RICK WEISS: Welcome, everyone, to this SciLine media briefing on the future of food, a particularly fun media briefing today, featuring three experts looking at different aspects of what we might be eating in the years to come and, for some of us, already. Before we get started, I just want to take one minute to introduce SciLine to those of you who may not be familiar with us. We are a philanthropically funded free service for reporters with one overarching mission, which is to help you get more research-based evidence into your news stories. We have a variety of free services, ranging from on-deadline provision of experts for you as you work on stories and realize you need a scientist to talk to, to the hosting of all-expenses-paid 2 1/2-day boot camps on various topics in science, to the creation and Web posting of fact sheets on various newsworthy topics around which we see some confusion or misinformation that are especially designed to be easy to use for sort of a hair-on-fire on-deadline reporter who just needs facts, and a variety of other services that we encourage you to check out at sciline.org.
Today’s media briefing on the future of food will feature three experts. The details of their bios are on the website, so I’m not going to take time to go through those right now. I’ll just say as a very brief way of telling you what’s coming up that we’ve got three folks. First, you’re going to hear from Dr. Julie Lesnik, L-E-S-N-I-K. She is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Wayne State University. She’s a biological anthropologist, and I would call her an ambassador for entomophagy, something we at SciLine engaged in this morning as we chowed down on some crickets; at least, some of us did. Second, we will hear from Dr. Kate Krueger, who is a cell biologist and research director at New Harvest, which is a nonprofit research institute that supports innovations in cultured meat and cellular agriculture. She will talk about why Impossible Burgers are, in fact, possible and what else may be possible in the years ahead. And last, we’ll hear from Dr. Denise Skonberg – that’s S-K-O-N-B-E-R-G – associate professor of food science in the Food and Agriculture School at the University of Maine. Her research has focused on improving the economic and environmental sustainability of processed seafood products, including some marine organisms that you may not have thought about eating before. So to get things started, let’s turn to Dr. Julie Lesnik and hear a little bit about the bugs.
JULIE LESNIK: Thank you for having me. And so I’m going to talk to you about edible insects as one of the ways that people are considering looking for more efficient ways to feed the growing population. So as we’re depleting our resources, people are still increasing in number, and so that’s the challenge we’re all here discussing. And so I’m going show you a bunch of numbers. And I think you’ll see that the case for insects really speaks for itself in a lot of ways. I do want to give the caveat that each data point I’m giving represents a range. It’s highly variable depending on what you feed these animals. So I’m going to be comparing crickets – farming crickets to traditionally raised livestock. And so all of these efficiencies and all the numbers I’m showing you are very dependent on what those actual farmers are doing, so this is just a brief overview. But to start, a lot of people ask about, are insects actually nutritious? And so comparing them to traditionally raised livestock, you can see that they offer very similar amounts of protein. These are all standardized for 1 kilogram of edible mass. That’s over 2 pounds of meat, so that’s more than you’re eating, but it’s just kind of how scientists are best able to standardize this data. But what you can see with the crickets is how much of the micronutrients they offer compared to traditionally raised livestock.
Now, this is dependent on the insect species. But one thing you get for eating these insects is that you’re actually eating the whole insect, so you’re eating the exoskeleton, and so that’s why you’re getting things like calcium and iron that you aren’t getting in as high amounts when you’re just eating the flesh of these other animals. But with – the numbers I really want to show you are these sustainability numbers. And so to start is how much land this – these livestock species take. And so this is looking at arable land, so – which is just a fancy way of saying farmed land. And so cows take over 200 square meters. And then as your animals get smaller and smaller, they take up less space. And then insects, like crickets, take very little space. Another benefit is that you can farm insects vertically. So you could take a warehouse in an urban environment and stack containers on top of each other, really minimizing the footprint. And then unlike these other traditionally raised livestock, we – ’cause we tend to do that. We take our cows, and we cram them in a space to try to efficiently turn over our chickens and everything, and it’s not really ethical to those animals because it’s such a departure from their natural lifestyles. But crickets already like dark, cramped spaces, and so they produce well. They’re happy in those spaces, and they produce well for us. So it’s just kind of another consideration and benefit of thinking to – insects instead of raising other animals.
One number that I really like to show is water usage. You know, we’re worried about droughts; we’re worried about our fresh water, and we’re wasting so much of it into our agriculture. So to produce that kilogram of edible mass for cows, we’re getting – we’re using 22,000 liters of water. Here is where I really wanted to point out that caveat because all of these numbers – I did forget to say this. All this numbers come from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s statement that came out in 2013. So that’s where all this data comes from. And they use less than 1 liter of water for crickets. Where this is based on is the fact that crickets get all their water needs from the food you feed them. You don’t have to actually feed them additional water. But you still use water to clean your facilities and all the different processing, so 1 liter is an incredibly, like, idealistic number. So I generally present this more like 100 liters just to be less sensational about the data. But compared to 22,000 liters or 2,300, we’re clearly seeing an improvement in that number for farming crickets. And then lastly is greenhouse gas emissions, so carbon output of these processes. And so cows, for instance, are one of our greatest methane producers. And so thinking about ways to come up with edible protein that produces less of those greenhouse gases, crickets are a really appealing option.
