Ilttud Dunsford, who previously established a speciality meat-processing business and is now the CEO and Co-founder of Cellular Agriculture Ltd, talks to ProVeg about his journey to cellular agriculture and the important role that farmers can play in this nascent field.
ProVeg (PV): You are originally from a farming family and used to run a meat-processing business, but you have now turned your interest towards cellular agriculture and have founded your own startup. What made you turn to cellular agriculture?
Illtud Dunsford (ID): My entry to the industry was in 2015 and my original area of study focused on the utilisation of animal waste by-products for food production. In my then meat-processing business, I was highly committed to the idea that if an animal had to die for us to eat it, we should use every single part.
I attended the First Symposium on Cultured Meat at Maastricht University in 2015, hosted by Prof. Mark Post, and found it revelatory that there was a technology that could provide the specific part of the animal that the consumer wanted to consume. I met Prof. Marianne Ellis from the University of Bath at the conference and we quickly realised that we shared synergies in design and process thinking. We established Cellular Agriculture Ltd as a company in April 2016, focusing purely on technological bottlenecks for scale, and designing bioprocess technologies for the industry. Our core work to date has been in developing novel bioreactors specifically for the production of cultured meat.
The ultimate aim is to build industrial factories that produce food that isn’t detrimental to the planet in its production methods and which reduces food poverty. With a forecast population of 10bn by 2050, we need to feed all those additional people in order for us to have the best opportunity possible to tackle the challenges that face humankind.
PV: Critics of cellular agriculture fear that it will not be beneficial to traditional farming. How would you respond to this claim? ID: Cellular agriculture is largely reliant on primary agricultural inputs as feedstocks and therefore reliant on the agricultural industry. I view cultured meat as an evolution of the agricultural sector rather than a dissolution of it. Ultimately, we are feeding the cell rather than the cow, with an end result that is comparable to traditional meat, chemically, nutritionally, and taste-wise, but is produced in a much more efficient manner.
However, cultured meat is just one of the tools needed to feed a growing population, and there is an undoubted need for us to take a wider view of all practices in relation to food (not just meat), as we have already exceeded planetary boundaries in key areas such as biodiversity and bio-geochemical flows.
A reduction in livestock through cultured meat doesn’t mean that we need to leave land fallow either – it allows us to consider holistic approaches to regenerative methods of farming that have high natural value. The challenge that we face is to produce nutrient-dense foods while limiting the impact on the planet and securing our soils so that future generations can feed themselves.
PV: How do you see the role of farmers in the cellular-agriculture space? How can farmers contribute to and benefit from a transition away from animal agriculture? Can they become part of the value chain? Can they transform their business model and replace barns with cultivators?
ID: As a farmer, I’m already part of the cellular-agriculture success story. I’m probably one of the first, but we need many more of us. Farmers will form an obvious part of the future value chain in terms of the supply of feedstocks, but there are many transitional technologies, as well as knowledge and data from the existing industry, that isn’t being used yet to its full extent. This ranges from genetic information (for both plants and animals) through to the use of animal-health products in addition to the experiences of navigating the current food supply chains of the Agrifood industry.
In 2019, we worked with Ira van Eelen on a Future Food exhibit for the Nemo Science Museum in Amsterdam, which showcased a range of cultured-meat technologies. As part of the exhibit, we had one of our operational novel bioreactors on display, accompanied by a series of conceptual animations that explored the scaling points of our bioprocess technology. One of these animations focused on the idea of an on-farm cultivation system – fermentation technology is already familiar to many farmers, especially those with small-scale on-farm dairy businesses. Farmers are hugely innovative, hard-working business people who are extremely experienced in working with tight regulations. With new opportunities, I’m confident that the cellular-agriculture sector won’t be quite such a lonely place for me as a farmer in the future.
PV: How do you envision cooperation between your startup and farmers?
ID: We already work with a range of farmers and specialists in the agricultural industry; the list is wide-ranging: from livestock producers to animal-welfare experts, animal-health specialists, veterinarians, geneticists, and horticultural researchers, all the way through to those working in abattoirs and in the traditional meat-processing industry. It makes perfect sense to work with those who understand the product we’re working to emulate in order to deliver a product that is as close to meat as possible.
My own personal aspirations for the future include utilising my own farm as a model for how traditional forms of agriculture and cellular agriculture can sit side by side in synergy.
PV: How has the meat industry in the UK reacted towards the concept of cultured meat? Do they perceive it as a threat or an opportunity?
ID: The reaction from both the farming community and the meat industry is mixed. Farming is emotive; it’s highly personal since it’s an industry that you are born into and therefore any criticism can cut to the bone. Farmers are often asset-rich, cash-poor, and work exceptionally long hours for low wages. Working the land is often a passion rather than a burden, and new technology that represents a risk to a way of life is what engenders uncertainty. However, farmers are business people and also recognise the environmental responsibility that rests on their shoulders as custodians of the land.
Similarly, progressive farmers and those from the wider meat industry recognise that changes in consumer perceptions, influence from government on climate policy, and general business opportunities are reason enough to engage with the cellular-agriculture sector. It’s a natural human instinct to fear change, unfortunately. But whether it be farmers or consumers, we have significant changes ahead of us, as our current levels of consumption far exceed what the planet can supply.[vc_text_separator title=”End of interview” border_width=”2″ el_class=”bigger-separator-text”]
Cellular agriculture: an opportunity to the agricultural sector
Farmers are an integral part of our food system and play a crucial role in the transition to a fairer and more sustainable and resilient food system. Cultured meat will play a key role in this transformation process, and we can’t harness this opportunity effectively without farmers. With this in mind, ProVeg recommends that cultured-meat companies collaborate with farmers at early stages of production, involving them in cell sourcing and cell feedstock. The company Orbillion Bio is a great example of a cultured-meat company adopting a farm-to-table approach, collaborating with farmers to develop premium cultured-meat products from heritage cell lines such as Wagyu beef. “We see farmers as the backbone of the food system and the stewards of soil health and biodiversity. We want to leverage their knowledge,” said Oribillion Bio CEO and co-founder Patricia Bubner.1
Opportunities for farmers include growing crops as ingredients for feedstock for cultured meat, raising animals or heritage breeds as a high-quality source of cells, licencing cells, and producing cultured meat themselves in their farms, using bioreactors.2 In that regard, Prof. Mark Post envisions farmers producing cultured meat at a farm level with bioreactors. When moving towards democratisation, local farmers and butchers from the Global South could produce their own cultured meat in small-scale production units, offering a solution for sustainable localised meat production.
Cellular agriculture has the potential to be an integral part of a diverse solution landscape that also includes regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, and other sustainable agricultural practices. Cellular agriculture is a complementary element to other promising approaches and governments have a crucial role to play in facilitating this transition. It is encouraging to see that the European Union has just released 32 million euros for research into alternative proteins, including cultured meat, as part of the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme, in line with the European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy to transition to a healthy and resilient EU agricultural sector.
- Food Entrepreneur (2020): An interview with Orbillion Bio: Bringing clean meat to the modern consumer. Available at: https://www.foodentrepreneurs.com/an-interview-with-orbillion-bio-bringing-clean-meat-to-the-modern-consumer/ [29.06.2021]
- Peter Newton, Daniel Blaustein-Rejto (2021):Social and Economic Opportunities and Challenges of Plant-Based and Cultured Meat for Rural Producers in the US. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2021.624270/full [29.06.2021]