different things which are seen as right and wrong. It's a really complex area, and then you've got the science, and kind of being presented with hard facts about the nutritional components that go into food. And I think there's an interesting thing, again stepping back a bit, about people's reaction to science-based messages around food, because again, coming back to this, food is eaten in a social context. I would love to go out to more vegan restaurants and things, but it's very difficult when your partner doesn't share that view, so we're very keen to see more restaurants that offer a range of different products, and I think that need for variety is critical.
I want to make a further point that kind of builds, again, on Nicole's point about meat consumption increasing. What you can see here is the massive increase in meat consumption. This is typically most predominant in countries like China and India. And this isn't because they've discovered that they really like the flavor of meat. It's because they think they want to move to a Western lifestyle, and they associate eating meat and having access to meat as being about being affluent, being wealthy, being successful. It's got a lot of connotations in people's minds. Sadly, from my point of view, and to some extent, I think, from the country's point of view, they are moving away from their more traditional diets, which often include harvested insects, which do have much better nutritional components than going to McDonald's and having a burger. But that is the shift that we're seeing.
So I think there's a thing about the challenge back to the plant-based product developers, how you create that social association of having a very expensive steak. So actually making things expensive is sometimes important, and an interesting one. We've been quite interested in how sushi has come into sort of Western diets, having been seen as a sort of weird Japanese thing involving raw fish, and I think it's because it seems cool. It's associated with a modern lifestyle nowadays.
So a bit about insects then. The focus of this is around humans eating insects in food products, but insects and food have a much more complex interaction. So, as I mentioned, about 1,800 species of insects are edible, and across the world, people have harvested insects and secured a lot of nutritional value from that, from just harvesting them in the wild. But equally, insects, if you're trying to plant and grow crops, are a real pest, so the killing of insects is a big part of plant food production, and that's a dynamic which is quite challenging, and again, the association that insects have with people, with poverty, with being pests, is a challenge for us.
So in Thailand, we also have insect farming, and I'll come onto more about that. That's now developing and emerging as an interaction with insects, and that's for human consumption. Then you've got the scenario where insects are bred and farmed for feeding to livestock, and this is about a way of trying to reduce livestock's carbon footprint and increase their sustainability. So it's a complex web is the message, and each of these could be a talk in their own right. I haven't got time for that.
So I touched on the fact that insects are killed in the growing of plant products. Soy is typically a product that is grown a lot for livestock feed, but also it's consumed by vegans, and yet huge numbers of insects and other creatures die in its farming. I guess I want to make the point that you're not going to get away from killing insects somewhere along the line, and they may well be less sentient than others, but so are mice, and so are other creatures that suffer through farming. I think to some extent, the human population is the problem. I don't have a solution for that, I'm afraid.
So, a little bit about where we are with insect products. As I said, people traditionally have just eaten them straight from their natural form, cooking them up, frying them up often. We've had this gimmick coming through big time, and it's still very much part of the markets, part of the most successful businesses, you know, "Do you dare to eat this insect? Do you dare to put it in your mouth?" You know, lollipops with an insect in, things like that. There's certainly good money to be made from that. I don't find it at all helpful, for a range of reasons. Sadly, on the GCSE curriculum now, you learn about insects as being a potential part of the future food, and schools often say, "Okay, how can we help our kids to experience this?" So they write to Crunchy Critters, and they get a box of crazy things to try and pop in their mouths, which reinforces the view that they're just weirdness.
This is a chef, and he has produced insect-based burgers and other very delicious products, and they're developing that as we speak. And I think that whole area of dishes in restaurants, certainly it's very big in California and elsewhere, so I think there's a growing interest in this area, in how you create true dishes which are containing insects and demanded by customers. I've brought a range of products that are produced by our members, and they take many different forms. A lot of them, again, I wouldn't disagree are sort of snacks. They're gimmicks. They're part of that sort of protein bar lifestyle. They're not going to stop people eating meat. And these guys are producing the material that goes into One Hop bolognese sauce, and they discovered a way of taking insect powder and producing something which is more of a paste, which is much more versatile, although it's an insect product. So I guess part of my argument, again, is that we haven't seen the end of what insects can be like. What's going on?