Now, again, this is variable depending on the species. The reason cows are methane producers is, it’s a byproduct of digesting cellulose-dense material, like grass or hay. And so crickets don’t produce that, but termites do. So termites are incredible methane producers, so they are not a good species that we should be thinking of cultivating in large numbers. We’d only be remaking this exact same problem. But this is a benefit that crickets do have. And we are looking at crickets as the kind of – pun-intended – gateway bug, the first one that people are really trying out and is kind of gaining momentum as this food here in North America. And so the next thing I want to show you, though, is kind of a cultural context for some of this because, here, we think of insects as this new food of the future, but people all over the world eat insects. And so even on this map, when you look, what we’re seeing is number of insect species consumed per country. And the United States is shaded on there, and that’s representing indigenous populations. Insects have been a part of traditional diets here in United States for a long time. So our aversion to it comes from our European roots – so this idea of not eating insects in Western culture, which is rooted in European history and then their expanse of an empire. Where they’ve colonized and had continual migrations.
And so when we’re thinking about why we don’t eat insects, it’s really a story of Europe and that Europe being in high latitudes, insects aren’t available year-round. And in order to make lives for themselves up in Europe, going back to Neanderthals, they had to hunt meat in order to survive in these snow-covered landscapes. And then, similarly, we domesticated cattle in that region, first, around the world for that reason. So eating insects in the summer can give a reprieve from hunting, but it’s nutritionally redundant, so it’s not an important resource in these northern latitudes. But – and so if you look at the map, you can see that it’s – the darkest-shaded countries are all near the equator. And so there’s a definite relationship of environment in whether or not insects are consumed, but it doesn’t answer why we have such a stigma against them. And this is really where my research has focused. And so I started thinking about it, and I started thinking of Columbus traveling from these northern Europe – you know, northern latitudes of Europe, crossing latitudes in a way that you’d – never been crossed before, ending up in the Caribbean islands and encountering indigenous people that live there. And so those people had diets that were vastly different from what Europeans were used to seeing.
But what we know about this encounter and the ugly part of this history is that these people were conquered; they were enslaved – genocide, all of these things. And part of what was used to justify this behavior was painting these people as less than human, as animal-like. And the consumption of insects was specifically used as an example of why these people were less than human and why you could justify these behaviors towards enslaving them and taking over their land. And so I just want to end with a quote from one of Columbus’ companions on his second voyage, Diego Alvarez Chanca. So he says, they eat all of the snakes and lizards and spiders and worms that they find upon the ground so that, to my fancy, their bestiality is greater than that of any beast upon the face of the earth. So when we’re trying to avoid insects, what we’re trying to do is avoid these primitive, savage narratives. And that still exists hundreds of years later today. So if we’re going to change this attitude, we’ve got to change this idea of it as primitive and savage and allow younger generations to view insects differently and make this food source available to them.
RICK WEISS: Fascinating story of biology and culture – thank you. We will move to Kate Krueger.
KATE KRUEGER: Hello – one moment while I share my screen. Hello. So I’m very excited to talk to you today about cultured meat and cellular agriculture. So cellular agriculture, as we define it, is the production of agricultural products from cell cultures rather than whole plants or animals. So there are two types of cellular agriculture that we often talk about. One is called products produced by cells, and those products are products like, for instance, different kinds of milk that are produced by cow proteins instead of those that are produced by standard methods, such as being grown in a cow – so the idea that you can insert the genes for, say, a cow – a milk protein into a yeast organism instead of growing them in the whole organism itself. When it comes to things like meat products, the idea is rather that we would take the whole cell of a chicken and convert that into a chicken breast instead of using the whole chicken organism to make a fillet or a steak.
So when we talk about cultured meat, the discussion often goes to a couple products that we’re a lot more familiar with those – in these days, and those are the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger. And I want to point out these are not cultured meat products. These are really exciting technology that has entered the food space recently. And I and others are really thrilled to see it on the market. But I do want to point out that the Beyond Burger is an extrusion-based product that is an extrusion of various plant proteins, and the Impossible Burger has some novel proteins that are really exciting in it. So these are not cultured meat because they do not contain full muscle cells. So while I’m super enthusiastic about these products and would love to talk about them more in a different context, they’re really not the topic of my conversation today. So when we’re talking about cellular agriculture and the technology that goes into it, what we’re talking about is taking cells out of an organism like a cow or a chicken, growing them up on – to a material called a scaffold, which organizes the cells and helps them grow in thick quantities, growing those cells up and then feeding them with a variety of different nutrients and minerals in a bioreactor to make a full steak-type product. So that’s really – the goal of a lot of cellular agriculture is a full tissue.
While we’re quite a long ways away from making a full tissue – I estimate it’s at least 10 years out from making any kind of steak- or sashimi-like product – we’re much closer to making a variety of products, such as meatballs or chicken nuggets or burgers. So those are more likely to happen in sort of a five-year time horizon. So that’s a really exciting innovation that will likely take a lot less time. I do want to point out that cellular agriculture technology, to my knowledge, has not yet been scaled. And what that means is, we don’t yet have the machinery in place to grow lots and lots of cultured meat to the extent that you’re going to find it in the grocery store immediately. So substantial research and development, both at startups and in academic contexts, is needed to make that happen. When it comes to life cycle analyses for cultured meat, which are the main way of assessing the environmental impacts of this technology, the results are surprisingly mixed. Some suggest that cultured meat will be much, much better for the environment. Some suggest it will be a little bit better for the environment, and a few very exciting ones show that there’s a lot of promise for different materials – for starting materials for cellular agriculture, such as algae-based starting materials. These have the most promising results. So that’s really exciting going forward when we talk about how these products could affect the environment.
