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How synthetic biology will — and maybe won’t — change the future of food

How synthetic biology will — and maybe won’t — change the future of food


Biologist Christina Agapakis on lab-grown meat, labeling, and sustainability

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More than a century ago, dairy farmers sounded the alarm on margarine, insisting that it wasn’t really butter, and it therefore needed to be classified differently. Today, the Food and Drug Administration is hosting a public meeting on lab-grown meat, including the question of whether it should be called “meat.”

Lab-grown meat is getting all the attention, but it’s far from the only product that will run into these labeling questions. Many researchers in the field of synthetic biology are using technology to create flavors and fragrances that wouldn’t occur naturally, according to Christina Agapakis, a biologist who is the creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks. Gingko, a Boston-based synthetic biology company, doesn’t engineer lab-grown meat directly, but its scientists genetically engineer microbes to make perfume and food. The Verge spoke to Agapakis about the state of cultured meat, the link between synthetic biology and sustainability, and the future of food.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

It seems like this discussion about labeling synthetic foods is going to have repercussions beyond lab-grown meat. What are some of the parallels that you see in the field of synthetic biology as a whole?

There’s certainly a greater debate than just the one around meat. For example, genetically engineered microbes: are those natural or artificial? On the regulatory side, they are labeled as “natural” because they come from plants, but there’s certainly this ambiguity around it. Even though something produced from a genetically engineered microbe might be biological, it doesn’t feel like what most people think of as “natural.” The debate is ongoing, and it fits into an even bigger one going back 100 years about whether margarine is real butter.

The thing is, the consumer cares about how things are made. There’s a reason to make things using synthetic biology. For a lot of products, you can make things in a way that’s more sustainable or ethically sourced than usual.

There is no silver bullet

Can you give me an example of how synthetic biology makes something more sustainable?

For example, if you wanted to make enough natural rose fragrance to go into laundry detergent, you’d need more land than exists on Earth to grow the roses. So there is a sense that if you can make some of these compounds and fermentation, it lowers the environmental and land cost for growing these specialty ingredients. And you can have access to things that are now limited because they are endangered, like sandalwood for high-end perfumes.

So we want people to know that something is being created more sustainability. At Gingko at least, we are advocates for GMO labeling and for specific labeling of all these ingredients.

GMO labeling has been controversial, right? Because of the fear that people will misunderstand it and not buy it?

Right, but I don’t think that’s actually borne out in the research. There was a paper recently about how labeling GMOs makes people more less opposed. I think it limits some of that fear. You know, “If you’re hiding it from me, it must be bad.” Other studies suggest it doesn’t impact sales either.

And when it comes to cultured meat, the whole point of it is to say that it’s cultured meat, right? Show people how it’s made and how traditional meat is made, too. That said, right now, cultured meat is a speculative conversation, and a lot of the labeling discussion is premature compared to what the technology is.

There’s a lot of talk, but it’s not on the market yet.

I don’t think cultured meat is approaching the kind of costs that you’d need to put something on the market and compete against real meat. It’s expensive to make. It’s still multiplying tissue and building it up piece by piece.

There are technical complications, too. If you’re making a steak to get the right texture, the muscle must have “exercised,” in a sense. You can’t just grow it in a dish because that wouldn’t have the right texture. So people aren’t talking about steaks yet. What you can make is limited.

A lot of the cost is just labor cost. And then the cost of the serum and the materials to grow it are not insignificant. Serum is the irony of in vitro meat today, right? I don’t see a solution that doesn’t use serum, and that serum comes from slaughtered cows, so it’s still a byproduct of the meat industry. It’s just further downstream.

In general, what are the big issues with scaling these sorts of projects?

Each individual project will have its own unique technical challenges. One of the biggest issues of scale is thinking about competition with what it’s trying to replace. Think about biofuels. They’ve had this incredible challenge because the cost of oil is so low. And likewise, cultured meat is going to have an incredible challenge. Meat is cheap. It’s a commodity, and it’s really hard to compete with commodities. And, of course, the meat industry has a lot of lobbyists. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

With synthetic biology and the future of food, there’s no silver bullet. There’s no sure thing. There’s nothing inevitable. They’re going to evolve and grow and change, and how that happens is going to play out over the course of the debate. I hope we do get to a point where we see that transparency with synthetic foods, like “Let me tell you everything about how we make meat, both in the lab and in the slaughterhouses, too.”