Bringing science to the table: The future of molecular farming
To make real change, sometimes, you have to break things down to the molecular level. Moolec Science knows a thing or two about that, through its work in creating alternative proteins.
Protein comes in many forms, but the most common form we are familiar with is meat. Different cultures and religious groupings might have their own preferences about the kinds of animals they consider suitable to eat: for example, Hindus refuse to eat beef, as cows are considered sacred, an embodiment of Mother Nature herself.
Judaism encourages followers to avoid eating pork, on the other hand, as pigs are not cloven-hoofed and don’t chew their cud. Buddhism foregoes meat altogether, opting for a strictly vegetarian diet instead. But what if there was a way to eat meat-like foodstuffs which retain a meat-like feel to them, without requiring animals to be reared for slaughter? Moolec Science moves into the molecular level to explore exciting new forms of alternative protein.
Something to chew on
To understand more about how it’s possible to tap into the molecular world to revolutionise the creation of alternative protein, we spoke to Catalina Jones, Communications and Projects Manager at Moolec Science. Catalina has a background in foreign studies and political science, and has had a career in the public sector, before moving into education for three years, while based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Her work eventually took her into ethical banking and green finances, before working at one of Argentina’s largest food companies. “I was very into integration of sustainability into business models…about a year ago, someone contacted me on LinkedIn to see if I was interested in joining a new project…when they said alternative proteins, I knew what they were about.”
But what are Moolec Science about specifically? To understand, it’s important to look at the alternative protein field first. On one side, you have alternative protein food products derived from micro-organisms or soy and other plant-based sources. One of the claims about these kinds of alternative proteins is that they lack that characteristic taste you find in actual meat. On the other hand, you have in-vitro or cultured meat – cell cultures sourced from healthy animal tissue, typically muscle, kept in laboratories until you literally grow your own meat.
We have to understand that science can bring us this opportunity of a better future, a more sustainable and resilient food system that we need to have.– Catalina Jones, Communications and Projects Manager, Moolec Science
We have written at great length already about cultured meat, and some of the businesses looking to market their products to try and win consumers over to alternative proteins with all the characteristics of the real thing, but in a more guilt-free way. What Moolec Science has in mind takes the best of both, and creates a hybridised approach. Imagine a plant-based alternative protein which is able to share the same characteristics of cultured meat without having to go through the costly process of growing cell cultures in a lab?
Moolec Science uses a technique called molecular engineering to create genetically-modified versions of plants including soy to produce crops which are imbued with animal protein. The crops are reduced down to a powder which would be used to create alternative protein food products, just as plant-based foods do already, but with a distinctly different taste and texture closer to actual meat itself. However, this is all done without having to devote time and resources to growing the meat in an in-vitro way or through traditional animal rearing methods.
“Molecular farming is an excellent platform”, Catalina explains, “a cost-effective and a resource-efficient platform, but it’s a long way off.”
As Catalina reveals, the process is in its infancy, and like any science, it needs to be tried and tested before Moolec is sure they’re onto a winning recipe. She adds: “We’re planning to have products – our plant-based chymosin relaunching and GLA both through molecular farming – by the end of 2022 / early 2023. Our ‘new’ or 2.0 molecular farming plant-based products will hit the market by 2025. So now plants are being grown inside greenhouses…they started doing all the R&D in the seeds…then they will go back to analyse how much protein they are expressing – if they should do any adjustments or not – and then they are going to start scaling up and have a huge plantation of the different crops, using sustainable farming practices.”
Meat – an intensive industry
According to Our World in Data, meat is a heavy industry, with meat production having trebled in the last half century alone. By 2018, production was estimated globally to be 340 million tonnes. This is equivalent to 80 billion animals being slaughtered per year. The human population is only 7.7 billion as of 2021, so that means that for each person alive in the world today, roughly 11 animals are slaughtered.
Increased meat consumption is typically viewed as a sign of wealth and affluence. In the past, previous generations had much lower amounts of meat in their diets, largely due to the difficulties in preserving and storing it for long periods, but also due to the relative cheapness of crops and other foods. Consuming meat is possible as part of a balanced diet, but poses an ethical or cultural issue for many, as we mentioned earlier, and also carries heavy environmental impacts beyond the food landing on our plate.
We can’t keep producing food the way we have been doing for the last two hundred years, because the planet is exhausted– Catalina Jones, Communications and Projects Manager, Moolec Science
Alternative protein breathes fresh air into the subject and offers an intriguing solution. We have conditioned our palates to recognise how beef should taste, for example, and we can easily tell plant-based products from actual meat. Moolec Science intends to overcome the gap when it comes to taste and texture in a bid to win over our taste buds. But what is the future of meat? With millions of tonnes being produced non-stop, is there any indication of an end to this way of eating?