Insects have a range of nutritional components, which can be harder to replicate in plants, and I think there's particular things, such as the omega-3 and the amino acids, which are particularly, because they're not plant-based, are more suitable and useful for humans. I'm not a biochemist. I'm not going to claim that plant products can't include these as well, but I think they have a role in that kind of debate about how you offer people the nutrition that they need. And I should say, of course, I did mention there's 1,800 different insects, so it's overly simplified to say we're talking about crickets, you know? There's a whole bunch of other insects out there. And also, insects have many other components which can be quite valuable in terms of their market value. The products that are on the outer casing of insects can have a lot more medical value than their protein content.
The reference has already been made to insects as waste converters, and this is what first got me onto this. And I think this is still very much a sort of untapped area. Currently regulation, certainly in the European Union, is very restrictive of what you can feed insects if you're going to feed those insects, then, or use those insects to create livestock feed, because of the risk averseness of European regulations, and I understand that, but I would argue that there's a lot of value in understanding this better, and if we do have huge food waste mountains and insects can be converting those into something that's valuable, that could be good. I wouldn't necessarily advocate what's going on in Durban, where I think 40,000 homes are converting their human fecal waste into Black Soldier Fly that is fed to chickens, funded by the Gates Foundation. I think that illustrates that you can go quite a long way down there. The challenge, of course, is that you then try and sell that to consumers, that's a difficult sell, you know? Here's a tasty burger that was fed on something which you don't really want to think about. So not easy, some of this stuff.
Another thing that I think has been particularly exciting, again the mention was made earlier about antimicrobial resistance as being a real problem facing humanity, facing our world collectively. The use of antibiotics, which are essentially artificial ways of stimulating a creature's resistance to these diseases, could potentially be replaced by AMPs, antimicrobial peptides. Again, I'm not a biochemist. Studies have been done that found that if you stimulate insects in the correct way, they create AMPs, which then when fed to chickens mean that they are then resistant to campylobacter, E. coli, and other things, so they're using a natural system that exists within nature to build resistance to disease rather than artificially stimulating that. So that, I think, could have a role in the future.
And finally, in Southern Africa, the mopane caterpillar is being harvested to extinction in some areas, so actually farming it, and encouraging people to farm it, is a way of creating economic opportunity, and then putting the creatures back into the habitat. So trying to protect natural populations could be another benefit.
Insect farming is a changing area. Again, as Nicole's pointed out, this is going to evolve. It's going to be increasingly intensified. One of the big challenges with insects is that they are rather more expensive, because it's quite a manual process to create them, so there's a pressure on cost, and big investment is going into this now, which is going to try and drive the price down. So I absolutely understand the pressures that are on the food system, that will apply here as much as anywhere else.
Here are some challenging areas. I think we don't know enough about the suffering area. The Dutch have introduced legislation for insect farming, because it's actually quite a big business. It's quite a big sector there, based around the five freedoms, so they're seeking to create an understanding and some standards around insect farming, which would recognize the need to maintain the welfare of insects. Resource use. The point about resource use is that again, typically the argument against meat production is it uses more land, more water, and more other products. The latest studies of insects, and this also applies to greenhouse gas emissions and yes, consumer acception, is that it kind of depends what you feed the insects on. And again, this comes back to if we could feed them on waste, then you know, it's a win-win.
If we're feeding them on cabbages that have been grown in the fields, then again, we come back to the point that it's sort of a wasteful thing to be doing. So I think there are opportunities to make better use of insects. It requires more research to go forward, but if we believe that there are benefits in having insects as part of that mix, then I think we need to be putting more research into looking at how we can optimize that resource use. And again, as has been referred to, if you feed insects different things, you get different nutritional value coming out the other end, so there's a lot of science going into that as well. Greenhouse gas emissions, again, much lower than the methane you get from cattle, but again, it depends what you feed the insects on. Consumer acceptance, clearly a challenge. Is it going to be a meat replacement? I'm not sure it's going to be in the long run, but who knows? And we have these regulatory challenges around the food safety risks, which again, a different kind of thing in a plant-based area. It's more expensive.
So that's me. It's an interesting area. I hope this has been useful in terms of your own sort of understanding a bit more about the sort of pros and cons of it. I still think there's something that's worth exploring, and I think the next speaker is going to emphasize that. Thank you.
My name is Kyle Fish, and currently, I'm working as a researcher at Tufts University, focusing on food system innovation. So far, we've heard some arguments for and against the use of whole insect farming as a tool for pursuing food sustainability, but now I want to broaden the conversation a little bit and consider another type of insect farming, specifically insect cell farming, the basic idea here being that we might be able to produce massive amounts of insect cells without growing whole animals, and then use those cells themselves to produce different food products. To understand what's going on here, it's important to know a little bit about the general framework of cellular agriculture.
