Limits to Growth for Precision Fermentation

Limits to Growth for Precision Fermentation

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So that was released this week where they they basically took the sequence for the wooly mammoth for a gene from the wooly mammoth. They synthetically made that that gene. They inserted that into lamb's cells and they grew up those cells and they made a one kilogram meatball called the Mammoth Ball. It's gone into a museum in Sweden. It's never going to be eaten.

You couldn't because we you know, the regulatory people would, you know, would never allow it because, you know, lots of reasons. But it's a fantastic piece of PR. Welcome back to Decouple. Today, I'm joined by Dr. Paul Wood for a very exciting discussion, at least one I've been looking forward to for a long time on the issue of precision fermentation and cultured meats.

As you guys know, as a couple of listeners, we occasionally touch on agricultural topics. We had Chana Prakash on an episode of How to Feed a Warming World, really diving into biotechnology and genetic engineering. Kenneth Katzman To look at precision agriculture.

But this is a different area. Indeed, and one that there's a lot of excitement about in the eco modernist community. RE Planet has a campaign going called Reboot Food. They've been flying, I should say flying, actually.

They've probably been putting them on a train, but they've been moving. George Monbiot around Europe in the lowest carbon fashion possible to to talk about this. And so I was cruising around LinkedIn and came across Professor Wood and he seems to have a lot of expertise in the area briefly.

Professor Wood, Adjunct Professor in biotechnology at Monash University, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology Sciences and Engineering, and in 2018 awarded an Order of Australia Medal for Distinguished Service to Science and Global Human and Animal Health. So, Dr. Wood Paul, if I may, welcome to decouple. FOLDS Very good for us Australians.

We don't go on formality. Okay. Paul. I mean, I've given you a and I know there's a lot more there in terms of your resume and, you know, we like to keep it pretty short in terms of introduction. But you know, what I enjoy about the people that I bring on the podcast is typically there are folks who have worked in industry who, you know, have gotten their hands dirty in some way, shape or form. You know, understand supply chains, understand a lot of the implications that lie behind some of the more glossy marketing based approaches to to things like, say, renewable energy or recombinant protein precision fermentation, I think as it's label now.

So with that in mind, if you could sort of give us maybe your top three kind of qualifications to talk about this area, I understand I think you've worked in pharmacy, which are in pharmaceuticals, which which has some tie ins. So. So go ahead. Yeah, I think the things that are most relevant for today's conversation is that, yeah, I've had a career of sort of four decades through academia, through CSIRO, which is a national science body here in Australia, but also probably most relevant is into industry. So companies like CSL, then I was running the R&D for the animal health division there and then they sold that to Pfizer and I eventually ended up in the US as head of global Discovery for Pfizer Animal Health and in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and that's the largest animal health company in the world. So we used fermentation was pretty standard. You know, we're vaccine manufacture, drug manufacture.

So it was my chimera with the whole principles of fermentation that got me interested in this topic. And what I find often when I'm debating some of this is I'm actually debating with people who have never actually touched a fermenter. So I find it really interesting when the technology really or, you know, fundamental technologies have the ability to ferment, you know, whether it's yeast or bacteria or mammalian cells, people have sort of skipped over that piece and they're really relying on somebody else.

And then when you when you track it back and say, well, who who is tech or who's statements that you're relying on, it's can be very hard to actually find that. So that's what brought me in because I started to see statements from, you know, the probably the big one was this Rethink X report in 2020 that said that the the red meat industry, the dairy industries would largely be bankrupt by 2030 because of that that precision fermentation and cell based meat would transform those industries. And I looked to that. I thought, that's just not right.

You know, that's, you know, so that's probably what brought me into the getting into sort of talking about it, because I just saw these statements as being completely false and not because I've got a problem with the idea of alternative proteins. It's just that, you know, from a technology point of view, these are really expensive technologies. So to use a really expensive technology and compete in a commodity market to me is a business one or one failure. You know, if you've got an expensive technology, you really want a premium product, you want a premium price to justify the cost of the tech. So that's sort of what brought me in. And then I almost have sort of become the cranky old white guy who's sort of saying, whoa, you know, this tech is not is not going to transform things.

That's that's probably the context in which I'm sitting here today. I mean, there's a very compelling narrative that the proponents of these technologies are, you know, basing, I think, a lot of their energy on in attracting a lot of the venture capital with. And that is, you know, this potentially thousand fold reduction in land footprint, you know, the end of animal cruelty. These are all things that I think most people can identify with and think are wonderful.

But, you know, certainly there is you know, I in terms of the wish test here, there is a lot of of wishful thinking. You know, I have to look through that, rethink report as well. The word disrupt is all over it. And one can't help but notice that a lot of the venture capital for these companies, a lot of the companies themselves are, you know, based in or around Silicon Valley. And, you know, we've seen in energy the ways that, you know, the thinking from the digital economy is not well applied to the physics of, you know, building power infrastructure, for instance. And so, you know, the application of Moore's Law, for instance, and this this expectation that solar will become infinitely cheaper.

I think I've also heard particularly in that rethink reports being applied to the technologies we're discussing today. George Monbiot as well, amazing speaker and advocate and activist. But I think someone else who's never well, I know he's been in one of these plants, but I don't think he's familiar with with the fermenters. Actually.

Generally what I find is people you know, firstly these groups are very articulate. They often media savvy. And so they set they tell a story that sounds pretty convincing. You know, they tell the all the these are all the problems and here we have the solution. And if we do a bit of modeling, of course we'll bring the price down.

