National Newswatch

Ottawa—Canada has to come to grips with the growing global demand for protein that can most likely only be filled through cellular agriculture, says Deb Stark, former Ontario deputy agriculture minister.

Agriculture has always been open to disruption but the level of change at this time is unprecedented, said Stark, a member of the board of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI). “From robotics, to spectrum-specific LED bulbs, to artificial intelligence, it’s almost impossible to predict what’s next.”

Cellular ag is rapidly emerging yet there is no universally agreed upon definition or terminology. Stark considers it as both the process of culturing animal cells in a lab to create meat or seafood and altering simple organisms such as yeast and algae to create products such as milk or egg proteins. There are plenty of examples of the new products on the market already.

With the global demand for protein on the rise, alternate proteins could secure 10 per cent to 20 per cent of meat and dairy markets in the next 20 years, she said in a series of articles advising the government on agriculture policy. “Agriculture ministers should be nurturing these new technologies, while also working with the current agrifood system.

“It might be tempting for a new ag minister to leave this file in the hands of the economic development department. After all, cellular ag happens in stainless steel vats, not on the land or in the barn. These businesses are run by protein engineers and fermentation experts not farmers or meat packers. The sector needs are similar to any other – capital, talent and scale-up infrastructure.”

It would be a mistake for agriculture ministers not to nurture these new technologies, while also working with the current agrifood system, she said. Cellular ag “would enable Canada to decrease its dependence on commodities and export more higher value food products. The core feedstocks for cellular ag include proteins and sugars that the existing Canadian system is well equipped to supply. Exports aside, building diversity into the Canadian food system helps build resiliency, something COVID has taught us to appreciate.”

The agriculture minister also has to be ready for the disruption cellular ag will cause to existing animal industries in Canada probably starting with dairy and eggs.

“Finally, and maybe most importantly, this new technology needs to be introduced thoughtfully if we want to gain the full benefit. There are questions about consumer acceptance. About its role in reducing food insecurity. We need to understand the full range of environmental impacts.”

The sector will need to be regulated and do that, “We must learn from lessons of the past. Food is complex and ever evolving. There’s much more to consider than merely economics, taste and nutrition. Failure to consider social, cultural, political, and environmental factors can lead to significant setbacks.”

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