I do want to point out, since none of the production for any of these materials has yet been scaled, it’s really hard to estimate the exact cost of these materials going forward, either on the environment or in terms of a dollar amount. So in terms of the regulatory and legislative developments in this space, the conversation has really picked up recently. In 2018, there were a number of various acts that came before different parties and different legislative updates that were really exciting, including the FDA and the USDA getting involved in the conversation. And as of 2009, the USDA and the FDA have announced a formal agreement to coregulate cellular agriculture processes. Another exciting kind of development that I think is worth noting is acts like the Real MEAT Act that’s recently been written for Congress, which is an act that says that it’s a – sort of an agreement to try to get the language out there around meat products such that the term meat can only be used for meat derived from a full-animal organism rather than a cell culture. So that’s kind of an interesting level of pushback that started to occur from some meat-producing groups. So there’s often kind of a push-pull in the field between a lot of enthusiasm about these new products and a lot of potential pushback from different people who grow these animals. So when it comes to what kind of background reading is really useful, I’ve put a few links here that you can take a look at. And I’m happy to talk to you more if you have any particular questions regarding this technology. Thank you so much.
RICK WEISS: Thank you, Kate – really, really interesting work there. And we’ll move up to Denise Skonberg.
DENISE SKONBERG: OK. Let’s see. OK. So hopefully, everybody can see this. So hi, everyone. So I’m going to be talking about edible seaweeds today, which are also known as marine macroalgae, sea greens, sea vegetables. And they’re divided into three different categories based on their pigmentation. So they’re called red, green or brown. And normally, they’re attached to substrates in the marine environment, or they could be free-floating. And also, the ones that we eat, they can be either wild, or they can be farm-raised. And the main thing I wanted to show you in this slide – one of the main things is, looking at these seaweeds at the bottom of the slide, I really wanted to show you the incredible diversity among species. There are thousands of species of seaweeds, and they vary a lot in terms of their appearance, their color, their nutritional value, their texture and their flavor. So there’s a lot of diversity there, which I’ll be referring back to. And also, in the top-right corner of this slide, I just wanted to show you – this is a seaweed farmer in Maine who’s just pulled up a line of sugar kelp. And so you can see this line normally grows just under the surface of the water. So why are we promoting seaweed and seaweed consumption? And compared to a land-based agriculture, some of the benefits include that seaweeds don’t require fertilizers, don’t require feed. They don’t require fresh water, and they don’t require land. So those are a lot of benefits there. They also provide a lot of environmental benefits, and two of the main ones that are brought up a lot are the fact that they are nitrogen and carbon sequestrants, which benefit the environment. They also have a very short growth cycle. Some of them, you can harvest within two or three months.
And as I already mentioned, there’s hundreds of species. So if – for example, if consumers don’t like one of the varieties of seaweeds, well, then there’s so many other ones that they could try that might have the flavor or texture that they’re looking for. And then, also, another key benefit of them is they’re extremely nutrient-dense. They’re primarily noted for their really high content of dietary fiber, which we know is really lacking in the American diet. They’re also rich source of vitamins and minerals and a lot of different types of phytonutrients as well. So looking in the top-right corner of the slide, this is the global seaweed production. And the main thing I wanted you to see here was that seaweed production has increased pretty dramatically over, like, the last 10 years. Between 2007 and 2015, you can see that it doubled. And most of that doubling – it was due, primarily, to aquaculture, which is, you know, the farm raising of seaweed as opposed to the wild harvest and that currently the value of the seaweed – or at least the last data from the FAO – showed that they were valued at about $6 billion a year. So there’s a lot of value associated with them, but most of that value is going to Asia, where most of this stuff is grown, predominantly in China – also, Indonesia, Korea. That’s where you see a lot of this being grown and harvested. We’d like to see a change.
We’d like to see U.S. contribute to some of this production and consumption as well. So what are some of the benefits about doing it in the U.S.? Well, we have a lot of clean water. So the East Coast and the West in Coast particularly, the northern parts – if you look at Washington, Alaska, Maine up to Canada, New England, there’s a lot of clean water and a lot of potential for growing seaweeds in these area – areas. Excuse me. In the last five years, a lot of new farms have been launched in these areas, which has been a good thing to see. And part of it has been in response to this growing foodie movement that we see in the United States. And by foodie here, I’m trying to encompass a variety of different groups and movements here, including – you know, like, the traditional foodies are people who are interested in trying new cuisines. They’re more adventurous in their dietary choices. It also includes a lot of people interested in locally sourced foods, people who are interested in more natural foods with bioactive properties and, also, people who are interested in sustainably produced foods. So all of these things are drivers to seaweed consumption and seaweed farms here in the United States. But there are definitely challenges to moving forward. And the biggest thing is that there’s just a big lack of familiarity about seaweeds, first among American consumers, but, also, in – if you look at processing – processors and in terms of infrastructure to get these products from growing all the way to getting them to American consumers’ plates.