So if we unpick some of that, one of the ones I, I particularly have a problem with is he will start with, well, we're going to have to field say 10 billion people by 2050 or, or 2100 and of course we'll have to use these technologies. Now the reality is we know exactly where those people will be. You know, look at the W.H.O. stats. They're in Africa, they're in India. They're not in New York. They're not in London. They're not in Sydney. We actually produce plenty of food for the Western.

We just distribute it very fairly. So that's the first question I ask people is, is your solution a solution for Africa where where 90% of the food that's produced in Africa is produced by smallholder farmers? This is someone who is earning less than $2 US a day. It's probably got a couple of cows. I was in Kenya three weeks ago visit a typical dairy farmer. She had two cows, but she's producing about 20 liters of milk a day, which is pretty good actually. So they're the people I look at and go, Well, are we providing a solution for you? Because we actually don't provide solutions for Africa.

We actually won't solve food security. So that's the first premise that's completely wrong, is that, you know, these are not people looking for an expensive burger. You know, then we get into the issues around energy, etc..

Look, these are fermentations in an energy hungry process. So again, not just myself, but lots of others have actually pointed out that if you didn't use completely renewable energy sources, you know, wind, solar, then you actually wouldn't be more sustainable than conventional meat production. And that's largely looking at the feed, the feedlots, etc., because, you know, the reality is if you're running

your animals on native pasture, you're pretty sustainable in the first place. So, yeah, we can get into a lot of a lot of those sort of debates. Yeah, look, use less land. Absolutely. If we put it in a factory and it's vertical, but transformation, as you said, is used very liberally. And I think fundamentally because of these issues around cost of goods, etc., we're looking at a very expensive product. You know, you know, somewhere in the vicinity of $100 a kilogram.

And we're not talking about a beautiful steak. We're actually talking about meatballs, hamburgers, sausages. So we're talking about the commodity ends of the meat market, you know, So that's the other just the practical reality is, you know, there's a what there is one product on the market people may have heard of. Again, in Singapore, you can get a cell based chicken nugget that's $20 a chicken nugget, and they don't make money on that.

They lose money on on that. So that sort of gives you the sort of idea now. Now, as you said, they'll say, hey, Moore's Law, you know, everything, the cost comes down. The interesting thing about Moore's Law is it's never been applied to a biological system. It's actually a it's it's actually physical science, you know, So they'll look at and I look at the the cost of sequencing DNA.

And you have to point out some that's actually a chemical reaction. That's not a biological system. The way we sequence. And so biology is really complex.

Cells won't grow above a certain density. You know, they don't like to sit in their own waste. They need a range of growth factors.

They won't grow in basic media. These are the things that make mammalian cells difficult to grow fussy, lot slower. You know, mammalian cell doubles in about 24 hours, you know, is a bacterium in about one hour. Before we go too much further, I just want to define a few terms. You know, I did some cell biology as part of my medical education, but it's having to dust off the textbooks here.

And we are talking about two processes that have something in common but are also quite different. So maybe if you can just, you know, again, and a pretty kind of 30,000 foot view some definitions around, you know, what is cultured meat versus precision fermentation and maybe some of the similarities and differences, you know, the recombinant technology from which I guess precision fermentation comes just to give an overview or listeners a bit of an overview of what it is. Exactly. So we have dived into it and without defining the terms, I agree.

Let's just so, so cell based meat is the concept that rather than eating the meat of a of an animal that I've grown and I, I slaughter that I take a biopsy from that animal, isolate out the, the muscle cells and I grow them in tissue culture. So starting off quite small, but eventually I get up to a ten. So 10,000 later four major and I growing those as a single cell suspension at some stage. I then change the media and I and, and I allow the cells to drift right into my fibers if starting to form muscle cells.

And then I harvest that material and then I'll use I produce products from that. So that's sort of cell based. So it's it's cells. Now, we use this technology very successful in the pharmaceutical industry, monoclonal antibodies as well, mostly.

So we grow cells and they, they secrete the monoclonal. We don't eat the cells. So we do know about how to grow cells at a large volume. So generally around about 10 to 20000. So the sort of maximum size and they're the top drugs in the world. So and vaccines, you know, some of the recent COVID vaccines were cell based.

So we grew viruses in cells and we harvested those. So the technologies have been around for a while and we know how to do it, as I said. But it's expensive technology. So that sort of the concept of cell based precision fermentation. Well, when I was a a young biology student, we called it recombinant protein production.

But precision fermentation is a lot six year terms. So that's what we get. It gets called now and it's essentially I take a single gene, something like myoglobin and I, I put that inside another organism, generally a yeast, because that we know how to manipulate them very well. That use cell grows up and it produces this it's a bit like the Trojan horse sort of concept that, you know, it releases the gene is it produces that protein and then I harvest that protein generally by rupturing the yeast cells and separating out the protein protein. I've now got a recombinant protein.

It's not impossible burger uses for its product. You know, they use them like they grow up and they produce a recombinant he and they put that into their burger to give the burger the the presence that it looks like it's bleeding. It has the smell of meat because it's the heme molecule that does that.

But people are also doing it with dairy proteins, they're doing it with enzymes. So precision fermentation, that's the concept there. The cost issue is not anywhere as big as it is with with cell based meat. So there are range.