So you can see in this diagram, we're starting with a cow, but what we're doing is taking a small sample of cells from the cow, primarily muscle and fat cells, and then putting them into a big tank, known as a bioreactor, and getting them to multiply. Then, once we've grown lots and lots of these cells, we can collect them out of the bioreactor and form them into 3D tissues, to produce meat products that are identical to the ones that are traditionally obtained from slaughtered animals. The main motivation of this is obviously to reduce the demand for factory farms and reduce the demand for other problematic meat production methods. Since most meat products are made up primarily of muscle and fat cells, doing this allows us to make only the parts of the animal that people are actually interested in eating, without the suffering, and environmental issues, and other concerns associated with whole animal farming.
Theoretically, this process could be used to produce any type of meat that's normally consumed. The cow here doesn't have to be a cow. You could start with a pig, or a chicken, or a turkey, and take cells from those animals, and then use the same process to create any of the food products that are normally generated from those animals. So one of the things that the group that I work on is interested in is pushing this a little bit further, and instead of using a cow here, actually starting with insects as the source. The idea is instead of taking muscle and fat cells from a cow, we can get them from insects, and then use the same process to produce insect cells, that can then function as either a protein and nutrient supplement in plant-based or other cultured products, or it could potentially be used to create standalone insect meats, or mimic existing products in other ways.
However, the question remains, "Why would we want to do this?" We know that cells from cows and chickens taste really good, and there's potential for being able to do this process with those, so one could reasonably argue that it's not worth exploring insect cells in this way. But to answer this question, it's worth knowing a little bit about the technical challenges facing clean meat development today, clean meat being meat that's produced through this process of cellular agriculture. So some of those challenges, first of all, most cell cultures require a really expensive liquid serum that's derived from fetal calves, and using this serum in cellular agriculture is out of the question, both for economic reasons and for ethical reasons. It's still an animal product, so even if we're just growing cells, there's still an animal cost if this is part of the equation.
Also, most cells have to be grown in single layers on flat surfaces, and this vastly restricts the possibilities to scale up production. If you're having to grow all of your cells on a flat layer, it's really difficult to grow the amount of them that you would need in order to create some sort of food product. Ideally, you want to be able to grow them in what's known as suspension culture, which is where the cells are floating in a liquid solution, where they can be grown at much higher density. Also, lots of cells have to be grown in very specific environmental conditions. Lots of cell types have to be grown at right about 37° celsius with 5% CO2 in their atmosphere. Otherwise, they will die, or at the very least, they'll stop growing in the same ways.
So all of these are really serious challenges that cellular agriculture companies today are working to address, but if we start to look at some of the characteristics of insect cells, these challenges start to seem a little bit less intimidating. For example, with insect cells, it's relatively easy to adapt them to serum-free media. You don't need that animal-based serum in the same way that you do with a lot of other cell types. Also, it's relatively straightforward to get them to grow in suspension culture, so with insect cells, you can grow them in a liquid, floating around, instead of having to keep them attached to these flat surfaces. Also, the insect cells can tolerate lots of different environmental conditions. They don't care a whole lot what temperature they're grown at. You can even change the pH, the carbon dioxide concentrations, and the insect cells don't really care. They'll keep growing in more or less the same way.
And all of those characteristics indicate that insect cells are worth exploring within the cellular agriculture paradigm. But to really understand whether or not this is a viable option, we need some data from the lab, and we need to explore how these insect cells actually behave, and whether or not the cell types that we're interested in really display these characteristics. So the team that I work on has been looking at five different goals related to insect cellular agriculture, the first two being to adapt insect muscle stem cells to grow on serum-free media, and then also to get them to grow in single-cell suspension. Then, we also wanted to look at regulating how these cells grow, to make sure that we can grow them quickly and efficiently, and then also making sure that we can get them to turn into the specific kinds of cells that we're interested in, from a food perspective.
We're also interested in growing complex 3D tissues. Having lots of cells is great. They're very nutritious, but it's only really valuable if we can somehow assemble them into a format that people are actually interested in consuming. Whether that's growing 3D insect tissues on their own or incorporating them into other products. Lastly, we're interested in improving the nutrition of the cells, and looking at different ways to modify these cells or modify the conditions that they're grown in, in order to improve the nutrition that they offer to humans. On the right, here, you can see a fruit fly, which is the cell source that we've been working with up until now. We've gotten our cells from these animals, and then are turning them into insect muscles.