So there’s a lot of questions that need to be addressed with regards to this. And as a food scientist, those are some of the things that we’re looking at. We’re looking at a lot of the food-related research questions, starting with something just as simple as, what is the shelf life of fresh seaweed, right? These are questions that were answered for, you know, cauliflower and broccoli hundreds of years ago, but we have no idea. So this is where we’re starting. What’s the just best way to process these products, like blanching them, freezing them, drying them? And given that since there’s so many different seaweed varieties, what works for one variety may not be best for another. And then another key thing is, how do we market these things to American consumers who might not be that familiar? So I’ve got a couple of pictures of products here. And the one here on the left is one that a lot of people might be familiar with, and that’s basically the nori sheets that are wrapped around sushi products. And this is the way that most consumers, if they’d had sushi – sorry, seaweed – most of them have probably had it in this form. Another form that’s been developed in the last couple years – and on the bottom-right here you can see – is these seaweed snacks. And seaweed snacks – it’s a really good way to get into a new market because Americans are incredible snackers, and snacks, in general, are a pretty low-risk way to try a new food product.
This one on the bottom that I wanted to show you is a product developed here in Maine called a Kelp Cube, which is a frozen, pureed kelp cube, which is designed to appeal to people who like to eat smoothies. So they can just throw this kelp cube into their smoothie to try and give it a little extra bunch – an extra sort of boost of nutrients for their products. So that’s where I want to end on the seaweed. And I want to just spend a short amount of time talking about something completely different – the green crab. And so some of you may not be aware that the green crab is an invasive species that is originally from Europe. But at this point, it’s deeply entrenched on both coasts of the United States. And if you look at this map here from the USGS, in the brown, stippled areas on both coasts, you can see the green crab is all the way up here in Maine and actually into Canada and then down to the Mid-Atlantic area on the East and on the West all the way from the middle of California, all the way up through Washington. And the problem with these invasive green crab is they’re extremely predatory, and they love eating things that we would like to eat, right? They’re extremely efficient predators on soft-shell clams. And, in fact, they were associated with a huge drop in the soft-shell clam fishery here in Maine. But they also can attack mussels and oysters, which is a big concern for the aquaculture on the West Coast. Another thing – I’m showing you this picture here on the right – is they are – have intensive burrowing activity.
And so they’ve also been shown to decimate eelgrass beds and salt marshes, which is what this is. This is a salt marsh here in Maine. So what we’re doing is we’re looking at potential food-utilization streams for green crab, and the biggest problem associated with eating green crab is the fact that they’re so small. You can see this picture in the middle. They’re really tiny. They’re about a third or half the size of species that we’re more familiar with, which are, like, the blue crab or Dungeness crab. They’re really, really tiny. And because of that, it’s extremely difficult to try and pick their crab meat and have the kind of jumbo lump crab meat that we are used to consuming. So because of that, we haven’t really made use of this harvested – of this resource. But one way they can be eaten and – which is very lucrative, and fishers can get about $20 to $25 a pound for them – is if they’re in a soft-shell state. And this picture here on the top right shows a picture of a soft-shell green crab that was battered and breaded and fried. And this goes like – I was – like flapjacks or something. They’re really, really popular. Unfortunately, for fishers, the soft-shell crab only represent less than 1% of the crab that are harvested. So the question is, what should we do with the rest of the crab?
So some of the work we’re doing at the University of Maine has been focused on taking the other 99%, putting them through a mechanical separator, which divides them – divides the crab up into a minced-meat stream and this ground-shell stream. And then we’re looking at, what can we do with this minced-meat stream, which is a nutritious product but is basically a meat paste. And so there’s a lot of research questions to try and address some of the issues with that to see how can we incorporate that into foods that people would like to eat? And as I end right here, I just want to do a shoutout to greencrab.org, which is here. They made this cookbook, “The Green Crab Cookbook” on the left. And basically, this – it’s a nonprofit organization, and their mission is to try and develop markets for green crab so that we can develop a fishery which can then help mitigate some of the problems with this invader along our coasts.
RICK WEISS: We’re going to eat our way out of the invasive species problems – fantastic.
Are there issues with ocean pollution and micro-plastics with regard to seaweed aquaculture? Does seaweed concentrate toxins the way some plants on land do?
RICK WEISS: Thank you all for those introductory presentations. And folks can now go down to the – I think the lower area of your screen, where there’s an opportunity to type in questions, which I’ll be happy to convey over to the speakers. Let us know if you want to direct that to one speaker or all of them more generally. And we’ll start right off with the question that we have here from Gloria Dickie (ph), who’s a freelance reporter, asking, would there be issues – and I take it this is for you, Denise. Would there be issues with ocean pollution and seaweed aquaculture with regard to, say, microplastics in the water, or maybe, related to that, wondering whether seaweed concentrate toxins the way some plants might do so in the land and worry about cleanliness that way?