So Perfect Day is making a range of products, you know, with with dairy proteins, for instance, and rennet, which we use for making of cheese, that we've been doing that for decades, you know, so they're the basic technologies. So I mean, what you see a lot and we see this in energy as well, is, you know, for instance, within, you know, green hydrogen production, you see these great pilot projects. They attract a lot of media. Usually there's a bunch of venture capital behind it. There's a little bit of a moral hazard there because there's certainly a reason why journalists might have an incentive in one shape or form to to hype a technology, whether it's commercial or whether it's just, you know, listen, we're facing a number of potentially existential threats in the form of climate or the biodiversity crisis. I think there's a very natural human impulse towards hope, towards finding hope, you know, in an environment of doom.

And but but these pilot projects have real issues with scaling. And I think that would probably be one of your your big criticism of sort of the errors and how we think about them. But can you tell us a bit more about the you mentioned the the chicken nugget in Singapore? The chicken nugget. So this is a product that is produced by a little manufacturer in Singapore on behalf of good meat, but they only really use sort of up to 510 year leadership ventures. So it's what we've called pretty small scale and they only produce a couple of thousand pounds of the product.

So it's it's really a PR exercise. It's one to demonstrate that we can get a license product in the market. The final product actually is a combination of those cells, the chicken cells, they harvest and plant products.

So it's about 70% chicken cells and about 30% plant based material. So it's a what we call a hybrid hybrid product. And the reality is most of the products that will come on the market will be these hybrid products, because the trouble about when you harvest cells at the end, you've got this wet mess of what we call a cell slurry, you know, and you've got to get you've got to get all that water out, but then you've got to generally put some structure in it. So you you generally add plant based material or fiber to give it some sort of structure. You know, when I was a young kid, you know, meat bristles were popular. You take a bit of mince, they mix it with with carrot and and other plant proteins to create a rustle.

You know, all we're doing now is taking that cell slurry and mixing it with with other other compounds largely had plant based. The other interesting thing is, of course, I'm only growing a single cell. Most people, you know, the concept was we grew muscle cells. Some people have moved away from that. We can talk about that.

But remember, a piece of steak is lots of different cells. So there are muscle cells there, there are fat cells, there's connective tissue, there's there's blood cells there. So what people do have to do is actually, you know, to get anywhere near that nutrition of mate legs, you have to add things back that had some source of fat. Now they can grow fat cells and add that back. So that's another expense.

Or they can add plant based fats left. That means there'll be no B12 there, for instance. So that's the other really interesting thing is people make this statement, all cell based meat is like real meat. Well, let's say it's actually not like real ethanol. It has no structure related.

It only has certain components of of meat. So nutritionally, we have to also be very careful with the ends that we don't end up producing a product that is less nutritious than red meat and that often gets forgotten. Walk me through what these factories look like and what's being suggested and proposed. You know what? What's the biggest thing that's been made so far? I understand. Start small batch and work your way up. But I really like as hard as it is to paint a you know, a kind of verbal representation of what these what these installations in factories look like.

So do your best to walk us through that and describe the production process. All right. So let's let's talk about what like if I thought a 10,000 lead us mentor, let's just talk a little bit now. No one's using that scale for a sell base at this stage, but let me just.

That's where they going, you know, So I've got to it's stainless steel because so it's a large stainless steel vessel. It generally occupies it's across, say, three floors of a building. So what you do is, is you build it such that at the top you can access the top of the tank. That's where you have all your sort of monitoring equipment, the middle sort of just sits, you know, in the space. You don't need to access the middle of a tank.

And then the bottom is where the effluent flows out. So often that's how you construct a factory. That's the sort of scale that people are going to. No one's near that scale at this stage to sell bass, but that's a fairly routine in the pharmaceutical industry. What I also have to do is I have to filter all the air, you know, and, and the staff that work in there are generally all completely in in like a hazmat suit, you know, because what we're trying to do is protect the cells from us, which was, you know, this is sterile culture.

This is, you know, long term, sterile culture. So the worst thing we can do is us as humans contaminate. I have to have positive pressure. So when I open a door, the air flows out of the room, because in that air is a whole lot of fungal spores. You know, you only have to take a slice of bread and leave it out on your bench at home for a little while and see what happens. You know, you can't see these fungi.

So it's it's very clean rooms. What we call, you know, we talk about in the bottom, we talk about a very clean room that is the surfaces are a coated with particular resin so that they're easy to clean down. The air is filtered, all the water is filtered. So it's a fairly sophisticated.

Now, what these people have said at times is, oh, we won't need to have all that stuff, all that extra tech that you pharmaceutical guys use. But I point out that that's actually to protect the cells, you know, so you actually will need and and the biggest factory probably has a pilot facility built by upside so in the US and they can produce I think it's about £50,000 of meat a year out of that facility. Now if you think about that, that's actually about £1,000 a week.

And then if you think about the white, you know, issue of comparable to red meat, that's about three carcasses. So that's about the weight of three carcasses. So that's from a meat production, that's a backyard butcher, you know, so that's we got to put scale. So people say, well, look, what we've done is scaled.

We actually haven't, you know that. And they call it a pilot. But that's so that's sort of where it's at now. They need to go well beyond that. People like good meat, people that have actually gone out and commission 250,000 liter fermenters and they're saying, well, we're going to go to scale, but we've never grown cells above 2010 or 20,000. So there's no scientific rationale to suddenly jump to that scale because cells and there's there's risk.

There's risk, too, that you mention. Right. If you get a containment. Yeah. Look, I. You know, I used to sort of try to get that risk across to people. It's sort of like, you know, this guy that I know and he builds five, five storey buildings, you know, and I suddenly say to him, well, I'd like you to build me a 250 storey building, which he's never done before. And then I'm going to put my family on the top floor.

