Each year, Gray Associates hosts a webinar to share highlights from our research on new and emerging programs in higher education. We discuss programs and demand trends across a broad spectrum of disciplines, fields of study, and award levels.
One of the liveliest discussions we had with our attendees was centered around cellular agriculture. Giving ourselves a slight pat on the back, we noticed other authoritative sources showing a growing interest in, well, growing meat. The NY Times seems to put a sharp point on it with its recent article, “The New Secret Chicken Recipe?” while The Scientist in its piece, “Cultured Meat Advances Toward the Market,” focuses on the pioneer (and potential employers) working on “making meat.” (The USDA recently awarded a five-year, $10 million grant to researchers.)
What’s The Beef?
If you have reached a certain age or are younger but with mad trivia skills, you may remember a famous fast food commercial featuring a feisty grandmother-type demanding “Where’s the beef?” Had she been looking to sate her meaty cravings a decade from now, “What’s the beef?” may be the better question to ask. The pedigree of your beef could be less Angus but more cultured.
Cellular agriculture is the “farming” of agricultural products from cells rather than from whole plants or animals. Food and related products produced through cellular agriculture are biologically the same (or very near the same) as their traditionally-sourced counterparts, but they are grown in a laboratory rather than raised as livestock on a farm. Processes involved in cellular agriculture include tissue engineering and fermentation.
The Impact of Cellular Agriculture
Cellular agriculture, at scale, could have significant benefits compared to traditional agriculture. It could play a vital role in ensuring a consistent and adequate food supply for the world’s growing population. The UN estimates global food requirements will grow 60% by 2050. It is also more environmentally friendly. According to the BBC, the food industry accounts for one-third of global carbon emissions. Cellular agriculture could help reduce the industry’s environmental impact throughout the supply chain, from lowering emissions related to production and transportation to mitigating deforestation and reducing water usage and waste.
Cellular agriculture is also much more animal friendly than traditional agriculture, as it does not require the widespread slaughter of animals to produce equivalent amounts of meat. It also allows for products to be grown in a sterile environment, enhancing safety and purity, and mitigates the spread of animal-borne disease.
Obstacles to Production at Scale
While the potential of cellular agriculture is enormous, significant obstacles remain before we might see production at scale. Production technologies are still evolving, and the process right now is very expensive. By some estimates, a pound of meat produced through cellular agriculture today can cost as much as $10,000. Even if low-cost production at scale can be achieved, other obstacles remain. And no one really knows the level of acceptance of consumers.
Another potential obstacle is regulation. New policies and oversights may need to be adopted to ensure worker and consumer safety.
Finally, in order for cellular agriculture as an industry to reach its potential, it needs a skilled workforce. Much of the research and development currently happening around cellular agriculture appears to be driven by private companies and organizations. Some industry leaders have noted there is not an adequate pipeline of research and talent coming from academia to help them advance their efforts.
Providing a Skilled Workforce
Colleges and universities may do well to recognize the future opportunities for graduates in this field. In the fall of 2019, UC Davis established the Cultivated Meat Consortium and has won grant funding from the National Science Foundation to research and develop stable cell lines and plant-based growing media. Tufts University is also benefiting from the USDA’s focus on cellular agriculture. In October 2021, the USDA awarded Tufts a $10 million grant to launch the National Institute for Cellular Agriculture. Tufts will be joined in the venture by Virginia State, Virginia Tech, MIT, UC Davis, and UMass Boston. Importantly, the universities involved also plan to develop undergraduate and graduate education programs to support workforce development.
What might these programs look like? What skills do cellular agriculture companies need? Cellular agriculture is an interdisciplinary field. Cellular Agriculture Australia lists specific majors for students interested in cellular agriculture. The list is extensive, including 45 majors across six disciplines – biology, chemistry, computing, engineering, mathematics, and physics.
Companies are looking for skills that encompass these disciplines, and more. A scan of job postings related to cellular agriculture shows listings for cell line developers, bioprocess engineers, food scientists, tissue engineering specialists, chemists, laboratory technicians, plant cell biologists and scientists, and even product managers and marketers.
While cellular agriculture is still in its infancy, this emerging field may represent an opportunity for colleges and universities to get involved in the early stages of a potentially disruptive and ground-breaking new industry.
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