DENISE SKONBERG: That’s a great question. I have not heard anything about microplastics with regards to seaweed. That’s an area I don’t think that’s really been looked into yet. It doesn’t seem like it would be, but there’s – definitely research is needed. But with the other issues you brought up, yes. In fact, it depends on the species of sea – of algae, of macroalgae that you’re talking about. So research is underway that really is looking at how well different types of species can concentrate heavy metals in their tissue. And some that are of interest include arsenic. Arsenic is one that’s of interest. And research has shown that some of the brown macroalgae tend to do it at a much higher rate than the green or the red macroalgae. But even within the brown macroalgae, there’s varieties among species, so that’s important. And another key thing is that the region where it’s harvested plays a huge, huge role. So this is an issue in terms of food safety that has to be addressed and has to be researched further to make sure that if it is specifically a brown seaweed – to monitor the waters and to monitor the quality of the products coming out of those areas.
Have there been any efforts to improve the taste on crickets?
RICK WEISS: Interesting. Great. A question here from Jenny Splitter, who is also a freelancer we’ve worked with, for Dr. Lesnik. Have there been any efforts to improve the taste on crickets, specifically the mealiness? (Laughter) That sounds like a subjective judgment there, but there you go.
JULIE LESNIK: I don’t know. I can’t speak on the mealiness. I don’t – I’ve never actually used that adjective for it. But I think that the biggest thing people are doing is just grinding them up into powder, you know? So if you just get – if you get rid of the legs and the eyes and the antennae and you make it into something that doesn’t remind us of a bug – even though we eat crabs that are giant sea bugs – but, you know, the thing – there are people that are, like, playing around with, like, finishing them with basil and seeing if, like, you know, if they eat basil last, do they taste like basil? So, I mean, there’s people, like, artisan raising them and testing those things out.
But for the most part, people are not messing around with sort of, like, selective breeding yet to adjust for taste. I believe they’ll be in the future. But I just wanted to point out something really interesting. Like, sort of similarities between insects and, you know, what my colleagues we’re talking about is that, similarly, like, we are still in an R&D phase with understanding, processing and growing. What’s the shelf life? All of these questions that we were just talking about for algae are very relevant to insects as well and, similar to the cultured meat, scale, right? So most cricket farms have been very small. So thinking about a Nestle-bought, you know, large facility – what the impacts of that would be. So we don’t really know scale. We don’t really know all of the details of processing. It’s still a very young field, and most of the work is being done, really, to change perceptions right now.
What are the challenges for scaling up cultured meat bioreactors?
RICK WEISS: We have a similar question, actually, for Dr. Krueger, which asks from Max Levy, a freelance science reporter, what are some of the challenges for scaling up cultured meat bioreactors?
KATE KRUEGER: Definitely. So the number one challenge for scaling up cultured meat bioreactors is the media, or the food for the cells. So traditionally, a lot of the media sources for cells that would be used for something like cultured meat tend to be really expensive for a few different reasons. They usually either contain a fraction of fetal cow blood, which would make products not vegan and is also fairly expensive, or they would contain recombinant proteins so proteins that you would make in different cell lines and through largely expensive processes. So costs on the media is going to need to come down drastically for cultured meat to become an affordable product on the market. Besides that, bioreactor design really hasn’t been scaled effectively yet. So we still don’t know exactly what kinds of bioreactors should be used for scaled production, so that’s going to be a big, open question in the field.
Are there any advances for making low-cost, animal-free serum or nutrients?
RICK WEISS: We have a closely related question. Perhaps you’ve answered it as much as possible, but I’ll mention this from Melody Bomgardner. She’s at Chemical & Engineering News – asking you, Dr. Krueger, you know, of any specific advances for making low-cost, animal-free serum or nutrients. Are there any more details on that, how those nutrients are going to be made?
KATE KRUEGER: Yeah, definitely. So there are some companies that do make proprietary formulations of these products, so it’s not as though they aren’t available, and it’s not as though these processes are impossible. There’s likely some R&D that will need to be done to get them low enough cost to make things like meat, for instance. Oftentimes, those alternatives I’ve talked about tend to be fairly high-cost. And also, their formulae aren’t really available. But this is fairly tractable science, so I suspect there will be a solution to it in not all that long.
Are there deep-pocketed companies that are already working on cultured meat? Or is it still largely an academic exercise?
RICK WEISS: And are there deep-pocketed companies that are already in this area? Or is it still largely an academic exercise?
KATE KRUEGER: So far, there are a number of startups that are actively engaged in questions like this – over 20. And there are some large companies that are getting very interested in this topic. So I think that may be on the horizon if it hasn’t happened yet.
Are there insect diseases that one needs to worry about in farm-raised insects?
RICK WEISS: Question for Dr. Lesnik – are there insect diseases that one needs to worry about in farm-raised insects?
JULIE LESNIK: So anything that – not zoonotic diseases – like, nothing that we’re worried about contracting ourselves. So, of course, there’s, like, a fungus that could kill a cricket population, and so it’s a problem for production for the cricket farmers, but nothing in terms of contracting ourselves. And part of that is, in terms of zoonotic diseases, we’re more likely to transfer diseases to closely related species. So a cow is at much greater risk of harming us than an insect, which is so distantly related to us. Another point that I can bring up here is that thinking about this transfer of diseases, so much of our issue in our agricultural system is from runoff of agricultural waste. So we have problems with spinach and lettuce having E. coli, but it’s not the spinach and lettuce that have that E. coli. It’s runoff from the concentrated feeding operations of cows and pigs. And so, one, insects don’t have those diseases that are so easily transferable to us. But, two, the waste is so much easier to manage with insects. They produce a fluffy, powdery waste that we call frass. And it’s really easy to collect that and use it for fertilizer – and kind of continue a kind of more of a closed-loop food system being the ultimate kind of goal with insects as food. So it really is not a concern. But so many people think of insects as disease transmitters. But that’s ’cause, like, if we were wild foraging them, you don’t know if they went through the cow runoff. Like, that’s really the problem. But them themselves, especially if they’re farmed for human consumption, are completely safe.