You know, I mean, we're talking about tech that we haven't scaled. So to build a facility before you've demonstrated that is even feasible is really high risk, as I said. So settle down. So we actually generally in tanks, we have to have some way of steering them.

We can use propellers or we can use air. But of course, the bigger the tank, the more the air pressure we have to use and cells will rupture. You know, these are mammalian cells. They don't have a hard exterior. So that the you know, one of the problems of growing mammalian cells is like there was looking for a way to die or rupture. And then of course, we don't have a product at all.

So I think going about ten or 20,000 liters is really not sound science. And and some of the other cell based meat people have called that out. So so, you know, it's not just me, but it's other people like the you know, the CEO believe in me.

He's also said, you know, it's just from issues of sheer force on cells, you probably can't go above ten or 20,000 ladies. And that then becomes a problem in scale. You know, you can presume fermentation, you know, fit because you're looking there at yeast, etc.. Well, a lot hardier. So people do those ferments already at, say, 100,000 liters. And that's sort of where that has to get to. So we're seeing liberation labs in the US is commissioning a facility where they're going to have for 150,000 liter tanks.

So that's quite doable that that but that's yeast fermentation, not mammalian cells. So so the the issue, the technical issues are different for mammalian cell growth as they are for yeast cell growth. Let's stick with that. Seems like the harder of the two these cell cultures.

So you get up to these large, vast and you said 10,000, 20,000 liters seems to be the maximum that the system allows. But you start you start small and need to do all these transfers and tell me about the risk of of bacterial fungal contamination and the consequences. Sure. So what you generally do is you do transfers at one in ten. So if I start, I've got one liter, I try that to ten liters, you know, because cells, the social creatures, they signal each other, you know, so.

So I can't take one liter and put it in a 10,000 liter tank. It's not going to work. So you generally scale up in orders of magnitude of 1 to 10. So we have what we call a a fermentation trying. You know, I've got my one latest dementia and it goes to ten or 20, then that goes to 200, you know, 2000 and etc..

So I generally have those sort of steps. I've got maybe say five, ten inches in a row as I move cells from one to another, I've got to make sure that I don't contaminant. So you generally have all of those connected with with tubing so that it's it's a contained system. I've got to have sterile media, so I have to filter everything so as that sterile water. The other interesting thing is that sometimes people forget if I've got a 10,000 liter tank that I'm going to grow my cells in, I actually have to have a 10,000 liter tank that holds the media that I would pump in there before I had my cells. Then I need another 10,000 liter tank.

When I harvest the cells that I pump. The cells into to harvest. So you can start to see how big this factory is. And people, you know, none of these exists, but people have done estimates, you know, and they estimate that a decent sized factory would cost about 400 million us to build.

Now, I had a couple of other people have a look at that and said it's probably closer to 600 million. But let's not quibble about it's a lot of monitors. Of. Light, you know, and hence what happens in the end is the facility costs, which people never think about it. You know people are talking about Selby's may never talk about facility costs.

The depreciation of that becomes a major cost, part of the cost of goods. So we've been saying that from the start. You're not thinking about, you know, what your costs are going to be on the facility. And very interesting, just in the last few weeks someone has actually come out. An engineering group have used to be the design software and they came up with an estimate that the facility costs would actually be 48% of the cost of the product.

So from being told, no, we won't worry about that, we're now actually saying, well, wait a minute, it could be 48% of your costs and that's probably reasonably accurate. I think. I mean part of part of the the things I've again heard George Monbiot say is, you know, I think and I think this is the category or is comparing this particularly the cell culturing to, you know, your local craft brewery and hey, you can have craft breweries, you know, everywhere and they can make the beers that people like. And so we could have these facilities making the kind of foods and flavors that would, you know, there's a real love of decentralization that I think is part of the kind of eco romantic narrative. And it's very much on display there.

But I especially if you're coming across your work, I found myself quite skeptical of those kind of claims and that this could be done on a community level in community control. It's it's a very familiar narrative to me. What is it? Yeah, it is a very for me and narrative, it's the same narrative we heard about vertical farming. Remember that, you know, we could all have our vertical farms, you know, and that and that hasn't turned out. We're actually out starting to see a number of those large facilities being closed down now because energy costs have gone up and they no longer make any sense. So it's always a nice the concept that this is like brewing beer.

Well, it's not really at all, other than the fact that, yes, brewing beer is a fermentation process, but it's it's not like mammalian cells. It's more like the yeast because they produce alcohol to some extent. You don't have the problems of sterility and it's a shorter fermentation, etc..

So, you know, it's like it's like a lot of things. It's the details that, you know, when you get into it, sort of make those systems not really, but it's also quite sophisticated. I mean, you know, this is mammalian cell growth is a very sophisticated data technology. You know, the media we use has literally hundreds of components in there, minerals, vitamins, growth hormones, etc.. So, yeah, I think the concept that I have a cell factory in my backyard and I make my own steaks, I think that's probably pretty farcical.

Well, we need a lot of factories. Yes, we will need a lot of factories to feed people. And then I go and ask the question, Is that a solution for Africa? I don't think so. Yeah. It's as I said, the interesting thing, the tech works, it's just it's just complicated technology, expensive technology.

You've mentioned energy costs, something that constrain the vertical farming revolution, if we want to call it that. How significant are the energy costs to these these facilities? What do you have to do with that energy and cell culturing? Yes, yes. Yes. So when we grow mammalian cells, we grow them at 37 degrees.