And in the bottom, all of the little green dots that you can see are muscle stem cells, so they're cells that are still growing, but haven't yet turned into actual insect muscle. Then it's a little bit hard to see with the light, but there are some red fibers also running through the slide, and those red fibers are insect muscle that have started to form from these cells that were growing in culture, and those muscle pieces are what we're really interested in using for food.
I don't have time to take you through all of our experiments and results, but we've found some really exciting results from each of these experiments.
We've also been working with a really interesting material known as cytosine. This is a totally edible material, and we're able to process it in a way to get these really nice, aligned structures that mimic the striations in meat. Then we can actually take these insect muscle cells and get them to grow on this material to create different meat-like tissues. And this is really promising. All of these findings support our hypothesis that insect cells are worth exploring in cellular agriculture.
However, there are still some challenges and open questions when looking to use this technology. For one, not a lot of work has been done to date with insect muscles. There isn't the same body of background research about insect muscle growth and development that we have for cows, chickens, or obviously humans, and understanding these processes is really essential for being able to grow and then use these cells in some sort of food system. Also, taste is a pretty open question. People have eaten whole insects, I'm sure Nick could tell you a lot about what those taste like, but nobody has really eaten products just derived from insect cells, so it's uncertain how much room we'll have to play around with different flavors and textures, to see what sorts of products we can turn these into or how we can incorporate them to bolster other products that are currently being generated.
Consumer acceptance is another potential concern. Consumer acceptance is a challenge in cellular agriculture in general. It's still up for debate whether or not people will actually be willing to eat meat products that have been grown in some sort of lab or factory, and as if that wasn't difficult enough, doing this with insects may add a whole other layer of complication on top of that. However, we also think that there is potential that people will evaluate this favorably relative to the idea of eating whole insects, so there are some possibilities in terms of marketing along those lines.
But even despite these challenges and uncertainties, we think that this is a very promising area of investigation for a number of reasons. One of them is the possibility to create new food products that people will find interesting and nutritious, and that will help to relieve some of the burden currently created by existing food systems. However, there are lots of other ways that this could be valuable. For example, with the characteristics that insect cells have, there's a lot of potential for us to learn from these cells and derive lessons from working with them that we can then apply in other cell types. If we can figure out why it is that insect cells are fine growing in serum-free media, and why it's relatively easy to get them to grow in suspension, then we can apply those lessons to work more effectively with cow cells, chicken cells, or turkey cells to make products that people are more familiar with, and do some sort of direct substitution.
We can also look at this from a perspective of global health and food security. Insect cells are relatively simple and easy to grow relative to lots of other systems that have been proposed, which means that this technology might offer a way for cellular agriculture to play a role in reducing the burden of global poverty and food insecurity in resource-constrained environments around the world. This system would be a lot easier to implement in areas that don't have the same sort of scientific and industrial infrastructure as places like elsewhere in the Western world.
So that basically sums up the case for insect cell farming. Again, we think that this is a very valuable technology. One thing to note in terms of whole insect farming, there is potential, at least in the short term, for those efforts to contribute to the development of this technology. In the case of aquaculture, a lot of the valuable research about fish muscle growth and development, that has been used in the fish cellular agriculture industry, was initially done as part of aquaculture programs, so the same thing could be said here, that if insect farming programs are helping to contribute to this sort of body of knowledge that can eventually be exploited to do insect cellular agriculture in really impactful ways, then there's a chance that that could be valuable.
So I think soon here, we're going to open it up for questions, but before we do, I want to give a thanks to the rest of the cellular agriculture team at Tufts University, especially to Natalie Rubio, who has been leading these insect projects, and David Kaplan, the director of our lab, and also a thank you to our funding partners who have helped to make this work possible. Thank you.
Question: Where do you see the timelines on what you see as the ideal situation, or your sort of various areas of interest? What do you see the timelines on those? Where do you see timelines in terms of maybe insects becoming mainstream, or in terms of, yeah, the developments of your various areas?
Nick: It's not an easy question to answer, because there are quite a number of challenges. I think there's obviously work going on to create new types of product based on insects, and that's very much a live thing at the moment. I think one of the things that is interesting is, the products at the moment are companies that are saying, "I want to sell insects," or, "I want to sell burgers that are made with plants." I think there's a scope in the future to see these things becoming more blurred, potentially, to get the best of different worlds. I'm sure the purist vegan wouldn't agree with that, but there could be a market for products which do have nutritionally perfect composition for different markets, different audiences, different types of person, different flavor compositions, and maybe draw on the insect cell farming and things, but I'm just seeing so many different things coming through that are kind of happening.