RICK WEISS: Fluffy waste – that’s got to be the first time I’ve heard those two words together.
JULIE LESNIK: (Laughter).
How is global warming affecting what consumers choose to eat? Or what is available to eat? How does that factor into the capacity to grow crickets, seaweed, or produce cultured meat products?
RICK WEISS: That’s interesting. OK. Let’s see. We have something from Amanda McCracken (ph), who’s a freelance reporter, asking if any of the panelists could speak about how concerns about global warming or how global warming itself really may be affecting what foods consumers may choose to eat or may have available to eat and whether that might affect the capacity to grow some of the foods we’re talking about here, positively or negatively. Maybe we could just work through all three of you to see about how climate change intersects with the work you’re doing. Dr. Lesnik, you want to start?
JULIE LESNIK: Yeah. One is that, with climate change, we’re worried about things like our fresh water and all of that. And so people are looking at insects as a way of using these resources more efficiently. But one thing that made me think of that I wanted to bring up here is another kind of problem with kind of global climate change right now is what people are calling an insect apocalypse, meaning we have so many insect species going extinct right now. There are more insect species than we could ever count. We have no idea how biodiverse they are, but we know their numbers are reducing. And so a lot of times, when I talk about edible insects in terms of this sort of climate change, looking for new food resources, I’ll often get pushback. It’s like, but no, there’s an insect apocalypse; how could you say we should be eating insects? And what I’m talking about is farmed insects. And that’s actually the best thing we can do for an insect apocalypse because the – in terms – if we can eat more of our protein coming from insect food sources, we’re eating less soy; we’re eating less cow that’s being fed the corn and whatever, and so we’re using less pesticides. All of that requires pesticides, and that’s hurting our insects in this insect apocalypse. And so by eating insects, we’re using those resources less and reducing our reliance on pesticides.
RICK WEISS: Dr. Skonberg, what’s going on with food from the sea with regard to climate change?
DENISE SKONBERG: Well, with regards to the things I was talking about today, particularly the seaweeds and the green crab, with regards to seaweed, there is a concern about it, particularly, here because in the U.S., we’re looking at some of the – developing some of these seaweed species. We’re looking at ones – we’re starting off by looking at ones that do well in temperate waters, and that includes things like sugar kelp, bull kelp. I mean, there’s a lot of kelps – so a lot of the kelp species and also dulse, which also does really well in these kind – this kind of environment. And so there’s a concern. It’s, like, we’re starting to launch into growing these, and now as the water is starting – already starting to warm up, are these species that we’ve chosen – are they going to do very well? And so one of the big ways to try and combat that is that people who are actually phycologists, which are actually people who study seaweeds themselves as opposed to food scientists – they’re looking at the genetic diversity, going out globally and trying to find and study which ones would do well – do better as the environment starts to warm up.
And specifically, of the kelps that we’re growing here in Maine, one of the kelps called winged kelp, they found, will probably do better as the Gulf of Maine waters start to warm up and may – they may outperform something like sugar kelp, which has been the predominant crop that’s been raised so far. So yeah, it is an important issue. And just in general, I would say ensuring the genetic diversity of the seaweed species that are grown – that’s really, really key and something that the farmed fish industry didn’t really think about when they took off. And I feel like we know now that genetic diversity is so important in agricultural populations. And so since we’re just starting to launch this year, I feel that that needs to inform all the decisions that are made about what types of seaweed species are grown here. So I think it’s really, really important. And we do have an advantage by knowing this ahead of time.
RICK WEISS: You make a good point.
DENISE SKONBERG: Yeah. And with regards to green crab, some of the researchers that have been looking into it are saying that the warming waters is making their numbers go up even faster.
RICK WEISS: I just saw the report that 2019 was the warmest year on record yet for ocean temperatures – so something to watch for. Great. And Dr. Krueger on climate change?
KATE KRUEGER: Yes. I couldn’t agree more. So climate change is definitely something on people’s minds when they get interested in cellular agriculture. That’s one of the top concerns people cite when they reach out to us. And the good news is that it seems quite likely that cellular agriculture processes will be better in terms of reduced energy costs and reduced water needs. So while there’s no guarantee on that based on those life cycle assessments that I mentioned earlier, it does seem like there’s some promise for that, especially when algae is used as a starting material to feed the cells.
What happens to the waste generated in bioreactors once cells are done using or growing in the media?
RICK WEISS: Great. And another question for you, Dr. Krueger, from Knvul Sheikh at The New York Times, asking, what happens to the waste generated in bioreactors once cells are done using or growing in the media? And are there any solutions that might help the waste problem as cellular agriculture scales up?
KATE KRUEGER: That’s a great question. So there’s been a lot of talk about this. Well, production has not been scaled, so this hasn’t really hit the market in any way. None of the bioreactors are creating waste yet at scale. There’s a lot of talk about how one could make the system circular and could filter used media and put it back in the system to especially save things like water. Certain components may be used up through the production of meat, so those would need to be replenished if there were a filtration sort of system. But that could likely be a way to reduce waste streams.