So it's body temperature. Okay. So I have to have a tank and I have to have it at 37. Now, to do that, you generally these these stainless steel tanks are waterjet coated.

So you have a water jacket and you're you're changing that temperature to keep the temperature of the tank at the same so that 37 it's you know it's warm it then I'm getting a lot of radiant heat coming off that if you think about I put a a tank there and and it's running at 37 degrees. There's going to be a lot of radiant energy coming off that. So then I have to actually a condition the room that is in you know and now I'm going to put 130,000 of the 130 of these big tanks in a facility. And you can start to think about the energy sort of side of that. I've got to run it all at 37. I've got to cool all the air depending on where I put my factory, you know, like even let's take the US, you know, if I put it in the Midwest at certain times, I'm going to have to warm the air.

You know, when you get down to those minus twenties and minus thirties outside. So I'm not going to put a tank outside. I'm going to actually have it inside a facility. I've also got a filter, all that air. So I've got to have I've got to be running a filtration system for all the air coming into the facility. And that's sort of where the energy stuff costs cover.

And I've got to run this 24 seven. So it's not like I turn the switch off. You know, this is this is runs continuously. So from the very start, some people looked at that and said, well, that's going to be energy intensive. So let's do some, you know, calculation patterns.

And and people at Oxford University said, look, it'll have to all be renewable energy sources or it's not going to be more sustainable. And, and report after report has come back and said the same thing. What are the implications of intermittent energy on this whole process? If you have a wind low and clouds for a week, how does that affect your production? Well, that's the last thing cell is like. I mean, these are, you know, you know, as I say, mammalian cells in particular, you can't just take them up and down. You know, they won't grow, you know, So if you drop the temperature down, they won't grow. They'll probably die. So, yeah, we could not have intermittent temperatures.

It would be a manufacturing disaster to have fluctuation in temperatures which we could generally have a fluctuation of a couple of one or two degrees even. That's not good. But probably beyond that would be would be a real problem.

So we've been, I think, focusing on the cell culture side of things and I've, you know, come from nowhere to having, you know, very basic level of understanding Based on your descriptions. Is it worth talking a little more about some of the nuances and specificities in precision fermentation? It seems, as you were mentioning, a bit easier to just have the yeast make specific proteins, you know, and that's how we make insulin, for instance, and modestly struck by, you know, there's a lot of diabetics in the world who make a lot of insulin. But it's a you know, I administer insulin. I work as a as an emergency physician, and it's not a lot of volume.

And when we're talking about growing macronutrients for the world, it strikes me that there's a scaling issue there. All that aside, let's let's talk about the precision fermentation side. If there's any differences and you know what the processes and factories look like and the implications of the growing process.

Sure. So the sort of tanks we use, stainless steel tanks are pretty standard, you know, and the sort of but it's a bit simpler with yeast. As I said, they will grow.

We already grow them large scales. As I said, there are factories, not many of them, but there are factories, particularly in Europe, that are currently at 100,000, 200,000 liter capacity for an individual tank. I heard I was in New Zealand last week and I heard from a guy that originally there's a company in England that built a 1 million liter fermentation tank to produce a product. I actually hadn't heard the story before and the reason I hadn't heard it before is in the end, the product didn't turn out to be economically sound and the factory was torn down. So so I was sort of a cautionary tale.

So, so hear the text a lot more doable. We actually already grow yeast cells so that so the scale what generally happens is where the cost comes in is when I have to then separate that protein away from my yeast cells. So I've got yeast cells, they're producing this protein sometimes cells secreted into the media, sometimes they won't.

But in the end we talk about downstream processing. So that's the steps after fermentation where I've got to get my my desired protein back. That's the big cost with precision fermentation. That's about 50 to 60% of the cost because depending on the purity you want.

So if you want your desired protein at 90% or greater purity. Now in the pharmaceutical industry, we actually use purity of 95 and 99%, that's very expensive tech because I've got to use a lot of different steps to get to that purity because the if you think about it, the bulk of the material that I ferment, I'm not going to use, you know, the yeast. I don't, I don't need the yeast cells. So I only want that one protein. But that also creates a problem because I then I've got a great quite a large waste stream, you know, what do I do with that waste stream? So you can process that down and you can do things with it, but it's generally not economical to, to spend the time you go after the protein of interest.

The higher the purity, the lower your yields what. I mean there is if I want really high purity, I'm going to lose some of my protein in the fractionation step and often you get yields, they'll fall sort of below 70%, so 30% of the protein I'm I've just spent all that time growing. I lose in the fractionation state. So that's the sort of, you know, that's some of the cost there.

But it's it's a lot more doable. I mean, if you think about the difference at the moment, we're talking with mammalian cells that it's a thousand fold difference in cost to current meat production, so a thousand fold. So we've got a lot of it's not the gaps aren't as big in the decision fermentation space. So people at you know there are products on the on the market as I said perfect day produces one milk protein let the glut global glob electric globule and they produce a product called brave robot ice cream but it's $50 a bucket now. I don't know. I don't know what a bucket of ice cream costs in the in the States.

But, you know, I'm sure it is. Brian's a lot cheaper than $50, so. So you've still got the cost. Of one one protein, not the six protein. Oh, that's the other thing.

You know, it's one protein. You know, it's, it's you know, milk is made up of six major proteins, but there are actually literally hundreds of proteins in there. And then there's minerals and vitamins and etc.. We see that when we make baby formula, it's very hard to to mimic the complexity of milk.

