Insect “labriculture”: Could cultured insect protein be a viable solution for the new food frontier?
Cultured insect tissue could combine the planet-saving capacities of insect farming, GM livestock, cellular agriculture and plant-based meat substitutes
04 Jun 2019 --- Lab-grown insect meat, fed on plants and genetically modified for maximum growth, nutrition and flavor, could be a viable and even a “superior” green alternative for high volume, healthy food production. This is according to researchers at Tufts University, writing in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, who are proposing cultured insect protein as a potential solution to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain, coral reef degeneration, deforestation and climate change, which are resulting from conventional meat farming.
One advantage of insect cell culture is that large-scale production has been successfully employed for the recombinant protein production industry – a pharmaceutical industry that uses cells as factories to generate therapeutic products. “We can learn from experiments and processes associated with the insect cell culture for recombinant protein production industry and translate the findings to be helpful for insect cell culture for food,” lead author Natalie Rubio tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “Alterations necessary for large-scale production are also simpler to achieve with insect cells, which are currently used for biomanufacture of insecticides, drugs and vaccines.”
“However, it would take substantial effort to transition the process from pharmaceutical applications to food applications. For example, for food applications, the scale must be larger and the cost must be lower,” she reveals.
But for other types of meat within the cellular agriculture space, proof of concept in scalability has already been provided, which may point towards the same outcome for lab-grown insect meat in the foreseeable future. Singaporean start-up Shiok Meats has successfully cultivated approximately 25g of lab-grown shrimp meat within four to six weeks. On a larger production scale, the team predicts it will be possible to produce “thousands or even tons” of shrimp meat in the same or shorter amount of time, and forecasts a debut in premium Singaporean restaurants in 2020.
Research in lab-grown insect meat at Tufts University is, at present, strictly academic. “I do not have a prediction for when cultured insect protein could realistically be commercialized,” Rubio stresses. “This is a currently a small project and a great deal of research and development is required before the concept could be feasible. Donations to and support of research organizations like New Harvest will directly accelerate the types of research that will help the field progress towards commercialization.”
The fledgling industry for insect meat as a whole is calling for more steadfast regulatory policies. This was demonstrated last month, when the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) reaffirmed the need to establish EU food hygiene standards for the insect sector while fostering transparent communication along the food and feed chain.
What defines “sustainable”?
Authors of the Tufts University report highlight a gap to be filled in the space of meat-alternatives, where soy- or mushroom-based substitutes “just don't hit the spot” – and some plant crops are “as thirsty as livestock.” Moreover, lab-grown beef, pork or chicken cells might require even more energy and resources than livestock farming, as noted by a previous study by the Oxford Martin School.
“There has been a great deal of public interest in cultured meat recently, and many articles highlight the potential for substituting cattle beef with cultured meat to provide an important climate benefit,” says lead author of the Oxford Martin School study Dr. John Lynch. “We show that it is not yet clear whether this is the case, partly because of uncertainties about how cultured meat would be produced at scale.”
Lab-grown insect meat may prove its potential in squeezing water and space savings furthest of all, without compromising on taste. In addition, insect farming has a much lower water and space requirement – “think vertical farming” – and twice as much of a cricket is edible than of a big-boned, big-bellied cow. Unsurprisingly, however, creepy crawlies are proving even harder for consumers to swallow, the scientists concede.
“Compared to cultured mammalian, avian and other vertebrate cells, insect cell cultures require fewer resources and less energy-intensive environmental control, as they have lower glucose requirements and can thrive in a wider range of temperature, pH, oxygen and osmolarity conditions,” reports Rubio.
Research for these applications has led already to inexpensive, animal-free growth media for insect cells – including soy- and yeast-based formulas – as well as successful “suspension culture.”
“In most mammalian muscle cell culture systems, the cells have to be fixed in a single layer to a growth surface – which is complex to scale up for mass food production. Many insect cells, however, can be grown free-floating in a suspension of growth media to allow cost-effective, high-density cell generation,” Rubio explains.
Technology developed to stimulate movement of insect tissue for bio-robotics could also be applied to food production, since regular contraction may be required for cultured insect muscle to develop a ‘meaty’ texture. A particularly efficient method is optogenetic engineering, whereby cells are made to contract in response to light by introducing a new gene – another advantage of insect cells, which more readily accept genetic modifications than do other animal cells.
How will it taste?
The short answer, says Rubio, is that nobody knows. “Despite this immense potential, cultured insect meat is not ready for consumption. Research is ongoing to master two key processes: controlling development of insect cells into muscle and fat, and combining these in 3D cultures with a meat-like texture. For the latter, sponges made from chitosan – a mushroom-derived fiber that is also present in the invertebrate exoskeleton – are a promising option.”
Eventually, insect labriculture could turn up some altogether more familiar flavors. “Advances in insect cell culture and tissue engineering can potentially be translated to lobster, crab and shrimp, due to the evolutionary proximity of insects and crustaceans,” suggests Rubio.
“Due to the environmental, public health and animal welfare concerns associated with our current livestock system, it is vital to develop more sustainable food production methods,” she urges. “Genetically modified livestock, for example that produce less methane or resist disease, can do little to relieve issues like land and water degradation, deforestation and biodiversity loss.”
By Benjamin Ferrer
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