Are these future foods going to end up being niche foods for the wealthy, or are they going to help solve problems of global hunger around the world?
RICK WEISS: Through the magic of – and instantaneity of Twitter, I can now tell you that Knvul’s name is actually Knvul, not Ka-nu-vul (ph). The N is silent. OK. We move on – for the record. Something from Karen Coates (ph), asking, basically, whether some of these foods that we’re talking about in the future are going to end up really being just niche foods for the wealthy, or are they really going to help solve problems of global hunger around the world? It certainly seems at the beginning like it’s going to be expensive. Does anyone want to address that question?
KATE KRUEGER: I’m happy to jump in because…
RICK WEISS: Wow. There’s three answers.
KATE KRUEGER: Apologies. Cellular agriculture is often cited as something that will likely be very expensive at first. The Impossible Burger had high costs when it first came out relative to other ground meat products, and it’s likely that cellular agricultural products will as well. That said, I think there’s a big drive to reduce those costs. And as R&D is scaled, those costs will naturally come down. So I think the goal is really widespread consumption. And I think it’s possible that these products may be able to have added benefits relative to those of conventional meat, such as nutraceuticals, potentially, or other health implications that could be really positive relative to standard meat that’s available. So I think that’s certainly a goal of the space, something that everyone’s working towards. Although, likely, it will be expensive first before those costs come down. Yeah.
RICK WEISS: Anyone else want to weigh in on that dynamic?
JULIE LESNIK: So yeah. I can say something about insects as food in that regard. So the – in terms of it as feeding hungry people – so one of the benefits I see of insects as food in this is actually its ability to help solve these problems of hunger because one wonderful thing about it is that you can farm them for yourself at a small scale that is very cost-effective. It’s not a lot of startup equipment. It’s just a plastic box with different trays. So it’s really easy to provide for people. The problem is the stigma and especially if we’re thinking about going to other countries and being like, well, we don’t eat bugs in the U.S., but, here, we think you should – is incredibly insulting. The other problem is that even in countries where people do eat insects, they don’t eat all species of insects, so they have insects they choose to eat, and they have ones they also find disgusting. So it’s a lot about kind of the culture change of it. But the potential of being able to control your own protein source through farming your own insects is great.
DENISE SKONBERG: Yeah.
RICK WEISS: Go ahead.
DENISE SKONBERG: Actually, I would like to say something about – starting off with the seaweed – in fact, in this country, seaweed is currently a niche market. But what I would like to see, if we can get away from just the dried products – to see it more like a vegetable, to have a wide variety of vegetables in the supermarket next to your kale and your spinach, having a variety of fresh seaweeds there as well. And I think it’ll be a while to get there. And it’s not so much – yes, production – things have to be overcome. But I think a lot of it just has to do with getting consumers used to trying new kinds of food products. And, in fact, lots of people don’t eat many different kinds of vegetables. I mean, I know people who only eat corn and potato. So they’re not going to start eating it, but I think a lot of other people would. And with regards to sea – with the rest of the world, lots of the world already – we already – tons of people in Asia are already consuming lots and lots of seaweed. So it’s not like it’s a really expensive kind of product that’s only for the elite. And with regards to green crab, I envision that that would be a – it would be a very low-cost product. The main thing is figuring out how to transform it into a way that people are really going to want to eat those products.
Are cellular alternatives to eggs a possibility?
RICK WEISS: We have another question from Max Levy, freelance reporter. Are cellular alternatives to eggs a possibility? Or are the resources required per calorie not as high as for beef or chicken beaks (ph)?
KATE KRUEGER: That’s a great question. So I’ve never heard of any attempts to use cellular agriculture whole cells to make eggs. That said, there are a lot of efforts to make the proteins for eggs, both proteins that are similar – kind of simulacra proteins that are from plants, which would not be cellular agriculture, and different kinds of protein technologies that involve the use of genetic modification to create the products, which are cellular agriculture. So there’s currently a company called Clara Foods that’s doing this production right now. So that would be the best example of these processes.
RICK WEISS: So with egg proteins, I could imagine a cell-based scrambled but maybe not a hard-boiled or over-medium.
KATE KRUEGER: Yes. Most likely, at first, at least.
Are there other promising insects being evaluated as food sources other than crickets?
RICK WEISS: Cool. A general question for Dr. Lesnik, it looks like – are there other promising insects being evaluated as food sources other than crickets? Because for someone out here with a hankering for bugs, but they’re not really crazy about crickets, what options can we offer them?
JULIE LESNIK: The other insect that we have kind of data on to start farming for human consumption is mealworms. So both crickets and mealworms have a long-established pet food trade – so actually farming them for an industry. And so the regulations – and this is a question that didn’t come up that I just want to speak on quick is sort of the regulations that aren’t quite there yet that are allowing this industry to grow as it potentially could. For instance, like, the FDA has regulations on how many insect parts you can accidentally eat but no real good regulations on if you choose to eat insects.