Yeah, And it's quite interesting when when the FDA approved this product, it actually specifically said you cannot use it for baby formula because it it understood that nutritionally it is not equivalent to dairy. So it's mostly used as a filler, you know, into products. You know, you put it in, but then people say, well, it's dairy, it's got dairy protein in there. I use the analogy when I talk to people because I sort of think, how do I get this across? And I use this analogy last week in in New Zealand where I showed them a picture, a picture of the Mona Lisa, you know, this painting that everyone recognizes, you know, it's this beautiful texture and colors and, and that but, you know, it's everyone knows it.

Then I show a black and white image of the Mona Lisa. Everyone recognized it is the Mona Lisa. It's such a distinctive painting, but now it's flat.

It lacks texture. It's one color, it's one dimensional, it's fake, you know? And so I use that as an analogy of like, I can't you can't just take a single protein and declare that as dairy. You know, I think I think the cell based meat people are going to I can't just use a single cell type and say, that's neat. Well, it's not.

Well, and there's there's just some intrinsic common sense here in terms of, you know, how complex are as biological organisms have a complex. And again, I think bringing it back to this idea of mother's milk, you know, formula is pretty damn good. It's not it not a total equivalency. You don't have some antibodies in things that you need. We probably overhype, you know how much worse it is.

You know, I've definitely been guilty of that in medicine and guilt tripping women. But it's pretty magical stuff, You know, the real thing. And I think that is, you know, really potent, you know, imagery for me. Because again, if you approach the stuff on a surface level, read a few articles that are, again, maybe sponsored by the company itself or again, as I mentioned, this this psychological bias towards, you know, wanting to have solutions in the face of these very challenging ecological times we find ourselves in.

You know, you wouldn't you wouldn't get to this this level of depth and complexity. So again, it's it's really great having you on. So obviously, you know, there's been a lot of money that's gone into the sector. And I think, you know, returning to this idea of Moore's Law, I mean, a lot of the capital that has been generated in the last few decades has happened by, you know, people working in the IT sector where Moore's Law did apply. So maybe understandable that they maybe got overly enthusiastic in the sector. Is the investment continuing to roll in or are some of these scalability issues starting to shake investor confidence? Do you have any idea about that? Yeah, we're probably tracking behind the plant based people to some extent because, you know, the plant based was really very popular, billions of dollars.

You know, I think there's something like 1300 companies now in that space. But what we did see in the last in 2022 is the market starts to soften the actual, you know, volume of product went down, costs have gone up. So in we're seeing about 10% of plant based products coming off supermarket shelves as supermarkets sort of get rid of the products that aren't selling, etc..

So we are seeing that we saw, you know, between beyond and Oatly, those two companies, just between them lost $20 billion of market value in the last 18 months. So that scared the market a bit. So we're actually seeing a decrease in the amount of money available for new companies. I think there's also an expectation that there are too many, you know, in the cell based meat, there's probably about 150 companies now. Many of them are differentiated from the other ones.

So, you know, they won't go anywhere. But that's that's the tech space. You know, a lot of startups.

So the lack of differentiation. So people are also already starting to say there'll be a reset. We saw one of the large cell based companies in San Francisco recently shut down.

They couldn't find a buyer. I think they'd got their facility at about 90% completion and they couldn't find a buyer, so they just shut the whole thing down. They'd spent about, I think, $40 million or something, rather, to get to that stage.

So I think there is a little bit of nervousness in the markets, in the investment markets. I think one of the problems we're actually talking about with both these technologies is that a lot of people have come in, the investors have come in from, as you say, the I.T. world, where the margins are actually pretty good and they come into the food sector, the margins in the food sector are single, single digit.

You know, I mean, and I don't think people have realized that so that it's not an ideal thing for to add a lot of costing because your margins are already and the supply chain is also, you know, rather constrained. You know, if you think about the it's the same sort of ten or 12 companies, global companies controlling food essentially. Now, most of them have made investments in this technology because to be honest, in the end, they'd actually mind what you eat as long as you buy it from them. So

and then of course, you've got supermarkets, you know, in Australia we've got two supermarkets that control 60% of all processed food sales. So you know, they then tell you what price, you know, they'll accept your product and they'll tell you what you're going to pay them to put it on their shelf, you know, so that the sort of value chain is also very different in the food industry. So I think that's been a bit of a wake up for some investors to realize that this is not like I.T investment. How have you been received in terms of the critical thinking you're bringing to this picture? I imagine people are suspicious maybe of your intentions. This seems like such a great promising technology and answer so many questions.

Yeah. How has the response been to to what you're bringing to the conversation? Well, it's it varies. You know, when I've you know I've been to a number of these you know, there's a company here in in Sydney called Vow they were all over if you haven't seen the the Mammoth Bowl product this week, they behind that. So tell us what that is to start. Stop for a second. Tell us what that is. Yeah. Okay.

So that was released this week where they they basically took the sequence for the wooly mammoth for a gene from the wooly mammoth myoglobin. They synthetically made that that gene. They inserted that into lamb cells and they grew up those cells and they made a one kg made bowl called the Mammoth Bowl.

It's gone into a museum in Sweden. It's never going to be eaten. You couldn't because we you know, the regulatory people would, you know, would never allow it.

You know, lots of reasons, but it's a fantastic piece of PR It made the front page. It got on the US TV because it's such a great story. You know, it's one kilogram Mammoth Bowl now. We stretched the science a little bit.