I think the regulatory thing is a big hurdle for us in terms of the insect area, because the European Union has a novel food regulation, which means that anything that is deemed to be a novel food, and insects now are, ironically they weren't until the beginning of this year, so people have to prove that the insect products they're developing are safe and don't have any risks. And that's affecting the market quite significantly. It's meaning that the bigger companies have got an opportunity to go forward and smaller ones less so. So that's something that's going to change very slowly, I suspect, in practice.
Then the other challenge we've got is the whole kind of insect farming, the cost of it, the cost of the raw material that you get as a result, and therefore the proportion. A lot of these products have got relatively small amounts of insect material in them, because otherwise the costs would be prohibitive. So that's another pressure that's a bit of a challenge, in terms of farming technology, how to manage that within welfare constraints. So there's a lot of things. I don't have a time scale, I'm afraid.
Kyle: I think that in terms of insect cellular agriculture, it'll be quite a while before there's any sort of product available that's derived exclusively from that technology, but I don't think it would take too long to find ways to incorporate insect cells as a protein or nutrient supplement in plant-based products or other cultured products. And also, on our team, we're working with a variety of other cell types as well, and have already started to see ways in which our work with insect cells can inform and improve the work that we're doing in other areas, so even if it's a while before a product comes out of this technology, it's already helping to speed up development in other areas.
Nicole: At least, I mean, there's a lot of plant-based products on the market right now. There are companies that claim they can get clean meat products not based on insect cells on the market this year. It'll probably be a mixture, so not 100% clean meat. Most clean meat companies say two years to be on the market and five to 10 to be at price parity.
Question: Will insect cell culture reduce the risk of disease outbreak versus what we see in mammal cell culture?
Kyle: Relative to mammalian cell culture, I don't think so. There are already pretty strict controls on mammalian cell culture, and pretty robust technologies for determining if there are potential pathogens in some sort of culture, and we're able to use those same technologies with insect cells. So as with any sort of cell culture, there is a risk of contamination, but we're able to identify that pretty quickly, and it wouldn't be a problem in terms of putting an actual product on the market.
Question: What about using yeast or bacterial cells? What's the advantage of insect cells over, say, yeast or bacteria?
Kyle: So insect cells are sort of a happy medium between yeast or bacteria and mammalian cells. They have a lot of the complexity that mammalian cells have, in terms of being able to turn them into different cell types and create complex tissues that you can't get with bacteria and with yeast, and yet they offer some of the same growth simplicity that you see with yeast or bacteria. So they're a lot easier to grow, while also maintaining some of the complexity, which is one of the reasons that they're really interesting.
Nick: There's an Israeli company that's developing protein alternatives from yeast. There's lots of interesting things being developed.
Question: I think you touched on, in your talk earlier, about selective breeding that we've seen in chickens. What would be bad about that if we saw that in insect farming, if you think that would be bad?
Nicole: Well, I think there's a lot more information that we need right now, because the industry isn't very developed. It's just concerns that we have, that we hope the industry would actually take these into account. I mean, there's really no way to protect from ever having some sort of massive exodus of insects from a facility. It's bad enough if you have billions of black flies getting out into an area where they shouldn't be. What if those black flies are different, right? That they have been bred in a certain way to maybe have more protein or meat than a normal black fly? How will that have an effect on the environment? We just don't know.
Question: What is used for insect cell growth instead of animal serum?
Kyle: There are a lot of different formulations. Most of the ones that we've experimented with are commercially available, like proprietary serum for media formulations, but typically the growth factor profiles for insects are a little bit simpler, so they're growth media that just contain those factors instead of having them in the serum mixture.
Question: If you guys could have one thing on your wishlist in terms of public perception, what's the one thing that you would perhaps potentially change?
Nicole: Let's eat plants.
Nick: I guess I'd like to see things like the bolognese sauce coming forward as something that people are more conscious of, rather than just insects on a stick.
Kyle: And I think just raising awareness for the field of cellular agriculture more generally. A lot of companies and a lot of academic groups are doing really valuable work in this, and public support would go a long ways towards directing additional funding, additional talent, and other resources to help accelerate this technology more generally.