So a lot of the large buyers are kind of waiting for those regulations to come through because they want to know that they can trust the sources. And that totally makes sense. But the one thing that people are able to do is – one, the regulations are state by state. And the one thing that is being done is that it just needs to – the insects need to be produced at a facility just for human consumption, so when you’re eating crickets or mealworms that are farmed from these facilities, you – they’re not the same as the pet food. The standards of cleanliness in the processing facilities are what are there for processing any food for humans. But the technology – that’s where we had a leg up and a good place to start. So there is – in terms of taste, mealworms are nuttier, when crickets have a little bit more of a seafood taste, so they do have a more pungent, strong flavor, a kind of a strong aroma. And mealworms tend to blend in easier, more like nuts. However, mealworms are a beetle larva, so you have to – the harvesting is a little trickier because you have to catch them in that life stage as opposed to crickets that we eat in their adult form.
Are there opportunities to expand seaweed and other ocean-cultured foods in deeper regions of the ocean?
RICK WEISS: Got it. All right. A question from Ivan Amato, who’s the editor of The Moonshot Catalog – are there opportunities to expand seaweed and other ocean-cultured foods in deeper regions of the ocean? What opportunities are there to expand mariculture? And if so, what concerns would accompany expansion into some of those areas?
DENISE SKONBERG: Yeah. I read a paper about this recently. Again, I don’t – I’m not involved in the actual production, but yes, there are concerns about just growing them in near-shore coastal waters because there’s the potential to interfere with other users. And so there is work that’s being done to try and take it out into deeper water. And I’d say the major concerns that have to be solved with that are engineering, right? There’s a lot of engineering issues that need to be addressed to make sure that they can grow them out there. And one of the things I read said what they’d be interested in is growing them out in deep-sea waters away from shipping, away from, like, coastal utilization – most of the growth cycle out there. And then when they’re almost ready to be harvested, then bringing it in – like, if it’s being grown on rafts or something like that, bringing that in to the near-shore area just prior to harvest. But that is a lot of aquaculture engineering that needs to be addressed to make sure – to actually make that feasible on a large scale.
What metrics are important to think about when using insects and algae as livestock or aquaculture feed?
RICK WEISS: Great. And we’re just about wrapping up. I do have a follow-up question here from Melody Bomgardner at Chemical & Engineering News, asking, what metrics, such as LCA or cost, are important to think about when using insects and algae or seaweed as livestock or aquaculture feed?
JULIE LESNIK: So I can speak to that, quickly – is that, in terms of insects for livestock feed, our industry for that is way beyond where we are for insects as human food. So we’re kind of able to let them do a lot of the R&D, and then we can kind of follow behind. And they’re getting funding. They have a lot better funding coming from government agencies because the idea of feeding bugs to an animal is much easier to get by reviewers than feeding bugs to people. And so the insect species that’s being researched the most there is black soldier fly larvae. Black soldier fly larvae eat anything. They’re incredibly wonderful at reducing waste, so you can feed them any kind of leftover waste foods, and then they can convert it into bioavailable nutrients that you can then feed to chicken and fish and other livestock. So a lot of the work is being done on that species. Like life-cycle analysis, like breeding, like males, females, like, how do you get the optimum breeding quality – these – like, all of this is being done in that field, where it isn’t quite there for humans.
And so there’s an abundant literature out there for black soldier flies in terms of their life-cycle assessment and these costs things that aren’t quite there for insects. So that’s about the basics that I can give you. But it’s really easy to kind of find more info on them if you go look.
Once cultured meat is available to consumers, could we expect any kind of health benefits?
RICK WEISS: Great. I think we have one last question here, and this has to do with cultured meat, asking whether – once it’s available to consumers, could we expect any kind of health benefits? Is it not simply the environmental benefits of not using animals, but might this be even better for us than meat?
KATE KRUEGER: Quite possibly. So I think that’s one of the real key potential benefits of cellular agriculture – is, once you’ve gone to all the trouble of growing cells individually for food production and got them in a bioreactor and got them growing, you’ve overcome a number of technical hurdles. And what that would mean is a lot of other modifications to those cells might be, by comparison, a bit straightforward. So that would include potentially growing cells that produce their own antioxidants or growing cells with healthier fats so that, in theory, you could get a better omega-3 profile similar to salmon, for instance. Those would be two pretty straightforward examples. Also, depending on the scaffold materials used – so what the cells are growing on – it’s quite possible you could up the fiber content of meat. So people might get a healthier meat that way. There are real – the possibilities are endless. So it’s – once you’ve got that much modification going on, you can kind of think about how the sky’s the limit a little bit for where you could go with that.
RICK WEISS: An inspiring wrap, I think, there. I want to thank our three experts – Dr. Lesnik, Dr. Skonberg, Dr. Krueger – for fascinating presentations and Q&A today. I want to remind folks who are tuned in right now of three things. One, we encourage you to come to us when you need help with your stories. Don’t forget our matching service, where we can hook you up on deadline with all kinds of experts to help you get more actual research results and science into your stories. Follow us on Twitter – @RealSciLine. And one last thing – those of us who are – those of you who are attending right now, when you shut this thing down, will get a notification for a short survey. This literally will take you 30 seconds, and it will literally help us do a better job as we move forward with future media briefings and other activities. So please take those 30 seconds and answer three quick questions for us to help us out. We appreciate that. And we appreciate all of you being involved today. Thanks. And we look forward to talking to many of you again at the next SciLine media briefing.