Is it a mammoth? Well, it was actually a lamb cell that we put a mammoth gene into. Was it a mammoth gene? Well, we think it was a sequence close to a mammoth. What we could do from. Yeah. So, you know, it's, it's a lovely piece of PR and, and look wow.

Acknowledge that, you know, they actually do produce another product which is quite interesting because they produce a quail sell product, which they call morsel, but they actually admit that it's going to be $100 a kilogram. So it's going to go into that top end. So I actually vow at least to honest about their business model, they're actually going to make exotic products for high end consumers. Yeah, I have a self-indulgent anecdote, which is a friend of my father's who's a geologist, used to go to conferences in the former Soviet Union. And as he tells the story, they dug up a mammoth from a glacier and actually carved up some of the meat and served at a geological convention. He got violently ill afterwards, but he he got a slice of the real thing.

So the story goes that he was a pretty, pretty honest guy. But yeah, this is the concept that, you know, that was talked about. They can have exotic meats, you could have rhinoceros meat or you could have kangaroos. What we have is kangaroos. Now. I had a vet, a vegan friend that joke that he, you know, the only meaty eight was from endangered species. But I guess that's that's not possible to do ethically. Well, you know, I've got I've got, you know, dairy friends that say, you know, the cows are vegans, you know, their cows only eat grass, so they dig in cows.

So the milk they produce is clearly a vegan product. So if we we wish we can get into some sort of debates about what a product is. Yeah, you ask me how I'm received. So I think the people, the tech people, you know, actually are not you know, many of them don't disagree with what I'm saying. They just sort of say, well, we hope we can solve these problems.

The groups that tend to take a bit of a voluntary action to meet other vegan groups, because I'm I'm taking down the unicorn. You know, they're this beautiful unicorn there that's going to solve all the problems of the world. And I'm attacking that. Well, I'm not attacking. I'm just pointing out some of the technical challenges, some of the commercial, because we haven't even talked about consumers yet, which is a pretty important piece of that at the end.

So tend, you know on LinkedIn that they the vegans that like me at all. Well we'll pivot in a second to kind of consumer confidence one of the narratives, you know, and it actually is very similar to me to the questions around renewable energy is that, you know, it's just not happening. It's not because of any feasibility issues or scalability. Issues are just that fossil fuels are so damn hard to replace, but it's conspiratorial. And so, you know, one of the things that Monbiot has said is basically, you know, there's, you know, three or four food companies that control the world's food supply and this this, you know, precision fermentation cell culture stuff is so potentially disruptive, you know, that it could threaten their business model.

You know, we need to put this this technology, this advanced position technology, you know, in the Creative Commons. These are some of the ideas I hear. I'm guessing that you don't think that there's too much water being held by that that vessel.

Oh, look, you know, you we've seen all of the big companies go into this technology. We've seen JBS and, you know, the big one of the biggest meat producers in this and cell based meats we've Nestlé investing in precision fermentation. We've seen some of the big dairy companies doing plant based. As I said, the food industry is a pretty pragmatic industry. You know, they'll produce what they believe customers want. So I don't I don't believe in the end it's those companies holding anything back that they're just realizing that if they have to sell a product and it's three times as much as, say, milk, which is sort of the one we're talking about, then they know consumers.

You know, we know price is a big issue. I mean, people are hurting out there now. So we're already seeing a growth in cheaper cuts of meat.

You know, I mean, chicken, the growth in chicken, if you think about a lot, the you know, the largest meat consumed but in numbers is chicken. And it's largely because it's very cheap to produce. So so I think, you know, the supermarkets that understand that issue about price and customers. So you know you know what what we might view as luxury. I mean, to some extent, if you look at the price on say, on the plant based meal and they two or three times what water a cows milk is. So consumers are just looking at, well you know, do I really can I afford it.

Yeah. So I think what do we know about the food? And so we know that taste drives people. So some of that doesn't like the taste of something, but after taste its price, taste and price, you know, and if you forget that in the food industry, then you'll have a problem. I mean, there was a a plant based chicken product where I remember debating with the founder of that company, and she said, oh, look, the taste doesn't really matter. Well, when they did a taste test, people rated her product two out of 20. You know, it does matter.

You know, it's interesting, my own relationship to food over the years. I was briefly a vegan. I was a vegetarian for five or six years, largely because I didn't want other people doing my dirty work. I thought, if I can't kill an animal, then then I shouldn't have someone else put the blood on their hands.

I later kind of swung the other way and became a hunting guide at one point and did some of that myself. And you know, I worked with more working animals. I was a horse wrangler. So just a different kind of, evolving relationship to to animals.

And, you know, I don't know, maybe it's just a protection mechanism we put in place, those of us who eat meat, when we think about the conditions under which they're raised, one tends to, you know, be a humanist and draw some pretty strong distinctions between, you know, we're all animals, but, you know, you're different. Your life is less valuable. And maybe I've taken that too far.

But when I when I look at, you know, boiler chickens and, you know, the kind of conversion rates, the feed conversion rates, I mean, this is probably the most environmentally friendly form of high quality meat protein we can get. And these birds have been so genetically I mean, I've raised these chickens before. I mean, they're just freaks of nature. The way they put on weights. They can barely hold themselves up.

