WASHINGTON — The development of cellular agriculture, which is the food grown in factories from cells or yeast, depending on how it occurs, contains the potential to either provide beneficial alternatives to the status quo or accelerate socioeconomic inequality, a study said.

The new study was led by Penn State University researchers, who assessed the potential trajectories for a new technology that synergizes computer science, biopharma, tissue engineering, and food science to grow cultured meat, dairy, and egg products from animal cells and/or genetically modified yeast.

The study was published in Agriculture and Human Values.

The entities that currently are best positioned to capitalize on these innovations are large companies, as per researcher Robert Chiles, assistant professor of rural sociology, College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Nonetheless, new technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart agriculture, bioengineering, synthetic biology, and 3D printers are also being used to decentralize and personalize food manufacturing,” he said.

“They have the potential to democratize ownership and mobilize alternative economic organizations devoted to open-source licensing, member-owned cooperatives, social financing, and platform business models.”

Although cellular meat is not yet widely available to consumers, its proponents believe cellular agriculture could reduce land, water, and chemical inputs, minimize greenhouse gas emissions, improve food safety, optimize nutrition, and eliminate the need to raise and slaughter large numbers of animals for food.

However, cellular agriculture could also concentrate ownership and power in the global food system by displacing ranchers, farmers, fishermen, and ancillary industries.

The latter possibility has led to widespread concern that cellular agriculture could accelerate the concentration of wealth and diminish public participation in agriculture — all while offering fewer environmental and nutritional benefits than promised.

Chiles’ paper recently was honored with the 2020 Roy C. Buck Award in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Over the past decade, scholars have explored a broad spectrum of socioeconomic and ethical questions about this technological approach, said Chiles.

However, Chiles said, this scholarship has done little to explore the mechanisms that might facilitate a more just and equitable development of this sector.

To assess cellular agriculture’s potential trajectories, Chiles and colleagues attended 11 cellular agriculture and alternative economic organization events held around the United States over two years, interviewing critical experts at those conferences and summits, asking how they think the industry will develop and should develop.

Likewise, the researchers collected data from an additional 21 conferences online.

The study’s findings affirm the argument for increased public investments in open-source research and education on cellular agriculture, particularly for community and household-level production. The paper is publicly available through open access.

The jury is still out on how cellular agriculture will develop in the U.S. and around the world, Chiles said.

This research — which engaged innovators and early adopters in the field about whether this emerging technology will further concentrate wealth and power in the global food system — yielded valuable clues, Chiles said.

“Government investments in publicly accessible digital infrastructures could help to facilitate a more just transition, as could public policies that protect workers’ rights and consumer privacy,” he said.

“Stakeholders who are concerned about the justice and equity implications of cellular agriculture may ultimately find more success by engaging with how these technologies are being developed rather than avoiding them or trying to eradicate them.”

(With inputs from ANI)

Edited by Saptak Datta and Praveen Pramod Tewari

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