Science fiction gives one of the best insights into what the future of food could look like. Some fictional accounts of futuristic food, especially from the 1960s, revolved around it being consumed solely in pill form. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Lonely Among Us” from 1987, set in the year 2364, one of the crew members of the USS Enterprise explains to a character that “We no longer enslave animals for food purposes.”
Catalina is less convinced that we’ll reach this seemingly utopian vision as outlined in Star Trek just yet. She claims: “I think that maybe that can be a possibility, but I don’t see it in the near-future…nowadays, if you consider flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans, they are only around 20 per cent of the world’s population.”
What Catalina does admit is that people show an increasing willingness to have more awareness of what they’re eating. “People are demanding transparency in the value chains”, she clarifies. This includes more of us buying into foodstuffs which are grown sustainably, or farmed in a way that doesn’t require the use of child labour abroad, for example. Returning back to the issue facing the world over its consumption of meat and trying to break the cycle, Catalina reveals what could be to blame, saying, “Unfortunately, that is not the reality for the majority of the world…I don’t think that in the near future, people will step out of consuming animals. I do think that they’re going to be more aware of how that animal protein has been put on their plates.”
Ditching meat altogether remains something that the richer nations of the world can afford to do, but for now, at least, most of the world’s population has no choice but to continue down the current path, albeit with more awareness and willingness to go about it in a kinder, more ethical way.
The issue with GMOs
Hear the acronym GMOs and depending on what you’ve read and what you believe from the start, you might have a positive or negative association with the concept. GMOs, or genetically-modified organisms, are precisely what Moolec Science is intent on producing through its molecular scientific work: plants capable of imbuing animal proteins into the edible crops they produce. Millions of years of evolution simply would never have been able to produce a plant to adapt in such a way.
If you took a quick glance over the work Moolec Science was doing in the field of genetic modification but didn’t fully understand it, you might come away with a belief that they are somehow creating freakish chimera-like man-eating plants which produce meat like some kind of fruit. For the record and to assure you, Moolec Science isn’t creating some Little Shop of Horrors, but rather its work is simply a more modern equivalent of something people have been doing with plants for generations.
Genetic modification opens the doors to a different way of organising the world, but it’s hardly a new science. In fact, it’s been a part of our way of conducting agriculture for centuries. For generations, farmers have found ways to crossbreed their crops to ensure a higher yield. Just because past generations had no concept of genes or the DNA they contain, it doesn’t mean they weren’t actively participating in some rudimentary form of genetic modification or manipulation of their own.
The only difference is the advancement of technology. The creation of GMOs is far more targeted; we can examine the different genes that make animals and plants grow and thrive, and Moolec Science happens to have found a way to take genetic information from animals reared for their meat and sown them into the genetic makeup of popular crops already used as forms of alternative protein.
When we ask Catalina about the issue, she responds, saying “10,000 years ago, when agriculture started, people grew plants and selected the ones with the greatest size, which grew better and faster…The food industry has to change if we want to embrace and face the challenges of today.”
Catalina remarks on how the world population will welcome an additional three billion people by 2050, meaning more mouths to feed, more crops to grow and more animals to rear. These processes will require more water to be used, to ensure the animals are fed sufficiently to make them suitable to eat. In Catalina’s view, science has a role to play to help overcome the challenge.
“I understand the fear of genetic modification”, Catalina admits, “but it has more to do with how we can use science and technology to overcome these challenges and it’s not creating some chimera.”
Catalina reminds us of how the pharmaceutical industry has used genetic modification to save the lives of millions over the years through the use of vaccinations and anti-biotics. You wouldn’t think twice about taking a jab to protect against some deadly virus or taking anti-biotics to protect against a bacterial infection, presuming they have been adequately tried and tested.
One of the biggest innovations in the entirety of human history was the revolution against infectious diseases through scientific discoveries such as these. The outcome of applying genetic modification to medicine resulted in reduced infection, higher life expectancy, and this freed up societies to innovate further. The difference with regards to GMOs when it comes to food is that it all comes down to what gets served up on our plates.
Catalina touches on this opportunity to change the way we consume food, saying: “We have to understand that science can bring us this opportunity of a better future, a more sustainable and resilient food system that we need to have. This will not solve all of our problems…they’re more holistic…If we want to become a little bit closer towards balance…we can’t keep producing food the way we have been doing for the last two hundred years, because the planet is exhausted.”
Catalina claims not to be a complete utopian, reflecting how people won’t just switch off from a meat-based diet overnight, and even admits to being a flexitarian herself. The hope is that, while the option to ditch meat entirely could be some way away, the hybridised approach undertaken at Moolec Science will present a cheaper and tastier way to offer alternative protein foods for more of us to tuck into. It’s all just a matter of tastes.