I mean, I've started to see them as vegetables, which is, you know, I'm sure some people, some of my listeners would be shocked and horrified by. But I'm wondering, you know, in terms of what you view as as the solutions, again, moving forward to feeding 10 billion people, making sure we have high quality protein, again, they're very compelling narratives. If I could just take things at the at the level of the wishful thinking and the promise, I'd be I'd be all on board and proselytizing about this. But I can't help but be curious. And as I see the kind of holes emerge and what's being promised, particularly, particularly it just not being affordable to, you know, where we're going to see the population growth, I'm I'm alarmed.

So what do you think of us as the solutions to our impending challenges feeding a larger population? So I think I think there's a lot of tech we can use. So if you think about genetic selection, as you know, we've we've for thousands of years have selected better strains of rice and wheat and and better animals. So we know that genetics allows us we you know, you can go too far as you've just sort of mentioned, but we've got fantastic technology now to select and make better both plants and animals. We can make animals that are safer to work with. So with a simple, you know, gene change, we can the horn all cattle are safer for them and safer for us. We can make animals disease resistant.

We already make plants disease resistance with wood gene. So so some of the tech that sort of people were worried about is actually now even, you know, some of the green groups are going, oh, maybe we should actually accept that technology because it's actually get it's greener. I mean, GMO technology is a great example. We generally not you don't use that term now. We use gene editing, etc..

So there's a lot of tech that actually can help us both with food production, both plants and animals. As I said, if we go to places like Africa, you know that the yields are so much lower. That's where we've got to really help. We can make plants that are more salt tolerant, very important in Australia, that are more heat tolerant. We can make we can select animals that are more heat tolerant.

We already know certain breeds of cattle. The African cattle are more heat tolerant, tick resistant. So I think we've got to use a lot of the tech people. I mean the people who rally, I find it amazing the people rally against the GMO technology. You know, it's been around now for so many decades.

You know, you know, when I talk to a certain green leader, I asked them, do they believe in vaccinations? And of course I did. And I said, well, you vaccinate the children. Yes. I said, So, you know, that's a jimoh vaccine you just use on your children. So it's not science. We're not arguing. It's not the science that's getting in the way.

It's, you know, it's some sort of cherished views that people aren't willing to let go of. So I think there is a food distribution has got to be an issue. I mean, we waste a lot of food.

You know, when I lived in America, the size of meals that, you know, it's almost what people expect. I expect a plate this overflowing with food. I'm not getting value if it's not. But they don't need it, you know, And so we know that food waste is enormous. I think one of my other hats is I, I actually chair an insect protein company where we take food waste and use insects to produce protein that we make dog treats out of. So there there is tech that can help us on the food waste side of it, but it's also behavior, you know.

Yeah, let's just be let's take the amount of food put on a plate that we actually need to eat. We've got a massive obesity problem, you know, largely driven by highly processed foods and sugar. You know, 60% of what Americans eat these days is highly processed food.

So so there we know what the problems are, but where our systems seem to not allow us at times to to solve them. And then we got groups who get fearful of tech. We've got other groups are promoting, you know, the sort of new it you attack. So it is a complicated space. As I said, I, I just finished chairing a board of a of an organization of charity works in India and Africa with smallholder farmers trying to help them produce, you know, have healthier animals and be more productive. We talk to.

So there's a lot we can do there. So I'm very positive about the future of food security. But some of the inequalities are inequalities that exist in many parts of our, you know, our global systems. Yeah, I mean, it's interesting. A few a few things come to mind.

One is, you know, as you mentioned, the kind of niche value of these products. It reminds me of, you know, luxury electric vehicles, for instance, you know, which are not really a solution that most people can afford, although it sounds like technologically less complicated and potentially more scalable than what we're talking about here today. The other very sort of tongue in cheek comment I'd have and this is not a medical recommendation whatsoever, but it's been interesting to watch the explosion of Ozempic, which is a diabetes drug and appetite suppressant, which is, you know, just spreading like wildfire particularly in the U.S. And it's actually shaping a lot of particularly New York restaurants to make much smaller serving sizes.

So I'm not advocating that as a solution to our our food woes. But interesting, some of the developments we're seeing. But look, it's interesting. You know, Jack Bobo's got a good book out called Why Smart People Make Dumb Food Choices. And and, you know, he talks about this whole issue about, you know, food. But one of the things he talks about there is an experiment Google's done with, you know, they serve a million meals a day, you know, free to their staff.

So they take price out of it. But one of the things they did was looking at trying to serve healthier food is they shrunk the plate. They just decreased this.

And it had a automatic response. They found that people didn't go back for a second plate. They just eat less. So they don't think a 15% reduction in what they consumed just by actually presenting them with a smaller plate. That's that's some pretty simple technology for less. And we've come to the hour.

This has been fascinating. Sure. I'm missing a bunch of things I should have asked you. And I'm sure the audience will engage and be active in the comments section.

If you are a regular listener, make sure to subscribe to our YouTube account. We've got a great new video out this week. Jesse Friesen tackling the issue of Nuclear waste.

Paul, where can people find you again? This is something that really bothers me is how hard it was to find you, how hard it was. I can't find it. You know, I search Paul Wood, precision fermentation on YouTube. Nothing comes up.

I just, you know, had to go through this maze of LinkedIn to to do some background research. So I really want to change that. But where can people find you and learn more about your thinking so. They can find me on LinkedIn? I use LinkedIn.

I don't understand some of the other social media things. LinkedIn, I can actually post quality material. Paul Dark Wood 1508 You can find me on LinkedIn. You'll find some of the debates I get in. There's a few.

There's more and more videos as I give talks. The talk I gave in New Zealand last week was was filmed and is is will be out t

2023-04-12 11:53

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